You like it here?
After months of silence brought on by the theft of my laptop, transferring from New Zealand to Belgium by way of Oklahoma and Arkansas, dropping my oldest daughter off at college, getting used to a new country and new languages, and unpacking (again), I am finally ready to start writing blog posts. For many years now I have stated that I have no desire to be posted in Europe. Why would I want to go to Europe? It’s expensive. It’s full of French people. It’s stuffy. It’s not as cool as the developing world. I had virtually no interest in living on this continent. Or so I thought. Turns out I have been yearning for this all along. I was just afraid – scared that we would not be able to afford to live here , scared that I would be scolded on a daily basis for not knowing how to do things the locals deem important, scared that years of living in the developing world meant I could no longer be on time for appointments, scared of not being sophisticated enough to fit in out on the street or having a palate sophisticated enough to appreciate fine wine, pate, moldy cheese and chocolate from places outside of Pennsylvania and scared to death of not being able to speak French passable enough to be understood and looking like an idiot. I could not have been more wrong.
I LOVE IT HERE! I am over the moon, full tilt in love with Belgium. But it turns out that quite a few expats and mission colleagues do not share my fascination in the least. When I express how much I like it here, I am asked why. Why do you like it? And sometimes the question seems so absurd to me that I don’t immediately know how to respond. I have heard lots of reasons. I have heard that the Belgians aren’t efficient and can sometimes be unfriendly (some have been scolded for not following some sort of social norm). I have heard that Belgium is just too boring. It’s too expensive. The architecture is not as cool as in France, German, or any other country. Belgians are aggressive drivers. Belgians have rules for their rules and no one follows them. The commissary is too far away. Stores are all closed on Sunday. The school is different than in the US. The reasons are many. But every time I round a corner and am confronted with yet another awesome church or historical landmark, or step into a pastry shop full of tasty delights, I can’t help but think, “how could I not?”
So, why DO I like living in Belgium?
1. Pastries. Oh my God. Pastries. And more specifically, almond pastries. I have been searching for these ever since my first visit to Paris at the age of 18, where near Pere Lachaise Cemetery, I had my first almond paste filled croissant. I have found some here and there around the world, but some are definitely better than others. I have found that here in Belgium, most of them meet the expectations of my 18 year old self’s memory.
2. Belgians. Say what you want, but the vast majority of Belgians I have interacted with are just lovely, extremely helpful and so very patient. This includes those at immigration in the airport and the administration at the international school (I have found most receptionists at international schools somewhat scary – why? – I have no idea). I have been fortunate that no one has yelled at me for anything yet, and little old ladies have even taken it upon themselves to gently show me how to use the bread slicer at the grocery store.
3. My house. I LOVE my house. It is not the biggest, or the grandest place I have lived in. But it is exactly what I wanted. Plenty of bedrooms and office space, lots of storage (was a surprise), lots of light, a garage, a patio and a yard that is big enough to shove the dog out into when I’m too lazy to go out for a walk, but not so big that I wonder if we should register it with the national park service (that was nice, but I don’t want to maintain that and I don’t want to pay someone to do it in Belgium).
4. My neighborhood (or commune). I could not have picked a better neighborhood if I went out and looked for myself. We are literally around the corner from one of the greatest little shopping areas in the city (in my opinion of course). If I never wanted to go to the bigger grocery stores, I really wouldn’t have to – but even the Carrefour Planet (kind of like a French Walmart Supercenter) is only about a 15 minute walk. They do have lower prices after all… Anyway…aside from all the necessary shops, there is a farmers market in the square 3 days a week and countless festivals and events at any given time. I can’t even count all the bakeries and there are plenty of restaurants to choose from. The metro line ends here and within 15-20 minutes we could be downtown. The tram and bus stops make all the other parts of the city accessible as well and if I never wanted to drive I wouldn’t have to. Living in a commune out on the fringes also has it’s benefits, but I’ll go into that at another time.
5. The architecture. Are there cities with better architecture in Europe? Probably. Does that stop me from appreciating the treasures that I find here on a daily basis? Absolutely not! Big churches, little churches, privately owned houses – stand alone and attached, guild halls, old barns and farmhouses – I find them all fascinating. There is so much history in every nook and cranny, art in every angle and ornamental detail, and national pride in every window reflection. Old abbeys and chateaus are endless photographical fun for me. Should you determine that it’s time to start back towards the car on a trip out with me, tell me early because it will take twice as long to get there as it should, lol.
6. Access to the commissaries and military bases. As a member of the diplomatic community, we get access to the garrison and the military bases. In Brussels, that means access to the small commissary that is geared towards those who work at the army garrison, and is about the size of a convenience store, but better stocked than any little commissary that I have ever had access to and such better prices. Then there is the PX and commissary out at Chievres. This is like having a Target and a Safeway in the least expensive state you can think of. The first time my sponsor took me there, I almost cried. Not only are American products available, there is choice among those products. Not only is there choice, the prices are so much less than I would pay in my hometown grocery store, never mind what I would pay on the local market here in Brussels. This is one point in which I have trouble listening to anyone complain about. Yes, the base is an hour away. Given the traffic in some of the places I’ve lived, this is NO BIG DEAL. At least it’s a hour away in smooth, flowing traffic. And well, let’s face it. I grew up in rural OK. 30 minutes to an hour to get to a decent grocery store? Pfft… Seriously save this complaint for when you live in BFE and you have to order what seems like basic supplies from netgrocer in the US and wait for it to arrive via pouch.
7. Free Yoga! Another benefit to base/garrison access is free access to the gym. For me that means free yoga three days a week versus €30 per week. The gym is well stocked with all the equipment you could want and for those who like more intense stuff, plenty of spin and crossfit classes.
8. Another mil benefit – A library that dwarfs just about anything my kids had access to at their various international schools. Plus a large selection of videos, magazines and books on tape.
9. My daughter loves her school. This is a big one. She is so happy, and so involved, and thriving more than I could have ever hoped. While still a far cry from a US public school, this is as close to that experience as she is likely to have (and probably less traumatic!). It’s bigger than any school she’s attended by far (in New Zealand her grade had 75 kids – the largest group to that point. In Brussels there are 190+ kids in her grade alone), and it’s the first time she has witnessed the formation of cliques based on things like athletic prowess (and then there’s the clique of Dutch speaking affluent kids, but we’re pretty sure that’s unique to the region). It’s the first time she has been allowed to choose electives and she is super involved in drama and student council. It’s a place that has embraced her artistic side and encourages her to express it without making her self conscious.
10. Brussels is the perfect home base for exploring the rest of Europe. This is one of those concessions people who say Belgium is boring give to living here. “Belgium is boring, but at least travels to country x,y, and z is easy from there.” Since arriving in Brussels we have taken day trips to Cologne (or Koln) in Germany, Zeeland in the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Paris and my daughter took a trip to London with her drama class during the fall break. Plans are in the works for Amsterdam, Bavaria, Barcelona, the southern UK, and western France at some point during this tour. And that’s just what we’ve thought of so far. And I have to say it is so nice to come back to calm, wonderful Brussels after a hectic day in Paris.
11. Belgium is full of legendary cities, historical sites, and just cool freaking buildings. So even if you never went out of the country, there is plenty to see here. Battle of Waterloo? It was decided just south of here about 10 minutes down the road (though I swear the people of Waterloo are crazy and I feel like someone is going to crash into me at some point and it will somehow turn out to be my fault – just a intuitive feeling). I’ve been to Ghent 3 times and have plans to spend lots more time there. Everyone seems to love Bruges (which I will visit at some point, but really sounds like a smaller, more touristy version of Ghent). The coast is neat and I haven’t even touched on the Walloon portion of Belgium yet. I can’t wait to see Dinant.
12. Brussels has tons of things to do. There are museums, art galleries, plays, ballets, concerts, operas, cultural events, festivals, performance art, sports events, classes of just about every kind, more networking groups than you ever thought possible (English speaking), cinemas, shopping, amazing food – really the list is endless. Honestly if one finds this place boring, you really aren’t looking very hard. No there isn’t as much cohesion in the embassy community, so finding friends takes more effort, but throwing yourself into the activities that you actually enjoy should help with that. I honestly don’t know what people are looking for when they say that Brussels is boring.
13. Language. So the official languages of Belgium are French and Dutch (Flemish is Dutch, fyi). But almost everyone speaks English to some degree. Even if you come across someone who doesn’t speak English, usually there is someone nearby who does. The other great thing is that the Belgians have been just lovely when it comes to my very weak French skills. They have been encouraging and sweet, and not at all like the French that I have tried to speak to in the past. Which is great as I would probably shut down and not try to speak it at all if I encountered any major resistance. Now Dutch – while it looks on paper to be a language we should be able to just intuitively get – is something from another planet. When I try to read the words I see I sound like the Swedish Chef from the Muppets and it makes me giggle. The language nerd in me loves recognizing the cognates in Dutch and English and there is no doubt in my mind that a lot of our language is borrowed from the Dutch speaking world.
14. Green. Brussels has a LOT of green spaces. You have to really go out of your way avoid parks and trees and nature in general. There are trails and parks and forests all over the city. And for the most part, even though the leaves have fallen and the branches are bare, the grass is still green and things are still blooming.
15. The weather. I’m sorry – I know this has been an unusual winter for Belgium, but after living in Wellington, New Zealand, I don’t find the weather here all that cringe-worthy. It rains – on average btw – 16 inches less in Belgium than in Wellington. And say what you want about the wind, but I’ve actually been able to use an umbrella here. The arctic winds racing up through the streets in Wellington make it impossible to use an umbrella there EVER! I am thankful that there has been more sun here this winter than in winters past (or so I hear).
These are just a few things off the top of my head that make me love Belgium. The things I do not enjoy? I do not like Belgian drivers or some of their stupid road rules and it drives me crazy that I can’t shop on Sunday. But those are just a couple of quirks I’ll have to get used to. Thankfully I don’t have to deal with landlords, utility companies, or repairmen. I think those things would push me over the edge – dealing with those things in the US certainly do and I speak that language. I do sympathize with those who are not having a good time in Belgium. There are any number of things that can spoil a tour for someone, and if this is a first overseas experience for anyone, it’s difficult to get used to things being done in such different ways. Fortunately for us, New Zealand prepared us for the shocks of living in Western Europe and the costs associated with it. So when I stumble upon a new culinary creation or breathtakingly beautiful church, I can’t help but think, “How could I NOT love it here?”