Brussels Bits

Changing Altitude or What I Learnt on an Ordinary Expat Night

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I have an innate allergy to immobility. Being stuck in a place, in a time, in an occupation that don’t seem to bring me anywhere warmer, colder, brighter, darker, funnier…different. Expatriation has been the antidote to all of my fears for some time. When I felt like I’d had enough of something, I started planning a way out. I didn’t know, though (and none told me but of course none tells you what’s really worth knowing) that the number of obligations and the mobility rate are inversely proportional to age.

So as most of you know I have been stuck in Belgium for the past 11 years, in the surrealistic limbo that makes me a foreigner but technically not an expat anymore. I understand the country better than the average medium-term expat but I will always be a foreigner to locals and a local to pure blood expats. I haven’t found a way to get out of this mud other than plotting a relocation whose terms and dates are today still vague. Luckily, out there there’s someone smarter than I am and I met her last Thursday.

A British woman called B., cornered in the expat limbo as I am, decided to do something about it and founded the Full Circle, a private club dedicated but not reserved to expats where world renowned thinkers come to discuss, expose their ideas and stimulate reflexion and exchange. A Belgian friend, after having patiently listened to my usual lamentations, told me there was a newly created place I would love and she was right. British philosopher A.C. Grayling gave a lecture on European Culture and I suddenly felt very light and deeply fascinated while listening to his witty, fast paced and impossibly elegant remarks. It felt like living somewhere global and open again, instead of cloudy, cozy, comfortably boring Brussels.

At the end of the lecture, while I was queuing for coffee, a bold, smiling New Yorker came up with a joke on the huge volume I had in my hands, Grayling’s modern bible and most famous work, The Good Book. We started chatting, in that informal and relaxed way that is so American and so unusual to find in Europeans. The nice gentleman introduced himself modestly as a teacher at the local business school and explained he had only lived in Brussels for the past 3 years and loved the quiet unpretentiousness of the city, and the ability to walk everywhere. Quite a change from New York. The point – I told him – is how much tranquility is too much tranquility. And on I went with my usual list of things I just had enough of in Brussels and with my dreams of expatriating again, somewhere very different.

The New Yorker then took a serious look and asked me if I knew who Bertrand Piccard was. “Sort of – I said – Isn’t he the swiss guy that toured the world in a balloon?”. “Precisely. He said that life isn’t different from ballooning. Sometimes you are stuck somewhere because of the winds. You can’t do much about it but changing your altitude in order to move forward”.

I wasn’t sure I had grabbed the concept but the metaphor certainly is enthralling. Once home, I realized that the nice, inspiring guy I met on a coffee line actually is a world-renowned academic and I was able to find an excerpt of Piccard’s thoughts online:

Life itself is a bit like that – a great balloon flight, during which we are often imprisoned by winds of life taking us in directions that are not necessarily those of our choosing. We can certainly grumble and try to resist, but all that does is to cause more suffering. Responsibility and free will for us in life consists essentially, as for balloon pilots, in “changing altitude”, that is lifting ourselves up educationally, vocationally, psychologically, philosophically, and why not spiritually, so as to open ourselves to new influences, ways of understanding and outlooks on life that can take us to other destinations”.

Have you already felt stuck? How did you change your altitude?

Brussels Bits – You are what you eat and the Organic Obsession

I have a thing for lunches. I rarely go out for dinner, despite the amazing quality of food you can easily find in Brussels but I love taking the time for lunch. It’s my personal moment of the day, when I can keep up with good friends and have an actual conversation, away from the everyday routine and obligations. It happens sometimes that I am really craving a restaurant meal yet none is available to join me. In that case, I’d rather go alone than stay home.

The advantage of being alone in a restaurant is that you can listen to everybody else’s conversations. And sometimes they’re really good. The other day I was sitting next to a woman in her 40s, having lunch with a lady well into her 70s (who wasn’t her mother). The first one was telling all about her new boyfriend. She said he was nice and kind and a lot of fun. But – she added – “you won’t believe what he eats”. “What?”, asked curious the older lady. “Roasted meat – any kind – with loads of potatoes. Greasy, buttery, oven-cooked potatoes”, the younger woman explained with honest concern. “And you know – she continued – he eats dessert all the time. Chocolate mousse, Flans, cakes…he can’t get enough”. “Does he drink, too?” “All the time! He loves red wine, he can have a whole bottle for dinner!”. “Oh, dear. Does he exercise?“. “Not really – the lady-in-love sighed – but last week he came along for a walk in the woods. He’s always in a good mood, he was exhausted but didn’t show it”.

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Jambonneau – a staple of Belgian tradition. (a sort of roasted ham surrounded by sauerkraut)

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Chicken Waterzooi, another Belgian classic: a stew of meat, fish or vegetables boiled in a cream and butter sauce

They went on dissecting the nice fellow’s bad habits and how, nowadays, is imperative to be educated and informed about food and exercise and you can’t simply let yourself go as 50 years ago.

Yes, I know, it sounds Los Angeles. But it’s one of the thousands faces of Brussels. Next to the typical dishes – which are quite heavy as in classic Northern European tradition – there is a very well developed avant-garde of people and restaurants dedicated to raw foods, superfoods and everything the modern individual should feed himself with, according to trendy magazines.

I learnt in Brussels the concept of organic, since a decade ago it was almost unknown in Italy. There was an organic shop I used to go to because I liked the smell and they had a glorious chocolate pudding but it wasn’t a mania and I am not even sure it is now. Up North, organic is a mantra. There’re dedicated markets, dozens of highly competitive small companies providing home delivery of organic fruit and veggies baskets every week and the city pullulates with nutritionists, schools of thoughts and seminars about the correct nutrition for a healthy life.

I haven’t figured out yet if people are so obsessed about what they eat because before this trend they used to eat pretty badly or if they’re simply very sensitive to the subject but I’ve been having a lot of fun in this respect. I jump happily from bingeing to detoxing and here’s detox paradise. Growing up (or ageing, depends on how you see it) I started to look for a more balanced eating style and last year I started taking classes from the Belgian guru of Living Food (which comprehends raw and slow cooked food plus generally a ban on refined carbs and dairy), Pol Grégoire. It’s been an epiphany for sure. A self-taught cook since a very young age, Grégoire had a traditional restaurant for years before an illness prompted him to turn around his life and job and look for an alternative, healthier form of food. He is a fascinating person and a talented chef and although I can’t fully embrace the utter purity of his eating style, I enjoy very much his lessons.

Basically, according to his method, you should have breakfast on a mousse of soaked nuts and dried fruits, a light lunch composed of salads, sprouted grains and veggies and a more consistent dinner made of slow cooked fish, meat or sprouted cereals with steamed greens. One year and a half later, the only “clean” meal I am able to do is breakfast (not 100% of the time, though) and sometimes lunch. I hope with time I will be able to convert myself to this delicious, light and impossibly healthy way of eating but in the meanwhile I still like giving in to the occasional burger or pizza. I guess anyone has his weaknesses.

I will leave you with a raw breakfast recipe we did yesterday during my class. It’s super yummy and takes less than 10 minutes to make:

Avocado and pineapple mousse with diced oranges and dried apples

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(serves 2):

2 ripe avocados

1 cup of dried pineapple slices

1/2 vanilla stick

2 ripe oranges

1 cup of dried apple slices

Grind the dried apple slices till they resemble a crumble. Soak the pineapple slices for a night then blend them with the avocados (add the pineapple’s water if necessary) and the vanilla stick. Serve the mousse in cups and top with peeled, diced oranges and and a handful of the apple crumble.

What about the food culture and obsessions of the country you’re living in?

Brussels Bits: fearless Belgian wanders into Italian fortress

When the King of France saw the Royal Palace of Caserta, built by the King of Naples to resemble the magnificent Palace of Versailles, he apparently observed with a certain sarcasm that “the smaller the kingdom, the greater the ambition (of its ruler)”. In the same way, centuries later, the ambitious new king of a tiny country called Belgium bought for himself the second largest country of Africa, after a long series of unsuccessful ventures to acquire smaller lands abroad.

Belgians have never been afraid to dream big. They even think they can win this year’s World Cup. And when it comes to food, they are even more intrepid.

In this context, it shouldn’t surprise me (but it does, it really does!) that a young Belgian guy decides to buy buffalo cows from southern France, install them in green and rainy southern Belgium and start producing mozzarella. Buffalo mozzarella (www.bufflardenne.be). Organic, of course. Because Belgians are second only to Los Angelenos in their organic obsession.

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My penny-wise husband ordered a kg of the precious cheese and we tried it yesterday for dinner, with the usual cherry tomatoes salad. It looks stiff, and doesn’t have the pungent, round smell of the real thing. The little white ball doesn’t make you think of fat,  lazy cows laying down on a sun-burnt Italian meadow. I ate it anyway. Doesn’t taste of much.

“Come on, it’s his first year doing mozzarella. Give the guy some time to perfect it”

“Nay, you don’t take a bunch of cows, put them in a freezing and rainy country and think they will make real bufala”.

“But, you know, it’s cheaper than Galbani. And it tastes better”

“Slightly better. It’s pizza-topping-quality mozzarella. Fine once melted”. 

We have two more balls to eat now.

What fascinates me, though, in this mozzarella story is that supermarkets all over the world are full of any sort of imitation of popular Italian products. Fake parmigiano, fake mozzarella, fake pesto sauce and so on. This Belgian guy wasn’t interested in that niche, he wanted to do it the right way. And organic, on top of that. I salute him for that.

Too bad that making real bufala isn’t a mere sum of  factors. As brewing true espresso isn’t a simple matter of having the fanciest Italian coffee machine. (I am in for a moment of Italian pride, here).

Brussels Bits – Survival Strategies or How to Talk to Influential People

An influential person is, according to the Thesaurus, “a person whose actions and opinions strongly influence the course of events”. Despite the romanticism of the definition, the sort of influential people I have been most confronted with are those sitting behind a desk and withholding from me something I really need: an ID card, a membership of some club, a place in school for my kids, a last spot on a flight, a payment delay.

Most people developed a way to talk to these sort of all-mighty individuals over time, watching their own parents or relatives and fine-tuning their example to their own personality and needs. Too bad it turns out there is a special way to address influential people in every language and it has not to do simply with grammar and accent.

One of the main frustrations of expats in Belgium (and Italy) is the complexity of bureaucracy. Long queues, complicated paperwork, obscure rules to follow, non-cooperative secretaries and/or public officials. At the end of the day (or the month) you haven’t even started to see the light at the end of the (administrative) tunnel.

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Having spent my whole life between two of the most complicated countries in Europe, I have started to take notes. When it comes to the administration, Italians and Belgians share a certain inefficiency, mixed with a love for paperwork  but the similarities end here.

Italy is the realm of individualism: laws and regulations can (and will) make your life miserable but you can bump at any time on the maverick who’ll change them for you, making the famous exception which is the foundation of Italian life

Belgium knows no mavericks. The key to survival around Brussels is a low profile and some outspoken compassion for the influential person. The following example should make it clearer.

How to deal with a school secretary when you are desperately seeking a place for your child:

You have a long list of schools to call and after the first two or three you start to worry. Apparently, they are all reading a same script. It goes more or less like this:

– Bonjour Madame, my name is XY and I’d like very much to register my child ZY for your school in the next academic year.

Can you call back at another time? We are going through our lists right now/ my pc is broken/ we already have several waiting lists/ I am about to take a maternity leave so please call in one month/ in one week it’s Easter and I can’t answer your call right now.

But? Don’t you have a list already? I read on your website that you were closing applications in two days. Does it mean there is no place left? Who can I contact to have an answer? May I speak to the headmaster?

No, you can’t speak to the headmaster. He’s away/extremely busy/ he doesn’ t have the time to meet parents. We don’t have a closed list because we don’t have it (the tone becomes clearly exasperated) and I can’t answer you before a few weeks. D’accord? Au revoir.

At this point the expat parent wonders what’s wrong with them, or with himself. He/she will sometimes persevere, physically go to the school and act out as the crazy, overstressed foreigner in order to secure a place for his/her child in the Belgian school. Otherwise, he/she will opt for a private, international school. (But, beware: most secretaries are true Belgians even there and so the above script might repeat itself).

What did the well meaning parent do wrong? He was too direct and showed a sense of entitlement to clear answers and efficiency. When you talk to an influential person in (French-speaking) Belgium, you can’t demand anything.

Annoying as it might seem (and be), you should go like:

Bonjour Madame, do I disturb you? I know you are extremely busy and I will be brief, I hope you have 5 spare minutes to listen to me…Do you have them?

Go ahead. My pc is broken. I can’t turn it on. The mailman is late today and I am in chaos.

OMG, I am so sorry for you. It must be horrible to work in such conditions. And with all these stressed out parents probably calling you all the time…

You are so right. It is. Horrible. And, you know, all these foreigners. Nagging. Foreigners. From all over the world.

I am afraid I am one of them. But I swear I won’t waste any of your time. It’s just that i heard so many amazing things on your school that – maybe – you still have a little place for my child?

Difficult. Difficult. We already have a waiting list.

But maybe, If I came…do you think you could help me getting an appointment with the headmaster. I know I am asking a lot but you know how it is…

Maybe. Call me again in a few days, I hope my pc will work then.

and here you thank her so much, for at least a couple of minutes. And you call her the next day and start all over again. At the end, you’ll be friends. Even partners, sharing a mutual compassion and understanding for the miseries of the (working) human condition.

The same format can be applied to the basic interaction with several types of influential people: the municipality officials, the telecom/electricity/TV/ water/ gas company, your landlord, the plumber and in some cases even the pharmacist and the night shop owner. (Strangely enough, in Belgium clients aren’t always right and even shopping can’t be taken for a granted right. More on this in the coming Belgian Bits).

Remember: compassion. And don’t worry if your interlocutor will answer your questions talking of him/herself. It’s part of the long way to becoming friends and to getting what you need.

Brussels Bits: The Small Country that dreamed Big

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I am a soccer fan: I have been watching matches since I can remember and still think of the night of 1990 when Roberto Baggio failed his penalty against Maradona’s Argentina as one of the saddest moments of my childhood. Speaking soccer is for an Italian girl a strategy of survival amid soccer-obsessed boys and if it all started to get the attention of the cute middle-school classmate, it ended up becoming a passion of mine.

One of the first things I wanted to do, when I set foot in Belgium, was going to a proper local soccer match. It took a couple of years (during which I had to land a Belgian husband, in order to go to the stadium with an authentic, uncontaminated Belgian little crowd) but I won’t ever forget the night I finally drank beer in plastic cups minutes before entering the Anderlecht – Vienna match. I can’t remember how it ended, but I guess Vienna won. It wasn’t a good season for the Brussels team.

The main reason I can’t remember the score is that I was carried away with the anthropological side of the situation.

I was fully equipped, the Italian way: Anderlecht scarf, cigarettes and a lot of voice to cheer up the team and urge them to win. The match starts, Anderlecht has the ball. I start shouting, all excited by my new expat milestone. It turns out, mine was the only voice to be heard. Long time supporters, seated in front of me with cigarettes hanging from their lips and a resigned look, kept shaking their head. I could hear them grumble: “I have never seen a worse team in my life. I hate them”.

Ok, I think. There must be some inside thing I am not aware of. I ask The Husband. He shakes his head too: “They are no good this year. Too bad”. I still don’t understand. “Ok, they are bad. But they’re your team. Get out the voice, encourage them, make them feel you’re here!”. Silence. Belgian supporting style is extremely discreet. The veterans in front of me spent the rest of the night buttoning their coats, smoking and muttering insults to their players. In the meanwhile, on the other side of the stadium, we witnessed Vienna fans singing, screaming and even undressing themselves whenever their team got very close to the goal.

Some time has passed, I haven’t been invited to an Anderlecht match since (it’s a boys thing here and maybe last time I was too loud) but I have experienced another bit of Belgian supporting. Last Friday, when the Red Devils (such a promising name!) won on Croatia, thus securing their position at the 2014 World Cup, Brussels went crazy. I would have never imagined that this teeny tiny country, who has never won the World Cup and didn’t even play in it since 2002 could suddenly feel patriotic and united by the chance of entering the international competition.

The team – says The Husband – is amazing this time, regrouping some of the young best players in First League across Europe. (I didn’t verify this information, but he’s so enthusiastic I will take it for true). The coach is an ancient Red Devil, who played in 2002 and is a childhood hero for today’s team. According to certain bookmaking sites (which, my Italian friends say, are probably based in a shack in Belgium countryside), Belgium has more chances than Italy to win the Brazil World Cup! Some commentators even said that the national soccer team – composed of Flemish- and French-speaking players alike – could bring together the two sides of the country and delay the electoral strike of the Flemish separatist party (which, otherwise, could reach over the 30% of the votes).

I will still support Italy (come on, 4 times World Champion, I can’t betray that) but I am frankly amused at the prospect of assisting to a metamorphosis in Belgians’ supporting style. Will they wake up a little more Latin, on the eve of their first match in Brazil?

Brussels Bits: To Live Happily, Live in Hiding

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They say you can tell a people by its adages. What you will hear in Belgium over and over again, from young and old persons alike is “pour vivre heureux, vivons cachés”, or “To live happily, live in hiding”. I can’t but reckon it says a lot about Belgians’ inner nature.

As I wrote last week, Belgians aren’t shy when it comes to enjoy life but they always make sure that this enjoyment happens with the utmost discretion. Where Italians like to show off and parade around with a new car, showering their loved ones with gifts and attention, Belgians prefer to take their riches in an over worn sack and put them under a tile. Once they are certain that no one is watching, they will pop the champagne.

A Belgian friend who read last Belgian Bits post sent me a very interesting e-mail and gave me the permission to translate it and share it here:

“The Belgians are not eager for political debate. I can see the difference – he writes – with the French who LOVE to debate and impose their ideas . Here there is no debate ! too much shame, people too afraid to lean in, fear of being judged and cataloged, afraid to be different and not blend with the crowd” .

Using some coffe-time psychology, I can imagine that this determination to live undercover is linked to the long history of foreign ruling and thus the fear of being noticed and possibly punished by an alien government for any extravagant lifestyle or behavior.

Belgium has been now independent for 182 years but that same attitude to live in hiding sort of resurfaced when the city became (unofficially) the capital of the European Union.

At the time of the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community, in 1951, the founding members of the future EU considered several cities to install their institutions and Brussels quickly emerged as a suitable compromise. The Belgian government, though, sponsored the city of Liège, around 70 km east of Brussels. The other countries didn’t agree and the choice of a future seat for the newborn European Community was postponed.

The early activity of the institutions took place between Luxembourg and Strasbourg and it was only 7 years later, in 1958 that the main EU institutions were officially established in Brussels. A real estate revolution had taken place in the few years before: entire neighborhoods were burned to the ground and office buildings were built all around the city, without much consideration for the actual demand. Still today, one of the most striking features of Brussels is the profusion of impersonal, 60s buildings close to XIX century townhouses.

Once their city appeared doomed to become an international capital, Brussels residents probably felt invaded again by some foreign power and went into hiding. Taking advantage of the newly built Ring and the highway that easily connected the city center with the periphery, they went to live in the suburbs.

“What I find interesting – my Belgian friend added – is that Brussels residents never seemed able to actually understand the strategic, economic and political role of their city. There’s a village mentality in Brussels which might be charming but is also challenging for the expats living here. Brussels is not London, Paris or Washington. It was a temporary solution to a permanent problem. Today it is a permanent solution to a (still) permanent problem”.

A few years ago – during the crisis that left the country without a government for the record time of 589 days – I had the chance to meet privately, with a few other potential voters, the political leader of one of the prominent Flemish parties. One of the main issues of the Dutch- and French-speaking eternal dispute is the role of Brussels, geographically situated in Flemish territory but de facto French-speaking. Naively, as a foreigner can be, I asked him: “Why don’t you just act wisely and deliver the city of Brussels to its destiny? It belongs to the international and European people today as much as to the Belgians. Just let it go, before it becomes obvious that you have to”. A few seconds of silence followed. Then he said: ” We are not interested in an international perspective right now”.

And that finally gave peace to my wanderings. Brussels belongs to everybody who’s living there but not everybody is allowed to have a saying in that. For now.

Brussels Bits – A rather discreet low land in the middle of Europe

As of today, I will be starting a weekly post on Belgium. I realized after many months of blogging that it is actually unfair that I never spent a word on the country I have been living in – embedded – since my mid 20s. I have been researching the web for a few days, trying to find out what were the most important things one could say of Belgium and Belgians and I found out that not much has been written on this small, discreet land squeezed in the middle of Europe, between titans as Germany and France.

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Hundreds of webpages analyze the character, traditions, qualities and flaws of larger countries and their citizens  – just try to google “Italian traditions”, “how are French people like?” or even “things to know about British” – while not many seem interested in what Belgians are doing, thinking or eating. Well, Belgians are certainly happy of that. It means that less foreigners will come visit their country, leaving them the proper time and space to enjoy it.

One of the reasons Belgium still is one of Europe’s best kept secrets is its over complicated political structure and organization. Ten years a resident, I still struggle with the subtleties of the situation but if you’re interested in knowing a little more, you have to watch this video.

Discretion is the first adjective that comes to my mind when I think of Belgians, French- and Dutch-speaking alike. They love to party, are not ashamed to indulge in life’s little pleasures as eating and drinking and having a comfortable home but will do so only behind closed doors. I am now convinced they are somehow proud of being called Belgian Bores. They don’t aspire to be kings of the show, or to be internationally admired (as Italians and French often do). They are not interested in setting standards or in giving an example to the outer world (as British and Americans tend to do sometimes). They stick to the essentials and will go a long way to preserve their comfort.

As people raised in a country with a history of foreign occupation, Belgians harbor an innate diffidence against the government and politics in general. The French-speaking citizens tend to follow more passionately the French political elections than their own, being worried about losing their privileges more than about changing the current situation.

Family and personal connections are the backbone of society in the low land. The relatively small size of the country means that inside the French-(around 4 millions) and the Dutch-speaking population (6 millions) everybody tends to know each other, have worked or crossed each other and be related. I have learned the hard way that whatever you say in public (and sometimes in private) will be repeated and that gossip and people-watching are national sports, as in any small community.

Living among Belgians (and not simply in Belgium) has its undeniable advantages: despite the awful weather (awful, yes, it is AWFUL!), life is comfortable. Housing is considerably cheaper than in the rest of Europe, the crime rate in Brussels is low for a big city, restaurants are excellent and healthy, organic food is widely available. If that is your thing, you can also have superb beers!

So what are the flaws in this apparent paradise?

Lack of passion. Living in Belgium is the joy of the senses: it is all about physical comfort but there is not much left for the mind, or for the soul. Belgians don’t like confrontation and will avoid at any price an heated exchange of political opinions. People want to be nice, and to get along well with everybody. They don’t need intellectual stimulation, will run from provoking thoughts and challenging visions.

When one has been raised in a big country, that is sometimes uncomfortable. Most Italians, as French, of my generation were brought up in public schools (that, at the time, were really good) talking literature, and philosophy and the importance of dialogue and confrontation. You won’t find any of that in Belgium. Choosing to live in the capital of Europe leaves you two possibilities: hang around with fellow expats and avoid all of the above or stay embedded, enjoy the comfort and start blogging.