Thursday, December 12, 2013

Home for the holidays

In a couple of days my husband and I will board a plane for the States, where we'll visit friends and celebrate the Christmas holidays with my family. It'll be the first time in three years that we're back in the USA for Christmas, and I can't wait.

Not that I don't enjoy the holiday season here in Belgium. The old Flemish cities are at their picturesque best this time of year, with all the Christmas greenery and lights. Christmas markets are sprouting up everywhere, and I've already drunk my fill of mulled wine, whipped cream-topped hot chocolate and flavored jenevers at Hasselt's Winterland, which is like a sugar-fueled, Santa-themed carnival on acid.

Hasselt's Winterland

But there's something special about Christmas in America, and it's just not the same here. No other holiday comes close in terms of nostalgia, anticipation, excitement and excess. Christmas isn't only the biggest holiday of the year—it's the one that is most closely bound up with our childhood memories, our family dynamics, and our favorite rituals, whether religious or secular.

Of course, there are all the negatives: the commercialism, the expectations, the disappointment. Everyone complains about the pressure to buy more (and more expensive) gifts. The stress of attending all those holiday parties and managing holiday schedules. The powder keg of emotions that any family gathering inevitably becomes... and the depression that can easily take hold when the reality of the holidays doesn't match our dreams.

But that's the dark side of a holiday that's all about light. For most Americans, Christmas is about getting together with our loved ones and sharing a meal while dressed in our prettiest party clothes. It's about decorating the house, putting up the tree, and hanging up ornaments that have been carefully collected over the years. It's about listening to Christmas carols on the radio, even the ones we claim to hate. It's about finding the perfect gift for your favorite aunt, and sending Christmas cards the old-fashioned way, by mail.

Christmas tree in the Grand Place, Brussels
I've found that Christmas in Belgium doesn't have the same emotional pull for people here. Children have Sinterklaas on December 6, when they receive special treats and presents. That's the holiday most people associate with cherished childhood memories. Traditionally, families would go to church on Christmas eve, eat dinner together and maybe open presents. It just wasn't a big deal. It seems that many of the Christmas traditions now seen in Belgium have been imported from Germany, England or America in recent years.

This year, I'm looking forward to my family's Christmas traditions: We'll dress up and go to church on Christmas Eve, and then my aunt will host a party afterwards with cocktails, egg nog and lots of food. On Christmas morning, we'll open our stockings (stuffed with small gifts and treats from “Santa”) in our pajamas, and then get dressed for a late breakfast. After breakfast, we'll open the piles of presents under the tree. Later we'll go for a winter walk on the beach before starting on dinner preparations.

Christmas dinner will be a formal affair with fancy dishes and the good silver. It will be followed by a Christmas pudding (purchased at the English shop in Brussels and brought over on the plane) crowned with a holly sprig, doused in brandy and lit on fire. Everyone will be slightly tipsy by then and we'll finish by pulling our crackers and reading the bad jokes while wearing paper crowns. (NB: many of our Christmas traditions are British, since my family is from England.)

My family's Christmas table
Last year, we went to my Flemish in-laws' house on Christmas Day for a family dinner. It was very relaxed and not so different from other family gatherings. We didn't exchange presents. But there are a few Christmas traditions that I refuse to give up, even here in Belgium. I insisted on having stockings for myself and my husband (even though I had to fill both of them myself). I drove my husband crazy by playing Christmas music for weeks. And I decorated our Christmas tree with the ornaments I've been collecting for over 20 years, which were among the few things I brought with me from America.

Friday, November 15, 2013

How not to make friends and influence people

It's taken me almost four years, but I've finally “cottoned on” to something about Flemish behavior that is subtly different from that of Americans. Of course everyone knows that American society prizes individuality to an almost pathological degree. At its best, this cultural bias celebrates individual talent and independence; at its worst, it tends towards selfishness and egocentrism.

On the other hand, it might seem obvious that, here in Flanders, individuality is rather less celebrated. But it took me a long time to understand how this cultural difference plays out in ordinary social interactions. What this means is that, when dealing with others, the group dynamic and group identity are much more important than individual wishes or needs.

I'm accustomed to putting my own wishes and needs first, and I'm not shy about voicing my opinions when in a group. I don't expect everyone to agree with me or to go along with me, but I'm also used to everyone else doing the same. My husband finds this behavior off-putting, and will rarely put forth an opinion unless and until he senses that it will be well received by the others.

Members of a group, when making plans or decisions, will carefully consider what will be best for the majority rather than taking stock of everyone's individual desires and hashing it out from there—which is the method I'm used to. In practice, this means that a group will tend to go with what's tried and true, or what's the easiest plan for all involved. And then it's expected that everyone will go along with the plan.

I'm learning that it's not always wise or welcome to blurt out what I want or what I think when in a group. It's not easy to hold my tongue, but I now realize that doing what comes naturally can come across as bossy, selfish or arrogant. Flemish people might seem easy-going and accommodating, but that doesn't mean they like it when someone tries to dominate the group. They expect everyone to help reach a mutual consensus.

Once we rented a vacation house for the weekend with a group of my husband's friends. It seemed like a fun idea—and it was fun. However, I found the experience to be exhausting. As a natural introvert, I was uncomfortable spending all my time in the company of the entire group. There was no opportunity to “go off and do your own thing.” Nor was there an opportunity to do something other than what the group as a whole decided to do.

There are times when I would much rather sit by myself and read a book instead of having to interact with a large group. Here in Flanders, either you join the group or you risk being seen as antisocial. My husband says it's acceptable to sit quietly, whereas I feel pressure (as an American) to make conversation. Where I come from, you have to be “on” in social situations. But you're also allowed to go off and be by yourself if you prefer.

Once, when I went back to California for a friend's wedding, a group of my closest friends rented a beach cottage for a bachelorette weekend. At one point my then-boyfriend called and asked what we were doing. I told him that we'd all brought projects to work on and were happily “doing our own thing” (while enjoying each other's company). He found that exceedingly odd. In his words, “Why go away for the weekend if you're not going to do things together?”

And yet, we Americans saw nothing contradictory in our desire to get together and engage in separate activities. We also did things together as a group that weekend. But it never occurred to us that spending the weekend together meant that we would do everything together. If some of the group wanted to go for a walk, it was acceptable for others in the group to opt out.

I doubt I will ever fully relinquish my tendency to speak my mind and do what I want. But the longer I live here, the more I appreciate the Flemish practice of building consensus and fostering group cohesion. It seems to strengthen group identity among family, friends and colleagues in a way that is different from what I experienced in America. Still, I wonder if people here ever wish they could assert their individuality a little more...

(A version of this post appeared on the website of Fans of Flanders, an English-language TV program about expat life in Dutch-speaking Belgium.)

Friday, October 11, 2013

Exploring the Congo in Tervuren

If I seem a bit preoccupied with history, well... it's probably because I am. I was a history major in college, and I'm fascinated with the past. Strangely enough, I was never that interested in American history, but focused my studies on medieval Europe. Which makes living in Belgium an absolute joy, what with all that was going on here in the Middle Ages.

Maybe it's because I didn't grow up here, but I find myself getting more and more interested in the Belgium's modern history too. I grew up hearing about George Washington, the Revolutionary War, the Declaration of Independence, blah blah blah, year after year. It was all so boring... And yet I knew nothing about the history of Belgium when I arrived here three years ago! Nothing at all! It's all so new and exciting and surprising.

Take, for instance, Belgium's involvement in the Congo. Sure, I'd heard of Joseph Conrad's famous novel, Heart of Darkness (which I confess I've never read), and I even knew that it was the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film Apocalypse Now (which I've never seen). But I did NOT know that the novel was set in the Belgian Congo, or that it was inspired by Conrad's own experience working for a Belgian trading company in the Congo.

In fact, I didn't know anything at all about the history of the Congo before I came to Belgium. Which is one of the reasons I was so eager to visit the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren before it closes for renovations at the end of November. So a couple of weeks ago, an American friend and I made the trip out to Tervuren, on the outskirts of Brussels.

The building itself is a grand, Neoclassical palace, built to showcase the natural resources of the Congo to the rest of the world when it was still under Belgian rule. Stepping through the front doors, we found ourselves in a huge, marble-clad entry hall surmounted by a tall dome. There are gilt sculptures of idealized Europeans bringing charity and civilization to poor African children. It's not just a museum of African art and artifacts, but of colonialism itself.

Some of the exhibit halls look as though they haven't changed since the last museum renovation in the 1950's. Other rooms still have their original painted murals and wooden cases from 1910. Even the organization and display of the collections is like something out of the last century, with shelves of specimen jars and stuffed animals posed in “lifelike” scenarios. It's incredible that such an important institution has managed to fall so far behind current museum standards.

I can't help but wonder if the decades of neglect had something to do with Belgium's unwillingness to take a good, long look at its colonial legacy in the Congo. It seems to me (as an outsider) that the history of the Congo is something that Belgium is doing its best to forget. In any case, I haven't seen or heard much about it since I've been here. I've even heard a couple of Belgians say something to the effect of, “Well, we don't have the problem with race/a history of slavery like you do in America.”

I hope that the renovation of the Africa Museum means that the Belgian government is ready to take on the issue of the Congo, and that the reopened museum will be a place where Belgians and foreigners alike can come to terms with what happened there under Belgian rule. I look forward to returning in three years and learning more about central Africa... but I do hope they leave those beautiful murals and at least some of the creepy specimen jars.

(A version of this post appears on the website of Fans of Flanders, an English-language TV show about expat life in Dutch-speaking Belgium.)

Thursday, September 12, 2013

A country steeped in history

It all started with “Downton Abbey.”

I've been watching the British TV series from the beginning and fell in love with the period it portrays, especially (I confess) the clothes, but also the nostalgia and romance of what seems to be a lost world. There's a sense that a certain style of living was coming to end, and that the twentieth century was about to start in earnest—with the outbreak of World War I.

Soon after “Downton Abbey” became a hit TV show, the BBC produced another miniseries set in the period around WWI. “Parade's End” was based on a British novel and filmed in part here in Belgium. It also focuses on the loss of innocence and privilege among the British aristocracy during the war years, but it takes a more serious approach than “Downton” and shows more of the horrors of the war.

I happened to end up working on the set of “Parade's End” for a couple of scenes shot in Flanders, and had to quickly learn about dining habits and recipes in the years 1914-1918. I was hired (at the last minute, out of desperation, I think) as the food stylist, which meant prepping meals for actors to pretend to eat on camera. It was a crash course in Edwardian cuisine and manners.

My curiosity about the Great War grew out of my interest in these TV shows and for the world they portray. I confess I was never very interested in military history and knew very little about WWI. I didn't even know that much of the fighting took place in West Flanders, or that Belgium was the site of the Allies' last European defenses, until I moved here.

Of course, now that I live in Belgium, I can't help but be aware of the great impact both World Wars had on the history of this country and the role that Belgium played in the military strategies of the great European powers. And with the centennial of the outbreak of WWI just around the corner, Belgium is gearing up to receive visitors coming to pay their respects at the battlefields and monuments along the former front lines in West Flanders.

I decided that I should learn more about WWI, not just because it's important but almost out of a sense of embarrassment that I know so little. I started with Wikipedia and then decided to read a book for a more thorough account of the war. After perusing a few dozen titles, I chose The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman as my starting point, in part because the book won a Pulitzer Prize and in part because it covers the outbreak and first days of the war, which seemed a good place to begin.

It's slow going. I'm reminded of the reasons why I never liked this part of history class in school: the jumble of foreign general's names, the descriptions of troop movements, the dissection of military strategies. And yet, I find myself getting drawn into the story, in large part because I now have a context for the events I'm reading about.

When Tuchman talks about King Albert I deciding to stand and fight, I can picture the equestrian statue at the foot of the Kunstberg in Brussels, and I feel I know this man. When she describes German troop mobilization towards Luik, I understand, for the first time, exactly where they are headed, and I understand the role that the mighty Maas river played in the armies' troop deployments.

This is the difference between learning about history as a bored American high school student, hearing about far-away, long-ago events in places with strange names... and learning about them as a resident of and visitor to those places, with a concrete grasp of the underlying geography, the culture, and the people who live there. Suddenly the events of August 1914 seem very real to me.

So I recommend that you expats and natives alike take the time to learn more about the history of Belgium, whether it's World War I or some other period. Read a book, or visit a museum. So much has happened within the borders of this little country, and I truly believe that you have to study the past if you want to understand the present.

Plus, as one of my American friends said during a visit to Belgium, “Europe: It's where the history comes from.”

(A version of this post appeared on the website of Fans of Flanders, an English-language TV program about expat life in Dutch-speaking Belgium.)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Going to the movies in Belgium

I don't know why I haven't posted about this topic before now. I love movies, and I especially love going to the movie theater to see them on the big screen. In fact, it's one of the first things I experienced in Belgium that gave me that sense of culture shock--of suddenly finding myself in an alternate universe where things are almost the same as in "my world" but not quite...

If you go to a movie theater in Belgium, it looks just like a movie theater in the U.S. Here in Hasselt, we have a giant multiplex with 10 or 12 screens that's part of a cinema chain called Kinepolis. You go in, choose your movie and buy your ticket...

And here's the first odd thing about going to the movies in Belgium: All the screenings start at (approximately) the same time. The first one is at 2:00 pm, the second one around 5:00, then another one at 8:00 and the late show is around 10:30. There's some variation--the first showing might be at 1:45 or 2:15, for instance--but in general the times are fixed and they're on the quarter-hour.

Where I come from, every movie has different start times, depending on the length of the movie. The theater allows just enough time to clear and clean the room and then a new screening starts. What's nice about this system is that if you're running late and miss your movie, you can just choose another one that's starting soon. But you do have to check the schedule to find out when your movie is showing, whether it's 3:35 or 7:10 or whatever.

Once you have your ticket, you hand it to the attendant who tears off the stub and hands it back to you. That's perfectly normal. And then you proceed to the concession stand to buy your popcorn... But beware! This is very important: The popcorn in Belgium is SWEET. That's right. They put sugar instead of butter and salt on the popcorn in the movie theaters. 

At Kinepolis, they sometimes have salted popcorn too, but there's just a few sad buckets of it and it's usually kind of stale. Because no one eats it except me.

Also: You can buy beer and wine and take it into the theater. Back in Los Angeles, there's a fancy movie theater called the Arclight, which has a bar. You have to drink your beer or cocktail at the bar, unless it's a special 21-and-over screening, in which case you can take your drink with you but they check your I.D. In Belgium, you just grab your beer instead of a Coke and take it to the register along with your popcorn, candy and nachos.

So now you're comfortably ensconced in your seat with your alcoholic beverage and sweet popcorn, waiting for the movie to start at the designated time... and waiting... and waiting. Hey, wasn't this movie supposed to start at 8:00? Well, here in Belgium, the posted start times are 15 minutes before the movie starts. And by "movie," I mean the previews. So I've learned to show up at the theater at the posted start time. Which I guess is the point.

Finally, the movie starts, and it's great. You're really getting into the story, things are starting to get exciting, the action reaches a critical juncture--and then the movie stops and the lights come up.

Huh? What's happening? Is there a problem? And why is no one reacting?

Well, that's because it's time for intermission. Halfway through the movie, there's a 10-minute break--presumably to let people go to the bathroom and buy more sweet popcorn. It can happen mid-scene, even mid-sentence, without any regard for dramatic tension or story coherence. To me, it's simply outrageous. I'd rather choose when to interrupt my movie-going experience in order to go pee, even if it means missing 5 minutes of the movie.

So there you have it: Your complete guide to going to the movies in Belgium. I wish someone had prepped me before my first trip to the theater. Between the sweet popcorn, the delayed start time and the sudden interruption, I was thoroughly confused. I'm getting used to it now--but I still miss butter on my popcorn.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Going abroad... to go to the beach

Last weekend, my husband and I decided, on the spur of the moment, to ditch our plans for Saturday and drive to the beach instead. The day was already shaping up to be warm and sunny, and after the long, cold spring we were more than ready for some summer weather. Our friends were already on their way, and the thought of them lying on the sand soaking up the rays without us, or worse yet—enjoying a cold sangria on the beach without us—was too much to bear. We loaded up the car with towels, sunscreen and the dog, and we hit the road.

The radio was full of dire warnings about the terrible traffic on major highways heading towards the Belgian coast. Traffic jams going to and from the beach towns are inevitable on summer weekends, especially when the weather is good. Personally, I have no desire to sit in traffic for 3-4 hours, even if there's an ocean view and a sea breeze at the end of it. What makes this prospect even less appealing is the knowledge that you'll end up at the Belgian coast.

Belgium has just 30 kilometers of coastline fronting the North Sea. The towns along the coast—Nieuwpoort, Koksijde, Oostende, Blankenberge—are historic beach resorts with lovely city centers, nice restaurants, museums and casinos. The beaches themselves are beautiful, with wide expanses of white sand and panoramic ocean views... except they are backed by row after row of high-rise hotels and apartment blocks. The Belgian coast is one of the worst examples of real estate development unfettered by government regulation, and of natural beauty spoiled by human intervention.

The Belgian coast

We avoided the traffic jams and the depressing sight of all those concrete towers by heading further east, towards the coastal area of the Netherlands called Zeeland (literally “Sea-land”). Zeeland, unlike the Belgian coast, is completely devoid of high rises, big hotels or concrete apartment buildings. The dunes are intact and the natural beauty is unspoiled. The beaches are much less crowded, too.

We went to a town called Renesse, which sits on an island created by estuaries of the North Sea. We parked at a big, free parking lot in the city center, a kilometer or so from the ocean, and boarded the free shuttle bus to the beach. The bus dropped us off at the bottom of a footpath that led over the dunes directly to the public beach. To either side of the path, just past the dunes, were two restaurants with big outdoor seating areas overlooking the ocean. Everything was so convenient and so well-organized, it was like being at an expensive resort.


I asked my husband later, on the way home, why more Belgians don't go to Zeeland instead of the Belgian coast. He said, “Because it's foreign.” After all, the Netherlands is another country—albeit one with a common language and similar culture to Belgium! Apparently most Belgians would rather put up with horrible traffic, crowded beaches and ugly views if it means they can stay in Belgium. Personally, I just don't get it.

Maybe that's because I'm already a foreigner here, so going to the Netherlands doesn't seem any more foreign to me. Then again, traveling to a “foreign” country to go to the beach seems rather exciting to me! Even if it's not Spain, or the Bahamas. All I know is, I much prefer the Dutch coast to the Belgian one, and will continue to head there when the sun shines and the temperature rises.  

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

When the potatoes come out

Just about every day, I come across some Flemish word or expression that tickles my fancy. These range from the curious to the hilarious, and I often think about putting them in a blog post. But as with all my blog post ideas, only about 10% ever make into the blog...

But this one was too good not to share with you.

The other day, my husband suddenly announced, apropos of nothing, "The potatoes are coming out!"

I considered this revelation for a moment, wondering what the proper response might be, so he repeated, "The potatoes are coming out!" To which I replied, "Am I supposed to know what that means? Is it code for something? Or is it one of your funny Flemish expressions?"

As it turned out, it was the latter. My husband, like many Dutch-speaking Belgians, loves to translate native phrases directly into English, with results that are usually quite cryptic, if not comical.

My husband proudly lifted his leg and waved his foot at me. I immediately "got it"--his big toe, peeking out of a hole in his sock, actually did resemble a tiny little potato.

So there you have it: The next time your toe bursts through the hole in your sock, you can announce the event with the Flemish expression, "De aardappelen komen uit!" The potatoes are coming out--not from the ground, but from your sock.