An A to Z of BELGIUM

The following is a collection of words that I associate with living in Belgium, and in particular Leuven. Please do not feel the need to take any offence (especially if you're a Belgian). It was a privilege to have been able to live in another country, and was fascinating to look around and observe and compare. All experiences are relative and so what is bizarre and strange to me, may well seem completely normal to others. Nonetheless life in another country can often be frustrating and more than a little mystifying. But just remember when reading this that.. I actually quite liked living there :)

Since the first appearance online of this A-Z I have had much enjoyable feedback and suggestions from both expats and Belgians. I do enjoy the comments, so keep them coming! I'd also like to thanks a number of other expat residents who have made good suggestions for additional entries, many of which have been added recently - special thanks to Jo Abbess, Sharon Downes, Chris Mitchell and Anita Omasta.

Airport Express A slightly oxymoronic rail service between Brussels and Zaventem that calls at all stations. Fortunately it isn't that far!
Antwerp(en) A particularly grey and brown Belgian city, full of paintings of voluptuous 17th Century maidens in various states of undress. Home to some of the finest cafes in the country. The name literally means throwing a hand, which says it all...
Apartment One of an extensive row of smallish brick boxes, usually assembled in extensive rows, three to four boxes tall. Place of residence for the vast majority of urban Belgians.
Ardennes Gentle rolling undulations in the south of Belgium that are locally revered as an untamed wilderness. In reality they consist of extensive plantation pine forest, trickling rivulets and fields of cows. Nonetheless they do make a pleasant day out. Don't forget your raincoat.
Asparagus Treasured and worshiped annually for about a month. The sadly short asparagus season is an annual opportunity to spend a vast fortune on green and white bits of wood dripping in garlic and butter.
Atomium An enormous rusting molecule that is visible for several miles from its location in northern Brussels. Contains an incredibly boring exhibition about something or other.
August A month of dangerously pleasant weather when Belgium does its utmost to discourage tourists from coming and spoiling life there by generally completely shutting down for three weeks or so.
Bakery Warm and cosy building in which a variety of forms of happiness can be obtained in exchange for one or two coins. No matter where you stand in Belgium, you are within 100 metres of a bakery. Transformed on Sunday mornings into claustrophobic spaces full of robust women purchasing enormous paper boxes of sticky tarts.
Bart The name of all male Belgians from the top flat bit.
Beer A heavenly liquid which Belgians have perfected thanks to centuries of intense contemplation by silent orders of monks. Beer is the very essence of the land, the blood of the nation, heaven served in a variety of peculiarly shaped drinking receptacles.
Begijnhof Cool old crumbly bits of Belgian towns that are covered in cobbled alleyways and plaques bearing impressively historic dates. Unfortunately nobody seems to know exactly what they were used for and why so many of them have not fallen down by now. It seems to be something to do with nuns that were not actually nuns. Very confusing.
Belgacom The most expensive telephone network operator on the planet.
Bicycle Two wheeled transportation device seen all over Belgium. Particularly common at railway stations and in canals. Generally of a very primitive and questionably road-worthy form, but lack of major undulations extends the utility of the poorer quality examples. Advantages of use are convenience, health and the power to ignore all traffic rules and irritate drivers of motorized vehicles. Disadvantages include high theft danger.
Bicycle path A narrow marked lane at the edge of a road or dedicated pathway, likely to vanish suddenly and unexpectedly at any given moment. Often terrorised by speeding moped riders.
Bokrijk A vast area of farm and woodland full of Belgians in historical dress and an impressive number of experimental buildings where you can discover what it would have been like to have electrical sockets and lighting in a fourteenth century watermill, or what it would have been like to buy postcards from a genuine sixteenth century bakery using your credit card.
Brick The basic atomic unit of Belgium. Belgium is in essence a pile of bricks. Mainly comes in a muddy brown colour, but occasional yellow, red and tan variations can be almost pleasing to the eye.
Bromfiets A pathetic motorised bicycle that extremely sad and lazy teenagers and students drive around Belgian streets. Makes exceedingly unpleasant noises and emits unnecessary pollutants into the pristine Belgian environment. Scandalously permitted on bicycle paths, although enormous self-righteous pleasure can be gained from overtaking a bromfiets on a real bicycle.
Brown The second national colour of Belgium. Popular colour of clothing, shoes and hair.
Bruges A small town in the west of Flanders, entirely occupied by English tourists and lace shops.
Brussels A particularly large pile of bricks and concrete located roughly in the middle of Belgium. Full of foreigners.
Bureaucracy A Belgian art form. The process of making an apparently simple task rather less straightforward than it first appeared by positioning carefully drafted bits of paper between the subject and their desired object. Can often be circumvented by discovering an appropriate shortcut (citing the name of an appropriately eminent Belgian, ignoring the rules, obstinacy, etc.)
Cactus The official domestic street window display plant in Belgium. Not just any type of cactus mind you, but these long tall spike-free green ones that have narrow pointed leaves and reach for the sky between the lace curtains and the window pane. Very attractive and original.
Cafe The centre point of Belgian social life. A place to hang out, sup a beer, savour a coffee, nibble a portie and watch Belgians in their natural habitat. Cafes spill out onto the streets in the summer months and the pleasant summer murmur of a Belgian cafe district in July is a true sensation. Cafes never seem to close and come in a vast array of shapes, sizes, decor and atmosphere. Belgium is the cafe, the cafe is Belgium.
Canary Status: the commonest resident bird in Belgium. Habitat: small cages in apartment blocks, window boxes, market stalls. Song: a cheery continuous warbling whistle that easily penetrates walls and ceases to be cheery after the first half hour.
Cappuccino A vile drink bearing only a remote likeness to its Italian origins. Essentially a coffee with a sickening dollop of gooey cream slapped carelessly on top. Ack!
Car Metal box within which Belgians lift themselves from dreamland into the fierce fast cutting edge of high powered living. Fast, dangerous, crazy, mad, everything a Belgian is not when standing in the queue at Delhaize.
Celery Salt A peculiar spice that seems only to have become a larder regular in households in Belgium. It does taste of celery and it does taste of salt. The most popular use is to sprinkle it liberally over blocks of cheese as an accompaniment to the beer of your choice. And fair enough, as I can't think of a better thing to do with celery to be honest.
Charleroi A dreary and dirty Wallonian steel town whose steady decline in fortunes was accelerated by a visit from the English national soccer team during Euro 2000.
Checkout-chick Impassive woman employed to stare into space and pass time in peaceful meditation while Belgians pack their shopping and fumble for their debit cards. Occasionally bursts into life to embark on 15 minute trips to weigh cloves of garlic. Job requirements include dangerously low blood pressure and an ability to fall asleep at will.
Cheese Despite having the general texture and colour of soap, Belgian cheeses are pleasant if not heart-stoppingly exciting. Mild in flavour and often bearing the faces of fat friars on the wrapping paper. Nothing excites a Belgian shopper more than a good selection of cheese, and a typical shopper never buys less than six different types of cheese at any one go.
Chicken A young bird doomed to end its days stark naked, rotating endlessly on a long metal pole in the back of a large transit van at a Belgian market, while in winter crowds of onlookers huddle around and warm their hands in the resulting waves of roasting heat.
Chocolate Chocolate making reaches its greatest heights of quality and creativity in Belgium. Sold in a vast array of shapes and quantities throughout the country. The gastronomic ecstasy is sometimes negated by ghastly creamy fondant centres, but nonetheless it is an essential purchase before any overseas trip, as boxes of Belgian chocolates generally leave a trail of happiness, grateful relatives and sticky faces in their wake.
Christmas An annual festival marked in Belgium by an unusually high number of receptions , the appearance of temporary ice rinks in town centres and by huge week-long markets featuring stalls selling cheap decorations, truly horrendous gift items and glasses of warm red wine spiced with cloves and cinnamon.
Church A common grey building throughout all Belgian cities, towns and villages. Often either empty or in an advanced state of disrepair. May contain impressive collections of gold and silver artifacts, horrific wooden pulpits, and overly eager visitor assistants. There really are an amazing number of churches in Belgium. Perhaps almost as many churches as bakeries. No - that can't be possible.
Cinema Popular social centres where you can see the latest English language movies behind a fog of foreign language subtitles. Belgian cinema-goers have the annoying habit of talking very loudly to one another throughout the opening credits and Belgian cinemas have the even more annoying habit of switching on the lights immediately at the start of the closing ones. One of the best things about a cinema trip is to take in the surreality of Belgian advertising, a tantalising glimpse of the national psyche.
City Hall An often incredibly ornate building located in the central square of a Belgian town. Externally breathtaking and majestic. Internally a place where regular state-sponsored bureaucratic torture of foreigners is conducted.
Client Day The one day of the year that Belgian shop assistants try to put the customers first by presenting them with gifts. Leads to an unusual shopping experience when you can get a free rose from the supermarket, a honeycake from the butcher and a chipolata sausage from the bicycle store.
Coast A strip of sand at the western edge of Belgium that the entire country flocks to when the sun comes out.
Cobbles Common ancient road surface of which thousands of kilometers remain throughout Belgium. Probably acts as a fertility control by rendering many inhabitants sexually sterile after spending their formative years navigating cobbled roads on a bicycle.
Coffee Generally sold in a form pleasingly between long black and Italian espresso, a coffee in a Belgian cafe always comes accompanied by a treat. This can be at its best a miniature waffle or chocolate, and at its least a tasteless wafer biscuit. Beware of disgusting variations on the general coffee theme.
Comic A type of magazine for children that is universally read by grown-ups in Belgium.
Congo The Belgian empire. A bit politically sensitive. Say no more.
Countryside "The countryside" is a place that all Belgians dream of taming by beating it into submission using bulldozers and earth-moving equipment in order dump upon it piles of bricks and concrete that form unusual architectural constructions of their own personal and novel design. As a result of this passionate pursuit there is not a great deal of "the countryside" left, at least not in the northern flat bit.
Crime Actually Belgium is a pretty safe country where most of the crime takes place at enormously high levels and involves horrifyingly large scale corruption and swindling, all of which leaves the citizens on the street less well-off but otherwise fairly unharmed. Strangely however the following is not a crime: the process of taking into one's possession a bicycle that is actually owned by a known or unknown person other than oneself.
Croque Monsieur A common cafe snack that despite sounding like an overly cultured amphibious reptile is actually just an open toasted sandwich served with a few slices of cucumber and a wedge of tomato.
Customers People who lack the patience and understanding to appreciate how hard it is to run a business in Belgium. By treating them with the disrespect that they deserve you will force them to appreciate the personal sacrifices that those in Belgian service industries are making for them. Adopt the maxim "the customer is always wrong" and your business will flourish.
Delhaize A supermarket invented by the devil to torture his subjects. Offers every shopping frustration imaginable, from lack of baskets to severe aisle congestion. Home to the most spectacularly slow checkout queues in the universe. Horrid horrid place.
Dog A four-legged friend kept by many Belgians for the seemingly sole purpose of fertilising the expansive concrete wastelands of Belgian public spaces with tiny parcels of regenerative organic matter.
Drain A modern technology that is still in research phase in Belgium, with no current plans for implementation. During this pre-development phase be prepared for very nasty smells almost anywhere, and especially close to water sources.
Dutch A strange language spoken in Flanders and consisting largely of the consonants v,s,c,h,r and k. Dutch is surprisingly easy to learn. Simply fill your mouth with crisps and then speak English and German simultaneously without breathing.
Duvel A legendary trap for foreigners. A seemingly harmless golden liquid that looks refreshing and spiritually uplifting. In reality a brew of the devil, designed to reach into the soul and extract foolishness, talkativeness, speech disorders and nausea.
Euro A type of mountain kangaroo found in rocky country throughout inland Australia.
Eurocrat Overpaid undertaxed foreign temporary resident whose friends are also overpaid undertaxed foreign temporary residents who serve on committees to investigate the development of research programs to promote concepts of sustainable growth in marginal regions and to raise money to overpay undertaxed foreign temporary residents.
Europe A nominal extension of Belgium. Not much is known in Belgium about what lies out there, except that it periodically comes to Belgium and is generally full of foreigners. Europe does provide a useful theme for Belgian souvenir shops, in the absence of a well entrenched national image that can be sold as dolls, t-shirts, teaspoons etc.
European Union A cunning Belgian invention to force foreigners to stop periodically invading them and disrupting the witloof harvest.
Explosions A worryingly common occurrence in Belgium. Look for tell-tale gaps and piles of rubble in the middle of terraced housing blocks. Go electric, that's my advice.
Festival A one or two day event occurring in predictable towns, but on unpredictable weekends and in unpredictable years. Always involves fancy dress, playing of bugles, waving of colourful flags, drinking beer and organised marching. Often involves masks, attaching vegetables to faces, or flinging pets from high balconies.
Flanders Homer Simpson's neighbour. Also the flat top bit of Belgium.
Flemish A language which apparently does not exist, much to the surprise of foreigners.
Food A Belgian obsession. The national passion for food is well justified by the plentiful supply of good restaurants and tantalising menus. Classified as "French style in Dutch portions", which is just as well because "Dutch style in French portions" would be a diet of severe ordinariness and sparsity. Perhaps nothing brings Belgians out onto the streets more than the prospect of summer dining, regional specialty tasting, fresh produce purchasing. Food is the one thing that appears to make Belgians very happy.
Foreigner A person who is not from Belgium. Foreigners are very welcome to visit Belgium so long as they don't make too much noise and remember to leave and take their mess away with them afterwards. Also occasionally used for someone from the "other half" of Belgium.
French A language allegedly spoken by many Belgians, particularly those from the lumpy bottom bit, and concrete bit in the middle. Often bares only a passing resemblance to French spoken in other parts of the World. Also used in Flanders as a collective term for occupants of the lumpy bottom bit of Belgium.
Frites An over-rated hot fatty product, sold from pre-fabricated vans in car parks and railway station forecourts throughout Belgium. Consumed daily in enormous quantities and smothered in sticky sauces that come in a variety of colours and toxicity. Definitely worth experiencing however, especially from establishments that use fresh frites-pressing machines to shred fresh potatoes rather than tip massive packets of frozen frites straight into the deep-frier. Widely, but wrongly, regarded by Belgians as the greatest national product.
Genk A town in Belgium that you might end up in if you don't get off the train in time.
Gent Surely the coolest town in Flanders and home to a wonderful Museum of Torture. The old town has aspects of Bruges without the excessive tourism tint and even has a statue of a man on a horse pointing nervously towards England in a constant reminder to the citizens of the dangers of opening too many lace shops.
Germany A large country to the east of Belgium, and best left there.
Grand Place Brussels The only bit of Belgium that foreign tourists have heard about before their visit. Ooh aah is that real gold?
Grey The national colour of Belgium. The bits of Belgium that are not brown, are grey. That includes of course the sky.
Gueuze An enigmatic type of sour beer that foreigners fail to pronounce correctly to within any degree of accuracy close enough to actually persuade a Belgain waiter to deliver one to them. Which tends to be just as well on first tasting. Believe me, it grows on you.
Hasselt An alleged industrial town in the east of Flanders that is said to be the home of Belgian hard spirits but that noone I have met has ever been to.
Holes Mysterious gaps in the ground that can be expected to be encountered almost anywhere in Belgium. In exceptional cases surrounded by string ribbons of orange flagging tape, but more often just all of a sudden there in front of you - if you're lucky.
Holiday For most Belgians this means two weeks in the Ardennes. For foreigners, a holiday is a day (usually at the start of the week) when suddenly everything is closed and none of your colleagues turn up and join you at work.
Italian A language Belgians learn once they have fluently mastered Dutch, English, French, German and are still interested in meeting a person of the (opposite) sex.
Janneke Pis A little known sister of the more famous male equivalent. Just as graphically portrayed and well worth searching for at the end of the narrow Impasse de la Fidelite near Brussels Central station, in the middle of all those restaurants selling seafood whose waiters accost you as you try to find your way from the station to the Grand Place.
Jenever Belgian spirit that comes in flavours more normally associated with Italian sorbet, such as lemon and melon.
July The wettest month of the year in Belgium - a fact only really appreciated by anyone who has tried to block book a fixed hour on an outdoor tennis court for the whole summer season.
Jupiler An uninspiring lager that is heavily advertised throughout Belgium by appealing to masculinity and machoism. Famously advertised during France '98 by a photograph of the Red Devils lined up before kick-off clutching cans of Jupiler behind their backs under the slogon "Men know why". Not named after a planet despite most foreigner's initial beliefs.
Kermis The collective noun for a group of Belgians. A kermis of Belgians consists of a tightly packed collection of dirty caravans, giant trucks, noisy generators, wailing machines, flashing lights, strange burning smells, screaming adolescents and vast drifting crowds. The ultimate Belgian entertainment experience.
King The spiritual leader of Belgium. Just an ordinary guy, who rides a bike to work and just so happens to be on almost all the Belgian stamps.
Kot A particularly small residential box containing at least one student.
Kriek Cherry beer. A girls' drink.
Kwak A tasty, but not outstanding, Belgian ale that is typically served in a quite bizarre glass that rather resembles a large anorexic egg-timer. Allegedly the glass was designed by Paul Kwak to fit into the stirrups of horsemen waiting outside his travellers' inn.
Language classes A large and well attended dating agency. All sexually mature unmarried Belgians participate in at least one language class.
Lasagne Spaghetti for the bourgeoisie. Available on almost every menu in Belgium and priced at about 20-50BEF more than the hallowed spaghetti bolognaise.
Laws Extensive collections of words that form an impressive assembly of rules and regulations designed to impose restrictions and conformity on the lives of Belgians. Universally ignored and treated with considerable contempt. On the very rare occasion that a mandate is abided to in Belgium, Belgians like to amuse themselves by trying to also get it instated in all the other member countries of the European Union.
Leek A prolific Belgian winter ground cover, miniature forests of which can be seen in allotments and backyards. Comes in two forms, fat and skinny. Belgian fanaticism over leeks makes the Welsh look like rank amateurs.
Leopold A common name for Kings of the Belgians, one of whom was a dangerously mad old dog who looked like Santa Claus and amused himself by personally buying up bits of Africa, turning them into sweat shops and then selling them back to the Belgian state for a profit. Like most decent tyrants his punishment for these deeds was a legacy of statues, and streets, parks and cafes named in his honour.
Leuven A small university town to the east of Brussels, peppered with bizarre statues (including one of Leopold of course), whose town hall is an amazing full scale replica of the ornate original on display at Legoland in Windsor.
Liege A style of waffle. Also a particularly grey Wallonian city with some of the most impressive blocks of flats in Belgium. Almost unavoidable on any train journey east of Brussels.
Louvain-la-Neuve A disused multi-storey car park that has been converted into an entire town to the south-east of Brussels. A remarkable planning achievement.
Lunchtime An ill-defined time of day that generally spans a considerable part of the 12.00-14.30 slot when useful outlets such as banks, sandwich stores, post offices and bakeries are quite likely to be completely closed.
Luxembourg A small heavily forested principality to the south of Belgium where Belgians keeps their money. Apparently sells very cheap cigarettes.
Manneken Pis The most famous Belgian. Always smaller than expected (at least in total height) but no less ridiculous. Likes to dress up.
Market An ancient trading venue, dying in many Western European countries, but pleasingly flourishing in Belgium. Be prepared for crowds, aggressive satsuma salesmen, the aromas of goats cheese and baking waffles, vans roasting chickens on spits, stalls of Eurotrash CDs, and hundreds of underwear stalls.
Mayonnaise A glutinous egg-based sauce that any place associated with the creation of Belgian cuisine will have industrial tubs of. Most adored on frites (and made famous by a quip in Pulp Fiction) with which I can vouch that any initial abhorrence breaks down with time and turns into addiction. Comes in a variety of unusual flavours and colours for smothering sandwiches and salads.
Merckx The most famous Belgian of all time, and the only one of the top three to actually exist, which really says something about Belgium's international impact. Foreign media pundits have always enjoyed playing the "name a famous Belgian" game, and if any repsonse is obtained then cyclist Eddie's the man.
Midi A large railway station in the south of Brussels that lots of English speaking foreigners disembark at under the mistaken impression that it means "middle".
Mini-Europe A scale model of the rest of Europe, located at the foot of the Atomium. This place undoubtedly exists for the purposes of spreading national propaganda. Firstly to prove to Belgians that Brussels really is the centre of Europe and secondly to make Belgians believe that the rest of Europe is relatively small and unimportant.
Monday A day when Belgium is closed.
Mosquito The most dangerous natural predator in Belgium. Vicious, and astonishingly giant predators of the night (at least twice the size of any I have seen in the tropics). Sleep depriving, whining, evil instruments of satan.
Motorway A large three-laned road connecting major Belgian towns that is spectacularly illuminated throughout the night. Reasons for this are not entirely clear, but viable suggestions include the need to burn up excessively produced nuclear power or to provide runway facilities for alien spacecraft. Also a place where many Belgians have spent several days of their lives in attempts to get to Zaventem.
Mud A gooey brown substance that covers much of the Belgian countryside for most of the year.
Mussels Common shellfish piled high in dark pots of spicy soup. Widely available and regarded overseas as a very Belgian thing. Apparently best in months that have a "r" in them.. or is it an "j".. or is it a "p".. I can never remember.
Netherlands A small unimportant country to the north of Belgium whose people talk loudly and incessantly, refuse to spend their money, and eat copious volumes of cheese.
Nature reserve A small area of mud about half the size of a tennis court containing at least one poplar tree and a sign forbidding entry.
November The eleventh month, characterised in Belgium by thirty days devoid of any sunshine and dryness. A miserable month and absolutely to be avoided if at all possible.
O(o)stend(e) Simultaneously the Blackpool and the Dover of Belgium. A big seaside resort come busy channel port whose name inexplicably belies the fact that it is about as far west in Belgium as it is possible to go. Thanks to Antoon for pointing out that between English, French and Dutch, all four spelling variants apply (guess which language has two..)
Open Day A peculiar annual occasion for most institutions when they invite the public to come and have a look around their premises. Presumably the provision of free beer, coffee and peanuts can make taking the kids to visit telephone shops, insurance companies, civil engineering departments, electrical substations and bus cleaning depots all that more interesting as a weekend trip concept.
Orval A truly magnificent Belgian Trappist ale. Smooth, dry, slightly smacking of orange peel and a guaranteed bringer of instant joy.
Pancake The Belgian divide is never more apparent than in the attitude to these delicious eggy flat breads available in all the best Belgian cafes. In the lumpy south of Belgium they are served with the likes of smoked salmon, dill and cheese, while in the flat north they are only served with ice-cream and warm chocolate sauce. You can't lose.
Pavement A quite remarkably narrow strip at the side of the road that often doubles up as a bicycle path. Most hazardous to navigate along and regularly either missing or under massive repair. Frustrating delays behind slow traffic and encounters with mopeds can be expected.
Pearson The Jack Kerouac of Belgium, Harry Pearson is an English author who has written the definitive Belgian travel book. "A tall man in a low land" is an account of one man and his family on a reckless wild spiritual drive through Belgium in order to experience it in all its glorious quirkiness. If you are enjoying reading this A-Z then you'll enjoy this book.
Pintje The worst but cheapest beer available in a cafe. Drunk by students.
Plastique Bertrand A legendary Belgian rock star who took the World by storm in the early 1980's with "ca plein pour moi" (oo-ee-ooo-eee). Inexplicably unknown in his native land.
Pneumatic drill Precisely what not to buy an average Belgian for their Christmas. Otherwise they will rush out and join hundreds of their countrymen in the national campaign to prevent Belgium becoming covered in a layer of concrete. Every day these loyal national servants furiously savage vast stretches of pavements and roadway in an endless battle against national concretisation.
Poirot The second most famous Belgian. Unusually openly arrogant for a real Belgian, but then again he had fairly good reason to be.
Police An army of people who ride bicycles, wear bright blue uniforms with sharp peaked caps, and whose main job appears to be to determine exactly who lives in every house in Belgium.
Portie A small plate of salty nibbles accompanied by a curious powder called "celery salt". Cleverly designed to ensure that the beer you are drinking won't be the last one that you order that evening.
Post Office A building that is almost always closed. On the off chance that it is actually open, post office customers can expect the usual queueing problems and a severely incremental and erratic pricing system for overseas mail. This seems to be based on the mysterious Belgian "standard" envelope, an object carefully designed to ensure that any card purchased in a Belgian card shop will automatically fail to qualify as regular mail.
Queue An autonomous collective of Belgians gathered together for the purpose of standing silently and impassively for hours on end, impervious to any social atrocities that may be being conducted at it's head.
Rabbit Common farm animal and sandwich filling. Small herds of overfed bunnies, barely able to lift their torsoes off the ground, can often be seen in pens on Belgian farms. Available in most Belgian restaurants. If ordered, comes in the form of a neatly dissected anatomy lesson, with bodily organs and joints aesthetically arranged around the plate and smothered in a rich dark alcoholic or fruity glutinous sauce.
Railway Station A dark brick building that is a central feature of most Belgian towns. Characterised by the usual bizarre Belgian queueing rituals, often frustratingly slow ticketing service (there's always someone buying a couchette return to Copenhagen in front of me) and out-of-service automatic ticket machines. A venue for nauseatingly synthesised piped music that almost always seems to have the same basic tune of "doodle dee-oop poom-poop" etc. Railways stations are also vast bicycle dumps and places where you can swap your old rusting bike for one that has been neatly stacked behind platform one for seven years and whose owner has been searching for it in Mechelen for at least six of them. The only redeeming feature of railways stations is that they are the only place in Belgium where you can buy giant Twix bars.
Rain A tangible dampness that falls on Belgium exclusively during the twelve month long wet season. Belgians actually seem to think that it rains every day, which is not in fact true. Except in November. And July.
Raspberry A pleasant late summer berry that only Belgians could come up with idea of converting into a refreshingly sweet beer. The rest of the world puts it into crumbles or serves them up with ice-cream.
Reception A pleasingly regular event at Belgian workplaces. Receptions are sudden opportunities to down tools and get completely pissed in the middle of the working day, at the relatively minor cost of listening to lengthy speeches. The generous supply of beer and wine is often accompanied by gigantic bowls of nuts and plates of tiny biscuits with bits of fish on them. Receptions are held for almost every possible contrived occasion such as the first week back after the holidays, the last week before the holidays, the wedding of the head of the department's son, the replacement of a computer system or the installation of a new bicycle rack. Bravo! Long live receptions!
Red Devils The national soccer team. One of the few things that seems to be able to temporarily unite the country, in both joy and frustration.
Rijkswacht At least that's what they are called in the flat bit. Aggressive officials in fast cars whose main job appears to be to relentlessly pursue cyclists and fine them for not having working lights on their bicycles.
Rijndael A famous encryption algorithm invented by two Belgians, one of whom I used to share an office with. What's this entry doing here?
Ring A very busy and often quite dangerous road that circles a Belgian city, often following the route of an ancient city wall. The Brussels Ring does not follow a city wall, but does represent a virtual wall beyond which most Eurocrats never venture except when going to Zaventem.
Rochefort A place in the Ardennes. An abbey. But most notably a series of three sensational massive ales from the trappist monks of the abbey of the same name. A nightcap to treasure.
Sabena The now defunct Belgian national no frills air carrier. An extremely useful fact to have up your sleeve in a pub quiz.
Sandwich A snack that the Belgians excel at producing. Usually freshly prepared in a crisp baguette, packed with filling, excessive dollops of mayonnaise and wrapped in a paper napkin. Often two hands are needed to grapple with its enormity. Belgians have turned sandwich making into an art form, developing an amazing number of common novelty fillings of astounding eccentricity such as chicken curry, spicy tuna and crab salad. No plastic boxes of crustless white British Rail egg triangles here.
Scouts Belgians of almost any age. Observed at weekends in immense swarms at railway stations and town centres, normally wearing shorts regardless of the prevalent weather conditions. Scouts do not appear to actually do anything, but they are always in a large group, going somewhere and making lots of noise.
Smakelijk A word that Belgians from the flat bit address to their food before eating. Pronouncing the word in the correct way automatically excites the taste buds and enhances the meal.
SNCB Belgian Railways is known as SNCB to 99.999% of the world population, but NMBS to the remainder (all in Flanders). Despite constant grumbling by the local population, SNCB operate a very reasonable, clean and efficient service - or perhaps that is just the relative view held by someone who tries to travel regularly by train in the UK. What is not well understood about SNCB is that their railway tracks not only act as the medium for transporting Belgian trains about the country but are also home to 99% of Belgium's snake and lizard fauna. Thanks to Shazza the herpo for that little gem.
Spaghetti Bolognaise Surprisingly seems to be Belgium's national dish. Universally available from almost every eating venue in the country. Almost always good value in terms of quality and quantity, especially when topped with mountains of freshly grated cheese.
Spatial awareness The psychological cognitive process of being aware of your exact position on the Earth and that of all other human beings in your immediate vicinity. Belgians have none.
Speculoos A simple but elegant Belgian biscuit, flavoured lightly with spices and widely available in industrial sized packets. Comes in enormous sizes around Christmas time, usually in the shape of a vast wise man. Even available as an ice-cream flavour.
Sprout A disgusting small green vegetable that is not as common in Belgium as you might think despite its association with the Belgian capital. Best drenched in black pepper until the taste is unrecognisable.
Statues Belgium is the collective home to some of the most bizarre and celebrated public statues in the world. Apart from the Mannekin and the Janneke in Brussels, other cities have their own celebrated artworks which Belgians usually like to nominate as general meeting points. Antwerp has Brabo, a man apparently throwing a hand. Leuven has Fonske, a student reading a book whilst simultaneously pouring a beer over his head. Great stuff.
Stella A designer lager to most of the planet, but tap water in Belgium. Made in Leuven and exported in tankers.
Student A youthful cyclist who spends a maximum of four nights a week living in a small cupboard, dining from plastic boxes labelled with the days of the week in their mother's handwriting, spends Thursday night whooping it up and drinking lots of pintjes, and Friday catching the train home armed with a series of empty tupperware boxes and a huge duffel bag of dirty laundry. Repeat from Monday.
Sunday A day spent queueing in bakeries, wandering street markets, visiting family, and eating sticky tarts that your relatives have brought around.
Tax evasion The Belgian national sport. Played annually and gleefully, at its most extreme involving regular mysterious trips to Luxembourg.
Taxidermy A scientific process which takes the remains of one dead creature and converts it into the shape of another species, or in extremis an abstract form, for display in a Belgian museum. For spectacular illustrations of the end result of this process visit the African Museum in Tervuren and look out for classic examples such as the "monkey-owl" and the "lamp-post spoonbill".
Tea There is nothing particularly Belgian about tea, but it does almost always come served in a glass percolator or mug so that you can see clearly how the diffusion process is progressing. Some people are that easily pleased.
Tintin The third most famous Belgian. Known as Kuifje in Dutch due to his shocking haircut. An almost sexless adventurer and all round good egg who has saved the world from mindless egotists from a variety of countries. Morally matured a great deal after his early adventure in the Belgian Congo when he slaughtered gorillas, de-tusked elephants and blew up a rhinoceros by drilling a hole in its back and inserting a stick of gelignite.
Thursday The night that the students go wild, cramming the cafes, partying into the early hours, rolling empty bottles over the cobblestones, before staggering to the railway station and catching the first train home to do their laundry.
Trappist A useful word that guarantees a certain amount of quality and a touch of genuine ethnicity if placed before a noun. Hence the nostril flaring smell of Trappist cheese, the salivating taste of Trappist ale, and the pious dedicated sound of Trappist monk.
Umbrella A last protection barrier against the Belgian weather. Particularly Belgian is the regular sight of cyclists using an umbrella. Not surprisingly umbrellas become dangerous weapons in the hands of Belgians.
Underwear An article of clothing that the number of retail outlets and market stalls suggest is bought by Belgians in absolutely enormous quantities. Whether Belgians wear through more underwear than normal, or are just plain forgetful about where they leave it, is not clear.
Urination An activity male Belgians seem be happy performing in a surprisingly varied number of public places such as car parks, street corners and motorway hard shoulders.
Vegetarian A hungry person in Belgium.
Verschrikkelijk The first word spoken by most Belgian children. Helps to develop the tonsils and remove any misplaced fish-bones from the back of the throat.
Wablief A useful phrase that is guaranteed to fool Dutch speakers about your language skills. Repeat ad nauseum until the conversation clearly ends or the other speaker walks away in frustration. This trick will probably also work when talking to a French speaker.
Waffle The most pleasant way of putting on instant fat known to man. Take care not to see a waffle prior to its emergence from the smoke machine, as it's good not to know exactly how much viscous plastic looking custard you are about to enter into your digestive system. Sugar, fat, yummmm..
Wallonia The lumpy bottom bit of Belgium.
Waterloo Probably one of Belgium's greatest disappointments. The site of one of the turning points in world history is marked by an enormous pile of dirt topped by a copper lion from which a terrific view of some nearby allotments can be had. There is an interactive visitors' centre where the day can be redeemed by buying toy soldiers and watching a surreal film about some small children running through a hay meadow.
Waterzooi Clasical Belgian cuisine. Fish or chicken, generous quantities of lemon juice and cream, bits of vegetables and then stew away on the stove for twenty minutes. You'll be amazed.
Weather Unpredictable grey dampness that periodically smothers the entire country.
Witloof A curious bitter vegetable that is positively venerated by Belgians. Surprisingly good in soup, but best drenched in cheese and baked thoroughly. Adoration of this vegetable reaches its peak during the winter season, when crowds can be season inspecting and sniffing candidate purchases at market places. Referred to as "chicory" in other countries and usually fed to pigs.
Yves The name of all male Belgians from the bottom lumpy bit.
Zaventem The much loved national airport. Built on a carefully selected area of farmland that guarantees a regular presence of fog blankets. Home to one of the most impressive corridors of moving walkways in the world, the lengths of which are decorated by a series of astonishingly surreal photographs featuring speech bubbles exclaiming "Belgium, the heart of Europe". Although I adore the one of the seagulls uttering that claim, my personal favourite is of a crowd scene where a highly nondescript man in glasses has been attributed the speech bubble "Belgium, a federal country". It's lovely. Zaventem also has the slowest and most hopeless baggage handling service in the world, so don't bank on any tight connections and pack some spare jocks in your hand luggage. Most Belgians like to exchange their favourite stories about how many days they have spent navigating the runways of Zaventem in airport buses, waiting in the main hall for their luggage or trying to travel spectacularly short distances from their homes to Zaventem.