April 8, 2023

Same Yet Different

Going through unsettling while settling in Belgium.

The past decades saw many species perish, and many local customs follow the trend too. On the contrary, cities look more and more alike. At an airport where they serve the same food and coffee as anywhere, one sits on the same model of chairs as he did in a lounge on the other side of the world. Then he gets on the same plane as usual, and after landing, he travels around big-box warehouses that are like someone copy-pasted them from the country he just left. The road character is no longer regional; there are the same cars as in London, Shanghai, and in between. Once in the downtown, the contemporary architecture might vary in shape, but the materials are universal. Long gone are the days when locally sourced commodities made for uniform, yet unique streets. Look at this generic high rise; can you tell where it is?

Never mind a city, I wouldn't know the continent if I wouldn't take the pic myself. It is in Brussels, but it could be in St Louis, Kunming, or anywhere.

These experiences make it easy to forget that the local realities can differ even a few miles apart. However, my recent move served as a substantial reminder of such. This post is to share what had Belgium prepared for me so far.

During my housing search, I learned, that the Belgian "furnished" means different things to the past countries I visited. Every place I went to view had a rich selection of utensils, but many lacked a mattress. Also, no carpet to be seen. In other European or American regions where I rented, carpets commonly dominated bedroom floors, and chances were that the piece of fabric sported a look as if it experienced a thing or two already. Not in Belgium, where the floors are easier to keep in like-new condition. And the houses look fab, too!


Thankfully, the availability and variety of options weren't a problem, and I found a place I fancy a lot. That sorted, I could move to experience the officialdom.

I started by filling out a form to get a Belgian ID card. It required me to have a Belgian phone number. Okay, that was on my list anyway, because my UK number started charging me for roaming — thanks, Brexit! So, I finally got rid of it and went to one of the largest service providers here. But they asked for a Belgian ID! "I need a Belgian number to get the ID in the first place," I said. "Sorry, I can't sell you a sim card then," the guy replied. "But, go to the competition, "he added, "you can get it only with your passport there." Surprised by the corporation's profit-making approach, I went to the competition. While on the topic, Belgian cell phone services look pricy at first, but they can be quite cheap in the long run, because one can keep the data they didn't use during the month they bought them. I like it. In the UK, no matter how little I used, all allowance disappeared at the end of the month.

Back to the quest to obtain the ID: I had to submit the form and my passport, and get my fingerprints taken. Then, a smiling policewoman made an unannounced visit to my address, to check whether I really live there. When I passed, could go pick up the card. At the city hall's counter, the officer requested, "I need to scan your fingerprints to confirm that it is indeed you." "Sure," I said and scanned the fingers on my right hand. The machine flashed a green light, but the person wasn't convinced: "Okay, they match; now the left hand." Haha, as if I looked like I stole that hand but not the other! But they were nice and stopped short of asking whether I am a terrorist — something the US immigration officers like to do. Now, let's get shopping.

The city where I live doesn't have a shopping mall. This might seem inconvenient at first, but it is a blessing! Instead of having to walk in boring corridors to find a shop, I get this:

No elevator music.

I get fresh air and I get to look at diverse architecture. To me, that is a pleasant outing, not a chore. And considering the number of people who hung around on the cloudy winter day when I took this picture, I am not the only one.

Oh, and I get to try street food where it belongs: on a street.

waffles in Leuven

After-work chocolate waffle. Life is good!

One of the things I bought here was an EU plug to fix the cable on an appliance I brought from the UK. It's been some time since I left Scotland already; but like with the sim card, some changes just take time.

Adapting the past for the future.

Oh, time. Sometimes, it feels like too much is happening over a short period. In a blink of an eye, things aren't what they used to be. I still remember how I played at playgrounds with a sandpit, and when lucky, a rusted iron jungle gym. And look at the playgrounds now!

Lucky kids these days! Seriously, that's better than the living room I had a few years ago!

Anyway. Let's leave the aging changes and get back to the regional changes. Like typing. Globalization killed plenty of languages, yet one thing that would make sense to have universal, a keyboard, is different in every other country. Geez!


It is like with car controls. They all look familiar at first look, but when you try to locate that dang fuel cap release button in a rental ride, it takes ages to find it. Like the "!" symbol here. It feels like one of the things I could live without, but I am trying to convince myself that it's good to keep my brain on alert with all these new kinds of stuff to figure out.

The local train stations keep the brain on alert too. The trains often come at different platforms than initially announced. So, one has to check the arrivals all the time, and occasionally, run from spoor 1 to spoor 4, just to add the thrill. But don't get me wrong, I am a big fan of the trains here.

They are cheaper than in the UK and the Netherlands, and I can just show up at the station without looking at the schedule. In a majority of cases, a train I want is coming in under 15 minutes. Gold! Then I cruise faster than on a motorway while I can watch the landscapes, check my emails, take a nap, or try to learn how to pronounce words like these:

another brain puzzle.

This could be a good transition to talk about bikes because riding one here is also unlike the other places where I cycled. But I will write about that another time, this post is lengthy already. However, before wrapping up, let's talk about this year's carnival parade.

After experiencing remarkably wonderful Mardi Gras celebrations in Brittany last year, when I saw that there is a parade here, I went to check it out.

The floats were grandiose, and instead of old tractors, they were towed by high-trimmed trucks and SUVs. Most floats also boasted powerful sound systems blasting tunes from local songs to bass-loaded bangers. Each of these had me expecting the next float to be Da Hool.

Rather than handing away modest cards that came off a home printer, here, they threw tons of toys and candies. If I'd be an eight-years-old, this would be heaven on earth. Now, I thought about how that huge production value makes the event somewhat remote to me, and that it produces way too much litter. At least, the city thought about the second part. The last "float" was a number of street-sweeping vehicles accompanied by workers that left the place with no hint of what went through a minute ago. I could eat from the streets, that's how clean they left them. A completely different world, it is. Strange and impressive at the same time. And here I am, being a part of it. Wow.

Okay, that's it for now; but if you enjoyed this article, you might also like my other posts where I described the struggles and surprises of experiencing local realities:

Bratislava, Slovakia

Native Stranger


It’s Normal, Isn’t It?

Alternatively, check out my artwork inspired by stability of the constant change:

Thanks for reading!

Published by: Jakub Stepanovic in Stories


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