The Belgium Diaries: Out-of-Class

Jamie Sterling - pic1 new

Author: Jamie Sterling
Program: Public Relations – Corporate Communications
Study Abroad Location: Ghent, Belgium

A huge part of studying abroad is the opportunity to get an in-depth look at another culture. Over the past few months I’ve been trying to take advantage of that as much as I can. Yet I still feel as though I’ve only scratched the surface, there is so much to learn!

Of course, I can’t claim the country or the people are a certain way since my experience is subjective but here’s how I understand things so far:

Belgium is unassumingly cool.

It’s like the quiet kid in class you don’t give much thought to until you happen to have a conversation with her and realize she’s had the most fascinating life.

Surrounded by its better-known neighbors, Belgium often gets overlooked as a place worth visiting. Even local students ask me why I chose to come here since, comparatively, it’s not popular or special. Yet, it seems to me its modesty is what makes it such a gem. It’s so full of surprises I feel like I uncover strange and wonderful new details all the time.

As one example, Napoleon was defeated here. The Battle of Waterloo happened just south of Brussels. In fact, it’s low, flat fields have often made Belgium the battlefield of Europe with much of the World Wars fought here. It’s even the reason for the famous Canadian poem, “In Flander’s Fields.”

In contrast, Belgium has also been home to a wide variety of world-renowned art. From the 15th to the 17th century the leaders in European art were the Flemish Primitives who pioneered the use of oil paint. Later the country gave rise to a prominent surrealist art movement and made significant contributions to comic art with such classics as The Adventures of Tintin and The Smurfs. This medium is an especially proud and respected part of the national identity.

Speaking of the national identity, I can’t go without mentioning its most famous industry-beer. It’s truly an integral part of the culture with some of the most famous of its 800 varieties brewed by monks. I like to think this has to do with the fact that traditionally, people were encouraged to drink beer over water since the latter was so polluted. You see, it’s their patriotic duty to have a pintje, the Flemish word for a glass of beer.

I could go on explaining the country’s connection to famous rulers and artists and politicians but being upfront just isn’t the Belgian way. This is a place where people repeatedly refer to themselves as closed-off and indirect. Yet despite that, they always seem welcoming and friendly to me. I guess it just takes a little initiative.

True to local form, I’ll leave you to do the same.

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