This is the second of five episodes about Belgians and Europe. Three more episodes are to follow this week. Tomorrow, we will focus on divorce. In which EU countries do married couples stay together, in which do we have the most cases of divorce? Belgium is not a good pupil in the European class, it turns out.
Pieter Claes has been living in Helsinki, Reykjavik, for several years now. "My first impression was that it was hard to make new contacts. However, having lived here for several years, I have to admit that it's the opposite. Finns have a good social network, are loyal friends and you get a lot back from them once you win their confidence."
Nele Demeulemeester recently moved to Copenhagen. "Family life takes a central place in Denmark. The average Dane starts work early (7-8am), but also stops early (3-4pm). However, this makes it difficult to meet in the evening."
"Danes also organise many social acitivities. To give you an example: in the appartment building where I live, a cleaning day was held. 15 residents showed up. I can't imagine Belgians spending their Saturday morning cleaning or doing jobs."
Katrien Vanhaverbeke moved to Sweden (photo: Stockholm). She says the degree of happiness depends on the season. "Autumn depression is quite common in the northern countries. Almost everyone suffers from it to a bigger or a lesser extent. In summer, Swedes are generally very happy. Most people take a long summer holiday to soak up the sun and enjoy life."
The link with nature
Katrien thinks that the easy access to "real nature" in Sweden adds to a better quality of life. "We live in the outskirts of Stockholm. Half an hour's drive brings us to open nature or to the city centre and its cultural life. The winters here may be longer, but I think life in Sweden is healthier and more pleasant."
Nele likes the fact that Danes are well organised and tidy. "In general, the cities are cleaner here. Danes won't undermine the system and stick to the rules. This is part of traditional values. And because the system works well, Danes are in general happier than Belgians."
Pieter noticed that Finns have a strong link with nature. "For people here, nothing beats a summer evening in a mökki (a summer house) with sauna along a lake in the woods. If this is not possible, there are also the national parks, even just outside Helsinki, sports grounds and the sea. Finns also believe you can reach high as an individual, as long as you keep both feet on the ground."
The International House in Copenhagen
What can Belgium learn from the Scandinavian countries? Nele points to the public transport in Denmark. "It's very reliable and thus makes a good alternative for the car (which is very expensive here). Even young families with children take public transport. There is also the excellent cycling network. Even in winter people use the bicycle because it's a fast way to go from A to B. You can easily combine the bicycle with the train."
Newcomers that want to get integrated in Denmark can rely on the help of the Danish government, which provides 3 years of free Danish courses. There are different levels, according to the people's background. "Every new Danish citizen can go to one place in Copenhagen, where all services are centralised", explains Nele. "The International House in Copenhagen can deal with all red tape in one afternoon. In Belgium I have several friends from abroad that are not really happy about the Belgian approach, the bureaucracy and the poor quality of the Dutch courses."
"Extend parental leave in Belgium"
Katrien says that the Belgian social security system is excellent, but Sweden may serve as an example for Belgium in the area of parental leave. "Paid leave from work for new parents should be extended with a couple of months."
Pieter highlights the excellent education system in Finland. "On top of that, it's almost free. This gives everyone better chances to develop." He praises the Finnish policies concerning equal opportunities: "A woman does not only have to be a mother, while a man should not have to be the pater familias that brings in the money."
Denmark tops happiness list
On a scale from 1 to 10, Danish respondents on average gave themselves a score of 8.2. Finland follows in second place with 8.10 while Sweden, Luxembourg and Spain share 3rd place with 7.80. Luxembourg, Denmark and Finland make up the top-3 on a list of EU countries with the highest average income. Some conclude that money makes happy after all.
Belgium is not doing too bad with 7.60. Latvia, Greece and Bulgaria are bottom of the list of 28 countries. The poll was conducted in 2012.