This could be a commentary on cultural misunderstanding- after all, I have been told that Belgians see Americans as very fake. We are “too friendly” and despite my initial efforts to say hello or to smile at people on the street, I was mostly met with frowns and “why are you talking to me?” faces. However, this is more a reflection on the system-
“The computer says your smile is unacceptable.” Yes, this is what I was actually told on my 3rd visit to the town hall in my attempt at getting registered in Belgium. This was just one more in a long list of bureaucratic hoops we had to jump through to live here, and perhaps the most important. Getting registered is critical to your life here- as it determines your ability to work, get health insurance and a variety of other official and unofficial things. We started the process long before leaving the United States- we got copies of birth certificates, marriage licenses, medical exams, passport photos, etc. The day after we arrived, still in a jet-lagged stupor, we went to the town hall to apply for our registration. We were intentionally living in temporary housing in New Gent because the process was supposed to be faster than in the city center. Like most things here, that ended up not being the case. Within a few days of registering, a police officer was supposed to come to our house to verify that we were actually living there, but no one came, for weeks. When we finally inquired as to the delay, we found out that the police officer was on vacation for a month- and that no one was taking care of his work while he was gone!
By the time he did come to check our temporary residence, we were only days away from moving to our permanent residence. This meant we had to go through the process yet again and hence yet another visit to the town hall. So, like most visits, we arrived believing we had everything necessary to register but this time were thwarted by my smile. Yes, despite having 5 copies of passport photos I had to leave to get another taken where I sat grimly in the chair and made sure not to smile. Boy, if the Belgians could see that picture they would surely not say I am too friendly!