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!)