Brussels

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: 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.

The Fake Italian

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As a typical Italian, I need a fix of my childhood food on a regular basis. Even better if it comes with a proper setting, proper accents and proper faces.  That’s why every Wednesday  I meet with a fellow Italian-expat-who-married-out-of-the-tribe and we treat our pale, half-blooded children to a real pizzeria for lunch.

Everything looks right there: the staff speak with a southern Italian accent, they run around with more plates than any human being could keep on two arms and affectionately scold the kids when they become too loud. The pizza is the right balance of crisp and fluffy, the tomato sauce yummy and they happen to have very-close-to-the-real-thing cannoli, filled with sweet ricotta and topped with a tear of chocolate fudge.

I look forward to going there every week with the same enthusiasm and it’s become for the kids too a special moment of Italianness. “You know, papa – they tell their father – we go to this restaurant with mummy where everybody speaks Italian. You can’t come, though. It’s only for Italians like us”. 

Last Wednesday, unfortunately, they didn’t have a table for us, a merry little crowd needing buggy space close to the table. We waited a little bit, hoping for someone to ask the check and go but no one was moving. So we decided to take the offspring to the pizzeria next door, where we had never been before.

We had just closed the door behind us when something looked, sounded and smelled clearly wrong. We were welcomed by a woman with a Snow White-meets-Sophia-Loren look (chalk white skin, ultra-black hair and red lipstick) who at the sight of the three boys and the baby girl in the pushchair shrilled: “OOOOOOOH, ‘a famiiiiya” with an accent and intonation that reminded me more of a background actor in a third-class American movie than of an authentic southern mamma.

A look at the tables confirmed my worst doubts: little roses as centerpieces, fake-chic setting, even faker pictures of famous Italian places all around and not a single Italian among the patrons.

I looked at my friend hoping for her to read my mind, which was shouting: “RUN! I am not having fake pizzas!”. Luckily they didn’t have a highchair for the baby and we had the perfect excuse to get away. The counterfeited Sophia Loren proposed us even take away pizzas but no, no, we forgot something and have to go.

And then I thought of all the times I have been naively eating at a fake Japanese restaurant, run by smart Chinese who understood quickly that Europeans weren’t so keen anymore on greasy Peking duck.

How do you spot a fake Italian restaurant?

1. There are no Italians inside

2. If it looks too authentic to be true it probably is. (beware especially of too many Godfather’s references in the decor or on the walls)

3. If the owner greets you speaking Italian, he probably isn’t. (He would do so only to a known patron)

4. If the menu contains too many variations to the “spaghetti with meatballs” theme, run away.

5. If the decor looks more French than Italian (brocade tablecloths, stiff chairs, elaborated centerpieces) it’s never a good sign.

What are your tips to spot “fake” restaurants all over the world?

Cutting the cord: when, where and how you became an EXPAT?

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Legally, your are born the very minute your umbilical cord is cut, and you have to breathe for the first time on your own. I was surprised enough when I had my first child in discovering that coming out of the womb is not enough for a person to exist. She has to function correctly  on her own in order to be awarded a valid birth certificate.

We go through a similar process as expats. Living abroad is not sufficient, something has to happen in your brain (and your heart, probably) before you can consider all cords cut and nationality doesn’t shape your identity anymore. It doesn’t happen to everybody, though and that is why you can tell an expat only in the long run. If the cord doesn’t get cut, we tend to go back to our comfort zone, sooner or later.

I have dozens of Italian friends who moved to Brussels a decade ago but never cut the cord. They have their Italian circle of friends, their Italian doctor, Italian lawyer, Italian caterer, Italian realtor, Italian notary, Italian architect and even their Italian contractor should they need to renovate their place. They will see you for dinner dopo il telegiornale (after the TV news) and confess they don’t have the local cable TV because they brought from Italy their SKY decoder so they won’t miss any of the home shows, news and – most of all – football. They virtually never left the country.

I was like that at the beginning (well, more or less. But I did go to an Italian doctor for a couple of months) of the expatriation process: I still remember flushing while confessing to my friends after a few months in Paris that I was overexcited about coming back to Italy and couldn’t choose what my first breakfast should consist of. Cappuccino or Hot Chocolate? (the italian way, as introduced by the Spanish a few centuries ago, is thick and black. Melted chocolate, basically. In France and Belgium it’s just a glass of milk with a drop of Nesquik in it). It’s not that I hadn’t liked Paris. I was sincerely homesick and hadn’t opened up enough to appreciate life there. I would walk the city admiring the buildings, stop in Place Saint Sulpice in awe of the romantic atmosphere all around but end up eating macarons with my italian girlfriends, to whom I would complain about the weather or the horrid landlady. I was a tourist.

It took years to be different. Once in Brussels, my world was still very Italian: working for an half Italian company, eating everyday at an Italian trattoria which used to make the best homemade tagliatelle on earth, going out late at night with Italians and Spanish. My first look out of the box was to the Spanish world, of course. Easier to mingle with, without much surprises and even less cultural crashes. I was comfortable. Safe.

My expat Moment came only when I found myself sent to Germany, out of the blue and without a clue (I didn’t mean the rhyme). I didn’t speak a single word of German (well, apart from Danke and Auf Wiedersehen), had never been there before and didn’t know a soul. It was Sink or Swim. I had to swim: learnt the language (well, more or less), got a dozen fines for obscure felonies (as talking on the cellphone while driving a bike on the sidewalk or crossing while the pedestrian light was still red, bad example to “our children”, as the officer explained), made some friends and discovered the outer world. It was at that point that I started going out with The Husband and I admit  the two things may not be disconnected. 

Today I am always a little bit surprised when we are defined as a mixed marriage (i.e. a local who married a foreigner). I haven’t thought The Husband as a Belgian in many years now and I’ve stopped considering nationality a defining trait of personality. Sauf of course those few times when our divergent attitudes towards food, driving, clothes and cleanliness remind me of our geographically distant upbringing. 

What was your expat defining Moment? When did you stop being a tourist and where? 

Little Expats I (or the thousand and one correct ways of raising your offspring)

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One of the few things I still like about Brussels is the open show of expat parallel realities. Bringing the kids to the playground is per se an anthropological relevant moment: there I see mothers and their offspring from all over the world, forming separate little groups, each one living according to its own dogmas, credos and well-meant theories on child rearing. You’d be mistaken to think that it happens in similar ways in all big, international cities because in London, or Paris, or New York there is a common denominator. One that you won’t find in Brussels: national identity.

Expats and immigrants (see here for my personal take on semantics) find in Paris, or London, or New York (but even in Rome, frankly) an entity they have to constantly confront with. None would dream of living in one of these countries without speaking a single word of the language or without understanding the basic cultural foundations of the place one’s living in. Like it or not, in Paris you will be confronted with the French way of living, to their food and habits, to the unhygienic baguette worn under your arm on a Sunday morning to the exhausting love for bureaucracy and hierarchy. Being an expat in a country with history and national pride means being challenged in one’s personal upbringing and sometimes adopting a new one.

Well, in Brussels you won’t find any of that. Thousands of immigrants live at the heart of Europe without speaking or understanding French (which still is the language spoken by the vast majority of Brussels residents), without knowing anything of the local culture and without having any interest to discover it. It’s not their fault. It’s that Belgians are difficult, if not impossible, to meet and they tend to deny the existence of a local tradition. They like to stick together, reducing the opportunity to meet foreigners to cocktail hours and making sure they will go to dinner without any new addition to their primary school circle of friends.

That said, let’s go back to the playground. Children are the same all over the world but for some mysterious reason pediatricians and mothers think there are as many ways to take care of them as there are nations on Earth. Italians share with Russians a love for medical equipment and clear answers. A colicky baby will get a special massage in America, some Infacol drops in the UK, an homeopathic arsenal in Germany, a bumpy promenade on Brussels’ ill paved sidewalks as suggested by local doctors but in Rome and Moscow (and in other parts of Eastern Europe, according to my sources) the infallible answer to infant belly pain is the insertion of a tiny feeding tube into the baby’s rectum, in order to let the air come out. Did I just write that babies are all the same?

It doesn’t get better later on: Italians wean with complicated mixtures of lyophilized broth (it’s safer, being industrially produced, they have been told) and lovely smelling starch, rice flour or semolina while Brits choose sometimes unusual associations of fruits and veggies (have a look at the colourful and chic http://www.ellaskitchen.co.uk), Germans go traditional and organic (www.hipp.de) and Americans seem obsessed with snacking at any time of the day.

You will spot the Latin kids (i.e. Italians, Spanish, Portuguese and South-Americans with the exception of the French) because they wear winter coats till the temperature reaches 20°C, they are often overdressed for a couple of hours around a muddy toboggan and their mothers yell. A lot. Italians are known for being loud in any circumstances (how many of you have already had the appalling experience of dining next to an Italians’ table in a small restaurant?) but with kids they let go what’s left of the little self-control they usually have. They yell to prevent them from injury, to scold them, to call them to have a snack, to declare their love, to put a coat on and, finally, they yell even louder when it’s time to go home.

German and Scandinavian kids play with wooden toys. They are allowed very little TV and snack on organic fruit. They are quiet, well behaved and very self-controlled. Their moms go everywhere by bike, have short, neat hair and natural-fibre clothes. They look sooooo modern!

Then come my favorites: Brits kids. You can’t miss them, wearing a short sleeved t-shirt in the middle of winter, often barefoot in the mud and out and about no matter the weather. Super independent and sometimes a little wild, they are kings of the playground. I often tell my husband that the secret of the celebrated British resilience is natural selection: centuries of exposing youngsters to any kind of environmental challenge let only the best equipped survive (ever guessed where Charles Darwin first got the idea of evolution?). Another distinctive trait of the Brits? They’re always accompanied by fathers on Saturday and Sundays.I guess mothers get a well deserved break on weekends. How civilized, indeed!

After years of watching I took ideas and advice from everyone. Colics have been cured with night promenades when necessary, flavors and foods have been alternated to get a taste of everything and I have tried to be as eco-friendly as possible. I still yell a lot, though.

Tale of a very conventional adventure (part I)

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Ten years ago, this very day, I embarked a Virgin Express flight from Rome to Brussels. I had plenty of dreams and very little knowledge about what was lying ahead. I had a vague idea, to start with, regarding Brussels exact position on a map. I remembered from school that Flemish were merchants and that they had a direct access to the sea, but I also thought that Flanders were all part of modern Netherlands. There was a very popular Haagen Dazs flavour in the 90s called Belgian chocolate and that was it. I was going to a place somewhere in Northern Europe where European institutions were based and where there might be a flash of coast and a lot of world-famous chocolate. I finished school with top marks but, you know, I never took geography as an A level. My parents used to say there was no point in studying it on a book, when you could travel to learn it. I obliged.

I was in my early 20s and overly excited at the perspective of building a new life in a place I couldn’t point on a chart. It wasn’t Paris, or London, or New York, well known cities where everybody my generation wanted to be. It wasn’t a place you would make a film on. It was Boring Belgium. And yet I felt so different and sophisticated and out-of-the-box in wanting to go in such impopular territory.

First thing that struck me was the bitterness of the cold air you could feel on your neck when getting out of the airport. It was a chilly day as it is today: plenty of snow, negative temperatures, iced sidewalks, silent traffic. No skyscrapers, no grandeur. Claustrophobic and  dirty alleys in the city centre, elegant boulevards and parks all around. It looked distinguished and distant and at the same time messy and dirty and emotional. I was fascinated.

Years passed by and – to my greatest surprise – I gradually stopped complaining about the bad weather, the dirty sidewalks and the fact that Belgians are genetically adverse to take fast decisions, work late at night and take any initiative. It felt (and still does!) like living in 1955. A bourgeois wealthy little city, inhabited by quiet, mild and mostly good-natured people who dislike confrontation, discussion and politics. The sort of Peyton Place atmosphere I was longing for at that time.

A husband, a dog and two children later everything’s changed and yet everything stays the same. Brussels did change a bit: it is far more international now than it was a decade ago. Belgians, on the other side, never moved a step: still boy-scoutish and conservative and mild mannered, still busy in petty neighbour fights that threaten to split the country and still blind and deaf to the wind of change that the economic crash is accelerating all around them.

Someone said that Belgium is the lab of Europe: whatever happens there will happen to the rest of the Continent, some years later. Well, ten years ago, people used to say that Brussels was like New York in the 20s: bursting with ideas and opportunities. That is not true anymore. The privileged fiscal system has brought in billionaires from neighbouring France and Germany and other hi-taxed nations and it is true that you feel the crisis here way less than you do in Southern Europe. But apart from the impressive number of luxury cars you spot around the residential areas, the place is not sparkling with ideas anymore. The European dream that my generation was taught to dream on is crashing at the very first difficulties. Europe’s never been less popular and my overall feeling from Brussels, Eu is that we’re dancing on a sinking ship. You know, something like the Titanic’s orchestra director who died while doing his job.

So, happy anniversary to me. Time to jump off boat!

(to be continued)