Pedestrian Collisions

Until I moved to Europe, I assumed that people randomly chose the direction they moved to avoid oncoming pedestrians. In Belgium, I found myself stepping to the same side of the footpath as my counterpart almost every time. It didn't take me long to realise that I always stepped to my left while they stepped to their right, and that both of us stepped to the side that we drive on in our home countries (right in Africa, Europe and the Americas, left in Japan, India and the UK). Looking back, I'd rarely had the problem while in Australia and almost never in Japan, where people also drive on the left. Foreigners were rare in Japan and most foreigners in Australia were immigrants who'd lived in Australia much of their lives. The further I travelled, the more my findings were reinforced. When I returned to Australia, I began to get annoyed at the number of people who hadn't worked all this out and persisted in stepping to the right, and even in standing to the right on escalators. I'm only just beginning to realise that Australia is much more multicultural now than it was even 15 years ago when I left. Rather than keeping to a single suburb, immigrants from each culture are settling wherever they can, and I'm likely to hear Japanese being spoken in almost any Sydney suburb. The same is probably true for other languages that I don't recognise so quickly. With so many people stepping to the right, most people have no reason to know that we traditionally stepped to the left. I'm just starting to realise that's a good thing - even if it does take me slightly longer to

By |February 10th, 2012|Categories: Australia, Belgium, Japan|Tags: , , , |0 Comments


It was Brusseling when I arrived in Belgium - that misty drizzle that never quite settles. I wondered if I'd have the same feeling about Belgium as did for France, but whether the animosity had been dissolved by the positive experiences I'd had there, or because there was so much more to my Belgian history than Marie, I was happy to be back. I avoided the Grand Place on the first night in case they'd be doing the light show - laser colours on old stone buildings don't work for me - and went straight to join my old writing group. Forteen people had turned out for the occasion. I only knew 4 of them, so I can't claim they were all there for me, but it was daunting to read in front of so many people again. At least the feedback was generally positive. I did visit the Grand Place the next day, hoping it wouldn't have lost its charm. It hadn't. Despite the grey sky and spray on my face, I couldn't help smiling as soon as I saw the huge Hotel de ville. I can't imagine future generations feeling the same about any of the Sydney Opera House or the Gugenheim, let alone the standard buildings that go up around the world these days. In the end, the rain got worse to the point that I needed a rain coat (an event that I only recall occuring twice in the three years I lived here) and I decided to head north to meet up with my old colleagues for drinks and a hearty Belgian meal. Not stoemp or beer rabbit this time, but a bowl of beef stew flavoured with beer and

By |June 7th, 2008|Categories: Belgium|1 Comment


'You shouldn't have to pay to get well!' Those words make me grind my teeth every time I hear them. And I hear them a lot. Someone in the crowd shouted it out during 'Audience Viewpoint' at a Crowded House concert and they made it onto the live album. The retort, 'well, try harder to stay healthy,' always jumps to my lips, but I know it's not that simple and I'm not going to debate the ethics of medicine in this blog. The purpose of this segment is to talk about Belgian toilets and I'm sure you're wondering at the link. Here it is. Belgium is a socialist country. Fifty percent of my salary goes to the various governments. Then those governments take 22% of everything I spend. Much of this goes to maintaining a robust healthcare system, supported by a caring social security system. I don't have to pay to get well. Why then, in such a socialist country, do I have to pay to go to the toilet? Imagine yourself in everyday situations. You arrive back in Brussels after a long train journey. You come out of a 2 hour movie and dump your large coke in the bin. You have a few drinks watching a jazz concert in the Grand Place. You're on your way home after a big night out. You need to take a leak. It happens to everyone at least a few times each day. You can't stop it by eating better or exercising more. You can't stop it by being nice to people or reading more books. You can't stop it by thinking holy thoughts. So why would the governments make you pay a 30 cent tax on

By |November 16th, 2004|Categories: Belgium|0 Comments

A Green Country

Continuing on this positive vain, I'm impressed by the European effort to protect the environment. One of my big frustrations in Japan was that people pretented, even believed, that they were being environmental, but they really had no idea. Most separating of garbage was limited to burnables and non-burnables, but the primary example of the former was polystyrene and as far as I could see, it all ended up in the same garbage truck anyway. Belgium has taken garbage collection to the opposite extreme, providing a schedule for pickups of recycling, tree cuttings, electronics/chemicals, compost and general rubbish. The less environmentally friendly it is, the higher the price of the containers, which encourages everyone to separate out as much as they can. But it's regulated and if someone tries to cheat, their bag will be left on the street until they rectify the problem. The only problem is that I haven't been able to find many of the bags / containers for some of the more obscure collections, so I still end up with large bags of general rubbish. That's one of the big problems with trying to find your way in a new culture. There are only so many times you can ask each neighbour where to find something before you feel that you should be paying them a guide fee. Environmental parties enjoy mixed respect here, too. Unfortunately, there seem to be limits to what people will accept in the name of keeping Gaia healthy. I've often heard that the Green party has won seats in certain cities and begun some good changes, but it's usually accompanied by grumbling. I can understand this of corrupt politicians - moving the flight path from the

By |July 16th, 2004|Categories: Belgium|0 Comments


I recently got a message from a friend who, after browsing through this site, said 'I never realised that you hated Belgium so much.' The message upset me because I had no intention of creating a negative image in my scribblings. In fact, I love Belgium. I would have left a long time ago if I truly hated it. It's always difficult to keep travel writing entertaining and positive at the same time because the most interesting anecdotes tend to be of hardships, shocks and conflicts. Today, as I wandered around the local park enjoying the sun, I started looking for something positive and interesting. My idea came when I followed a stream of people heading into the King's palace. I assume they were going to see the greenhouse, which is only open for two weeks each year. I'm not sure that's where they were going because I saw a mass of people queued up outside one of the buildings and decided I didn't want to waste the day in a crowd. I ducked under the rope to join the people who were leaving. A policeman called out and motioned me back to the side I'd come from. As I approached him, I began to form a French sentence that said I wanted to leave, not to be forced into a three-hour tour. 'Parlez vous francais?' he asked. 'Nederland? English?' Here, I realised, was my story. How many policemen in Australia would speak a second language, let alone a third? How many shopkeepers? How many bus drivers? Here, it's commonplace. The problem is finding someone to practise French with, because everyone speaks better English than I do French. There are tensions between the two main

By |May 16th, 2004|Categories: Belgium|0 Comments

On the Roads

My new company is offering me a company car. I can choose from BMW, Mercedes Benz and Alfa Romeo among others. And I'll refuse. Driving in Belgium isn't particularly fun. I rented a car on my first visit and again for a couple of weeks when I was moving in, so I know. It's not that you have to get used to driving on the other side of the road, or the other side of the car - and therefore the other side of the lane. I picked all that up in ten minutes, after only a few mistakes in the airport grounds - no accidents. No, the problems are the local laws and their lack of enforcement. I'm told that there's a 1 in 100,000km chance of being booked in Belgium, and the locals take full advantage of that fact. In an effort to reduce speeding, the local authorities took drastic action. They didn't put more police on the road, or make a blitz on offenders. Instead, they introduced a law that gave right of way to cars coming in from the right - the theory being that everyone would have to slow down at each intersection in case anyone wanted to pull out in front of them, or even cross in front. Naturally, this caused more problems than the speeding. I've seen traffic jams caused by a car who tried to turn left onto a main road and pulled out in front of a car on his side of the road, blocking it. The offender couldn't go any further either, as he was blocked by a bus coming from his right and wanting to turn left, who in turn was blocked by the

By |February 16th, 2004|Categories: Belgium|0 Comments


It rained on the weekend. I mean, it really rained. Not this piss-weak mist that everyone complains about here, barely roughing the surface of puddles and drying on your clothes before the next drop can hit. This rain was heavy enough for me to put up the umbrella I normally only carried so as not to stand out. 'We Belgians don't like it when foreigners complain about our weather,' a colleague had told me on my first morning, as we walked between buildings on the company campus. 'I'm not complaining. I like the cold. I'm just not prepared for it.' I had a coat, but it felt like the temperature had dropped 10 degrees since I'd left Japan the day before. 'OK. But remember what I said. Don't complain about the cold or the rain.' That warning came to seem more ironic the longer I spent in Belgium. Sure, the foreigners complain, but Belgians are often the worst offenders. After a full month of sunny days, they'd complain about a couple of wet days. Then, when it fined up again, they'd say 'Oh, it won't last. You just watch. It'll be wet on the weekend.' I grew up in Australia, where we have the extremes. For most of the year, we lack rain and some towns have to ship water in just to drink. Then in January the wind-whipped skies unload a year's worth of water with enough force to knock over power lines. Working in the State Emergency Service, I was involved in evacuating suburbs from flooded areas and, on one occasion, had to wake a family up in the middle of the night to tell them not to go out into the backyard

By |January 16th, 2003|Categories: Belgium|0 Comments

The customer is always…

After Japan, it's not surprising that Belgian customer service fails to please, but surely they can do a better job than this. I used to take a few minutes to do my grocery shopping on the way home each day. Here it takes a good hour just to get through the registers so, needless to say, I only do it once a week now. A major reason for the queues is that Belgian supermarkets only open from 9am until 7pm Monday to Saturday. Nothing is open on Sunday because everyone's at church - theoretically. Another is that the cashiers are there for the social experience, waiting until the previous customer has packed up and left before turning to their colleagues for a conversation. Once they've organised what they'll do on the weekend, they turn back to serve me. And they start closing down registers once the queues drop below five full carts, though where they go I have no idea. They're certainly not on the shop floor. Well, that's not quite true. Not long after I arrived, I started searching for coconut milk so I could make a Thai curry, but I couldn't find it and for weeks there was no one to help. When I finally spotted a woman in the uniform on the floor and asked her, she looked at me like I'd look at a samurai appearing in a Brussels street. When she'd recovered from the shock that a customer would interrupt her, she told me 'milk's over that way,' and waved at the other half of the store. A couple of weeks later, I found the tins of coconut milk one aisle away from where I was standing. Kinepolis, the major

By |November 16th, 2002|Categories: Belgium|0 Comments


If you finished the sentence by talking about the European Union, chocolate or the Maniken Pis, you get one point. If you answered with the name of the ugliest monument I've ever seen, the Atomium, score two. But Belgians would give you most points, say five, for realising that many things other countries are famous for were actually invented in Belgium, or at least are more a part of their culture. Topping the list are frites. You'll know them as French Fries. If you thought they were invented by McDonalds, deduct five points. But the French didn't invent them either. At least that's what the Belgians tell me. Somewhere in the export chain, the recipe was lost, though. And I'm grateful. Belgians prefer to eat their frites with mayonnaise. One day I'll find the courage to try it, but my stomach still rebels at the idea. "I'd like some oil with my oil, please." Hmmmm. Beer? Aren't the Germans famous for beer? No, isn't it the Irish? Actually, Belgium has one of the oldest traditions of brewing, according to 'the Rough Guide,' and with over five hundred varieties, it's got to be the most diverse selection in the world. Ooops. I'm going to be shot for leaving some doubt in that statement. Everyone has their own favourite, which makes it extremely difficult to cater for a party, especially when I don't drink beer myself - even Belgian beer and I've already been castrated for that failing. But I've been forgiven because I find the whole industry fascinating. Each pub serves a large but limited selection, and whatever you order will come in a special glass stamped with the logo of the respective beer. Belgians even

By |July 16th, 2002|Categories: Belgium|0 Comments


To me, trams represent an ancient world. I'd seen the photos of trams in Miranda near where I grew up, but the photos were black and white, which meant that they were taken about as far back as history went. Seeing them still running in Melbourne and in Sapporo didn't change that, and when I arrived in Brussels, the trams just added to the feeling of antiquity that the buildings created. It was a delight then, to find that I needed to catch a tram to work on my first morning in Brussels. I threw on my coat, slung my bag over my back and stepped out into the cold wet with a grin. The grin didn't last long. It took me over an hour to catch a tram, and three passed by in that time. The first didn't stop because I didn't wave it down. It seems that it's not enough to stand up and start to get your wallet out - you actually need to put your arm in the way of the tram. I got that right the second time, but the driver refused to open the doors for me. Bastard! He pulled out just as I started to knock on the door. Sitting right behind the second tram, the third seemed to assume that I had just gotten off, and ignored the thumb I stuck out over the tracks. The driver didn't even look at me. The only reason I managed to catch the fourth, now shivering miserably, was that the driver opened the door for someone else, but still looked at me like I was an idiot standing next to the front door. I ran down to where the other

By |May 16th, 2002|Categories: Belgium|0 Comments