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.