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 – it had been washed away. Among my favourite memories are nights spent in our dining room at home, looking out at storms battering the valley behind our house, and days hiking through the bush with the rain making such a din on my gortex jacket that I couldn’t hear my friends trudging behind me.
I spent a number of years in Japan where it rains the entire month of June and stays so hot and humid until October that shoes go moldy if you don’t wipe them down each week. Believe me, the Belgians have nothing to complain about when it comes to the weather.
‘It’s not the rain,’ they tell me defensively, when I point out that it doesn’t in fact rain very much, ‘it’s the clouds. We never see the sun.’
The only answer I have to that is that they must not look up very often. Each morning, I get up before the sun and watch it wake up, turning the sky from black to the deep, dark blue of a mountain pond in shadow. Then slowly it brightens up to an expanse of glittering ocean blue with an orange orb providing contrast. It’s even more spectacular when there are clouds. The sky becomes a two-tone canvas of blue and black at dawn and for an hour after sunrise, the clouds are coloured to appear as fairy floss (cotton candy?) suspended in the sky. In full daylight, the blue / white or grey black alleviates the tedium of an endless blue, and Belgian skies are so layered with wind currents that I can’t help but be fascinated when I look up at the criss-crossing streaks of stratus. At night, I lay on my Charles Xth sofa and watch as the clouds turn pink again and the sky fades back into black. It’s breath-taking.
There is one thing that I complain about from the Belgian rain, though. While you don’t need to worry about what comes down at you, you do have to worry about what comes up at you. Belgian streets are lined with concrete tiles, laid out in a hopscotch pattern. After a few hours of rain, the loose tiles – there are plenty – begin to float, and if you watch me walking down the street, you’ll see me attempting to remember which tiles are dangerous, and picking my way between and around them – hopping, side stepping, and leaping. One mistake and the water underneath is pressed out to the sides and up under my coat, down my trousers, and into my shoes. It ain’t pleasant. But then, we’ve all got to have something to complain about, don’t we. It’s Belgium, after all.