So you’ve decided to move to Ghent and you’re wondering what life will be like? Our list of 10 useful things to know about Ghent, Flanders and Belgium will help you fit in from day 1.
Let’s start with the basics – Belgium has two main regions: Flanders and Wallonia. Flanders stretches from the coast southwards until Brussels (and off to the east) and is where you’ll find the beautiful city of Ghent. Bruges, which is half an hour away on the train, is Ghent’s more touristy cousin. But there’s no jealousy from the Gentenaars – they dread their city losing its genuine feel where historic buildings sit happily next to trendy student bars. Flanders is predominantly Dutch speaking, although you’ll find the words ‘Dutch’ and ‘Flemish’ used interchangeably.
Now we know where we are, the first Flemish word to learn is frietjes. And don’t refer to them as ‘French fries’ if you want to make a good first impression. Fries are a common side in most Belgian restaurants and there’s a bowl (or 2) for the table rather than a portion each. When the waiter asks if you’d like more, you can say yes without worrying about paying anymore. The refills are free.
Now you’ve shared a bowl of frietjes, let’s move onto how to greet each other properly. Flemish people kiss each other on the cheek. But there are subtleties. Girls kiss girls and guys; guys kiss girls but guys do not kiss guys (that’s reserved for Wallonia in the south). Instead, they go for a handshake. It’s customary to do one kiss on the right cheek even if you know each other already, and every time you meet, and say goodbye. In a work situation, it’s handshakes for everyone unless there’s a birthday/special announcement and then it’s back to kissing. If you end up working in the southern part of Belgium then take note – it’s a kiss on the cheek to everyone (guys to guys too) every morning.
Generally the Gentenaars speak fantastic English, French and often German (unlike English, it is an official language). However, you’ll probably find that they won’t boast about it, and will stick to their native Dutch where they can. This is especially true for occupations like the police, city administrators, the people who come and install your Wifi etc. So it really is a good idea to learn at least some Dutch if you can before or as soon as you arrive. When you give the Dutch a go, though, the local will often change into English and it’s very hard to get them to change back. Bar and restaurant staff more used to dealing with tourists are prime examples. If you are determined to pick up the language, just let them carry on and continue in Dutch yourself – this isn’t considered rude.
It’s a common generalisation amongst the international community here that the Belgians are quiet, humble and – for want of a better word – unfriendly. Of course it depends where you are coming from. The northern Europeans will find people in Ghent really friendly, whereas a Spaniard or Italian might be constantly wondering what they’ve said wrong. As with most things, it’s a matter of perspective, but if you’re used to a place where you get chatting at a bar, then meet up the next night, don’t be surprised if this does not happen in Ghent. Belgians tend to be quite held back and it can take a little time to get to know them well.
Shop till you drop
…except on Sundays, when 99% of shops in Ghent are closed. The exception is the ‘shop op zondag’ scheme where shops are allowed to open the first Sunday of every month. The trick is to not run out of milk or coffee on a Sunday of course, but if you do then there are a couple of useful shops to know about. Delhaize on Kouter square is open Sundays 8am-8pm. In fact they’re open every single day of the year (including Christmas Day). Small Carrefours in the town centre also open Sunday mornings, and the one on Nederkouter opens until 8pm on Sunday (but is closed on Saturdays).
You will quickly learn that cyclists rule the roads in Ghent and it’s best to just get out of the way. Look out for bike paths when you’re walking. You’ll get a polite bell ringing behind you if you’re in the way. Trams trump everyone though – even at pedestrian crossings, trams have priority, so don’t step out if one’s coming! Road works are a popular topic of conversation in Ghent. From one day to the next roads can be closed to traffic. Over the last few years the city has been rolling out a ‘mobility plan‘ to remove traffic from the centre.
A lot of expats to Ghent speak of a ‘culture shock’ about how long it takes to get simple things done. Be prepared for things like getting an ID card, opening a bank account or getting something repaired to take weeks to months rather than days. Especially in August, when the city pretty much shuts down for the summer. Things can move very slowly, with various forms to fill in and documents to be presented at every step of the way. Most things still need to be done face to face with a pre-booked appointment rather than by email or over the phone. Especially around registering to live in Ghent, be prepared to get different answers depending on who you talk to at which government authority. It can be frustrating; but stick with it and know that there are lots of other people in the same boat.
Always make sure you have some on you as most bars and clubs won’t accept cards just for a round of drinks. Restaurants will but they won’t split the bill and let people pay on individual cards. And the concept of ‘contactless’, where you swipe your card and don’t have to enter your PIN, has not yet reached Ghent. When it comes to tipping it’s polite when having drinks to round up to the next whole euro. If you’re eating, no tips are paid. There is no 10-15% policy as in other parts of Europe or the US.
It’s considered impolite to take a sip from your drink before going around the group, clinking each person in turn (whilst looking them in the eyes) and saying ‘santé’ (san-tay). And this isn’t just for the first drink of the night, rather for every drink. If you’re overwhelmed by the choice of beer on the menu (let’s be honest, even the Belgians must be in some places) then you can always opt for a ‘pintje’ (pin-cha). This is around 25cl of the bar’s lager (around 5% strength) from the tap rather than a bottle. Bar closing times are pretty free and easy – it’ll all depend on the number of people in or how bad the rain is. Some will close at 1am ish, others will carry on until 4am…or later.