5 major differences between Belgium and the US

Posted on Jul 8, 2013 | 18 comments

5 major differences between Belgium and the US

It’s hard as an American living abroad to not always compare Belgium to my home country or vice versa. I try not to present things too much in this way on the blog because often when comparisons are made people make an assumption that one way is better than the other. The truth is, all the experiences in my life are placed on a backdrop next to what I once learned to be the norm. I find things interesting now because they are different, but I want to be clear in saying that the differences are neither entirely positive or negative – they are just anders. So, without further ado, I give you five major differences between the way of life here in Belgium and my former way of life in the US:

1. Transportation. Yes, how people get around is entirely different. First we should look at Belgium on a large scale. It is a small country with a surface area of 30,528 km2. Let’s put this into perspective: Kansas, my home state, has a surface area of 213,096 km2. Additionally, Belgium has a much higher population, coming in at 11.02 million, while Kansas has a population of 2.886 million. The entire country of Belgium is about the size of the US state of Maryland (source). With a high population and a smaller surface area, the people have adapted to meet transportation needs.

  • Cars are much smaller (which is consistent throughout Europe). A rich expanse of history combined with protected architecture can make navigating small old streets and locating parking spaces a bit tricky. The roads are not American-sized and the cars here make even the average American SUV look like a monster truck.
  • BikesOne of the most essential modes of transportation for the average Belgian is a bicycle. Bikes are everywhere (literally everywhere!) and are much more convenient when getting around in the city. As a woman I find it delightful; I can wear whatever shoes I like and not have to worry about acquiring blisters or aching feet after an hour of walking around the city. A parking spot for the bike is more easily located than a spot for a car (although the bike racks at the university are sometimes very overcrowded) and one more plus point, parking spots for the bike are free while in many places in the city center you have to pay to park your car.
  • Public transportation is readily available and widely used. In the city of Ghent we have buses and trams that allow one to easily reach any destination in the city. If your destination is outside of Ghent then you can just as easily hop on the train and arrive anywhere you please within Belgium in a very short time (remember, Belgium’s small!).

2. Condiments. Since moving to Belgium I’ve not only been introduced to many new foods but also many new ways of eating old foods. Belgians are crazy about mayonnaise. They eat it on so many things. The quintessential Belgian food, fries (don’t call them french fries – unless you want to hear why they are not supposed to be called french fries), is just not complete without a(n) (un)healthy-sized dollop of mayonnaise on top. That’s not all, though. If you want to see the wide array of condiments just walk on into a fry shop and prepare to be amazed. Another popular fry condiment is curry ketchup. It’s a lot like regular ketchup but with a little extra curry taste. There are also other kinds of sauces that I could have never imagined before – joppiesaus, a sort of sweet yellow sauce; bicky saus a similar tangy yellow/orange sauce; and many many others. Curious to see more options, check out the menu from this Belgian frituur, there are 26 cold sauces alone, not even counting the warm ones.

3. Education. As serious as Belgians are about fries and the stuff they put on them, they are even more serious about education. I wrote a rather long post about my experience so far studying at a Flemish university so I won’t go into too much detail about that now (read the post here if you’re interested), but I will just say that it is hard. The level is much higher than any level I’ve ever been exposed to. I was always quite a good student growing up. I was fortunate to be one of the kids that rarely had to study. A good attention span and an affinity for reading and writing allowed me to go through the American education system with little difficulty (mathematics was something else, though). I completed my entire American bachelor’s degree with only a few restless nights of studying and with quite high scores. Comparing my American experience with my Flemish experience so far provides a very stark contrast. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done academically up to this point and I’m quite certain even more challenging academic obstacles are to come on this educational journey.

4. Beverages. Alcohol is treated very differently here in Belgium, I wrote about that here, but that’s not the only beverage that is done differently. beerOkay, Americans, you know when you wake up in the morning ready for a nice relaxing Sunday morning, you’ve poured some cereal into your bowl and you open the fridge to get the milk and you find that someone has so courteously left you only two tablespoons? Belgium (and Europe for that matter) has the solution for this problem. UHT milk is the best thing. If this happens to me in our house in Belgium, I just go to the shelf and take an extra milk carton down. The UHT milk has always seemed sweeter to me than fresh milk but that doesn’t bother me at all. You don’t have to refrigerate the carton until it’s been opened so we always have at least a few extra cartons. I will never face the American milk predicament again as long as we’re living in Flanders. Another problem I will never face while living in Belgium is running out of tasty beers to try. No more domestic beers for this girl. I never likened the taste of Coors or Budweiser to water before, but I suppose, if I were to drink one now, I definitely would. Perhaps I’m getting old but I would prefer to spend a bit extra for a flavorful beer and drink fewer…

5. Speeding. Granted, there is a lot of speeding that happens on the US interstates and highways, but there is also always the possibility that you will be caught and fined. I think I can honestly say that in the two years (yes, two years now!) that I’ve lived in Belgium I have never seen someone pulled over for breaking the speed limit. In fact, I can say that I’ve never seen anyone pulled over for any sort of traffic violation. It seems to me that the Belgian highways are very unregulated and this often leaves me with an unsettled feeling. It is a daily occurrence to be driving down the road and have a car speeding past you on the left-hand side. This extreme in combination with the slow-paced merging traffic coming from the right-hand lane creates an environment that seems very potentially dangerous to this American (who is undoubtedly very accustomed to strictly abiding by traffic laws). I’ll be frank and say I don’t like this. I have little tolerance for other people taking my life into their own hands and I think this is really something that should be dealt with in Belgium. Financial problems? Well… whenever one of those Audis or BMWs speeds by, I see a lot of extra money waiting to be had if only they would be fined for breaking the law instead of just allowed to do so.

What are your thoughts? Any expats want to add to the list? Any Americans convinced that they will now move to Belgium to enjoy public transportation, an array of condiments and attempt to try all the Belgian beers?


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  • http://www.therandomwritings.com/ Rachel G

    Riding bikes everywhere sounds awesome! My husband and I love riding bikes, but we’re cut off from civilization by 55 mph country highways that aren’t too safe for biking! I do like living in a relatively uninhabited place, but I remember how convenient it was when I lived in Asia and could take the bus wherever I wanted to go. (That is, it was convenient when the bus was on time!)
    I see people pulled over in my town probably once or twice a weeks. The roads are highly regulated. I don’t think I could take all that mayonnaise though–I don’t even ever have mayo on a sandwich, I can’t imagine eating it on purpose.

    • http://www.oppositeocean.com/ Leah@OppositeOcean

      Thanks for the fun comment, Rachel! Being able to bike everywhere really is great except for when it’s raining, then I opt for the tram (it rains a lot in Belgium, unfortunately).

      I think there are upsides and downsides to every location. I miss some things about KS and I’m sure I’ll miss a lot about Belgium if I ever move on from here. I really really miss having a safer feeling on the roads, though – Belgium needs to improve on that.

      Funny that you mention you don’t care for mayo. I hardly ever ate it at all before I came to Belgium. In fact, I didn’t even really like the taste of it. In Belgium they’ve got a mayo with lemon and I like that quite a lot. It’s pretty good on Belgian fries and mussels. :) I guess I’ve grown to like it a bit more.

  • Charlotte

    Haha, your comment on “french” fries is so true! 😀 I met with an American girl today and she said something about french fries and I really had to keep it together not to comment on that.
    And about the speeding… I think the bigger problem is the combination of alcohol & driving, and if they are staking out, you can be pulled over then. But yes, just paying some fine doesn’t make it unappealing to speed.

    But it’s fun and interesting to read about the differences! This way I can prepare myself for when I go to the USA 😉

    • http://www.oppositeocean.com/ Leah@OppositeOcean

      Thanks for your comment, Charlotte. I’m glad you enjoyed this post. The funny thing about the ‘french’ fries is that I also now find myself telling people the story of their origin. I think maybe I’ve heard it one too many times, hehe. :) Drinking and driving is unfortunately also a very big problem in the US but I believe the punishment is much stricter there as well. Driving is such a dangerous thing when you really think about it. I’m not too wild about letting strangers have control over my life, especially when they are reckless and disobeying laws designed to keep people safe. When the time comes for you to go to the US I hope you’ll share your thoughts on the blog, I find it so interesting to see (read) it all from a different perspective. :)

  • Smollie

    I would like to add bread to your list. I have been living in the US for six years now, and I still miss the Belgian bread. There is something wrong with the bread in American supermarkets that is wrapped in plastic, tasts like styrofoam and can be sold up to three months after it has been baked. Real bread should be bought in a bakery, wrapped in a paper bag and smell so good that you cannot stop yourself from eating a slice on the way from the bakery to your home.

    I am not sure about the lack of control on speeding. Everytime I come back to Belgium I find that the number of speeding camera’s along the roads has doubled. People do not get pulled over if they are caught speeding, like in the US, but I believe the chances of getting caught are higher in Belgium than they are in the US.

    • http://www.oppositeocean.com/ Leah@OppositeOcean

      Hello Smollies, thanks for commenting. :) You’re absolutely right about the bread! American bread looks scarier than ever to me now after living in Belgium. If we ever find ourselves living in the US in the future we will have to find a solution for this. Perhaps baking our own. There is truly nothing quite like the texture, taste, and smell of freshly baked bread. One of my very favorite things about Belgium is the bakeries. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten something from the bakery that I didn’t like.

      Also true about the speed cameras. In my opinion it’s just a shame that some more immediate action cannot be taken. A lot of times I think people know where the speed cameras are placed so they adjust their speed accordingly and then resume the dangerous speeds when they are far enough away from them. I think it would be a better world if we could all just adhere to traffic laws, but I am also not one that gets a thrill from going too fast. 😉

      • geertd

        very nice blog Leah

        about the bread
        did you know that le pain quotidien (het dagelijks brood)do have some shops in the US


        • http://www.oppositeocean.com/ Leah@OppositeOcean

          I’m glad you liked it, Geert! Funny that you mention that about le pain quotidien. I read a blog post just a few days ago from an American blogger raving about how much they liked that place. It only seems logical that the concept of the bakery should take off in the US, after all, baked goods from real bakeries are so delicious. I hope that the concept spreads – I don’t know how the US began to move away from the bakery tradition but it’s a shame. I checked out the website and unfortunately for my family and friends (who live mostly in the Midwest) there’s not one near them yet. Maybe someday. :)

  • http://www.sarainlepetitvillage.com/ Sara Louise

    The first time I came across UHT milk it completely freaked me out. Now, I love how I can have a stockpile of milk at home :)

    • http://www.oppositeocean.com/ Leah@OppositeOcean

      Hooray for UHT milk! :) I will seriously have a problem without it in the future if it ever comes to that.

  • http://www.warrenbaldwin.blogspot.com/ Warren Baldwin

    Interesting post. I started reading your blog a few days ago b/c we have
    a high school student from Belgium coming to the U.S. (Kansas!) this
    August as a Rotary Exchange student for a year. My family will host him
    for about 3 months of that period. I wanted to learn some things about
    Belgium before he comes. I found your blog through a search. Good blog
    with interesting and informative posts. Thanks!

    • http://www.oppositeocean.com/ Leah@OppositeOcean

      Thanks, Warren. What a coincidence that you’re from Kansas and managed to stumble across my blog. I’m really glad you’ve found it interesting. I hope your experience with the exchange student is a happy one. My family hosted an exchange student through AFS when I was about 13 years old. It was a great experience for us and our student is still a very good friend of our family. It’s such a great opportunity – for both hosts and students. Thanks for the comment. Feel free to explore the blog and ask any questions you think I might be able to answer. :)

  • http://www.ivorypomegranate.com/ Kirstin Schrier

    Cool post! I’m moving to Ghent in about a month, so this is useful stuff to know.

    • http://www.oppositeocean.com/ Leah@OppositeOcean

      Thanks, Kirstin. Glad you liked it. :) I just took a little visit over to your blog and read your post about moving to Belgium. In answer to your questions, yes we have dry shampoo and avocados (and pretty much everything else you could possibly want). :) If you’re a reader you can enjoy ordering online from amazon.co.uk (free shipping if you order over 25 £) and if it’s clothing or shoes you’re after you can do a lot of online shopping at zalando.be. A little early, but welcome to Ghent. I hope you’ll like it here. Don’t hesitate if you have any questions, I might have answers. 😉 Let me know if you continue blogging while in Ghent and I’ll add you to my list of Belgian blogs.

  • Ariane

    The food here isn’t laden with chemicals. Belgians/Belgen do a great job keeping food as close to natural as possible.
    The medical system here is inclusive and available to all.

  • 1midushi1

    Since living in Belgium, do you also get an unsettling feeling when driving the interstate in America, and seeing all those signs that point the way to
    ” RAMP” ?


    • http://www.oppositeocean.com/ Leah@OppositeOcean

      Very funny! I hadn’t thought of this before but will surely always think of it from now on. :)

  • Kaydee Staes

    Hi, i’m 16 years old and i’m born in Belgium (and still lives here). I’m now in my last year of highschool and probably i will move to the usa after i finish studying at the university. I read this post because i was curious about the differences between the usa and Belgium. You’re right we don’t like that fries are called french fries because they are invented by the belgians :)