France vs Belgium: An Outsider’s Perspective

So in relation to my previous post about my culture shock with moving from the Philippines to France / Belgium, I realized that I experienced yet another (yet milder) form of culture shock when I did the move from France to Belgium. Despite what most videos or blogs I see on the net say, Europe is not all the same.

Considering I lived in the North of France (Lille), which is so near Belgium that it is almost practically Belgium (don’t tell anyone I said that), I thought it would be super easy to make the transition. I mean we already had the same gray weather! But no, that was not to be.

*Side note: I changed jobs and I now work in Brussels. Guys let me tell you, changing regions from Flanders to Brussels is also yet another culture shock in the making.

So here below some differences that I noticed between (Northern) France and Belgium. Note that I have lived more years in Belgium so I would tend to speak more about Belgium.

Differences between Belgium and France

1. TAP WATER IN RESTAURANTS

In France, “une carafe d’eau” / pitcher of water (tap) is standard and free in all restaurants.

When I first moved to Belgium, I tried ordering tap water in a restaurant, only to be rejected and told that they did not serve tap water. I read up and found that serving free tap water is not in fact required by law. However, this is still the subject of much debate in Belgium but for now I advise you to check out the facebook group Free Tap Water in Belgium for a map of all restaurants that give free tap water. For now, all you can do is pretty much order a drink or bring your own water.

Even Michelin Starred Restaurant, Benoit in Paris, gives free tap water

2. ICED TEA (Sparkling vs flat)

*note new addition 27-04-2020

I can’t believe I forgot this the first time I wrote this. This has always bothered me in restaurants.

While indeed most of Europe seems to have a penchant for making everything they drink with gas (I once encountered carbonated ORANGE JUICE – not orangina, like real orange juice – in a cafeteria in Paris), this has largely been isolated to water and various soda like drinks (with the exception of that weird carbonated orange juice).

In Belgium, iced tea that is sold in restaurants, bars, cafes, kebab shops whatever, is normally sparkling. The most common being canned Lipton Iced Tea. It’s taken me awhile to get used to this, but it still excites me whenever I get served Iced Tea that is not carbonated.

2. PAID TOILETS IN PRIVATE ESTABLISHMENTS

Most public toilets in Europe (if you can find them) are paid toilets. However, what I don’t understand about Belgium is having to pay to use the toilet in the cinema or in a restaurant/cafe where you are actually a client. The cinema tickets in Belgium are already quite expensive, having to pay 50 cents more to pee is just a little too much. Sometimes in bars or restaurants I understand they want it for exclusive use of their customers thus they give a code or keep a key in the bar, but I’ve been to bars in Belgium that you pay even if you are a customer.

In comparison, I cannot remember ever having to pay to use the toilet in any of the cinemas I have gone to in Paris or in the Hauts de France region. Are there paying toilets in private establishments in France or in other EU countries?? Someone let me know maybe this is not just a Belgium thing.

3. BANCONTACT VS CARTE BANCAIRE

Simply speaking, Bancontact is the Belgian card scheme and Carte Bancaire (CB) is the French card scheme. Most of the time in France, when you get a debit card, it is also either a mastercard card or a Visa card, aside from being a CB – which makes it acceptable for online payments and generally, for all the world.

In Belgium, your Bancontact card is most likely going to be a Maestro card as well (which, as you will find out, almost no one accepts outside Belgium). Having a pure Bancontact/Maestro card is absolute hell in trying to buy stuff online or trying to use internationally. You always need to ensure to get yet another card that is also a visa or mastercard (which means a special request or requesting a credit card).

On the flip side, you do actually NEED bancontact in Belgium. There are many retailers and restaurants in Belgium (Colruyt, SNCB payment inside the trains, small retailers/restos) who ONLY accept Bancontact or cash.

Card security in Belgium is also different. For online purchases wherein a code is needed to confirm the purchase, you need some sort of card reader provided by your bank that will give you a code to enter. It is also the way for you to log on to your account online. While cumbersome to perform, I do feel it is way more secure than an OTP sent to your phone.

In France, there are less complications regarding the card. I never encountered issues using my Visa/CB card anywhere. Online card payments also make use of more traditional OTP methods (sent to your phone) rather than the secure card reader method.

Belgian bank card reader

4. CROSSING THE STREET

Something so simple yet so blatantly obvious. This is not a criticism but just an observation. Generally in Flanders, people follow the pedestrian street crossing lights even if there are no cars in sight. In France, goodluck. I’m not sure if this is a reflection of people’s attitudes and behavior, or people’s trust in the drivers.

A street crossing in the EU quarter of Brussels

5. ATTITUDE TOWARDS CARS

The difference in condition of parked cars in the streets of Belgium and France are like night and day.

In France, it is extremely common to see small city cars with side mirrors dangling on by a thread, or taped haphazardly to the car. That cliche you see of people bumping the cars in the front and back to parallel park is not a joke. It is absolutely true and an event I’ve seen way too many times to count. In general, from what I see on the street, there is less care about the look of a car, but rather more on the functionality of having a car to take you from point A to B.

This is rather different from the outlook in Belgium. Most people in Belgium have company cars, and they are generally proud of their cars. In some cases, cars are seen way more as status symbols and people are often changing their cars. There are also way less small city cars and more extended type sedans on the roads.

Ironically, Belgium is known to have terrible roads (maybe because of the many cars).

Why this difference in attitudes, I really don’t know and have yet to find out.

A common sight in the streets of France

7. knowledge of LANGUAGEs

Just in case you didn’t know, there is no “Belgian” language. There are 3 official languages, Flemish (a derivative of Dutch), French and German. One half of the country who live in Flanders speak Flemish, the other half speak who live in Wallonia speak French, Brussels is bi-lingual French and Dutch and a small part in the East of Belgium speak German.

France obviously has one official language, which is French (duh).

People in Belgium are normally multi-lingual. I don’t want to get into the politics of it but to make a very general statement, a lot of people, especially in the area of Flanders and Brussels, are either bi-lingual (French/Dutch or French/English or Dutch/English) or tri-lingual (French/Dutch/English). I’ve also met quite a lot of Flemish speakers who also speak German. The great news for tourists is that, if you stick to the big famous towns of Belgium, you are guaranteed to be able to speak English. I’ve always been impressed by the fact that most servers in restaurants or sandiwch kiosks can switch languages depending on the customer that they are talking to.

In France, unfortunately, the cliche does hold true most of the time. Big cities like Paris, Lille with a lot of tourism and international people would have a bit more English speakers, but generally, just generally, you are not always guaranteed to find anyone speaking English. The trend nowadays with the internet and globalisation is that more young people are learning more to understand, but seems barriers still exist that prevents them from speaking easily.

Personally though I think one of the main reasons why Belgium is so multi-lingual is just due to the nature of the country itself being so language diverse.

Memorial of the Great War in Brussels Central in both French and Dutch

Overall, if you ask me, there are a lot of pros and cons with living in either country. Despite my very generic list, it’s actually quite difficult to generalize living in either. It’s all very specific on where you exactly live and why you are moving to either country. For myself, I envision myself to stay in Belgium for still some time due to the opportunities and situation that I find are ideal for me to remain here. I do miss some specific French things though, but hey it’s only a 40 min train to France so it’s not like it’s impossible to forever miss them.

That is all that I have for now. Bangkok post will be continued next time šŸ™‚

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