JND. Just Noticeable Difference. Do you believe that is a term I remember from high school psychology class? Mrs. Horsefield, wherever you are, I remember! I also remember that your family lived in Guam when your two daughters were just children because you made us, “Write It Down!”. Seriously, why did I have to take notes on your family life? She was an absolute nutcase and should have retired a decade before I made it into her class…. but I digress. JNDs, or “differential threshold” if you want to get really technical, is the smallest detectable difference between one point and another. At what point will you notice a light getting brighter? That amount of light is the JND. How much sand do you have to add to a handful for it to seem heavier? That’s the JND. How many MORE people wearing black than any other color will make you say, “Hey, a lot of people wear black around here”… you get my point.
Belgium is full of these JNDs. Things that are just a little bit different than what, as an American, I’m used to. I’m not talking about the euro, or the language, or the atrocious weather. I mean the little stuff. For instance, people wearing black. Black clothes exist in the U.S. but here I think it might be the only color available, at least in the winter.
So here’s a list for you. By no means comprehensive. I’m sure I’ll be adding to it as time goes on. But three months in, here are just a few things I’ve noticed.
1. At the grocery store, checkers sit down. Makes sense I suppose, since all they have to do is scan, scan, scan. Because they don’t bag for you. You do it. Yes, the grocery store is quite an experience on the buying end. You load up the conveyer belt, show your store card, because every store has it’s own discount card, run to the other side and bag, bag, bag, bag while the checker waits, and the line gets longer behind you. Stress, I tell you. Oh, and most stores in Belgium don’t have bags anymore. So, if you forgot yours, you’re going home with yogurt in your pockets and canned soup in your purse.
2. Speaking of bags, let’s discuss trash bags. Garbage goes in specially marked, area specific bags. With a weight limit. Recycling has it’s own special bag which is clear so if there’s something in it that shouldn’t be, the recycling folks won’t pick it up.
3. My least favorite difference is the dreaded right priority. When you’re driving and you see this…
… beware! This sign means that the road coming up on your right, no matter how small, has priority. They don’t stop before they come careening around the corner onto the road you are on. That sign makes me mad and scared at the same time.
4. Things here are dirty. Buildings have turned black because of pollution, everyone drives a diesel car, people hurl trash out of car windows (beer cans especially), and everything seems to be covered in a layer of grit. It’s that grit that gets to me. Where does it come from? There’s very little grass in cities and front yards don’t exist so is it that there’s nothing green to catch the dirt being spewed on the sidewalk by cars driving by? I blame those cars coming from the right.
5. There’s a reason litter is so often beer cans. People drink beer constantly. With lunch, with dinner, after dinner, in between lunch and dinner. Ben walked into a restaurant owned by his family the other day and was offered a beer… at 10:30 in the morning. A Belgian drink menu is nearly all beer, and it’s cheaper than water. Of course, Belgian beer is really, really good…
6. ATMs are impossible to find. Well, not impossible. They are only in banks. And not every bank. When you’re used to having them on every corner and in every store, this is definitely an inconveniece especially because a lot of stores do not take credit cards. That is changing very slowly but cash is still the way to pay here in most places.
7. The water here is impossibly hard. Dishwashers here are specially made with a salt reservoir. Yep, you fill your dishwasher with salt to keep the calcium in the water from clouding up everything in it. Almost no one drinks tap water. The bottled water aisle at the grocery store is insanely long.
8. Last on the list for now is the kiss greeting. This one is really tough to get used to. Whenever you see someone for the first time that day, to greet them you kiss on the cheek. Not a real kiss. It’s more of a cheek to cheek air kiss. Depending on where you are in Europe you might kiss once on one cheek, or two or three times on alternating cheeks. The actual act of the kiss is not the issue. There are rules of when and who and where, and that can get confusing. Now, the people of Belgium, indeed most of Europe, just know the rules. They grew up with it and it’s part of their way of life, but to us Americans, who are used to a quick wave and a “Hey!” as good enough greeting for everyone in a room, the kiss routine can be a bit cumbersome. I mean, walk into a dinner party late and you’re squeezing between chairs and leaning over tables just to make sure you don’t offend anyone. So to my American friends who might be visiting Belgium, be ready for some kissin’. And to my Belgian friends and family…. please bear with us. Don’t feel slighted when my children don’t want to kiss you, an almost stranger, when they walk into the room. It’s not part of their DNA, in fact we Americans spend a great deal of time telling children not to kiss people they don’t know. It’s just not a thing for us. Plus, my kids are shy.
So there you go. A lesson for Americans about Belgium, a lesson for Belgians about Americans, and a lesson about high school psychology for everyone!