NAME: Thomas Carsten, 26
BORN IN: Krefeld (North Rhine-Westphalia), Germany
CURRENTLY LIVING IN: Ghent
Thomas: “4 years ago I met a Belgian girl who was working in Germany at the time. We dated for half a year before she had to move back to Belgium, so I decided to join her half a year later. We moved together right away which was a high risk, high reward kind of thing. Neither of us had a lot of money at that time. This plan was one only people in love can have: while I was living off my spare money, I basically had to learn Dutch over night while I was still finishing projects for my university. I even had to force my professor out of his vacation so that I could have my degree on time… At the registration desk from the Ghent University, the woman at the counter stared at me with wide eyes when I told her that I wanted to enroll in all the courses of the master’s degree of psychology, without even being able to understand the teaching language. It turned out that most courses were in English, so I was lucky. Looking back, I am happy that we dared to take that step. We still live happily together and I still work at the same university as a PhD student, conducting research on information processing of the brain.”
When I left Germany my professor asked me why I wanted to continue studying in Belgium, when “Belgium is nothing but fields”
How well did you know Belgium before you moved here?
To be honest, besides some of the more well-known clichés and facts about Belgium, not much. When I left Germany my professor asked me why I wanted to continue studying in Belgium, when “Belgium is nothing but fields” (his words, not mine). I remember my girlfriend and I sitting together during breakfast chatting about a radio program when I said something like “What a pity I don’t understand Belgian.” She was so mad at me for not being aware that Belgium is a country with three languages that I had to give myself detention in geography. Yes, I was pretty ignorant about Belgium up to that point.
What’s the biggest difference between your home country and Belgium?
Culturally Germany and Belgium are relatively similar, but then again they are not. Just like Flemish and German sound similar, but only to people that don’t know either language. I can only speak of people from Ghent and Krefeld, respectively, but I would say that Gentenaars are more interested in social relationships. People are invested in each other. In Germany true friendship seems to have become rare, maybe because of ongoing digitalization which seems to replace many aspects of social live. In this respect, people from Ghent seem very old school, going to pubs and concerts to socialize, not being shy to have some small talk on the bus or in the train. I had to get used to that at first, but in fact it is very valuable. At first I was thinking “Why is this person talking to me, what does he want?” until I realized how weird it is to have this way of thinking. In Ghent you can basically talk to anyone if you approach him the right way, which is great.
What has surprised you the most since you moved here?
Well, it’s probably not specific to Belgium, so I might see that reaction in other countries as well: Hitler, the second world war, Merkel and the EU are the topics people first want to “check” when they get to know me. People are curious to know how we, as Germans, handle these topics. This genuinely surprised me. Not only old people want to know about this, young people bring these topics up, too. It can be confronting at times, but it also leads to interesting situations.
What’s your favorite thing about the Belgians?
Their mentality about working and living. The Flemish people I know work a lot. To compensate, they take it up a notch in their free time. This is how an average Sunday of my girlfriend’s brother looks like: Sailing, cycling, cooking, seeing friends, house holding, reading, what else? It’s like living life without a speed limit. I don’t know how Belgians do it but they just get a lot of things done. I used to be the type of person who is used to hanging out and pretending to be working without actually working. This does not work here, so my working and living habits changed a lot since I moved to Belgium. It’s a blessing and a curse, but since I work more time-efficient I can spend my free time with things I really love, together with my other time-efficient friends.
What are the top 3 things people should see or do in Belgium in your opinion?
If you visit Belgium during the winter, you should consider having a walk at the beach. People associate the beach and the sea with summer and heat, but enjoying the Belgian seaside during the winter has its own magic. The benefit: It can get very cold, so warming up in a local restaurant with hot chocolate and pancakes is the logical consequence of your trip to the sea. If you have a car, you should check whether there are any light festivals scheduled during your visit. I was really impressed by the amount of detail that went into the lanterns, costumes, music and acts of a little light festival in a smaller village on the countryside. You really have to experience it live, pictures cannot convey the atmosphere. Maybe a little less convincing, but when people are visiting I like to show them the Colruyt. It is just a supermarket, you may wonder? It is, but an impressive one! It has products stuffed up to the ceiling, you can buy huge packages of cheese and frozen vegetables, it has a walk-in freezer and the checkout system is just genius! It may sound strange, but to me it is like a mini wonderland.
People associate the beach and the sea with summer and heat, but enjoying the Belgian seaside during the winter has its own magic
What’s your favorite cafe?
I like Cafe de Planck in Ghent, it’s a Café on a boat. It has a cozy atmosphere because you can enjoy your beer while watching the waves. I don’t know if this counts as a café, so this is why it comes second place: World’s End’s Comics. Here you can order board games and play together with your friends- while enjoying your beer and watching the waves of a nearby canal!
Your favorite restaurant?
All of Oudburg Street in Gent, I guess. These restaurants restrict themselves to serving what they can do best, which makes their meals so good. Food here is not expensive, but clever. If I had to pick one, I’d say Uncle Babe’s which serves Hamburgers, nothing else needed.
Your favorite Belgian food and drink?
Okay, Belgium is famous for its beers, but I have been struggling with Belgian beers for years now. I mentioned to a Flemish friend that all Belgian beers taste sweet to me, which is not my type. To prove me wrong, he suggested to try a Geuze Boon. Guess what. What do they use for the fermentation process of this beer? That’s right, sugar! My favorite Belgian dish will be fries, I guess. It is true that Belgium has the best fries! Hamburgers, fries and unsweetened beer, yes!
Your favorite Belgian expression?
I like to swear in Flemish. The satisfaction you get from shouting “God- Ver- Dom –Me!” cannot be matched in any other language. In fact this was my first Flemish word that I used on a regular basis: Learning the language can build up a lot of frustration.
Your favorite Belgian tradition?
Apéro, let’s eat before we eat! I love all those snacks and little drinks before it actually comes to dinner. It’s a way of showing appreciation to your friends and can make an ordinary working day special. It’s funny but in Germany it can be considered impolite to snack before dinner because people fear you will lose appetite once dinner is served. The contrary is true, it is an appetizer!
Favorite outdoor attraction?
Veldrijden (cyclocross)! This sport is so much fun to watch. Of course, the beers, fries and hot dogs play an important role in why watching Veldrijden is fun. The sport itself reminds me about Takeshi’s Castle, one of these weird Japanese game shows that ran on television when I was a kid. However cyclocross is a serious sport. People train hard for this and I can respect that. Nonetheless it just looks funny when people slip across the sand trying to keep balance or race up a hill with the bike resting on their shoulder. To me it never gets old.
What advice would you give to anyone visiting (or moving to) Belgium?
If you want to stay here for a while, finding friends should be on top of your priority list. You might think that having friends is something to deal with once you have figured out all the other stuff you need to know. In fact, friends help you deal with all the other stuff. Having friends at language school helps you learn the language faster, having Belgian friends allows you to understand their culture. Friends can explain you how things work in their country. But most of all, they help to overcome feeling homesick which you will certainly feel at some point or another.
“I’d like to share my 15 minutes of fame with… Edelrot”
Edelrot is a mobile winebar with a focus on natural wine and artisanal beers and drinks. Along with the wine go biological snacks, concerts, expos and lots of fun. It’s run by friends who put all their passion into it. It will open soon, and you should be part of it! The opening ceremony will run from 10. to 13. November at Dok Noord HAL16, 9000 Gent. I hope to see you there!