Monday, September 21, 2009

The One-Year Mark

J and I have officially lived in Brussels for a year as of today, which seems like good enough of a reason to break out of a blogging funk. One year in, some likes, dislikes, and random opinions:

+ As a city to live in, Brussels really is easy, comfortable, and manageable. That being said, what provides the ease and comfort can also become a downside: at times it feels outright boring.
+ The possibility of having a gorgeous apartment for a fraction of the cost elsewhere, again ameliorating the quality of living.
+ The open-air markets and the fresh, unprocessed food they provide.
+ The quality of the healthcare.
+ The opportunity to speak French.
+ The wackiness. Which actually usually comes disguised as inconvenience and frustration until some time (like, a year) has passed.

- The sheer shabbiness of it all (without, sadly, much chic to speak of). Brussels can really feel like the neglected, redheaded stepchild of Belgium. And the rat-like graffiti . . .
- The racism, which could actually be more of a Europe-wide phenomenon.
- The lack of interest in commerce.
- The fact that most main courses at any decent restaurant cost upwards of 20€.
- The pigeons on our terrace and elsewhere, who seem to have followed us from NYC.
- The fact that one can easily be run over by a car while stepping in dog poop on a sidewalk - given the high probability of each event separately.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Deep Breaths

Mindfulness skills are key to daily life here: just noticing, accepting, and not judging are essential to survival. To illustrate, a couple of scenarios in which the aforementioned skills (would) have been greatly helpful recently:

- Going to Dexia to withdraw some cash from an ATM (not even the infamously slow one in Place Châtelain, which wears out even the Europeans standing in line - not just impatient Americans). Only 2 out of 5 cash machines were working, so the line went out the door. To add insult to injury, everyone kept on trying to cut the line.

- Going to Prémaman on Chaussée d'Ixelles to register for an upcoming baby shower in the States. It was mid-day during the week; the store was completely empty. I was kindly informed by one of the three salespeople that it was "far too early" to register for a baby that's due in late October. In all fairness, Europeans do not have showers and tend to buy gifts after the baby is born. So I explained that my shower would take place in early August, which led a greatly pained expression to form on her face. Well, she said, if I really wanted to, I could register for some essentials, as the seasonally appropriate clothing (for babies?) would not arrive until later in the summer. "Great," I said, "Could you help me with picking out some essentials?" To which she replied by placing a catalogue and checklist in my hands, telling me to take it home so that "we won't waste any of your time, and you won't waste ours." 
- Dropping off my dry cleaning. For the first time in my life, I noticed that the dry cleaners were actually selling unclaimed items for 5€ apiece. (I'm aware of the threat on the ticket that they will do so, if you don't claim your dry cleaning within, say, 90 days, but I've never actually seen the policy actively put into practice.) The woman at the counter was quite nice, but informed me with a smile that, while I could certainly drop off my items, the dry cleaners to whom they outsource were, in fact, en congé, and I would not be able to pick them up until the end of the month (i.e., about a month from now). After a moment's hesitation (i.e., I was actually considering waiting a month for dry cleaning), I told her I would go elsewhere. She smiled and agreed that was a good idea.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Bruges: Antiques, Crafts and Train Tickets

One reason for my absence of late is the presence of visitors, which in turn brought me to Bruges (for the nth time) this past week. While there, we stumbled upon a lovely antiques/crafts shop called Au Bonheur des Dames. The shop is run by Sophie, a very sweet Bruges native who also teaches various crafting workshops, including one in which one learns how to make a hilarious teddy bear pencil holder/étui.

I also could not resist buying a between-the-wars KPM tea set at the fantastic (and reduced-on-the-spot) price of 65€, along with some antique fabric for reupholstering. Let me know if you would like to join me for a crafting class . . . 

From this trip, I learned that train tickets to Bruges are significantly costlier during the week (25€ vs. 14€ round trip). I also bought my tickets online and thought I was being exceedingly clever when I picked the option of "storing" the tickets on my electronic ID card. Unfortunately, the Flemish conductor was not as impressed when she could not locate the tickets on my card with her bulky cardreader. (She let us off the hook once I showed her the receipt, which luckily I had printed out.) Later, on the return visit, another conductor gave me some more grief for not having validated my electronic tickets on the way there. Unfortunately, no amount of explaining - in Dutch! - could remedy the situation. In the future, I will simply print out a paper ticket.

Some Love from the NYT

These are a bit (i.e., days) old now, but was surprised to see two articles in the NYT this week - one pertaining directly to Brussels and another to a castle with a purportedly excellent garden relatively near here. I should probably also start reading Le Soir and De Standaard . . . 

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Car Shopping à la Belge

Today we took two separate trams to Drogenbos to do some car shopping. And . . . wow. Never would I go so far as to say I miss car shopping in the U.S., where the greasy used car salesman is a well-tread stereotype (usually lived up to or surpassed). And yet, I have never in my life encountered salespeople as passive as these. Not that I am unaccustomed, at this point, to hearing Ce n'est pas possible upon entering a store, or a local vendor being exceptionellement fermé on the day you happened to count on them being open. But not until we went shopping for a car - as our purchases go, a fairly big-ticket item - did I realize the extent of this country's lack of interest in commerce.

Our first stop was MyWay, a VW, Audi, and Skoda dealer, which came recommended by a Belgian friend. I asked upon entering the showroom whether they had occasions/tweedehandse auto's. In response, I was first met by a blank stare, which then morphed into a facial expression that was basically the equivalent of "Duh," and told in English to "go look around in the lot outside, and write down the number of the parking spot if you're interested." Bowled over by his aggressive sales tactics, J and I did as instructed. Some cars were marked with year, mileage and price; others weren't. Similar cars were identically priced, but somehow the estimated monthly payment fluctuated wildly. The highly motivated salesperson later explained that "these numbers are meaningless, just the calculations of the marketing people." From whom, it seemed, he could stand to learn a few tricks.

After marking the numbers of the cars we liked, we tried to ask some questions while standing opposite the desk where our distinguished salesperson was lounging. At no point did he invite us to sit down, or did his mildly irritated facial expression, as if we were bothering rather than trying to buy a car from him, leave his face. It was almot impossible to extract anything beyond basic information from him, and even the basics ("How would you compare diesel to gasoline?" "What are the advantages of the Turbo Diesel vs. the Trendline?") were elusive. Rather than answering our questions, or uttering a single phrase that might spur us to purchase a vehicle, he appeared perfectly satisfied to respond exclusively with facial expressions conveying something along the lines of "What are you, stupid?" (He spoke English fairly well, so language wasn't the problem.) Right before we decided to leave, he deigned to recommend two cars on the lot that we might consider. But by that point, we had been on the premises for almost an hour, and were beyond discouraged.

We decided to visit a couple of other dealers in the vicinity, with somewhat dissimilar but equally bizarre results. The saleswoman at Ford was more motivated - although we had to approach her in her office, where she was chatting with a colleague. Here, too, most of our questions were answered with facial expressions along the lines of "What, do you have a brain the size of a pea?" This included the question about financing, to which she responded, "Well, if you really want a financing plan from us, we can work it out, probably, but why don't you just go to the bank?" (Maybe because you can make more money off of us if you just answer the question and offer a financing plan.) She then pulled out a calculator, but only while sighing as if we had asked for her first-born child.

Another stop was the Fiat dealer, who did not have used cars, so we stopped to admire the Cinquecento. I explained to the beachwear-clad salesperson that I liked the car a lot, but that we were expecting a baby, and it was probably too small for us. To which he replied, Désolé, or "I'm sorry." A greasy American salesperson would have quickly ushered us to a car the next size up, but not so in Belgium.

Monday, May 25, 2009


I realize it has been a good long while since my last post. But we've had quite a few visitors as of late, and last week I was able to sneak off to Prague, Bratislava, and Vienna to accompany J on a work trip. And I have to say, one of the best things about living in Brussels is still the fact that places like Prague are just an hour away by plane. Speaking of air travel, we decided to chance it with discount airline Sky Europe, which bills itself "Central Europe's first low fare low cost airline." It was fine on the way out (even though you have to pay for your beverages), but a horror coming back from Vienna (flight delayed 3.5 hours, coupled with whiplash-inducing landing).    

But let's get back to Prague, shall we. It was my first time, and I have to admit I fell in love a little bit.  Walking around, it's tough to find a street corner that's not photogenic, to the point where I was worried I wouldn't have room left on my memory card for Bratislava and Vienna. Locals were very friendly and a bit wacky (my favorite combination), and most spoke English. Unfortunately, I had to pack my whole experience into little more than 24 hours, due to our travel schedule. But here's what I did:

11:00PM Tuesday. Upon arrival, gaze longingly out of hotel window at Prague Castle. Hotel was slightly weird (full kitchen but no cutlery?) but well-located in Mala Strana.
10:00AM Wednesday. Start leisurely walk to Gehry's Dancing (or Fred and Ginger) Building along the river. Cross Charles Bridge, which is already swarmed with tourists, into Stare Mesto. Consider buying "Kaffee mit Kafka" mug but decide against it (probably should have, given amount of Czech Koruna left).
11:00AM. Stumble across excellent Contemporary European Glass Sculpture exhibit. Visit it.
12:00 PM. Having taken a few pics of Dancing building (I'm surprised to be the only dork visibly doing so), wander from Nove Mesto to Stare Mesto.
12:30 PM. Mildly entertaining walking tour of Wenceslas Square courtesy of Lonely Planet (I love LP's walking tours - I just can't help it.) Allows me to take a few pics, including gorgeous Tesla Radio stained-glass window and Horse by David Cerny (whom, fatefully, we will see later that night). Slightly disappointed by Cubist lamppost. Sit down in Franciscan garden for a rest but have to move after overhearing two Irish guys' obnoxious conversation ("They're getting married?" "Well, you know how all women are. They just want to tie you down.")
1:30 PM. Inquire at gym/spa near Franciscan garden about possibility of getting a pedicure. Despite heavy use of charades, am shown to tanning booth. What does one have to do in Europe to get a pedicure?
2:00 PM. Getting really hungry now. After wandering through Old Town Square and its throngs of tourists, catching a glimpse of the Astronomical Clock, end up having lunch in garden of cute little restaurant Alma. Pay less than 6€ for excellent 2-course meal and beverage. Decide to travel only to countries that have not yet adopted € from now on.
3:30 PM. Meander around Josefov's Jewish museum sites. Realize most of the people here are Jewish American families from Long Island and New Jersey. Some of them seem to be eyeing me, wondering what exactly this Asian girl is doing here. Learn from LP that the reason these sites are so well preserved is that the Nazis preserved them because they planned to build a 'museum of an extinct race.'
4:30 PM. Consider buying Golem book, but decide against it. Consider buying Mucha 2010 calendar (shopkeeper pulls out three alternative versions as soon as she sees me eyeing one - Czechs appear refreshingly interested in commerce, at least compared to "Ce n'est pas possible" Belgians), but feel Art Nouveau'd out by Brussels. And apparently having a cheap day.
5:00 PM. See NYU in Prague campus sign. Have a little giggle. (Used to work for NYU.) 
5:30 PM. Return to hotel for nap. After all, am with child.
8:00 PM. J and I meet fellow journos (of his) at Palace Hotel. En route, manage to make up for day without commerce by picking up a few items at Botanicus. (From NYT article. See also their latest take on Prague, which came out after we left.)
9:00 PM. Have been escorted by Czech journalist, via walk and tram, to "tourist-free" pub in Mala Strana. Wish I remembered the name (it's near the American Embassy). Have another cheap meal (my first in an endless series of Wienerschnitzels on this trip). Go downstairs to book launch party of local macroeconomist. Apparently, the whole town is here (and getting down on the dancefloor), including local "bad boy" David Czerny of Entropa fame/infamy. Turns out Czerny only wears his signature black wifebeater, because his last name means "black" in Czech. His girlfriend seems to have gotten the memo and is wearing a matching outfit. Czech intelligentsia remind me vaguely of college.
12:00 AM. Time to call it a night. Leaving early for Bratislava the following morning.

(Slightly less-detailed posts on Bratislava, Vienna, and Wachau to follow.)       

Sunday, May 3, 2009

"How I Learned to Love the European Welfare State"

Not sure I'm there yet, but here's an article from today's NYT Magazine that I found interesting in light of certain parallels between the Dutch and Belgian social welfare systems (the differences are many, too), and in the context of impending health care reform in the U.S. Also, after my family lived in the Netherlands from the mid '80s to the early '90s, my parents became committed Democrats after having voted straight Republican tickets from the day they became U.S. citizens - in part because they felt the Dutch system worked.

I would also like to add to the quote from the former McKinsey consultant ("If you tell a Dutch person you’re going to raise his taxes by 500 euros and that it will go to help the poor, he’ll say O.K. But if you say he’s going to get a 500-euro tax cut, with the idea that he will give it to the poor, he won’t do it."). Well, if you tell a Dutch person you're going to raise his taxes by 500 euros and that it will go to help poor Dutch citizens of Turkish and Moroccan descent, he might not say O.K. Or say O.K. begrudgingly and go vote for the far Right party.