First Days With Intercultural Shocks

When you visit a foreign country, as soon as you cross the border, I’m sure you immediately recognize that you’re abroad, even if you had you-r eyes covered all the time and have suddenly opened them. Each country has something by which it differs from your home country. And it doesn’t matter if it’s in Europe, America or Asia. It has a different style of architecture, landscape, people, language, climate or standard of living. It has a different culture. Different culture means people with different mentality and life approach, different habits, food, and let’s say overall way of living. And once you start traveling, you find out that what works in your country, may not work in another one. Something that’s just a normal thing in your country, doesn’t necessarily have to be common somewhere else. I call these moments of realization “intercultural shocks” and here are a few which I ran into in Belgium.

Public toilets vs. toilets for 50 cents

Public toilets Gent

Perhaps the very first thing I noticed to be strange or rare to me, and in fact the thing which has been the biggest intercultural shock ever for me, is the local toilets. Yes toilets! Because they have public toilets over here in Gent! I would say the person who came up with an idea to build several huts with pissoirs should be awarded the Nobel Prize. Throughout Gent you can find really a lot of these men public toilets, quite reminding a bus stop, so that normally you don’t have a problem to find one when needed (even after drinking some beers).

This invention is concededly great, but some people (let’s say women), within this context, also talk about discrimination of women. Yes, maybe, we finally have something which is not a discrimination of men 😎 Anyway, if you live in Gent for a longer time, you can encounter another interesting thing. In many bars, clubs, pubs of Gent, if you want to use a toilet, you have to pay something for it (usually 50 cents)! You know, at least for me, this is not nice anymore and I don’t like it. I get mad when I see a place in the Czech Republic where they have public toilets, for example stations, shopping centers or certain places in the city, and I have to pay for that, but I have never come across such a toilet in a pub, club or anything like that! Paying even for such human needs just seems to me unfair, mean and inhuman. Always when you go somewhere for a beer(s), you have to add also 50 cents to the final price of your beer then. Now count it when you go for 6-7-…beers 😀 (plus, after a few beers you need a toilet twice per a beer). Speaking about toilets and discrimination, very often women are dispensed from this obligation, it means that only men, when they want to visit the toilet inside, have to pay. In fact, all this thing forces people to think whether it isn’t better not to drink so much or otherwise go outside every time….. Well, I’m not going to talk about the consequences, I just wanted to tell you what the one of the biggest cultural shocks for me is …..

Waving at trams

Gent20100722_09As it is said, failure teaches success. Maybe the very first thing I learned here as a habit is that you have to wave at buses and even trams. Yeah, I noted that people were waving at buses every time, and I have also already been to the Netherlands where people do the same, so it took only a few hours to realize I have to wave as well. But I didn’t realize, or actually I didn’t know, that the same applies to trams. And then, once I was waiting for a tram at the tram stop, listening to music with earphones in my ears, so thinking about something else, to my surprise, a tram just passed without stopping at the stop. Okay, next time I will wave….

Drivers of means of public transport don’t wait!

Yes, the title sounds ridiculous but it’s obvious. The drivers of any means of public transport in Gent do not wait. I don’t know if I could call it “culture shock” because this can be the same in many countries, in many cities, and actually I can’t even say how it works in different cities in the Czech Republic (because I have never had an opportunity to try it out). And at the same time it indeed depends on actual mood of the driver or on the driver himself or herself, but in Ostrava, when you are running to catch your bus, tram or trolley-bus, the chance you will make even when it’s about to departure is pretty high. In Gent the drivers don’t wait at all. I’ve seen a lot of such people catching the tram and one time I finally experienced the same on my own. It was even at night and, moreover, it was the last bus. I almost made it, I even touched it so the driver had to see me! But he was probably looking forward to be at home and just went away. From this moment I know….. don’t ever rely on the drivers….

Bicycles everywhere

Bicycles at the Gent Sint-station

I think this is maybe the most obvious thing. When you come to Gent for the first time, especially then if you arrive at the Sint-Pieters train station and go out, the very first thing you see is….bicycles (well it’s not the very first thing but the first thing you actually realize). Yes, when walking through a city, you are probably used to look around (unless you are walking through a car-free zone) if any car isn’t going right now. In Gent, the probability that you will be run over by a car is much less than by a bicycle. In the Czech Republic we like to ride a bike, but for us riding a bicycle is a kind of sport. It’s a kind of summer (spring) sport, therefore we usually do it during the time of nice, sunny days when we find some suitable bike path. Riding a bicycle somewhere in the center (not only in the center but in the city in general) is not only strange, but it’s mainly dangerous and sometimes even impossible. In Belgium, this activity is not sport at all, this is a very useful means of transport which has become a part of life of most Belgians. Here, thus, somebody who is just walking, or even going to take a tram or bus is the weird one.

Bike Parking at the Gent Sint-Pieters station

Prohibition of smoking in bars, clubs, restaurants and casinos

From the latest summer (July 2011), there is a new law prohibiting smoking in enclosed public spaces such as restaurants or similar facilities. This is not so surprising to me, but the contrary, it’s great to hear something like that does exist. In the Czech Republic, we don’t have it, unfortunately, so you can basically smoke wherever you want. I’m a non-smoker but I don’t care about the others, about smokers, as long as they don’t bother me. Well, I’m not going to discuss about the rights and relations between the smokers and non-smokers but I find it really horrible when you go with somebody to a pub, club, restaurant, whether for a drink, meal or party and you can’t stay there longer because you just can no longer breathe, your eyes are burning as hell and you stink like you have just came from a factory even after taking a shower. Isn’t it so? I just wonder when, or even if, they come up with the same in my country. Probably never…..

New Lifestyle

What comes into your mind when you hear the word lifestyle (or maybe even “life” is enough to imagine) in connection with students – Erasmus students? I think everybody imagines just a party at first. Yes, of course, that’s how the Erasmus (student) life works actually. But a lot of people is off base when they think this life is only about partying! Also students have their own obligations. We have to cook, go shopping, go to do laundry (or wash at home), sometimes also go to school etc. But it’s normal even in our country to go out with friends at weekends and for a drink sometimes also during the week. I accepted very quickly the fact that young people go partying when they just want and no matter if it’s Friday, Saturday or any other day.

Overpoortstraat – Gent, Belgium

Either way, every Wednesday there is a student day so as a student you are obligated to go partying. Sometimes it happens that you have classes on Thursday very early, it sucks then because this isn’t a good excuse in such a city. And if you happened to think about going out earlier to get up better next day, it wouldn’t work either. Because in Belgium as well as basically in all Western Europe countries, people are used to go out very late. I mean, very late. The Czech meeting time is not applied in Belgium at all. Therefore, since I didn’t want to sit in a bar alone, not at 9 or 10, but not even at 11 p.m., I had to adapt to the local time. The bars start to be filled up by people at about 12 a.m., if you are lucky, and it’s not rare that you finish your “night” at five, six (sometimes also later) in the morning. Hence your next day is indeed completely different. You get used to it very quickly though.

Apart from the party nights, the time schedule of each day is still quite different in comparison with the one in CZ. If you go to bed later, you have to also get up later, naturally. Thus, my breakfast here is very often at about the same time as usual Czech lunch, and I also eat my lunch later then. One thing to mention, people, or at least Belgian students, ordinary have lunch in form that I could call “big break” or “breakfast”. They just get a simple “broodje” (baguette). It’s actually sort of an intercultural difference as well. This type of “lunch” is also normal for other people from countries of Western Europe. We have a Dutch housemate and it feels pretty ridiculous when we are preparing our lunch at the same time, but I’m cooking meat and soup, for example, while he’s spreading butter on his bread.

Anyway, comparing to the Czech Republic, the whole life is like one, maybe two hours ahead. The first early morning classes start at 8 am, in the winter when you have to wake up at that time it’s totally dark outside, people go out later, a lot of shops is open only from 10 a.m.

That’s how it works in Gent….

Driving rules

Cyclist meter in Gent

Oh, I remembered I should warn people who could maybe think about visiting Gent by car. At first, there is an unofficial rule: Bikers first, pedestrians second, and cars only the third! Yes, when you are driving your car, you have to be always alert. You have to expect bikers even where you would never expect them.

And there is another thing I noticed. The drivers don’t use lights nor blinkers! So another thing you have to take into account when you are driving your car (or actually this is not only for drivers but for all people around), it can easily happen that a driver will all of a sudden turn somewhere without warning you. What is also quite strange, in Belgium, the country where there is quite many, well let’s say, not so sunny days, it is not obligatory to have the car lights on…..

A few general remarks

I must say that so far I have a very good impression of this city or of Belgium as a whole (respectively Flemish part to be punctual). Of course, I could find some, let’s say not that good things, but generally I have fancied here. Especially I like these people. That’s something absolutely new for me, because local people are in the best sense absolutely different from the Czechs. They are friendly, kind and smiling! I can’t remember I have ever met someone who was looking sad, angry, upset and the like, whether at the office, shop or school. At least not so much that I could notice it.

Three Gent Towers