Posted in Daily Life, Travel

Getting comfortable with ambiguity

Just before I left my job at Cornell to move to Belgium, I attended a workshop that was designed for international graduate students. I thought it might be interesting because they were talking about idioms, figurative language and specific cultural expressions and how to navigate them in the United States. It made me realize how much language there is that does not fit into the formal language you would learn in a class. I am nowhere near comprehending Flemish idioms yet, but there was something the teacher said in that workshop that really struck a chord with me as I was about to embark on this adventure. She said that children pick up language easily for several reasons, including that they are comfortable with ambiguity. It doesn’t scare them or embarrass them if they make a mistake, and they are kind of used to not really knowing what is going on all the time anyway. It made we think of when we came to visit Belgium before deciding to move. We asked our son, then 3, if he understood what people were saying to him there and he said no, but in a very carefree way. And I asked “do you understand what people say to you in Ithaca?” and he said not always. Truth is, kids don’t always know what is going on, but they just go with the flow, they don’t worry about messing up or what is coming next (unless it is ice cream of course).

I made a mental note to myself that I needed to try this idea of being comfortable with ambiguity in Belgium. It will be years before I understand the language well enough to feel comfortable but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the experience. Sometimes when I am in a public place, I try to listen and pick up words and figure out what people could possibly be saying. But more often than not, I enjoy not understanding what people are saying, I don’t hear annoying conversations people are having on the tram or street because I can’t understand them! I imagine that the two people next to me are discussing the art of Matisse but really, they are probably talking about the way their dog likes to bark at the mailman. There is a certain freedom in it.

There are times when this attitude does not work so well- like when there is an announcement on the tram and everyone gets off but I have no idea why or if I will be able to get home. Or when the cashier has to ask me 4 times before I understand she wants to know if I want a bag. And there are times when I hear fun words and pick them up and use them because they make me smile, like when I bought some garden clogs and saw they were called “tuinklompen.” Everytime I put them on, I say to my son,” I am putting on my tuinklompen” and we both laugh. And of course, we enjoy saying goodbye,  Tot ziens!

Posted in Daily Life, Travel

All the little things

We recently returned from a trip home to the U.S. for the holidays and I have been thinking about what defines my life here. People kept asking what life is like in Belgium and is it very different from home? I found that I could not say it was all that different but it is certainly not the same. Sometimes I feel like I could be anywhere doing the same things- taking my son to school, making dinner, going for walks, etc. Then at other times I feel like I am in this totally alien place compared to what I am accustomed to. I guess what it comes down to is an accumulation of little things that are different that affect your daily life. So, I started collecting a list of things I have noticed thus far-

  1. Doors- I never paid much attention to it but in the U.S., doors in public buildings open outwards, and in Belgium you never quite know which way they open, but usually it is the opposite way of which I try! Back home, this is due to fire codes, here I am not sure if those exist….
  2. Dining out- There are some great restaurants here in Gent, but I have found the “leisurely” meal here to be a bit too much (especially with a 4-year-old). Getting your food can take literally an hour or more and you must ask for the check if you want to get out of there. I kind of used to hate how wait staff would rush you to turn their table back home but I also like to get something to eat before midnight…
  3. Privacy- there are a lot of hedges in my neighborhood, and many of the front doors on the houses are on the side of the house. People like their privacy and kind of keep to themselves, though they do tend to have giant windows and glass doors on the backs of their houses (that look out into the hedge enclosed back yard of course)
  4. Weighing your fruit- in the market you must weigh your own fruits and vegetables and print out a sticker that shows the price. If you go to the check out without this, they will not weigh it for you, they will send you back to weigh it. They had a sort of optional version of this at Wegmans but that seemed more like a way to engage my son in grocery shopping than an actual necessity.
  5. Doctors- When I went to my first doctor’s appointment I was very surprised to find the doctor answering her cell phone while I was in the midst of explaining my medical history to her. Thought it was actually pretty rude. Turns out, there are no receptionists at dr. offices here, so the doctors do often answer the phone during appointments. I don’t know, I kind of like to feel like the dr. is focused on me when I go in to see them…
  6. 24-hour time- I realize that there are only a few countries in the world who don’t use this, but I am from one of them and I have not gotten used to saying 15:30 instead of 3:30. I find myself having to count each time someone gives me a 24-hour time. Makes sense though…
  7. Bathrooms- this is a big one for me- most stores and publics places do not have public bathrooms. There are some exceptions but you won’t easily find or access the bathroom in the market or a clothing shop. At home, there was always that security that there is a bathroom nearby if you need it. Plus, even if there is one, you often have to pay to use it!

Every day I notice more of these little things, so maybe part 2 will be in the future…

Posted in Daily Life, Travel

Ik kom met de fiets (I come by bike)

“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them” Ernest Hemingway

As we planned our move to Europe, we had to make a lot of decisions about what to take with us, what to leave behind and what to stick in our families’ basements for our return. Some decisions were easy- we could not use any of our electrical appliances in Europe so they were out. The twenty geckos had to find new homes. The movers warned us that our spice collection could cause a red flag.  Our car? Hmm, kind of an essential for life in the U.S., I had not been without a car since my freshman year of college and it afforded me the freedom I wanted to go wherever, whenever I felt like it. So, leaving my car behind was hard. Especially because it was originally my father’s car and the thought of parting with it was painful. What was also a challenging notion was that maybe when we got to Gent, we would not buy a car either. We were not sure if we could afford it and well, we could find a place that was accessible by public transportation… or bikes?

When we visited Gent for the first time, I was amazed by the sheer number of bikes I saw- they stretched around the train station like a swarm of alien attack vehicles. Having been injured in a mountain biking accident after college, I was not terribly fond of biking. But hey, if all these Europeans were biking around without a care in the world, we could do it too, right?

I did not own a bike back in the U.S., though I wish I had bought one back there, they seemed so much cheaper! My husband and son brought theirs, along with a trailer and a trail-a-long bike that we bought second hand. Our first couple of weeks here I fought the idea of getting a bike- no, the bus will be fine, thank you. But after a couple of weeks of missed stops, boarding in the wrong direction, constantly late arrivals and an incident with my son getting jolted on the bus and cutting his head open, I was ready to try something different. We bought an old, somewhat rusty bike off a Spanish woman who was leaving the country. Just needed the basket and the flowers and envision myself floating along a country road…

I soon discovered it to be a bit more like Frogger than that vision. First there was the actual “oh yeah, I remember how to ride a bicycle.” Then there was the anxiety- is that car going to hit me? Do I go first? Or the car? Or the pedestrian? Oh shit, the tram! Add to that, the child seat and the toddler on the back of my bike and I was stressed beyond belief. Every time I got off the bike I realized I had been clutching the handles so tight that my hands ached. I watched others biking ahead of me, and sometimes was so obsessed that I followed them, missed my turn and got lost. I discovered that even though I thought I was supposed to yield, the cars wanted me to go and if I did not, and quickly, they would get mad at me. Other times, they would speed by, not even slowing down.

I wear a helmet even though I am just about the only dork who does. I try to convince myself that the racers are wearing them so they should know something. Plus, how can I expect my child to wear one if I do not? I don’t know the statistics of bike accidents here and I don’t really want to. But I do know there is a certain respect granted to bikers here that I am pretty sure does not exist back home. Here, lots of people bike- at least at certain times of year and to certain places. At home, I never would have considered a bike a means of transportation, just a novelty.

And over the past months, I have gained confidence, learned to stick out my arm to signal a turn and go- avoiding the” you go,“ “no you go,” “no you,” squirrel in the road syndrome. My legs have gotten stronger and my ability to maneuver around obstacles has increased. I have my waterproof jacket, pants and bag. I don’t miss my car -too much. But I still want the basket with the flowers someday.

Your smile is unacceptable

This could be a commentary on cultural misunderstanding- after all, I have been told that Belgians see Americans as very fake. We are “too friendly” and despite my initial efforts to say hello or to smile at people on the street, I was mostly met with frowns and “why are you talking to me?” faces. However, this is more a reflection on the system-

“The computer says your smile is unacceptable.” Yes, this is what I was actually told on my 3rd visit to the town hall in my attempt at getting registered in Belgium. This was just one more in a long list of bureaucratic hoops we had to jump through to live here, and perhaps the most important. Getting registered is critical to your life here- as it determines your ability to work, get health insurance and a variety of other official and unofficial things.  We started the process long before leaving the United States- we got copies of birth certificates, marriage licenses, medical exams, passport photos, etc. The day after we arrived, still in a jet-lagged stupor, we went to the town hall to apply for our registration. We were intentionally living in temporary housing in New Gent because the process was supposed to be faster than in the city center. Like most things here, that ended up not being the case. Within a few days of registering, a police officer was supposed to come to our house to verify that we were actually living there, but no one came, for weeks. When we finally inquired as to the delay, we found out that the police officer was on vacation for a month- and that no one was taking care of his work while he was gone!

By the time he did come to check our temporary residence, we were only days away from moving to our permanent residence. This meant we had to go through the process yet again and hence yet another visit to the town hall. So, like most visits, we arrived believing we had everything necessary to register but this time were thwarted by my smile. Yes, despite having 5 copies of passport photos I had to leave to get another taken where I sat grimly in the chair and made sure not to smile. Boy, if the Belgians could see that picture they would surely not say I am too friendly!

Posted in Daily Life, Travel

Children should be seen and not heard

We have never really prescribed to that idea, and these days in the U.S., few do. Somehow though, upon arriving in Belgium, my husband and I both independently seemed to decide that our son had to immediately and unpreparedly become a quieter child. Each visit to a public place in the first days became a constant shushing event. “Be quiet!” “Not so loud!” “Use your inside voice!”. We felt like broken records and it was not working. I kept looking around, hoping there were some other noisy Belgian children to distract from ours. Once, we were getting lunch and there was a child who spoke just a little louder than his parents and I had a moment of hope.

I’m not sure where we got this idea, that he had to be quiet- I mean the truth is our child is loud and could stand for some volume control in any country. When he was really into Elvis we even resorted to asking him to use his “Wise men say” voice instead of his “Hound dog” voice but to no avail. In Ithaca, we lived in the woods with no neighbors to bother and it seemed like other kids were loud too. People in Wegman’s would smile and laugh at his antics. In Belgium, I think we were afraid of being noticed as the loud, obnoxious Americans. We wanted to fly under the radar, not stand out and our son is one variable we can’t control in that respect.

After a few days of this stressful and fruitless effort to quiet him-which essentially equated to trying to change his personality overnight, I decided to let it go. Yes, they might stare (though I haven’t noticed that), they might even comment (none yet as far as I know). We are out of place here right now and we will be-until maybe we figure out how to get around without a car, learn to speak some Flemish, figure out what witloof are, and meet some other Belgian children. And in time, I like to believe it will come together. Our son will learn how to behave in this new culture and hopefully, so will we.