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.
*German! Back of the class, go on.