Friday, March 7, 2014

Getting To Know Belgium: A Primer

So where is this tiny European country I now call home? And what is Belgium known for? I had these questions and many more when Glenn first told me that moving to Belgium was a possibility. Like any good student I immediately set out to learn more about where we would be spending the next three years and at first glance, I really liked what I saw. In fact, much of what I found was downright exciting. And then we arrived here and I realized that I had just scratched the surface of this great western European country perched on the edge of the North Sea.

Sandwiched between the Netherlands, France, Germany, and  even tinier Luxembourg, Belgium is a convenient jumping off point for exploring much of western Europe. If this isn't enough to keep you busy, a quick ferry or Chunnel ride across the English Channel will put all of Great Britain at your doorstep. But there is so much packed into this country of just over 30,500 square kilometers and a population of just under 10,424,000 that you don't have to leave to have a good time. Belgium is filled with chateaus, green space, historic centers, and yes, chocolate and beer. The capital of Brussels is perhaps best known for being the home of NATO making it an important player in global politics but this strategically located country has been a player on the world scene for much longer. Wars have been fought on what is now Belgian soil since the Middle Ages, the country was the site of the famous 1815 Battle of Waterloo and it was occupied by Germany during both World Wars. Today the struggle for national identity continues with an ongoing debate over a division of the country along Flemish and French lines.

Now here are a few more fact about Belgium:

  • Belgium is officially a tri-language country with residents of the northern (Flanders) region speaking a dialect of Dutch, those in the southern (Wallonia) region speaking French and a tiny population along the border with Germany speaking German. 
  • According to the World Health Organization and the CIA Fact Book, Belgians spend 51.84% less money on health care than their American counterparts while having a lower chance of dying in infancy (28.66%) and a longer life expectancy (1.13 years).  
  • On average, Belgians make 21.12% less money a year ($36,600 compared to $46,400) but also work fewer hours (1469 versus 1797) than Americans.
  • Gay marriage has been legal here since 2003 and euthanasia since 2002.
  • Voting is compulsory as is education up to the age of 18.
  • The Belgian road system is the only man made structure visible from the moon at night due to lights along the entire motorway network.
  • Over 800 kinds of beer are brewed in Belgium and the average Belgian consumes 150 liters of this local beverage a year.
  • Belgium produces 220,000 tons of chocolate a year which is equivalent to 22 kilograms of chocolate for every Belgian.
  • Belgium is home to 20 UNESCO World Heritage and Intangible Cultural Heritage sites.

We've only just arrived and there is so much of this country for us to explore and get to know. I can only hope we can see it all over the next three years.

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