Living in Antwerp

I moved to Antwerp, a few months ago, and hope to be here for a while, although that depends on the contractor market. I thought it might be interesting to compare life here with that in the UK. This is not comprehensive, just some differences that have struck me.

First of all, languages: Belgium has three official national languages, French, Dutch and German. It has some additional local languages that aren't supported by government, such as Limburg and Picard. The country considers itself to have four neighbours: France, Germany, Holland, and the UK. The various nationalities tend to resent each other, and quite often refuse to speak each others' languages. So, in order to avoid problems when travelling, people will use the language of the one neighbouring country that isn't represented in a local population. Hence English is taught to everyone, and everyone under about 45 happily uses it. This is a bloody nuisance if you want to learn and use a local language. English; plus ça change!

Would you believe there is a higher density of bars here than the UK?! Beer in the average Belgian cafe (not pub) is better than beer in the average Brit pub, mainly because you don't get chemical lager. However, the best British pubs are better than the best Belgium cafe; I've not found a Belgian cafe with the equivalent of rotating guest beers. I'm probably going to commit a sin by saying this: I think British ale is better than Belgium beer provided it's kept properly; but Belgium beer, unlike British, is reliably good. Furthermore, British restaurants consistently serve crap chemical beer; Belgian restaurants consistently serve the good stuff. The effect of averaging out experiences is that, out of the two countries, you generally get better beer here but that you get the best in the UK. In my book, Czech beer outscores both countries, incidentally.

Renting a single bedroom flat in west London costs EUR 1000 per month, excluding tax and bills. Renting the equivalent in the posh bit of Antwerp costs EUR 350 a month, all inclusive. It would be nearer EUR 450 in Brussels. Property in Belgium is dramatically cheaper than the UK. This is partially because stamp duty at 15% keeps property prices down. Despite these low prices, there is a property boom here right now; the skyline is full of cranes; doyens of builders' cleavage will love summer here.

Supermarket prices in the UK are, in general, much higher than in Belgium. For example, 250g of coffee costs at least EUR 2. Similar coffee in Belgium is around EUR 1.20. There are exceptions; for some reason, mouthwash is twice the price in Belgium. However, UK supermarkets, such as Tesco, do have a line of basic goods which are exceptionally cheap; I haven't found the equivalent here. So, although generally supermarket prices are a lot more expensive in the UK, these basic lines mean that, ironically, it's still possible to pay less in the UK than Belgium. These comparisons, incidentally, show prices of goods in supermarkets have little to do with the price of producing them; hence ridiculous supermarket profits and moaning farmers.

Belgium has the great advantage of having the Euro, so you don't have to give silly money to banks if you want to travel to most other places in Europe. Obviously, Belgium being a small country, that travel is more likely to happen. The consensus here is that the introduction of Euro has been of great benefit.

There is no age rage in Belgium, the old and infirm have to hobble around on sticks. The average fit Belgian will jump to help someone crippled to get on and off trams, for example, but it's striking to me how the UK health system provides dramatically better support for old age mobility.

The average UK high street has mostly fry-up eateries that sell crap fried food. The average Belgian high street has eateries of all kinds. I've not been in a Belgian eatery that sells inedible muck; it's rare to find a British eatery that sells anything else. For example, when I lived in Kettering, there was only one restaurant (a Chinese) in the entire town that sold good food, a few restaurants sold edible food, but the vast majority sold instant fried plastic, or something cooked fresh from the tin, etc.. In general, British restaurants produce food worse than I could cook myself, and I'm a bad cook. None of the town pubs sold good food. If I wanted an enjoyable meal, apart from that Chinese, I had to drive out to a village pub. That, in the UK, you have to go out of your way to find edible food, whereas in Belgian, every cafe (pub) and restaurant serves edible good, shows exactly why Britain rightly retains its crap food reputation. Since the average Brit happily buys the stuff (those muckeries stay in business), this shows why President Chirac's comments about British food last year were correct, whatever the British nationalists might blindly deny. Having said that; you do get the occasional hamburger joint here, although their density is very low compared to the UK; I guess even here there are some morons who think food is fuel.

Although the UK has it's lunatic nationalist party which has got something like 25% of the vote in European Elections, the UKIP is not close to power. The power in Belgium politics is in local government, not national government, and in this city of Antwerp, the racist Vlaams Bloc, got 35% of the vote in the last elections, and polls suggest their support is rising. Their pet hate figures include the Walloons (the French Belgians), eastern Europeans, and Muslims. They daren't have a go at Jews because of history, but I'm confident they'd like to do so. This is a dark racist edge to Belgium politics. It's ironic that it's the Catholic Church, the main local religion, that's leading the fight against this nasty bigotry; the government is paying lip service to the bigots by speaking their nationalist language. Here, Christians in politics seem to be doing some good, unlike, for example, the United States, where the Christian fundamentalists have done immense harm.

Unemployment in Belgium is 15%, compared to 5% in the UK. IMHO, the Belgium economy badly needs the shock of liberalisation. Taxes are high compared to the UK. Interestingly, the Liberal party is leading the coalition in power, and wants to do this, but can't get more than a few bits and pieces past its coalition partners.

Begging is more aggressive here; for example, I was once accosted by an old woman who insisted on pulling up her skirt and showed me some nasty leg wounds. I've never had that kind of thing in the UK, even when I visited cardboard city. I think part of the reason that doesn't happen in the UK is that she'd have got medical treatment despite her choice of parents.

One of the benefits of those high taxes is high subsidy for quality public transport. Busses run regularly, including to outlying villages, and are well used, often full. I enjoy riding the slower but smoother trams, which dive underground and become the metro in the centre of town. It costs me seventy euros, that's about fifty pounds, for a three month bus and tram pass which covers Flanders, that's all of northern Belgium except Brussels. That's roughly the same amount for a one day return ticket on the railway from Kettering to London. The trains are cheap, the new stock is as good as the best of British, although the oldest stock is rougher than anything I've seen on UK railways.

I suspect it's no coincidence that the roads are much less full of other traffic. The only roads to suffer major traffic jams, only in the rush hours, are motorways. I secretly suspect this is really because Belgian road signposting is appalling. Signs before junctions are not common; you often get signposts saying "you want to take that turn" immediately after the damned turn. It's little wonder that people ignore many road restrictions; they don't get to see the sign announcing them.

Culturally, the UK remains more interesting to me. This is not surprising; I don't speak Flemish Dutch. Of course, British poetry is especially strong right now, since it's going through a fascinating revolution with both the old guard and the new producing brilliant works. I wouldn't have a clue about Flemish poetry; I can't find it in translation. This language barrier means I haven't been able to get into the local arts scene despite some local poets asking permission to translate my work, and even inviting me to read at a forthcoming poetry festival. However, there is clearly an active arts scene here; I've even found myself taking a small acting role in a locally produced arts film. It just takes time to find, and I've not spent the time yet.

I think, overall, living here is an interesting experience, and I'm glad I'm here, but I'll move on to another part of the EU in a couple of years time. My goal is to spend the next twenty years or so living in various parts of the EU; I'm lucky that my professional skills, & mother tongue, should enable me to do so.

March 2006

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