Monday, December 6, 2010

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet

Today is Sinterklaas in Belgium. Sinterklaas is the holiday, December 6, but it's also the name of the mythical figure behind the holiday, a man with a long white beard and red outfit who brings presents to good little boys and girls. And yes, "Sinterklaas" does sound a lot like "Santa Claus." But they're not the same. Oh no.

"Sinterklaas" is a corruption of the Dutch "Sint Niklaas" or Saint Nicholas, who in the Catholic tradition is the patron saint of children. Aha! you say. Santa Claus is also known as Jolly Old Saint Nick, and then there's that poem by Clement Clark Moore, "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" (otherwise known as "The Night Before Christmas"). So they must be the same guy, right?

Not exactly. It seems that our Santa Claus was based, at least in part, on the Sinterklaas legend of the Netherlands and Flanders (in other words, Dutch-speaking parts of Europe). But whereas our St. Nick is a jolly fat man who lives at the North Pole and hangs out with elves and flying reindeer, Sinterklaas has retained the appearance of a Catholic saint.

He wears red robes and a tall red miter, as befitting the fourth-century Bishop of Myra (in present-day Turkey). He carries a bishop's crozier too, and is portrayed as a sagacious but kindly old man. He is not fat. He is, however, accompanied by Zwarte Piet, a funny, black-skinned helper.

The sight of white people in silly costumes and blackface makeup strikes me as horribly inappropriate, especially in the context of a children's holiday. I mean, what are they teaching these kids?!

But to a Belgian, Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) is just a character, like Santa's elves. He doesn't represent a racial stereotype, or any race at all. Apparently, Zwarte Piet was originally a little devil that Sinterklaas had defeated, and later was portrayed as a Moorish slave that the good saint had liberated. Nowadays his skin color is attributed to black soot from popping in and out of chimneys to deliver presents on Sinterklaas' behalf.

Sinterklaas lives in Spain, not at a secret location in the Arctic Circle. No one seems to know why he lives there now, seeing as how the real saint lived and died in Turkey. But the Dutch and Flemish do love to vacation in Spain, so I'm guessing they just put Sinterklaas in their idea of the perfect place to live. I mean, if you're not real you can live anywhere, so why not Spain?

He arrives in the Netherlands and Belgium by steamboat every year in mid-November, and then proceeds on horseback, accompanied these days by a whole posse of Black Peters. Children start putting their shoes out by the fireplace, with a carrot for the horse, in the weeks leading up to December 6th so that Sinterklaas (or his Piets) can pop by and leave candy in them. But the best and final visit from Sinterklaas happens during the night of December 5th, when he leaves presents for good children.

In Belgium, Sinterklaas is just for kids, and although he is clearly a religious figure, he has nothing to do with Christmas. Which is not to say that it isn't a festive holiday, or that the decorations and sweets aren't mightily reminiscent of similar things you might see during this time of year in the U.S. But there is no link between the gift-giving saint and the anniversary of Christ's birth.

At first, I was incredulous. How can Sinterklaas not be tied to Christmas? But then I realized that the more important question, and one that I have often asked myself over the years, is this: What does Santa Claus have to do with Christmas? Nothing. In fact, there are some who wonder whether our focus on that jolly elf and his role in the uneven distribution of material bounty hasn't overshadowed the "real" meaning of Christmas.

What's really strange is that Sinterklaas, having traveled to the New World in the nineteenth century and undergone a transformation (and secularization) into a fat man with a sleigh, has now returned to Belgium... as the Kerstman. Yep, the American image of Santa Claus can now be seen infiltrating Belgian Christmas festivities, but here he goes by the euphemistic "Christmas-man." I wonder if Belgian children ever notice the similarity between Sinterklaas and the Kerstman and if so, what do they make of it?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

And now a short film to fill the interlude.

Sorry I can't blog right now--I'm madly prepping Thanksgiving dinner for my boyfriend's family, for no other reason than the fact that I love Thanksgiving dinner (turkey, stuffing, gravy, candied yams, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, etc.) and the only way I'm going to get to eat Thanksgiving dinner here in Belgium is if I cook it myself.

But a Belgian friend just sent me the link to this awesome video, and now I share it with you.

Do you want to know more about Belgium? (subtitled NL/FR) from Jerome de Gerlache on Vimeo.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A nation of gin drinkers

This past weekend was the Jenever Feest in Hasselt. I had been looking forward to this event for a while since it's my boyfriend's favorite festival of the year and he'd mentioned it several times. Hasselt is known for its jenever; it's even home to the National Jenever Museum. And during the Jenever Feest the city turns into one big party with jenever being served and drunk in every street.

Jenever, as I learned during my first week here, is a kind of gin native to the Netherlands and Belgium. (Jeneverbes is Dutch for juniper berry, which is what's used to flavor gin.) I could tell you more about what it is, exactly, and how it's made, except that I wasn't that interested in those sections of the Jenever Museum and was more focused on getting to the jenever tasting at the end.

My boyfriend prefers the old-style jenever (oude jenever or graanjenever), which is clear and very strong. It's always sipped, and savored, from a small glass--no ice and no mixers. I like a good gin-and-tonic as much as the next girl, but I can't imagine drinking gin straight.

Luckily for me, there are all kinds of sweet, flavored jenevers too. These fall into two main categories: the cream jenevers and the fruit jenevers. I like both, but I'm partial to the chocolate (which falls into the cream category) and the berry flavor.

I decided to look in our liquor cabinet and see what kinds of jenever we have in the house for the purposes of illustration. Sure enough, there's a bottle of the classic old-style jenever by Smeets, which is a distillery based in Hasselt, plus some flavored jenevers. Cactus is apparently one of the more popular flavors, and we've got some hazelnut and passionfruit too.

I took the opportunity to sample several different kinds of jenever at the festival: fig, blood orange, berry, lemon, vanilla and speculaas. I also saw lychee jenever for the first time and had to try it, despite the fact that it was bright pink. My boyfriend stuck to the old-style jenever, with the end result that he got drunk twice as fast as the rest of us, since it has twice the alcohol content as the flavored ones.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Jon Stewart on Belgium

I have to post this link, to the September 30 episode of The Daily Show (my favorite American news program, for you Belgians who don't know it). The opening jokes just confirm the premise of this blog, which is that Americans know nothing about Belgium!

Monday, September 27, 2010

A carnival in every town

Yesterday was the last day of kermis in the city where I live (Hasselt). It started the weekend before with a spectacular fireworks display on Saturday night and lasted nine days. Supposedly it's the biggest one in Belgium.

What's a kermis? We Americans know it as a traveling carnival. Living in mostly big cities and university towns across the U.S., I'd never actually experienced one. It was something mythical and legendary, like barn-raising and church socials--a spectacle familiar to the American national consciousness but rarely seen.

Here in Belgium, kermis is a familiar and regular occurrence. Every town, no matter how small or large, has one. Hasselt's kermis easily covers several football fields, encompassing dozens of rides, food booths and games. I went to one earlier in the year that took up one block in the middle of the village and had maybe 10 attractions.

The rides are familiar to anyone who's ever been to a carnival: carousels and bumper cars and those things that fling you up in the air and spin you around like crazy. Me, I loved seeing all the kermis food, which was new and exotic: smouteballen, which are balls of scalding hot fried dough sprinkled with powdered sugar; chocolate- and candy- covered fruit, including pineapple and grapes; karakollen, which are snails; and of course fries, always fries.

Even more amazing to me were the mobile bars, which I'm pretty sure are not a feature of American carnivals. Some served beer, since Belgians always have to have their beer, but others featured cocktails and I saw at least one full bar. Each bar had a seating area with café tables and chairs, but you could also take your beer or cocktail and walk around.

The wonderful thing about kermis is that it's a civic event. Everyone turns out for it, young and old, teenagers and parents with small children and seniors alike. Whole families stroll along, two or three generations enjoying the sights and sharing the fun, not to mention some fantastically unhealthy food, together.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

How to do a terrace

Belgium has two things that Los Angeles doesn't have: seasons and weather. Lots of weather. Between the cold temperatures in wintertime (not to mention early spring and late fall) and rain pretty much year-round, that leaves few really good days. You know... warm and sunny with clear, blue skies. The kind of weather Los Angeles has all the time.

So when they do get good weather, Belgians really know how to take advantage of it. One way they make the most of nice day, especially during the summer (when the sun doesn't set until around 10 o'clock) is to find a café or restaurant with an outdoor patio, gather some friends and just... hang out.

There could be a meal involved, but it could be just drinks--alcoholic or not. The point is simply to sit outdoors, sipping a beverage or eating something as the inclination strikes, but mainly... enjoying the weather, your friends and the ambiance, as everyone around you is pretty happy about the nice weather too.

In Dutch this is called "een terrasje doen." Literally translated, it means "doing a little terrace." We don't really have an equivalent expression in English. When people ask me what we say in the States, the best I can come up with is "going to a restaurant or café with outdoor seating and getting a table on the patio and hanging out with friends while having a drink or possibly a meal." The Dutch is much more concise.

Everywhere you go this time of year, you see tables set up on the sidewalk, in city plazas and on rear patios of every restaurant. Most places seem to double, if not triple, their seating capacity during the warmer months. And if the sun is shining, every seat will be filled. Now that it's August and fall is around the corner, we're already thinking our days of terrasje doen are numbered. Until next year.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


There's something that has confused and bothered me ever since I got here. I thought it odd that all the milk for sale in the grocery stores was sold unrefrigerated. You can store it that way for months, and once it's opened, it will keep in the fridge for weeks and weeks. I'm not sure how long it will stay "fresh" since I've yet to have one of those boxes go bad.

It doesn't go bad because it's ultra-pasteurized; the process is also called UHT, for ultra-high temperature.The milk we drink in the States is merely pasteurized and needs to be refrigerated. It will also go bad in a week or two even when keep cold. (Sometimes cream and half-and-half are ultra-pasteurized to make them last longer in the fridge.)

Personally, I'm suspicious of ultra-pasteurized milk. It tastes weird, and--Hello! Milk is supposed to go bad! It's milk. So when it doesn't need to be refrigerated, I'm thinking that it's not really milk anymore, if you know what I mean.

The thing that's really weird about this situation is that Belgium is full of dairy cows. You can't drive 10 kilometers in any direction without seeing some nice, contented cows standing around in a beautiful green pasture. There are cows right in Hasselt, within the city limits. I figured there must be a way to get real milk around here.

I picked up a map at the tourist information office that's labeled "Fairtradeplan" and shows the locations of various organic and fair trade businesses around town. It listed one place that sells "verse hoevemelk" not far from my boyfriend's work, and yesterday I went looking for it after dropping him off at the office.

Success! There, on a main street leading out of the city center, was a small dairy farm. I pulled into the driveway and parked between an open barn full of cows standing around in large pens with clean hay and a brick building full of what looked like modern milking equipment.

A man came out of the suburban house next door and, when I said I was looking for fresh milk, asked me if I'd brought a bottle. I hadn't, so he went back inside the house and got an empty plastic water bottle. Then we went into the brick building and he filled the bottle from a giant stainless-steel vat. It cost me 1 Euro for a liter and a half.

Now that I know how easy it is to get real milk, I'm never drinking UHT milk again! I have a friend here who says she usually goes to Holland to get fresh (normal, pasteurized) milk so I told her about the dairy farm. My Belgian boyfriend is suspicious, though. He thinks that if it can go bad, it can't be good.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Hagel Slag

This post is long overdue. I can't believe I haven't written about Hagel Slag before now! (I think I overlooked it because I already introduced all my friends in L.A. to it when I was back there visiting a couple of months ago.)

Hagel Slag is what's known in the U.S. as chocolate sprinkles--the kind you buy in small quantities (if you bake) to put on cupcakes, or maybe ice cream sundaes. You can also find them on donuts. Usually they're used as a decoration, a finishing touch, if you will.

Well, Belgians have found a much larger gustatory purpose for the lowly chocolate sprinkle. Here, it's sold in large boxes (400-500 g) and used as a topping for bread or a sandwich filling, usually for breakfast. ("Hagel slag" means hail storm. Go figure.)

What you do is you take a slice of bread (or a roll) and spread it with butter, and then load it up with a solid layer of sprinkles. Voilà! Breakfast is served--or maybe lunch. You and I might call this "crazy" but I know at least one American who thinks it's "genius." A Belgian, of course, thinks it's normal.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Elections tomorrow

Tomorrow is election day in Belgium and everyone I know will go to the polls. That's because voting is mandatory here, and has been since 1892. Belgium has the oldest compulsory voting system in the world.

By law, you must enter the polling booth, but since the act of voting is still private and confidential, you don't have to mark a ballot.

After an election, a list of non-attendees is sent to the public prosecutor. Penalties for non-participation without a good excuse (like being in the hospital or out of the country) range from a small fine for a first offense to losing your right to vote for 10 years.

And unlike the U.S., which holds elections on a weekday, Belgium has elections on a Sunday morning when people aren't at work. (Very few businesses are open on Sundays here, and I bet even those are closed tomorrow.)

I did a little research online and found that voter turnout in Belgium is regularly over 90%, unsurprisingly, compared to U.S. voter turnout, which has hovered around 50% (during presidential election years) in recent decades but rose in 2008 to 68%.

You may have heard that Belgium's coalition government collapsed back in April, which is why they're having elections now. At stake is the future of the 200-year-old marriage between Dutch-speaking Flanders and Francophone Wallonia.

The AP has a good summary of the issues and major players in tomorrow's election. I'm not eligible to vote here yet, but I plan to go to the polls and observe the voting process.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Let's recycle!

A few weeks ago I went to the container park for the first time. That's what everyone calls the municipal recycling center, although the correct word for it in Dutch apparently is "recyclagepark."

There's some curbside pickup here in Hasselt, mainly for green waste (and regular trash, of course). But for most household recycling, you have to bring it to the container park yourself. I'd been hearing about this place for months and was curious about how it works. So I was pretty excited when I finally had the chance to go and see for myself!

We went on a Saturday morning, having loaded up the car with our bottles, cans, cardboard and styrofoam (left over from IKEA furniture purchases). You have to insert your Belgian identity card at the gate in order to get in, and then you drive in and park your car. There were lots of other cars there already, disgorging fellow residents and their recyclables.

There were some city workers there to help things along, but for the most part everyone was bringing their own recycling to the correct dumpster or compacter. It was so orderly and organized! There were separate collection points for paper and cardboard, clear and colored glass, and PMD, which stands for Plastic bottles, Metal cans and Drink cartons.

 Needless to say, I was very impressed with how well the system seems to work, especially since it's all self-service. I'm sure the other people dropping off their recycling thought I was mad, taking pictures of trash. But I was having a great time! Recycling in Belgium is fun!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Chocolate. It's what's for breakfast.

Belgium is known for its chocolate, right? I mean, no one's surprised to hear that the chocolate here is really good, or that people eat a lot of it. But maybe you didn't know how it's eaten much of the time.

For breakfast.

That's right. Breakfast. We Americans tend to think of chocolate as a dessert, or maybe a snack. It's not generally considered a major food group or the main component of a meal. I had no idea how limiting this thinking was until I moved here!

For instance, I always thought that chocolate cereal was for kids. Sure, adults can eat Cocoa Puffs, but you do so knowing that you're eating something created for and marketed to children. And that your mother would not approve.

So imagine my surprise--nay, delight--when I saw the cereal aisle of the grocery store and learned that fully half of them contained chocolate, and not just the ones meant for kids! Not only that, but most come in two varieties, milk and dark chocolate!

If you live in the States, you should know that you're being deprived of the opportunity to eat chocolate corn flakes. From Kellogg's! Even the American brands of cereal have chocolate versions here. Chocolate Special K! Yeah, the diet cereal. It comes in chocolate flavor.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

It's not pizza, it's your mail

The other day I was out riding my bike with a friend and we passed a woman on a red scooter with a big box mounted on its back. I recognized the Belgian post office logo and realized that she was delivering the mail!

I was so excited that my friend turned around and chased her down so that I could take a picture. She asked if I was visiting and I had to admit that I live here, but clearly I still act like a tourist.

I told her that I'd never seen the mail delivered via scooter before. She was by far the cutest mail-delivery person I've ever seen. My friend agreed, and later wanted to know if I'd gotten her number when I took her picture.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Family ties

Belgium is a small country. How small? Less than 12,000 square kilometers, or about the size of Maryland. (Maryland is a small state on the eastern seaboard; you may have heard of it. No? Well, trust me, it exists--I've been there.)

If you've been to Europe then this may not come as a surprise to you. European countries are small, especially compared to the U.S. That makes it very convenient for travelers zooming around Europe on a Eurailpass. But what does that mean for the people living here?

One thing that has really struck me is that if you're Belgian, chances are you live pretty close to your family, the town you grew up in, your childhood friends, the college you went to and all your exes. In fact, everyone you know or ever knew lives within a one- or two-hour drive.

Even by European standards, Belgium is small. And then you consider that Belgium is divided into two language communities and you realize that it's even smaller, since people tend to stay in either Flanders or Wallonia, depending on whether they speak Dutch or French.

This makes for very close family ties and social networks. It's easy to maintain friendships over the years because people don't move around that much. The thing that's really weird to me is that people don't just know their friends' partners but also each others' parents and extended families too.

In the U.S. I hardly ever met my friends' parents or siblings because they usually lived hundreds if not thousands of miles away. I've never been to most of my friends' home towns. Sure, if I knew someone long enough and we were close enough, then eventually I might meet the parents when they came to visit. But not as a rule and only occasionally.

Belgians tend to reserve Sundays for family time. That's when people will drive back to their home town (or village, actually) and have dinner with their parents. It's almost a weekly ritual for some. Everything is closed on Sundays anyway so there's not much else to do. It seems quaint and old-fashioned by American standards, but I think it's nice.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

We must have bread

I'm afraid a large number of my posts, perhaps the vast majority, will be about food. Which tells you something about my interests and priorities, even if it doesn't give you a broad overview of Belgian culture and society.

But then again, food is culture, right?

So... Belgians love bread. They eat a lot of it, on a daily basis, and they buy it fresh from the bakery. There's none of that mass-produced, preservative-laden, brand-name bread on the grocery store shelves. Even the grocery chains sell freshly-baked bread.

But the baker opens early and also closes early, and these days, even Belgians have to work all day and can't always make it to the bakery to buy bread. So what do they do?

They go to the Broodautomaat!

This is one of my favorite things about Belgium. I'd never seen one before I came here, but they're everywhere. I finally got to watch someone use one for the first time the other day and took pictures!

A broodautomaat is a vending machine for fresh bread. The baker stocks it every day, so that when he's closed for the night, you can still get your fresh loaf of bread on your way home from work.

You put in your 2€ coin and select which bread you want (hopefully the kind you like hasn't sold out) and then you take it from the machine. Fresh bread for dinner, and for breakfast the next day!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Going to the doctor

Anyone who's been following the healthcare debate probably knows that the U.S. has one of the worst healthcare systems of the modern, industrialized, free world. And you've probably heard that Europeans enjoy a standard of care comparable to the U.S. which is subsidized by the state.

Well, I finally got to experience European medical care firsthand yesterday, and I hate to tell you this, but... it's just as good as you'd imagine. I actually laughed out loud when I walked out of the doctor's office because it was so ridiculously easy and affordable compared to what I'm used to, it struck me as absurd.

I needed a doctor urgently due to the sudden onset of a severe UTI, so my boss called the doctor he uses down the street and got me an appointment for two and a half hours later. No HMO, no list of approved providers, no need to ask if the doctor accepts this or that insurance. Just pick a private doctor and make an appointment--for the same day.

I went at the appointed time and arrived a few minutes early, but there was no receptionist or sign-in procedure so I just took a seat in the waiting room. At the exact time of my appointment, the doctor herself looked in and waved me into her office.

She was very pleasant, asked me what the problem was, then handed me a pan to pee in and showed me to the toilet. When I emerged, she took the sample and examined it straight away under the microscope, confirming what we both already knew: I had a bad infection. Then she sat down and wrote me a prescription.

Ten minutes after I walked into her office, I was walking out again. The cost of the office visit? 34 Euros--which, if I had an insurance card already, I would be able to get reimbursed for, except for maybe 5 Euros which would be my total cost.

I immediately walked across the street to a pharmacy, handed over the prescription and received my antibiotics without any wait. I used my coworker's insurance card and was charged less than 7 Euros. The whole process took less than half an hour.

Even with excellent private insurance in the U.S., I have never had such an easy time seeing a doctor and getting a prescription filled. For someone used to our convoluted, bureaucracy-heavy and paperwork-intensive system, it was almost unbelievable that medical care could be so simple and convenient.

I'm already feeling much better, thank you.

Monday, April 12, 2010

I'm back!

Sorry to have been AWOL for the past two months. How time flies when you're having fun and major life changes!

Shortly after my last post, I met someone, started a relationship, went to L.A. for nearly three weeks, attended a wedding, moved in with my boyfriend the day I got back to Belgium, and have been busy ever since.

But I'm starting to feel a little more settled and realized I was waaay overdue for some life-in-Belgium-blog posts. Coming right up! Stay tuned...

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Beer glasses

When you order a beer here, or a soft drink, or even a hot cocoa, it comes in a special glass imprinted with the logo of your beverage. What's more, you can get these promotional glasses to use at home!

Sometimes the glass or mug comes in a specially packaged gift box, as with these sets from Lindemans and Chimay, which I happened to acquire recently at the chain grocery store next door.

But sometimes, the glasses aren't packaged with the beer. (OK, so we're mainly talking about beer, since that's what I'm into.) They're just sitting in a separate box somewhere near the beer, and apparently people are just expected to figure out that they should take a glass along with their six-pack or whatever.

You just couldn't do that in the U.S.

There would be some coupon you'd have to fill out and mail with the UPC from your six-pack and then wait 6 weeks for the glass to arrive. You wouldn't just trust people to take a (single) glass for themselves! What if they couldn't figure out which glass goes with which beer? What if they broke it and cut themselves and sued the grocery store?

So I've started my own collection of commemorative Belgian beer glasses. I figure, I need glassware anyway, right? Why not have a neat selection of different beer glasses? Here's my latest... I couldn't resist. It's Cuvée des Trolls!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Fried potatoes

Everyone is familiar with the ubiquitous French fry, right? But not everyone knows that the French fry is actually Belgian. The story goes that American G.I.s first encountered fried strips of potato in Belgium during WWI and called them "French" because the Belgians spoke French.

This story is neat because it both explains the misnomer and shows Americans to be ignorant about European geography and national identity!

So anyway, not only did the Belgians invent French fries but they're something of a national obsession. Belgians eat a lot of fries. They're typically eaten with mayonnaise, but other sauces are available, or you can get them topped with goulash (a sweet-and-sour meat stew) or a kind of brown gravy. I have yet to see a Belgian put ketchup on their fries.

You can get your frietjes at a frituur, which is an independently owned snack bar that serves all kinds of fried foods in addition to fries, or at a frietkot, which I have yet to see but I'm told is an old-fashioned, typically Belgian fry shack. Fries are cooked to order and served in a paper cone.

The "meat snacks" (for want of a better term) at this frituur are beautifully displayed in a glass case. Most of them are a complete mystery to me. I've been slowly trying to figure out what everything is, either first-hand by eating one, or by asking friends. My favorite so far (in terms of admiration, not consumption) is the kipcorn, which is a log of processed chicken covered in what looks like corn flakes.

A word of warning: Do not, under any circumstances, order a hamburger at a frituur. You'll get something that resembles a burger in that it will be a patty on a bun, but the patty is not made from ground beef. I'm not sure what it's made out of... in taste and texture, it resembles an English banger. And it won't be cooked on a grill; everything is tossed into the deep fryer.

If you want to know more about Belgian fries, check out this website.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Seattle of Europe

That's my new name for Belgium, since apparently it rains a lot here. I have to say, there's been a fair amount of precipitation since I got here, both rain and snow. Although I gather that snow's pretty unusual--apparently I chose an uncommonly cold winter to move here.

Rain I don't mind. But I'm told that overcast skies are the norm and sunny days are rare. That does give me pause... but once again, it's a prime example of the old adage, "Be careful what you wish for." After years of complaining about the incessant sun and lack of rain in Los Angeles, I now get to enjoy the exact opposite.

It's also dark. Sunrise is around 7:30 am, although the sky doesn't really begin to lighten until about 8:00. Sunset is around 4:30 pm and it's dark by 5:00. Short days. (Brussels is at approximately the same latitude as Calgary.) I'm hoping this means that summer days will be really long.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


You've heard of Waterloo, right? The famous battle that ended Napoleon's imperial ambitions? As in the phrase, "Napoleon met his Waterloo"? The place-name that's become synonymous with humiliating defeat?

Did you know that Waterloo is in Belgium?! I didn't!

Yet there it was, a name on a highway exit between Brussels and Hasselt. I guess I never really thought about where Waterloo was located...

France, maybe? Not a very French name, though. I mean, "Waterloo"! Is that even Dutch? What kind of a name is that, anyway? And why didn't I ever wonder where it was? I don't think it ever occurred to me that Waterloo might actually be somewhere real.

Well, now I know. It's in Belgium. Just outside Brussels, actually.

Addendum: My Belgian friend Valerie tells me that Waterloo is in fact a very Dutch name. "Loo" is apparently an old word for forest, hence "Waterloo" = water-forest.

Friday, January 22, 2010

A country divided

So the first thing you should know about Belgium is that there's an invisible line dividing the country in half horizontally. This is the language border.

To the north is what used to be called Flanders, i.e. the Flemish part of the country. Linguistically and culturally, Flanders is closely aligned with Holland, a.k.a. The Netherlands. The Flemish speak Dutch; in Dutch (an English word that doesn't exist in Dutch) the language is called Nederlands. It's very similar to the Dutch spoken in Holland, but there are differences. Friends tell me it's like the difference between British English and American English.

To the south is a region called Wallonia, which is French-speaking. In the nineteenth century, Wallonia was at the forefront of the industrial revolution in Europe and was much more prosperous than the Flanders, which was primarily agricultural. Beginning in the twentieth century, as the importance of heavy industry declined, Wallonia's fortunes waned and it is now much poorer than the north, with high unemployment.

The linguistic and economic differences between north and south result in a great deal of social and political tension, if not outright conflict. As far as I can make out, the Flemish people don't have much to do with their French-speaking compatriots, and vice versa. I'm told that Dutch-speaking Belgians think of the Walloons as lazy and dirty. (If I had to guess, I bet the French speakers regard their neighbors to the north as uptight workaholics.)

Brussels, the capital, is on the Flemish side of the language border but is primarily French-speaking. There's also a small German-speaking region, which was annexed by Belgium after the defeat of Germany in the First World War.

All of this makes for a very convoluted system of government. Belgium has a king, and is a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy. There are three regional governments, with jurisdiction over the French, Flemish and German areas. It's actually a bit more complicated than that even, since the linguistic communities and geographic regions aren't the same.

Anyway, one of the first things I wanted to know about Belgium when I decided to move here was "What language do they speak?" Simple question, right? Wrong!

There are three official languages: Dutch, French and German, as well as a fourth "unofficial" language: English. Because everyone has a different native tongue and because of the influence of American media, everyone speaks at least a little English, and most people I've met speak it fluently.

Which is lucky for me, since I don't speak Dutch. I know a little French, which sometimes comes in handy, mostly for reading labels and signs, which tend to be in both languages. I'm starting an intensive Dutch language class next week. So far, I've found it very hard to understand, even a little, and very hard to pronounce. This should be interesting.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A new life, a new blog

Having moved from the U.S. (specifically, Los Angeles, California) to Belgium three weeks ago, with very little foreknowledge of the country or culture I'd soon be living in, I am constantly amazed at the cultural differences. Little things, like the fact that everyone drives stick, and big things, like the language border dividing the country.

Honestly, the only thing I knew about Belgium was that it produces good beer, good chocolate, and good fries. (Don't call them French fries!) I had to look on a map to find out exactly where it was! (Somewhere in Western Europe, near France, I thought.)

Well, it turns out there's more to the country than beer, chocolate and fries. Or waffles. It occurred to me that it might be fun to write about the things I'm learning, both for my own amusement and the amusement of my friends back home. (I still think of the U.S. as home--I'll let you know when that changes.)

So here's my new blog. This one is public so feel free to share it with friends, family, neighbors, coworkers... I already have a backlog of fun facts I want to write about, so I'll try to post often. Thanks for reading!