Europe

60 minutes in California

Image

Yesterday I had my first teleportation experience. My husband has been sick for some days now and asked me to go cover up for him at a conference he was really interested in: “How to expand your business in the United States”. I had stuff to do and tried to find a good excuse not to go. But I didn’t find any, so I got my pink Moleskine notebook, my pen, a huge cup of coffee and started walking. There was a snowstorm in Brussels. Or, even worse: a rainstorm for five minutes, then snow for another 15 and so on. The whole day. The moment I entered the conference building I was warmed up by a distinct Californian accent coming from a corner of the room: the main speaker – a San Francisco lawyer – was going through his notes with his assistant. Who, incidentally, looked just like Lucy Liu.

There was a weird moment when Lucy Liu came to me asking who I was representing and instead of telling the simple, plain, reassuring truth (My husband is sick but is really interested in what you’re here to say to he asked me to come and take notes) I embarked in a series of lies.

“Ehm…I am working for this…Y company”

“Great! This is my card, do you have one?”

S**t! And now?

“Well…I actually ran out of my office to be here on time and forgot my cards!!!” (How stupid do I sound?!?)

“Oh, I see. Can you then just write me your email so that I can send you a few documents?”

This is becoming bad. I only have a gmail account and certainly not one with the company’s name. I quickly text the husband to see if there is a info@ or similar general account I can use. He says to tell Lucy Liu that she can send everything to HIM. So, thinking that it is now too late to tell the truth, I go on with the total self humiliation.

“Ehm. You know, I just started this new job so my boss says it is better if you send everything to him. I ‘ll write down his address.”

And Lucy Liu looks innocently at me, with her big, black Bambi eyes. Yes, here I am, almost 35 and not responsible enough to be entitled to a proper email address or to be trusted to receive emails on the boss’ behalf. I flush.

Then Lucy and her boss started their briefing to Belgian companies, to inform them on how to set up a business in the US and, more specifically, in California. They were clear, and informal, and full of enthusiasm, talking as if everything was just possible. They went all American about that. And I loved it. It was actually so relieving that I could have cried. (And I would have, if I wasn’t worried to look like a complete and total idiot. Still an intern at 35, clearly not trustable and also emotional).

If you’re born an American, you probably don’t even see my point. But here in old, about-to-sink (continental) Europe, we don’t talk like that. We don’t give people opportunities, or dreams, or enthusiasm. We just warn them about risks, possible losses, dangers and we constantly tell them not to forget that they could fail, and that hurts, and is definitive and so it is better to stay safe and not venturing into unknown territories.

Optimism’s never been a European trait but since the crisis started, 5 years ago, there’s no place for anything but cynicism and pessimism. While in America the President gives inspiring speeches on how to overcome current difficulties, on this side of the Atlantic tv and newspapers are all about how this crisis is not going to be over for at least 5 years, which means no new jobs, no new opportunities, no better salaries. Politicians just tell people they have to pay more taxes, work 15 years longer and count on less benefits. It is actually depressing, watching the news.

When I was working as a journalist I was very young, and impatient. I was supposed to be available 24h/24 (which I willfully was, because my social life sucked) and to assist, support and never contradict my 50-something superiors. A couple of decades of good conduct would have been rewarded with a good salary, maybe a foreign correspondent job and some power over hopeless 20-something trainees.

When I got bored of this system and took a plane, I was heavily criticized.

“You had to stay, and to be patient. In ten, who knows, maybe 15 years you could have a good position. And travel then”.

“In 15 years I will probably be married, and have children and maybe I won’t be that excited anymore about working round the clock and travelling”.

“Yeah. But, you know. You don’t do things this way when you want a career. Be patient, follow your editor. Watch. Learn. Wait. He’ll decide when your time has come”.

I wish I grew up in America. Just to know for 10 little minutes how it feels to think that if you work hard and are motivated, there’re no limits.

Tale of a very conventional adventure (part I)

Image

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)