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.