Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Belgian weird

I suppose it's about time for one of those '101 bizarre things about living in Belgium/Poland/a cardboard box under Pont Neuf/etc.' posts.

Here we go then.

1/ Proton: I still haven't worked out what this means. It appears to be some kind of monetary transaction management company, like Visa. Although it could just as easily be a brand of washing powder or a bodybuilding supplement. You can use it in shops which display the 'Proton' logo. I did try once: - no no - said the cashier - you haven't got any money on your Proton. You have to put money on it first. Lo and behold, next time I put my Belgian card in the cashpoint there was an option to withdraw cash to my Proton account. From there, you use the cash in your 'Proton account' to pay with your bank card. I don't understand. Why not just get the cash out straight away? Or pay directly with the bank card?
It makes no sense.
Only In Belgium.

2/ Madame Pipi: In most European countries there's a small charge to use the powder room and this may be more or less widespread in proportion to the publicness/relative cleanliness of said facility. For example, in the UK you normally only pay to pee in railway stations.
In Belgium, I discovered, there's no such thing as a free wee. In a country which produces over 8000 varieties of beer (thanks Wikipedia), this defies logic. My first encounter with Madame Pipi was in a bar near Antwerp Central Station. I tripped down the stairs to the loo, only to find a wizened little old lady sitting at a table with a tray.
- 50 cents please.
- What? oh no, you've got me wrong, I'm a customer (because normally customers can use the loo without paying, right?)
- That's not my problem. I don't work for them. Pay up. Or cross your legs: up to you.

3/ Labels: When you move to Belgium, you have to go to the commune and declare your residence. I inadvertently bypassed epic queues and frustration by ringing up and being given an appointment (albeit several weeks later, but who's counting? I'm quite happy to put off the evil hour where administrative procedure is concerned).
Once you've showed up, handed over your passport, and fielded the inevitable awkward questions about your source of income, lack of social security number and so forth, it all passes relatively quickly until they get to the

- and then the Police will come and visit you

- But I haven't done anything!
- No no, they just have to check you actually live there.
- Excuse me?!
- It's ok, you just have to make sure you have your name on the letterbox and by the doorbell, otherwise you'll never be able to register. (I have yet to work out why this would be a disadvantage)
I eventually tracked down some sticky labels in the far aisle at Carrefour, and now both my doorbell and my letterbox have crappy peeling stickers by them with my name on.
Sure enough, two days later there was a knock at the door. I opened it in my pyjamas (so what?! I'm a freelancer. 'Dressed' is a highly culturally-subjective concept), handed over my passport and resumed normal 'slumped at desk' working attitude.

4/ Bilingualism: Go to any concert or public event in Belgium and there will be two MCs. Obviously: one in French and one in Flemish. Inevitably, the French speaker will be playing the straight man while the version Flamande will have everyone in the auditorium helpless with mirth and weeping gently into their popcorn.
Everyone except you, the foreigner, because you didn't bother to learn Dutch, did you? Thought you could get away with a mere postgraduate degree in French?! Hah!
- uhhh il a dit quoi en effet?
- heheheheh mais il est dingue ce type!
- mais qu'est-ce qu'il a dit??
- mmmph *hic!* c'est trop marrant...

It's a conspiracy, I'm sure of it.

5/More labels: Belgium doesn't actually have two official languages.
It has three*.
For this reason, standard regulatory labels on food and everything really are Simply Enormous.
This must seriously cramp the style of Belgian marketing execs, who have to find room for all that text somewhere.


Only five things?! Maybe Belgium isn't as weird as I thought. Must try harder...

*German! Back of the class, go on.


inda said...

The 'Police comes to check whether you really live there' thing exists in Poland too, after you register yourself at Urzad Miasta XY. You didn't experience it last year (or before)?

pinolona said...

really?? No they never came to check... strange... (maybe they did check but I didn't speak enough Polish so I thought it was the TV licensing guy or something :))

Laura said...

Oooh, I've been planning one of these posts.

I don't really get proton either. It's a nice idea to have a cash free option for low cost items but what will I pay Madame Pipi with if I can't get change for the €50 note that the cash machine insisted on dishing out?

WV - schowerh... Um, no. Toilet actually.

pinolona said...

haha I learnt that lesson and always get cash out in multiples of 20. Although, in the UK it's not at all unusual to get £10 notes from the cash point, and they're worth virtually the same in euros now (unfortunately).

Don't understand your last comment :) something about a shower?!

Laura said...

Oh, just the word verification made me laugh saying shower when we'd been talking about Madama Pipi... it didn't make a great deal of sense but I've only been up for half an hour. Rubbish, toilet humour.

Oh, yes. I miss £10 notes. I managed to get some €5 notes out of a cash point the other day though!!! For some reason I can't work out how to choose my notes from the Louise ING though :(.

pinolona said...

ok 'WV'! got it :) bit slow this morning, sorry.

My Mum somehow always has a fresh supply of crispy £5 notes. I suspect she makes them herself...

Anonymous said...

Found you on Belgian Waffle blog, I'm also a freelance translator based in Southern Europe. Had to laugh at the "slumped at desk" ( in pyjamas) description: soooo true! It's a good job I have to take my kids to school in the morning, or I'd never put on real clothes! :)
Like your blog, very entertaining!

pinolona said...

Thanks Anon! Yay, good to meet another colleague! Southern Europe, gosh I think I went there, once, before Poland...
I don't have any kids to take anywhere but at the moment I'm still managing to get out of the pyjamas by about noon at the latest (to be fair, they do go back on again around 6pm). I may have to volunteer to take someone else's kids to school though for motivation when things get depressing around February time :)

ps I have a total writer's crush on Waffle, she's brilliant!

Anonymous said...

"Southern Europe" is just a half-hearted attempt at being a little mysterious in my anonymous wanderings through the internets (undoubtedly all part of the "need to get out more" syndrome that goes with the "slumped at desk" and "staying in pjs all day" thing).
I would say skip taking other people's kids to school and enjoy your childfree days while they last. Sometimes I would love to be able to switch off the alarm clock and sleep in on a weekday....

And yes, Waffle is totally brilliant. I can see her in print in the not so distant future...

Michael Dembinski said...

Belgium should be sawed in half, the top bit given back to the Dutch, the bottom bit to the French. It is an articial construct, a former buffer zone between Protestant and Catholic Europe; now that no one west of the Oder believes that Jesus stuff enough to go to war over, Belgium's very raison d'etre has evaporated.

Do Belgians feel somehow attached to Belgium? Like Poles (with their Ministry of Outrage - nice one Jamie)?

Korie said...

First, to Michael, Belgians feel attached to the economic advantages of having Brussels. Walloons feel attached to the constant streal of virtually free money they get from the far more succesful Flanders.
Flanders actually has a quite a large portion that does want to spearate from Wallonia..but again, they don't want to lose Brussels for economic/employment purposes. It's complicated, although I agree that they need to separate.

And proton, while I never use it, is basically a way to have virtual small change. In Belgium companies are charged a percentage for using the Bank Contact system and so some places don't like you to use it if your purchase is under, say, 10 €. If you load a little cash onto your proton you can use the proton opetion on the machine to pay for small purchases and the business doesn't receive the service charge like they would if you simply used debiting.

Sorry, this got long. I could go on, but instead I may snag what you're saying here and write my own post if that's okay?

pinolona said...

ooh forgot to answer:
anon: go ahead, keep all the mystery you like, it's the luxury of the blogosphere! I used to go to Italy a lot... before I started learning Polish and forgot what the south looks like.

Michael: to be honest, I haven't met all that many Belgians - in Brussels you tend to meet other ex-pats. As far as I can tell, many of the francophone bruxellians have family in Wallonia... but there must be a reason they're still together.

Lilacspecs: thanks for the explanations! I'm still a bit confused over the whole Belgium thing and I think my brain solves it by assuming that Antwerp, Ghent etc are somehow in the Netherlands.
Do feel free, snag away, no copyright here :) I'm sure Belgium has enough weird for all of us :)