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Belgium

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For the space traveler, Belgium is one of the easiest places on Earth to find. The dense network of streets, roads and highways is brightly illuminated after dark, so that the country lights up in the night as if it were one huge airport. Many Earthlings, on the other hand, don't have a clue where this little country can be found on a map. Meanwhile the name of its capital city Brussels is a household word around the world: because most other countries don't trust or like each other, but do consider Belgium to be mostly harmless and nice, Brussels is often chosen as the seat of international organisations, like the European Union and the NATO, to name a few important ones.

Belgians have a keen sense of the surreal and the absurd. It is not an accident that painter Rene Magritte was a Belgian. Nor is it an accident that cake-throwing by way of symbolic political assassination was invented just there. Surrealism was present at the birth of the nation.

Starting from its independence in 1830, the history of the country can best be described as bourgeois in a surrealist fashion. Indeed, the revolt against the Netherlands is supposed to have started after an inflammatory opera performance. It has also been told that while the regular troops of the Netherlands kept watch in the cold trenches at night, the Belgian rebels at the other side went home for a good meal and a warm bed, and came back the next morning. Whether this story is completely true or not, it characterizes the Belgian spirit, known as "la belgitude", perfectly.

Belgians prefer cunning and comfort above grand gestures. For instance, not many W.W. II stories are known about Belgian civilians who refuse to cooperate with invasion troops, loudly claiming to prefer to be executed; instead, a typical Belgian factory director would invite the local German commander to a good meal, promise to start producing weapons really soon now, and continue making cooking pots and toys and making up new excuses as the months pass; meanwhile, in more heroic countries, directors got shot and replaced by German colonels, and weapons started being produced in a matter of weeks.

Belgians think small, but they are masters at it. The Belgian Dream consists of earning enough to own a free-standing house with a garden, not bought from a previous owner, but preferably built exactly according to personal wishes. This house should also not be further away than 10 kilometers from where your parents live. In contrast to the well-known American Dream, this Dream can be attained by very many people before their 40th birthday. In this process, building regulations are only meant to be ignored. As a matter of fact, all Belgians routinely break the law, if they can do so without harming anyone personally: "arranging things" is their speciality. More visibly, not even the most cautious and law-abiding Belgian pedestrian will wait for a stop-sign if no cars happen to be coming past, as anyone can see that this is simply stupid.

The only check on the Belgians' quiet anarchism, caused by an inbred distrust of all kinds of authority, is peer pressure. And peer pressure mainly tells them to mind their own business. Nobody will come up to you if you are struggling with a city map in the street; but this is not unkindness, for if you ask for directions, you will find that most people are very willing to help. Real Belgians are polite but distant, dress conservatively and never speak loud in public places; a Belgian tourist in America could probably wander around unnoticed for hours inside the FBI headquarters.

In fact, when for once they want to act impulsively or passionately, Belgians only end up looking ridiculous. Recently an infamous child molester was shown on television, while being brought to the courthouse. The revealing part in this picture was the man in the background who was shaking at a police barricade and making known what would become of the pervert if he could get his hands on him. Then the barricade gave way and started to topple. Immediately the typical Belgian gave it a correcting jerk before it could fall down; and he looked quite shaken at what he had done.

Foreigners who do not understand the belgitude but know something about the everlasting quarreling between Flanders, the Dutch-speaking north of the country, and Wallonia, the French-speaking south, sometimes fear that this might eventually lead to civil war. This is nonsense. Civil war is much too grand and dramatic, and bad for business besides. Therefore the regional governments and regional parliaments that popped up during the last decades are, in the opinion of this field researcher, not the start of a breakup of the country, but new opportunities to introduce bureaucracy and evade taxes.

In conclusion, Belgium is a small country of inconspicuous well-off people, who like to live comfortably, and get things done, quietly.

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