Saturday, January 12, 2008

I love this thing about New Zealand too

The New Zealand Herald was running this story and I really enjoyed reading about the accessibility of our present Prime Minister.

Planning began during a two-hour meeting between his widow, Lady Hillary, and Prime Minister Helen Clark, who returned to New Zealand from her holiday in Europe yesterday afternoon, and was driven straight to Lady Hillary's Remuera home.

On meeting Lady Hillary, the Prime Minister exclaimed, "There you are" and the two women embraced for several seconds.

I remember coming out of a long meeting with our previous NZ ambassador here in Brussels, we were a small group of kiwis discussing future plans, and afterwards I met an American friend while having a drink at an outdoor cafe. The friend was stunned when he learned where I'd been, saying that he couldn't imagine getting 5 minutes with his ambassador in Brussels.

More recently, when delivering photographs to the Embassy, a lovely guy held open the door for another American friend and I. He and I talked a little, I was curious to know how the new job was going.

On leaving the building I asked my friend if she realised who we'd been talking to. She was surprised to learn that he was New Zealand's present ambassador to Brussels.

We're nice people, she writes, ever so modestly ;)


Manictastic said...

The differences between populated and less populated countries can be huge. Differences between New Zealand and Belgium are already so huge, and we only have double your population and only a third or less your space.

Di Mackey said...

Ahhh but the national character is different in every country too.

Istanbul was massively overpopulated - 14million people in one city and they are stunningly hospitable and friendly. They actually ended up feeling more familiar in some character traits to me as a kiwi than the Belgians do.

Manictastic said...

Yea, I know, Belgians aren't too friendly, seem to be a bit harsh or hardened by time. They should investigate why this is, because if you go like talk to the Dutch or the French, they'll be telling you everything even if you just asked for a coffee. :D

Di Mackey said...

You know what, I've been asking Belgians about it forever.

I've had a couple of replies. One is that so many conquerors have left the Belgians wary of strangers. The other is that over population and crowding mean that people like to get home, close their doors and keep to themselves.

I'll keep asking because I'm curious to know. Then I meet Belgians like you and Gert and Lut and Gaby and Peter and so many others and I see that there are all kinds of Belgians, they're just not as 'in your face friendly' as kiwis ;)

Manictastic said...

OH, that's because most of us friendly Belgians (beginning to sound Antwerpenaar like here) are very wary off overtly friendly people, usual means they are up to something which isn't in your best interest. Friendliness and bragging usual gets our guard up. I think I'll doctor out a theory on the reason why whilst studying, since my mind tends to stray away from the material it's supposed to think about. Lousy brain :D

Di Mackey said...

I await your theory with interest, Meneer Manic :)

Peter said...

Di, I must agree with you on a character trait of (some, but certainly not all) Dutch speaking Belgians. There is a distinct "close the door and keep to yourself" attitude, especially in urban areas.

On the other hand, we have a thriving café and outdoors culture: during a warm summer parts of downtown Antwerp feel like a southern city.

It obviously depends on the location. Antwerp(en), pop 500,000, or some small village where-everybody knows-your-name will show two very different national characters.

I guess the same goes for many 'Western' urban areas: a friend of mine moved to New York and mailed he "almost died of loneliness" and had major issues dealing with the "cold as ice" New Yorkers.

But I must agree: as an outsider, 'getting accepted' in Belgium can be kind of complicated if you're on your own. And obviously, the population of New Zealand has a reputation for being modest, inviting and hospitable. It must be genetic ;-)

Manictastic said...

Peter, it's no longer true that people in the countryside know there neighbours. I for instance have no idea who else lives on my street. I know some, but most I've never seen or spoken. One of the reasons why this happens is because the Belgian countryside is so urban.

The differences between a small town where everyone went to the same school and urban life where you have more than one school option is one of the main reasons people don't know each other.

Increased mobility means that people can keep contact with their old friends easier and thus feel less inclined to depend on the local community.

Longer opening hours for stores and bigger stores who aren't as local also contribute to a less close-knit community.

The internet makes it easier for people to connect with people with the same interests and yet again keep them away from the local community who might not be completely on the same level.

Now the reason why Belgians are that much more closed than other nationalities must be culturely. But I'm still trying to figure that all out. I think one of the previous generations has had a trauma for something and since then has teached people to be wary of "strangers" and to keep most things for themselves. Probably the same reason as why Belgians keep their political preferences and their pay check hidden. I say, let the quest for the trauma begin.

Anonymous said...

Let me tell you something: even coming to Antwerp was a bit of a struggle for me, coming from Limburg (sic, Manic), just 100km from here. And I still, after more than 30 years in Antwerp, must hear the practical jokes in the pub at the corner. But I think Belgians are a little bit affraid of anyone unknown, can't explain why. And if you can't see if someone is coming from an other place, you will notice when he speaks, even a simple hello can tell them they are talking to a "stranger".
Maxima had lots of critical reactions when she said in public that "de Nederlander" does'nt exist. Although she only meant to say that the variety of a nation makes it richer.
I fear that most of the people, even we sometimes, put a kind of "stamp" on someone only by seeing his colour or hearing his language. I know someone who did it in public several years ago ...
and so many people did it willingly for him. They were of the perfect race, he told them.
Makes me think sometimes ... would it be in the nature of mankind?

Anonymous said...

This is all a bit strange to a Kiwi in Belgium. Belgians are the friendliest, most open people in Europe and I don't think you'd find anyone disagreeing with that. Manic is right - the difference between highly populated and lowly populated countries is big. It used to be in NZ that virtually everyone seemed to know someone you knew and there was therefore a natural leveller in place. Di must know that Helen Clark herself is very friendly and talkative - she saw her after the service at Tyne Cot talking to everyone. Sir Edmund Hillary is something else - he's Sir Ed and if you read the NZ papers you'll see that thousands of school kids with homework must have rung him up or knocked on his door for help - all receiving time and explanations. It reminds of me of the story about Keith Holyoake being rung up in the middle of the night by an irate Paekakariki commuter who's train was going nowhere at Wellington station - good old Sir Keith turned up in his dressing gown and pyjamas 20 minutes later to get the train moving. Nice stuff and I'm sure it happens or happened in Belgium. Security, of course, tends to rule these days.

Di Mackey said...

I'm quite happy to watch this discussion unfold.

The difference between Belgium and any other place I've lived or visited has intrigued me. And I've been asking Belgians about it since my early days in the country :)

Anonymous said...

Di - I'm just a bit surprised at the way you seem to be surprised. You saw the way Helen Clark and Hayley greeted each other - you told me at least 400 times about it. So why on earth would you be amazed at the way Helen Clark and Lady June greet each other? You also knew that Hayley had bowled over everyone she met and was simply a totally normal, chatty, laughing 20-year-old (with a huge talent and an enormous presence) who gave everyone the time of day and more. Why is this surprising? They're people and they're secure in their own right. They're not "wannabes".

One thing I'm not surprised about is the Belgians although I am continually amazed by it - they knock themselves down at every opportunity. It's incredible. All you have to do to understand what I'm talking about is read the EU statistics publications on perceptions - i.e. multi-lingualism. Belgians don't rate themselves very highly but the Dutch do. Where's the multi-lingualism? In Belgium. not in the Netherlands.

Anyway. Belgians are friendly, hospitable and open. No arguing.

Di Mackey said...

I think the difference in experience can be linked back to 2 things ... anonymous.

You've lived in small town Belgium for more than 20 years and I've lived in Antwerpen stad for almost 3 years.

It was the Belgians who warned me of the closed circles I was trying to enter, circles I had been able to enter in the past in other countries.

They said a year of waving to your neighbour and greeting them on the street might get you in for coffee but friendship was very slowly given. Once given it was loyal, but everyone has scratched their heads over the cause of it.

My in-laws have been very closed, perhaps protecting themselves from me walking away however you and I both know that Gert would be treated like family from the moment he arrived in NZ, and he was also stunned by being treated like family when he arrived in my Turkish Istanbul world with the Turks.

You have had the luxury of time, combined with the fact that Geel is a town with an unusual history that probably makes it something different to most towns in the world - the way they take the psychiatric patients into their homes is a stunning success story.

So while it's fine for you to tell me I'm wrong from your point of view, I can only write from my perspective, experience and from what the Belgians I know have told me here in Antwerpen.