Sunday, December 23, 2012

Who is that fat man in the red suit?

Having spent the previous ten Christmases in Los Angeles before coming to Belgium, I can say that the holiday season is much more... “Christmasy”... here. For one thing: we have winter in Belgium--albeit a rainy, gray, miserable kind of winter for the most part. Also: Christmas decorations all over town, pretty lights on every street and a Christmas tree in every Grote Markt.

Then there are the Christmas markets, the winter carnivals, the holiday choral concerts and all the other civic festivities. Come to think of it, most of our Christmas traditions in America are nostalgic attempts to evoke a kind of Old European village atmosphere. Whether we live in California or Texas, Mississippi or Maine, we want pine trees, snow and handmade baked goods. In Belgium, those traditions are neither nostalgic nor kitschy... they're just traditional.

So I have the respect, perhaps even reverence, for holiday traditions that only comes from having grown up in a young country that idealizes its European roots. Which is why I'm so very annoyed about a relatively recent addition to the holiday landscape here in Flanders.

I'm talking about the Kerstman.

The Kerstman (literally “Christmas man”) looks just like Santa Claus and appears around the holidays in store windows, in advertisements, everywhere Christmas decorations and displays are found. The annual winter carnival in my home city of Hasselt is absolutely lousy with Kerstmannen. He lurks around every corner and stands sentry at every waffle stand and jenever bar. His image is plastered on walls, signs and placemats. He is usually accompanied by reindeer.

Don't get me wrong—I have nothing against Santa Claus. I have as much affection for the jolly old elf as the next former-six-year-old. And I have nothing against Belgians adopting this beloved American icon. (Yes, Santa Claus is as American as Father Christmas is English.) But for Kris Kringle's sake, call him Santa Claus! Don't call him the Kerstman and pretend that he's someone else!

But herein lies the rub: For some reason, the Flemish refuse to use Santa's REAL name because that would force them to confront the ugly truth... That Santa Claus is just Sinterklaas in different clothes! Santa Claus, Sinterklaas—even the names sound the same. That's because “Santa Claus” is an Anglicization of “Sinterklaas”, most likely taken from Dutch settlers in nineteenth-century New York (the city formerly known as New Amsterdam).

My Flemish husband refuses to concede this obvious fact. He says that Sinterklaas is a real person, a bishop from Turkey (as was the historical Saint Nicholas) whereas Santa Claus is a fictional character. And that Sinterklaas lives in Spain and arrives by steamboat, which (according to him) makes a lot more sense than living at the North Pole and driving a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. Whatever. I still say that toy-making elves make better companions than Zwarte Piet.

Sadly, we are subjected, every December, to the awful spectacle of Sinterklaas arriving and departing only to be replaced by his fatter, jollier doppelganger, the Kerstman, a few weeks later. It's like having to live in an alternate universe where the same beloved Christmas figure keeps changing clothes and personalities. I wish Santa would just stay on the other side of the Atlantic, or come over here and put a stop to these imposters once and for all. Leave Belgium to Sinterklaas. After all, he's got tradition on his side.

(A version of this post appears on the website for Fans of Flanders, a new English-language TV program aimed at expats living in Belgium. I'm honored to be one of their regular guest bloggers!)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Giving thanks and eating turkey

This past Sunday was Thanksgiving here in Belgium. OK, not officially. Technically, Thanksgiving, the traditional American holiday, was last Thursday. But Thursday wasn't a holiday in Belgium (and as far as I know, Belgium doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving in the sense of a national, civic holiday of the “harvest festival” type). I know many Americans living in Belgium had their Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday evening, but for our family that just wasn't practical.

So I declared Sunday to be the day we would gather together for a meal of turkey, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, candied yams and green been casserole. And, of course, pumpkin pie. The assembling of this traditional meal takes a lot more advance planning and requires a lot more preparation time in the kitchen than it did when I lived in the States.

There, during the weeks leading up to the day itself, the grocery stores are overflowing with displays of all the ingredients you need: canned pumpkin for the pie, boxes of instant stuffing, piles of sweet potatoes... and of course whole turkeys, frozen and sealed in plastic. Many elements of Thanksgiving dinner can even be bought ready-made, such as pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce.

Preparing Thanksgiving dinner in Belgium, as I discovered the first time I tried it two years ago, is not nearly as easy. First of all, it's impossible to find whole turkeys in the grocery stores a month before Christmas. In the end, my then-boyfriend's parents ordered one from their butcher, and when it arrived, freshly slaughtered, it still had a few feather quills attached to its skin. And it was huge—much bigger than any turkey I'd ever cooked before.

This year, we made sure to order a slightly less huge turkey, only 8.7 kilos (or about 15 pounds). My mother thought that sounded small for 10 people (well, nine adults and one toddler) but it turns out Belgians approach Thanksgiving dinner the way they do any festive meal: with restraint, and normal-sized portions. You can lead a horse to water, as they say, but you can't make him drink until he's about ready to throw up.

I also had to search high and low for sweet potatoes, which can be found in the bigger supermarkets with the other “exotic” produce, clearly labeled with their country of origin: USA. I still can't figure out why Belgium, which produces at least a dozen varieties of regular potatoes, hasn't caught on to the deliciousness of the sweet potato. They're really missing out.

In addition to turning me into a food sleuth, having Thanksgiving in Belgium forced me to become a better cook. I couldn't find Campbell's cream of mushroom soup so I had to make green bean casserole from scratch. No ready-made cranberry sauce? Turns out, it's actually really easy to make yourself, and way more tasty. Without canned pumpkin I had to make the pie from scratch too, by first roasting and puréeing a sugar pumpkin.

In the end, I have to say that cooking Thanksgiving dinner in Belgium is becoming one of my favorite traditions. It's a way for me to enjoy the tastes of home and at the same time share them with my family here. Needless to say, they love roasted turkey and stuffing, candied yams and pumpkin pie—I mean, who doesn't? It's also a way for me to celebrate all that I have to be thankful for, here in my adopted home. A whole new family being tops on the list.

(A version of this post also appears on the website for Fans of Flanders, the new television program aimed at English-speaking expats in Belgium. I'm very honored to be one of the regular guest bloggers!)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

History comes to life in Bruges

I've always said that ending up in Belgium is my punishment for complaining about the weather (or lack thereof) in Southern California: one of life's little ironies that seemed funny at first and now just seems cruel and unusual. Let this be a lesson you all: Be careful what you wish for!

On the other hand, there is also a sweet serendipity in my move to Belgium that I only discovered gradually. You see, I adore history and art. The older, the better. I majored in history at university, and then went on to study art history in graduate school. My favorite period is the Middle Ages. But aside from the occasional museum, the only place I could see medieval art and architecture was in books.

It turns out that Belgium is a fantastic place for anyone who loves medieval history. Some of its greatest artistic achievements date to the Middle Ages, and the medieval Flemish cities of Ghent and Bruges were among the richest and most populous in the world. There was a time when Belgium was at the very center of the power struggles that shaped modern Europe.

I never get tired of wandering around the old city centers of Flanders, gawking at the step-gabled houses and Gothic churches. My Belgian friends tend to take these things for granted, having seen them all their lives... but once you've lived in Los Angeles, where an "old" building dates from the 1930's, it seems incredible that structures built seven or eight hundred years ago are still standing--and still being used.

The problem, of course, is that the people who built and lived in all those ancient houses are long gone. The richly-dressed men and women captured in all those fifteenth-century panel paintings: Who were they? What were their lives like? What did they eat? How did they think? Historians have answers to these and many other questions but it still takes a feat of imagination to see them as real, living people.

This weekend, a new attraction opened in Bruges that attempts to bring the medieval history of Flanders to life for the ordinary visitor. Historium combines walk-through environments with a story told through narration and film in order to immerse the viewer in fifteenth-century Bruges. Special effects like fake snow, the scent of burning wood and wind add to the experience.

On an ordinary day in 1435, the painter Jan Van Eyck is working on a commission from a church official, a Madonna and Child with saints and a portrait of the donor. (The actual painting hangs in the Groeninge Museum.) His assistant, Jacob, has been sent to the harbor to meet the young lady who will pose for the Madonna, and to retrieve an exotic green parrot who figures in the painting as well. But the girl and the parrot escape and Jacob must try to find them...

Upon entering the attraction, you are given an audio guide which provides the narration and dialogue in your chosen language (seven are offered). In the first room, a darkened set simulates the waterfront in Bruges and a short film plays on the large video screen. Here you meet Jacob, the girl and the parrot as the story begins.

When the scene ends, you are directed to the next room, where you find yourself standing in the entrance to Van Eyck's studio. A life-sized, animatronic Canon Van der Paele snores in the corner as the scene plays out on a screen framed in a doorway, creating the effect of watching the action unfold in the next room. This was my favorite room, in that it successfully integrated the physical environment with the story and created a believable illusion.

After the first two scenes, the story starts to fall apart and the sequence of rooms starts to feel disjointed. You visit a paternoster bead seller, a tavern, a public bath house and the customs office at the harbor. The bath house seems particularly gratuitous, in that it indulges in a kind of erotic fantasy with lovely, naked ladies staring languidly into the camera while shot with soft lighting and lots of candles.

Worst of all, midway through you must exit "medieval Bruges" and climb an ordinary, modern staircase to get to the second floor, where the story continues. This completely ruins the mood and reminds you that you're actually  in the 21st century, wearing headphones and watching a fictional story.

There were other things that bothered me: The English-language audio script didn't sync up with the actors' speech, and the scenes often had a stilted feel to them, as if the characters themselves couldn't hear each other very well or didn't know their lines. The video in one of the rooms was jerky and kept freezing, so I hope they were able to fix those kind of technical issues.

My main complaint, though, is that the outdoor scenes all seemed to take place at night, on streets and squares that were deserted, aside from the main characters. The creators claim that they hoped to bring the fifteenth century to life, but the Bruges they depicted seems curiously dead. I wanted to see the frenzy of commercial activity at the harbor, the foreign merchants and their ships, the people of all walks of life who populated one of Europe's biggest and richest cities.

I also wish they'd depicted more recognizable and real settings. The highlight for me was the last scene where the parrot flies through the Waterhalle, which for 500 years occupied the very spot on the Markt where Historium now stands. Nearly 100 meters long, it straddled the canal (also long gone) so that boats could unload their wares inside, under its vast roof. The 3D depiction is based on historical and archaeological documentation.

Despite my quibbles over some of the details, Historium definitely fills a need for the visitor to Bruges: It attempts to show the real history of the city in living color, making the past vividly present instead of an abstraction best left to the scholars. It's all too easy to see the medieval streets of Bruges as a sort of Disney-esque fantasyland of Ye Old Europe where tourists can buy chocolate and lace doilies made in China... Instead of the enduring traces of a once-thriving and dynamic metropolis.

Upon exiting the attraction, another room resembling a traditional museum exhibit gives more explanation about the people and settings depicted in the story. From there you pass through the Duvelorium, an ultra-modern and stylish bar sponsored by the Belgian brewer Duvel Moortgat. Downstairs, a gift shop and a chocolate shop are open to the public without ticket purchase. There's also a new tourist information office for the city of Bruges housed in the same building.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A tale of two democracies

Last week the United States re-elected Barack Obama for a second term as President. The presidential race, the debates and the election itself were closely followed by the Belgian media and everyone I know here. It's a curiously lopsided relationship; the Flemish know an awful lot about America, including American politics, whereas few Americans could even point to Belgium on a map, much less name any Belgian politicians.

Personally, I try not to think about politics too much. American politics is frustrating and often ludicrous, and Belgian politics is too complicated for me to follow. But during election season (Belgians had their provincial and local elections last month) it's hard to avoid. As an expat, I couldn't help making comparisons between the American political system and Belgium's.
Perhaps the most striking difference, to me, is that while the American government pays lip service to the idea of democracy, Belgians actually practice it. Voting is mandatory in Belgium, which means that voter participation is over 90%. The funny thing is that while there are penalties on the books for not voting (ranging from fines to disenfranchisement), these laws are not enforced. People vote because they're expected to, not because they're forced to.

Elections in Belgium are held on Sundays, which means that the vast majority of voters are able to get to the polls quite easily since very few people work on Sunday. Elections in the United States are held on a Tuesday, for reasons that made sense back in the 1700's when the only people who could vote were white, property-owning men. Nowadays, it means that anyone who works for a living has to go to the polls early in the morning or in the evening, which is even harder to do if you happen to have kids or work two jobs.

So much for election logistics. Another thing I admire about the Belgian political system is the wide range of options that voters have. There's a whole spectrum of political parties ranging from the Flemish far-right, anti-immigration party, Vlaams Belang, to the left-wing Socialists, with the moderate Christian Democrats in the middle. There's also the Liberals (what we Americans would consider fiscal conservatives) and the eco-conscious Green Party.

To make things even more interesting, all the major political parties in Belgium have both a Francophone wing operating in French-speaking Wallonia and a Flemish wing operating in Dutch-speaking Flanders. Only residents of bilingual Brussels can choose from either Francophone or Flemish candidates in their elections.

The advantage to a multi-party system in which no one party ever gets a majority of the votes is that the government is made up of representatives of every political stripe who must work together and form coalitions in order to govern. The disadvantage is that these coalitions can be shaky at best, or even impossible to maintain, leading to the recent situation in which Belgium went almost two years without a federal government in place.

The problem with the winner-take-all, two-party system in America is that a large number of the 300 million citizens feel that neither of the main political parties accurately represents their interests or speaks for them. One of the reasons voter turnout in the United States is so low is that some people look at the two main candidates and can't bring themselves to choose either one.

Belgians are very surprised when I tell them that Obama and Romney weren't the only two presidential candidates. Don't worry, I tell them: Most Americans have no idea that there were other candidates either. It shouldn't be surprising that a country as large and complex as the United States would produce other political parties and other candidates. But since the winning candidate must have a majority of the votes—let's just forget about the Electoral College for now—no candidate can hope to win without the money and influence of either the Democratic or Republican Party behind him (or her).

All of my Belgians friends are pro-Obama, which is not surprising when you realize how unpopular his predecessor was amongst Europeans. Also, when you consider how far right American politicians skew compared to Western Europe. The Democrats are viewed here as centrists, similar to the Christian Democrats in Belgium, while Republicans are seen as right-wing extremists. Although the Democratic Party is seen as “liberal” (meaning progressive) in the U.S., there is no viable progressive political force there.

And that's one of the things I love about living in Belgium. My crackpot, left-wing, “elitist” ideals are just... normal. Here in Belgium, “socialist” isn't a dirty word, it's a valid political philosophy. Single-payer healthcare? Got it. A lot of my friends in the U.S. are thrilled that voters in two states have just legalized same-sex marriage... but Belgium was one of the first countries in the world to make same-sex unions legal, back in 2003. And the Belgian Prime Minister is openly gay.

Don't get me wrong—racism, sexism and homophobia do exist in Belgium. But they belong to a minority and are properly relegated to the fringes of political debate. I think the majority of Belgians, like the majority of Americans, are pretty tolerant, moderate in their politics, maybe even slightly traditional in their views. What's interesting is how very different the political systems are in these two “democratic” countries.

Oh, and I purposely left out the bit about Belgium being a constitutional monarchy. See, they also have a king, like any good European state. Now that's something no American would tolerate!

(A version of this post also appears on the website for Fans of Flanders, the new television program aimed at English-speaking expats in Belgium. I'm very honored to be one of the regular guest bloggers!)

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Why Halloween is superfluous

Today is Halloween, that beloved American holiday celebrated with glowing jack-o-lanterns, trick-or-treating and costume parties. Houses, schools and stores are decked out in macabre decorations like spiderwebs, tombstones, skeletons and ghosts. We love it because it involves eating lots of candy, dressing up and indulging our fascination with all things scary, creepy and dangerous.

Friends at a Halloween party, ca. 1998
As an American expat living in Belgium, I've noticed a few indications of Halloween's approach, but they're feeble and half-hearted, as befitting a holiday that isn't native to this land. As with so many aspects of American culture abroad, TV shows and advertising have given Belgians an awareness of Halloween and its trappings, with the result that it's starting to make inroads here.

However, as much as I miss the all-out excess of Halloween in America, I have to admit that Halloween in Belgium just seems out of place. People my age didn't grow up with Halloween; they never went trick-or-treating or wore a homemade ghost costume to school. Many of them are parents now and make an effort at some kind of Halloween observance for the sake of their kids. But I can tell their heart isn't in it.

Maybe the reason Belgians don't do Halloween is that they don't need it. The things we love about the holiday are already part of other, traditional Belgian holidays. As kids, the thing we liked most was all the candy—and the once-yearly pass from our parents to eat as much as we wanted. Belgian children have Sinterklaas, the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6, which is as much about sugary treats (and sugar overload) as it is about presents.

Dressing up in costume? That's for Carnival, the period leading up to Lent that's celebrated with non-stop partying, drinking, festivals, and yes, crazy costumes. Even better than Halloween, Carnival lasts for days, and some of the traditions (and costumes) date back to the Middle Ages. Of course Carnival, like the version celebrated in New Orleans as Mardi Gras, is more for grown-ups, but children also get in on the fun at school and at Carnival parades especially for them.

One Belgian custom, although no longer widespread, closely resembles trick-or-treating. On Driekoningen ("Three Kings"), the feast of Epiphany on January 6, children dress up as little kings and queens and go door-to-door, singing a song and asking for treats and money. In some communities, this was also done during Carnival—but with different songs, and like the implied threat of TRICK-or-treating, the songs suggested that death would come to those who didn't give!

Children dressed up as Driekoningen

I don't really miss going to Halloween parties or having trick-or-treaters show up at my door. Part of being an expat is embracing a new culture, and that means learning to appreciate the things that are different. But there are a few Halloween traditions that I do miss, like carving pumpkins and eating candy corn. Making a jack-o-lantern is easy enough, and maybe I can get someone to send me some candy corn next year...

(A version of this post also appears on the website for Fans of Flanders, the new television program aimed at English-speaking expats in Belgium. I'm very honored to be one of the regular guest bloggers!)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Elephants on parade

The last thing you might expect to see on the streets of Belgium is an elephant, much less 42 of them. Yet for two months in September and October, my home city of Hasselt has played host to Elephant Parade, an outdoor art exhibit and fundraiser dedicated to the preservation of the Asian elephant.

Elephant Parade was started by a Dutch father and son, Marc and Mike Spits, after they visited an elephant hospital in Thailand. The first exhibition was held in Rotterdam in 2007; subsequent editions took place in Antwerp, Amsterdam, London and Singapore. Hasselt is the tenth city to participate.

The colorful pachyderms, each 1.5 meters tall, were decorated by local artists and designers and spread throughout the city center. Maps were freely given out so that people could find and identify all of them, and it became a common sight to see people wandering around, clutching their maps and cameras, hunting elephants.

I joined the hunt yesterday, motivated to capture these artful visitors before they disappeared. It's been fun having them around and I'll miss them when they're gone.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The F-word

To someone who grew up in the United States, one of the most shocking things about living in Belgium is hearing the f-word on the radio and on TV. See? I can't even bring myself to write the dreaded f-word! I have to type "f-word" because the real four-letter word is so taboo. You just don't say it (except in private, of course). But here in Belgium, it's hardly even considered a dirty word.

Or maybe they just don't have the same squeamishness about foul language that we Americans do. Sometimes I wonder if it's because it's an English word, and therefore doesn't have the same impact on a Dutch speaker that it does on an English speaker. Sort of like how in high school, we'd say "merde" because we wouldn't get in trouble for using a French curse word, and anyway it sounded more sophisticated than "shit."

The regular TV stations here broadcast American shows that originated on cable, like "Weeds," "Dexter," and "Mad Men," with all the bad words intact. Also, R-rated movies are regularly shown on television without the f-word bleeped or edited out.

But the real shocker, for me, was hearing songs on the radio that could never be broadcast back home. One of the first songs I heard with the f-word was "Fuck You" by Lily Allen--a big hit over here. Later, it was another song with the same title by Cee Lo Green, which was in heavy rotation for months. The first time I heard it, I thought, that can't be what he's singing. But it was! And then I thought, I can't believe that's on the radio!

A few years ago, a popular radio personality in Los Angeles was fired from the local public radio affiliate for dropping the f-bomb during a taped segment. There was a huge outcry, as people protested that the punishment far outweighed the crime. Maybe the station management overreacted, but it's a violation of FCC (Federal Communications Commission) regulations to say "fuck" on the radio in the United States. Not so, here in Belgium.

Herewith, I give you the video for Cee Lo Green's "Fuck You," in all its vulgar, obscenity-laden glory. Apparently he recorded another version for American radio called "Forget You." Somehow it just doesn't have the same ring.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Getting married in Belgium, Part I

I got married in Belgium this summer (to a Belgian, of course.) In many ways it was just like getting married in the United States: the bride wears a fancy white dress, the groom wears a fancy suit, family and friends come together, there's a big party afterwards. But there are some surprising differences.

Perhaps the main difference is that in Belgium, everyone who gets married has to get married at city hall (stadhuis or gemeentehuis) in the city where they reside. In the United States, you can get married at city hall, in a church, in your parents' back yard, on the beach, or almost anywhere you want. As long as the officiant has the right to perform weddings in the state where the wedding takes place, the wedding is legal.

A few years ago, one of my friends in California got ordained by some Internet church so that she could perform another friend's wedding, which was outdoors at a lovely garden restaurant. I think all she had to do was fill out an online form and pay $20. When it was her turn to get married the following year, her brother did the same thing so that he could officiate at her wedding--this time at a hotel in downtown Los Angeles. All perfectly legal.

This could not happen in Belgium. For a predominantly Catholic country, Belgium takes the separation of church and state very seriously. A priest cannot perform a legal wedding. Put another way, a church wedding (or religious ceremony of any faith) is not legally recognized in Belgium. The only legal way to get married is to have a government official perform the ceremony in a government building.

Many people choose to have a church wedding in addition to the legal wedding, but the church wedding has to take place after the one at city hall--otherwise it's considered illegal. That's right: it's illegal to get married in church unless you've already been married at city hall. Usually the couple and their guests go directly from city hall to the church, but sometimes the second wedding takes place on a different day.

It's also very unusual for the religious ceremony to take place anywhere but in church. Apparently priests don't like to leave their churches, and you just don't find the variety of "officiants" that exist in the U.S. who are available to perform weddings in other venues. You simply don't have a second wedding unless it's a church wedding. There's none of this business with writing your own vows or having theme weddings performed by Elvis or Captain Kirk.

My American family, hearing that there would be a civil ceremony preceding the religious one, said that they'd just as soon skip it and only come to the second ceremony. Where we come from, a wedding at city hall is a sterile, perfunctory affair. One pictures a bland, administrative office with fluorescent lighting and linoleum on the floor, and couples waiting outside in the hallway until their number is called.

Here in Belgium, there's a good chance that city hall is a 600-year-old late Gothic masterpiece, as is the case in Brussels (pictured above), Leuven and Bruges. As residents of Hasselt, we weren't that lucky, but our stadhuis is still quite beautiful, an eighteenth-century former mansion with an imposing brick-and-limestone facade. The room where we got married has a huge marble fireplace, dark wood paneling and brass chandeliers.

We convinced my relatives to come to city hall, assuring them that it would be worth their while. Although brief, the civil wedding had a formality that emphasized the gravity of the proceedings. The Americans in attendance were impressed by the Belgian legal code (which we'd had translated into English) stating, among other things, that the couples' place of residence shall be determined by mutual consent, and the each spouse has the right to pursue a career without the permission of the other.

At the end of the ceremony, we received a small book from the city official with our names and wedding date, the official city stamp, the full text of the marriage law, and pages with spaces to write in the names of up to fourteen children. Fourteen! That's optimistic, but then the Belgians do love children.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Self-serve apple harvest

One of my first posts (and one that generated the most feedback!) was about the broodautomaat, or bread vending machine. Well, brace yourselves, people... I now give you--the appelautomaat!

Guess what it sells? Yep--apples. The city where I live lies within a region of Belgium called Haspengouw, known for its apples and pears. I love riding my bike through the orchards in the fall. It's harvest time and the trees are absolutely dripping with fruit.

Yesterday I spotted this sign along the road and had to check it out:

Sure enough, the appelautomaat was sitting in front of a farmhouse, just behind an apple grove. You simply pull into the driveway, hop out, and select from two varieties of apple and one type of pear. The apples are available in a 1-kilo or 2.5-kilo bag, for 1.25€ or 3.00€ respectively.

Unfortunately, I had recently bought a big bag of "nieuwe oogst" (new harvest) apples so I didn't actually use the appelautomaat. Anyway, part of the fun of cycling during the harvest is picking up fallen fruit along the way. If it's still good, it goes in the bike bag!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Masterpiece Called Belgium

I like to browse used book stores whenever possible (who doesn't, right?) and these days I always look for old English-language travel guides on Belgium and Flanders. The other day I came across an absolute gem: a yellowed paperback with the gushing title A Masterpiece Called Belgium.

It was written by that scion of the American travel industry, Arthur Frommer (of Frommer's guidebooks and Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel magazine) in 1984, under the auspices of Sabena Belgian World Airlines. I'd never heard of Sabena Belgian World Airlines, but that's not surprising since the list of airlines that no longer exist is long and storied. (According to Wikipedia, Sabena was the Belgian national airline founded in 1923. It went bankrupt in 2001 and eventually became Brussels Airlines.)

I have to show you the back of the book, with a quote from the author. It just tickles me that Frommer was saying the same thing 28 years ago that I've been telling people ever since I moved here. Here's what he says:

"In the course of two decades spent traveling in Europe, it slowly dawned on me that the sights and pleasures of Belgium were second to none. Yet far too many tourists, unfamiliar with the great ages of Belgium's glory, were streaming instead to less attractive destinations simply because they were more easily understood. I resolved then to do a book-length guide to Belgium, combining the practical and the general, all in support of a message I often feel like shouting: In culture and cuisine, in art, in history and in people, Belgium is a Masterpiece!"

I do think Belgium is becoming better known as a travel destination, in part because of technologies like the Internet, and because the tourist industry is finally catching on to Belgium's charms. But still, the fact remains that most Americans bypass Belgium in favor of more accessible countries in Europe like France, England, Germany and Italy. Belgium continues to be Europe's best-kept travel secret.

I'm looking forward to reading this book and finding out what ol' Arthur has to say about Belgium. It's too bad the book is out of print. I have a feeling it wasn't widely read when it was published--was it even available in bookstores, or only through the airline?--but I think the English-speaking world could benefit from hearing his message now. "Belgium is a Masterpiece!"

Indeed, Mr. Frommer. Indeed.

[Update: Pauline Frommer, Arthur Frommer's daughter, assures me that the book was sold in bookstores and went through several printings at the time. You can follow her on Twitter at @PaulineFrommer.]

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What's not to like? Smoking, that's what

A friend asked me the other day if there was anything I didn't like about Belgium. It's true: for the most part I have nothing but good things to say about Belgium. I love it here and I love telling people all the things I love about it. But I had no problem admitting to my Belgian friend that yes, indeed, there are a few things I don't like about Belgium.

Tops on my list has to be smoking.

Of course we have smokers in America--I believe the U.S. is the biggest manufacturer of cigarettes in the world, and we pretty much invented the whole idea that smoking is cool. (Thanks, Madison Avenue!) But in the past few decades, the government has done a good job of convincing Americans that smoking is dangerous to your health and the health of those around you, not to mention a vile and noxious habit.

Also, I lived in California, that epicenter of health-consciousness, for over ten years before coming to Belgium. Not only has smoking been banned in restaurants and bars in California since 1995, but most municipalities in Southern California also ban smoking in parks, on beaches, near the entrances to public buildings, and in outdoor dining areas. Basically, it's almost impossible to smoke a cigarette in public in Los Angeles.

None of my friends in L.A. smoked. So I was able to live a virtually smoke-free existence before coming to Belgium.

One of the things I admire about Belgium is that people here have a very tolerant attitude towards others. Belgians, for the most part, believe in "live-and-let-live." That means that Belgium was one of the first countries to allow gay marriage. Possession of a small amount of marijuana (for personal use) is legal here. Unfortunately, smoking is still seen largely as a individual right, so anti-smoking legislation has lagged behind the U.S.

Smoking in bars and nightclubs was only banned as of July 1, 2011. Smoking in workplaces (including restaurants) has been illegal since 2006. In general, smoking rates for Belgium are slightly higher than for the U.S. (closer to 1 in 4 adults in Belgium, as opposed to 1 in 5 Americans, smoke). But smoking rates in the U.S. have been declining over the past decade, whereas for Belgium they've stayed the same.

It probably seems like more people smoke here because they're much more visible, especially compared to California. (It makes more sense to compare countries in Europe to states in America, especially when talking about things that are legislated at a state level.) Even if you could find a public place in California to smoke, the shame would probably prevent you from lighting up.

I just can't get used to the fact that it's still okay to smoke on the outdoor patios of restaurants and bars here. Sometimes it's a narrow distinction between "inside" and "outside" when the patio area is enclosed on all sides. There's nothing (in my mind) worse than sitting down to enjoy a drink or a meal on a beautiful summer day, only to have someone at the next table light up and start blowing smoke in my direction.

I really hate cigarette smoke.

So that's one thing that isn't so great about Belgium. I say that as a non-smoker; if you're a nicotine addict--sorry, I mean, smoker--then by all means, come to Belgium! But do it soon. I'm guessing it's only a matter of time before Belgium (and the rest of Europe) starts to ban smoking in other public areas, just like California.

Meanwhile, I console myself over the end of summer with the thought that in winter, when all drinking and dining takes place indoors, I'll be spared having to smell and taste cigarettes with my food.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Stoemp: It's what's for dinner!

Fall arrived this year on September 1st, with a crispness in the morning air that was completely absent the day before. My thoughts--always preoccupied with food--turned immediately to hearty soups, stews and things baked in the oven. Summer in Belgium is all about barbecuing, but fall is when traditional Flemish foods shine.

I was wondering what to make for dinner last night, and thinking that I really should use up the half a head of cabbage lurking in the fridge. Suddenly it came to me: Stoemp! The perfect mid-week dish for a gray, fall day. It's so easy to make, and has the added benefit of making boring ol' white cabbage much more interesting.

What's stoemp, you say? It's mashed potatoes with another vegetable smashed in. Popular choices are carrots, spinach and leeks, but you could use almost anything as long as it combines with potatoes. It's such a simple yet brilliant concept, I wonder why I had never heard of it until I moved to Belgium. I mean, who doesn't like mashed potatoes? Adding another vegetable makes the humble potato kinda sexy--and even more nutritious.

I found a recipe for Stoemp Met Prei (stoemp with leeks) in English. The basic cooking method is to prepare mashed potatoes as you normally would, then add in a second cooked and mashed (or chopped) vegetable. Use a little cream, milk or stock and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. The classic accompaniment to stoemp is grilled sausage, but it's also good with pork chops. (We had pork sausages, grilled in a pan, last night.) Enjoy!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Birthday largesse

Today is my sweetie's birthday. So this morning, I rolled over, wished him a happy birthday, gave him a kiss... and then exclaimed, "Oh no! I forgot that you have to bring treats to work! I should have made brownies yesterday."

He'd forgotten too. "You could just pick up a box of chocolates at the train station on your way to the office," I offered helpfully. But we both knew that was going to be an obvious last-minute ploy, the usual fall-back when you don't have something better. Unremarkable and uninteresting.

(One of the things I love most about living here: Belgian chocolates can actually be considered ordinary.)

I said, half-jokingly, "If I got started now, they'd be done in an hour. What time do you have to be at work?" But as it turned out, Piet had brought some work home last night that still wasn't done. He decided to finish it this morning, while I baked, and go in a bit late.

Back in the U.S., we expect (or hope) that on our birthday, our co-workers will take us out to lunch. Maybe the boss will spring for a cake. If your colleagues really like you, they may even go in on a group gift and card.

The exception is of course elementary school, where the birthday boy or girl will bring cupcakes to class, thereby ensuring at least one day of peer-group popularity. Assuming your mom can bake, that is--or is willing to spring for store-bought cupcakes laden with sugary icing and sprinkles.

Here in Belgium, this practice continues for the rest of your life. It doesn't have to be cupcakes (which are actually something of a novelty here), but you are expected to bring treats of some sort to work or school. Chocolates, or course, are standard and easily acquired.

Once I had a student in the English-conversation class I teach at the local community center bring a whole vlaai (a kind of local pie) to class along with plates, forks and napkins. A couple of years ago, Piet took fresh fruit to work.

If you're Belgian, you can still expect to receive presents from your close friends and family on your birthday. But your colleagues and classmates are freed from so much as having to remember your birthday, much less plan for it.

Instead, you offer them something nice to eat, ensuring that your birthday is a special day for them too, and receiving lots of heartfelt birthday wishes in return.

Unfortunately, my brownies were undercooked--I guessed I rushed them a bit--so Piet had to settle for half a pan. Only the ones around the edges were good. Still, I hear they were a hit with his co-workers.

I have another shot at it, though. Since he splits his time between Brussels and Hasselt, he has to take treats to the other office tomorrow. I have a second batch in the oven now.