Thursday, December 12, 2013

Home for the holidays

In a couple of days my husband and I will board a plane for the States, where we'll visit friends and celebrate the Christmas holidays with my family. It'll be the first time in three years that we're back in the USA for Christmas, and I can't wait.

Not that I don't enjoy the holiday season here in Belgium. The old Flemish cities are at their picturesque best this time of year, with all the Christmas greenery and lights. Christmas markets are sprouting up everywhere, and I've already drunk my fill of mulled wine, whipped cream-topped hot chocolate and flavored jenevers at Hasselt's Winterland, which is like a sugar-fueled, Santa-themed carnival on acid.

Hasselt's Winterland

But there's something special about Christmas in America, and it's just not the same here. No other holiday comes close in terms of nostalgia, anticipation, excitement and excess. Christmas isn't only the biggest holiday of the year—it's the one that is most closely bound up with our childhood memories, our family dynamics, and our favorite rituals, whether religious or secular.

Of course, there are all the negatives: the commercialism, the expectations, the disappointment. Everyone complains about the pressure to buy more (and more expensive) gifts. The stress of attending all those holiday parties and managing holiday schedules. The powder keg of emotions that any family gathering inevitably becomes... and the depression that can easily take hold when the reality of the holidays doesn't match our dreams.

But that's the dark side of a holiday that's all about light. For most Americans, Christmas is about getting together with our loved ones and sharing a meal while dressed in our prettiest party clothes. It's about decorating the house, putting up the tree, and hanging up ornaments that have been carefully collected over the years. It's about listening to Christmas carols on the radio, even the ones we claim to hate. It's about finding the perfect gift for your favorite aunt, and sending Christmas cards the old-fashioned way, by mail.

Christmas tree in the Grand Place, Brussels
I've found that Christmas in Belgium doesn't have the same emotional pull for people here. Children have Sinterklaas on December 6, when they receive special treats and presents. That's the holiday most people associate with cherished childhood memories. Traditionally, families would go to church on Christmas eve, eat dinner together and maybe open presents. It just wasn't a big deal. It seems that many of the Christmas traditions now seen in Belgium have been imported from Germany, England or America in recent years.

This year, I'm looking forward to my family's Christmas traditions: We'll dress up and go to church on Christmas Eve, and then my aunt will host a party afterwards with cocktails, egg nog and lots of food. On Christmas morning, we'll open our stockings (stuffed with small gifts and treats from “Santa”) in our pajamas, and then get dressed for a late breakfast. After breakfast, we'll open the piles of presents under the tree. Later we'll go for a winter walk on the beach before starting on dinner preparations.

Christmas dinner will be a formal affair with fancy dishes and the good silver. It will be followed by a Christmas pudding (purchased at the English shop in Brussels and brought over on the plane) crowned with a holly sprig, doused in brandy and lit on fire. Everyone will be slightly tipsy by then and we'll finish by pulling our crackers and reading the bad jokes while wearing paper crowns. (NB: many of our Christmas traditions are British, since my family is from England.)

My family's Christmas table
Last year, we went to my Flemish in-laws' house on Christmas Day for a family dinner. It was very relaxed and not so different from other family gatherings. We didn't exchange presents. But there are a few Christmas traditions that I refuse to give up, even here in Belgium. I insisted on having stockings for myself and my husband (even though I had to fill both of them myself). I drove my husband crazy by playing Christmas music for weeks. And I decorated our Christmas tree with the ornaments I've been collecting for over 20 years, which were among the few things I brought with me from America.

Friday, November 15, 2013

How not to make friends and influence people

It's taken me almost four years, but I've finally “cottoned on” to something about Flemish behavior that is subtly different from that of Americans. Of course everyone knows that American society prizes individuality to an almost pathological degree. At its best, this cultural bias celebrates individual talent and independence; at its worst, it tends towards selfishness and egocentrism.

On the other hand, it might seem obvious that, here in Flanders, individuality is rather less celebrated. But it took me a long time to understand how this cultural difference plays out in ordinary social interactions. What this means is that, when dealing with others, the group dynamic and group identity are much more important than individual wishes or needs.

I'm accustomed to putting my own wishes and needs first, and I'm not shy about voicing my opinions when in a group. I don't expect everyone to agree with me or to go along with me, but I'm also used to everyone else doing the same. My husband finds this behavior off-putting, and will rarely put forth an opinion unless and until he senses that it will be well received by the others.

Members of a group, when making plans or decisions, will carefully consider what will be best for the majority rather than taking stock of everyone's individual desires and hashing it out from there—which is the method I'm used to. In practice, this means that a group will tend to go with what's tried and true, or what's the easiest plan for all involved. And then it's expected that everyone will go along with the plan.

I'm learning that it's not always wise or welcome to blurt out what I want or what I think when in a group. It's not easy to hold my tongue, but I now realize that doing what comes naturally can come across as bossy, selfish or arrogant. Flemish people might seem easy-going and accommodating, but that doesn't mean they like it when someone tries to dominate the group. They expect everyone to help reach a mutual consensus.

Once we rented a vacation house for the weekend with a group of my husband's friends. It seemed like a fun idea—and it was fun. However, I found the experience to be exhausting. As a natural introvert, I was uncomfortable spending all my time in the company of the entire group. There was no opportunity to “go off and do your own thing.” Nor was there an opportunity to do something other than what the group as a whole decided to do.

There are times when I would much rather sit by myself and read a book instead of having to interact with a large group. Here in Flanders, either you join the group or you risk being seen as antisocial. My husband says it's acceptable to sit quietly, whereas I feel pressure (as an American) to make conversation. Where I come from, you have to be “on” in social situations. But you're also allowed to go off and be by yourself if you prefer.

Once, when I went back to California for a friend's wedding, a group of my closest friends rented a beach cottage for a bachelorette weekend. At one point my then-boyfriend called and asked what we were doing. I told him that we'd all brought projects to work on and were happily “doing our own thing” (while enjoying each other's company). He found that exceedingly odd. In his words, “Why go away for the weekend if you're not going to do things together?”

And yet, we Americans saw nothing contradictory in our desire to get together and engage in separate activities. We also did things together as a group that weekend. But it never occurred to us that spending the weekend together meant that we would do everything together. If some of the group wanted to go for a walk, it was acceptable for others in the group to opt out.

I doubt I will ever fully relinquish my tendency to speak my mind and do what I want. But the longer I live here, the more I appreciate the Flemish practice of building consensus and fostering group cohesion. It seems to strengthen group identity among family, friends and colleagues in a way that is different from what I experienced in America. Still, I wonder if people here ever wish they could assert their individuality a little more...

(A version of this post appeared on the website of Fans of Flanders, an English-language TV program about expat life in Dutch-speaking Belgium.)

Friday, October 11, 2013

Exploring the Congo in Tervuren

If I seem a bit preoccupied with history, well... it's probably because I am. I was a history major in college, and I'm fascinated with the past. Strangely enough, I was never that interested in American history, but focused my studies on medieval Europe. Which makes living in Belgium an absolute joy, what with all that was going on here in the Middle Ages.

Maybe it's because I didn't grow up here, but I find myself getting more and more interested in the Belgium's modern history too. I grew up hearing about George Washington, the Revolutionary War, the Declaration of Independence, blah blah blah, year after year. It was all so boring... And yet I knew nothing about the history of Belgium when I arrived here three years ago! Nothing at all! It's all so new and exciting and surprising.

Take, for instance, Belgium's involvement in the Congo. Sure, I'd heard of Joseph Conrad's famous novel, Heart of Darkness (which I confess I've never read), and I even knew that it was the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film Apocalypse Now (which I've never seen). But I did NOT know that the novel was set in the Belgian Congo, or that it was inspired by Conrad's own experience working for a Belgian trading company in the Congo.

In fact, I didn't know anything at all about the history of the Congo before I came to Belgium. Which is one of the reasons I was so eager to visit the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren before it closes for renovations at the end of November. So a couple of weeks ago, an American friend and I made the trip out to Tervuren, on the outskirts of Brussels.

The building itself is a grand, Neoclassical palace, built to showcase the natural resources of the Congo to the rest of the world when it was still under Belgian rule. Stepping through the front doors, we found ourselves in a huge, marble-clad entry hall surmounted by a tall dome. There are gilt sculptures of idealized Europeans bringing charity and civilization to poor African children. It's not just a museum of African art and artifacts, but of colonialism itself.

Some of the exhibit halls look as though they haven't changed since the last museum renovation in the 1950's. Other rooms still have their original painted murals and wooden cases from 1910. Even the organization and display of the collections is like something out of the last century, with shelves of specimen jars and stuffed animals posed in “lifelike” scenarios. It's incredible that such an important institution has managed to fall so far behind current museum standards.

I can't help but wonder if the decades of neglect had something to do with Belgium's unwillingness to take a good, long look at its colonial legacy in the Congo. It seems to me (as an outsider) that the history of the Congo is something that Belgium is doing its best to forget. In any case, I haven't seen or heard much about it since I've been here. I've even heard a couple of Belgians say something to the effect of, “Well, we don't have the problem with race/a history of slavery like you do in America.”

I hope that the renovation of the Africa Museum means that the Belgian government is ready to take on the issue of the Congo, and that the reopened museum will be a place where Belgians and foreigners alike can come to terms with what happened there under Belgian rule. I look forward to returning in three years and learning more about central Africa... but I do hope they leave those beautiful murals and at least some of the creepy specimen jars.

(A version of this post appears on the website of Fans of Flanders, an English-language TV show about expat life in Dutch-speaking Belgium.)

Thursday, September 12, 2013

A country steeped in history

It all started with “Downton Abbey.”

I've been watching the British TV series from the beginning and fell in love with the period it portrays, especially (I confess) the clothes, but also the nostalgia and romance of what seems to be a lost world. There's a sense that a certain style of living was coming to end, and that the twentieth century was about to start in earnest—with the outbreak of World War I.

Soon after “Downton Abbey” became a hit TV show, the BBC produced another miniseries set in the period around WWI. “Parade's End” was based on a British novel and filmed in part here in Belgium. It also focuses on the loss of innocence and privilege among the British aristocracy during the war years, but it takes a more serious approach than “Downton” and shows more of the horrors of the war.

I happened to end up working on the set of “Parade's End” for a couple of scenes shot in Flanders, and had to quickly learn about dining habits and recipes in the years 1914-1918. I was hired (at the last minute, out of desperation, I think) as the food stylist, which meant prepping meals for actors to pretend to eat on camera. It was a crash course in Edwardian cuisine and manners.

My curiosity about the Great War grew out of my interest in these TV shows and for the world they portray. I confess I was never very interested in military history and knew very little about WWI. I didn't even know that much of the fighting took place in West Flanders, or that Belgium was the site of the Allies' last European defenses, until I moved here.

Of course, now that I live in Belgium, I can't help but be aware of the great impact both World Wars had on the history of this country and the role that Belgium played in the military strategies of the great European powers. And with the centennial of the outbreak of WWI just around the corner, Belgium is gearing up to receive visitors coming to pay their respects at the battlefields and monuments along the former front lines in West Flanders.

I decided that I should learn more about WWI, not just because it's important but almost out of a sense of embarrassment that I know so little. I started with Wikipedia and then decided to read a book for a more thorough account of the war. After perusing a few dozen titles, I chose The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman as my starting point, in part because the book won a Pulitzer Prize and in part because it covers the outbreak and first days of the war, which seemed a good place to begin.

It's slow going. I'm reminded of the reasons why I never liked this part of history class in school: the jumble of foreign general's names, the descriptions of troop movements, the dissection of military strategies. And yet, I find myself getting drawn into the story, in large part because I now have a context for the events I'm reading about.

When Tuchman talks about King Albert I deciding to stand and fight, I can picture the equestrian statue at the foot of the Kunstberg in Brussels, and I feel I know this man. When she describes German troop mobilization towards Luik, I understand, for the first time, exactly where they are headed, and I understand the role that the mighty Maas river played in the armies' troop deployments.

This is the difference between learning about history as a bored American high school student, hearing about far-away, long-ago events in places with strange names... and learning about them as a resident of and visitor to those places, with a concrete grasp of the underlying geography, the culture, and the people who live there. Suddenly the events of August 1914 seem very real to me.

So I recommend that you expats and natives alike take the time to learn more about the history of Belgium, whether it's World War I or some other period. Read a book, or visit a museum. So much has happened within the borders of this little country, and I truly believe that you have to study the past if you want to understand the present.

Plus, as one of my American friends said during a visit to Belgium, “Europe: It's where the history comes from.”

(A version of this post appeared on the website of Fans of Flanders, an English-language TV program about expat life in Dutch-speaking Belgium.)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Going to the movies in Belgium

I don't know why I haven't posted about this topic before now. I love movies, and I especially love going to the movie theater to see them on the big screen. In fact, it's one of the first things I experienced in Belgium that gave me that sense of culture shock--of suddenly finding myself in an alternate universe where things are almost the same as in "my world" but not quite...

If you go to a movie theater in Belgium, it looks just like a movie theater in the U.S. Here in Hasselt, we have a giant multiplex with 10 or 12 screens that's part of a cinema chain called Kinepolis. You go in, choose your movie and buy your ticket...

And here's the first odd thing about going to the movies in Belgium: All the screenings start at (approximately) the same time. The first one is at 2:00 pm, the second one around 5:00, then another one at 8:00 and the late show is around 10:30. There's some variation--the first showing might be at 1:45 or 2:15, for instance--but in general the times are fixed and they're on the quarter-hour.

Where I come from, every movie has different start times, depending on the length of the movie. The theater allows just enough time to clear and clean the room and then a new screening starts. What's nice about this system is that if you're running late and miss your movie, you can just choose another one that's starting soon. But you do have to check the schedule to find out when your movie is showing, whether it's 3:35 or 7:10 or whatever.

Once you have your ticket, you hand it to the attendant who tears off the stub and hands it back to you. That's perfectly normal. And then you proceed to the concession stand to buy your popcorn... But beware! This is very important: The popcorn in Belgium is SWEET. That's right. They put sugar instead of butter and salt on the popcorn in the movie theaters. 

At Kinepolis, they sometimes have salted popcorn too, but there's just a few sad buckets of it and it's usually kind of stale. Because no one eats it except me.

Also: You can buy beer and wine and take it into the theater. Back in Los Angeles, there's a fancy movie theater called the Arclight, which has a bar. You have to drink your beer or cocktail at the bar, unless it's a special 21-and-over screening, in which case you can take your drink with you but they check your I.D. In Belgium, you just grab your beer instead of a Coke and take it to the register along with your popcorn, candy and nachos.

So now you're comfortably ensconced in your seat with your alcoholic beverage and sweet popcorn, waiting for the movie to start at the designated time... and waiting... and waiting. Hey, wasn't this movie supposed to start at 8:00? Well, here in Belgium, the posted start times are 15 minutes before the movie starts. And by "movie," I mean the previews. So I've learned to show up at the theater at the posted start time. Which I guess is the point.

Finally, the movie starts, and it's great. You're really getting into the story, things are starting to get exciting, the action reaches a critical juncture--and then the movie stops and the lights come up.

Huh? What's happening? Is there a problem? And why is no one reacting?

Well, that's because it's time for intermission. Halfway through the movie, there's a 10-minute break--presumably to let people go to the bathroom and buy more sweet popcorn. It can happen mid-scene, even mid-sentence, without any regard for dramatic tension or story coherence. To me, it's simply outrageous. I'd rather choose when to interrupt my movie-going experience in order to go pee, even if it means missing 5 minutes of the movie.

So there you have it: Your complete guide to going to the movies in Belgium. I wish someone had prepped me before my first trip to the theater. Between the sweet popcorn, the delayed start time and the sudden interruption, I was thoroughly confused. I'm getting used to it now--but I still miss butter on my popcorn.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Going abroad... to go to the beach

Last weekend, my husband and I decided, on the spur of the moment, to ditch our plans for Saturday and drive to the beach instead. The day was already shaping up to be warm and sunny, and after the long, cold spring we were more than ready for some summer weather. Our friends were already on their way, and the thought of them lying on the sand soaking up the rays without us, or worse yet—enjoying a cold sangria on the beach without us—was too much to bear. We loaded up the car with towels, sunscreen and the dog, and we hit the road.

The radio was full of dire warnings about the terrible traffic on major highways heading towards the Belgian coast. Traffic jams going to and from the beach towns are inevitable on summer weekends, especially when the weather is good. Personally, I have no desire to sit in traffic for 3-4 hours, even if there's an ocean view and a sea breeze at the end of it. What makes this prospect even less appealing is the knowledge that you'll end up at the Belgian coast.

Belgium has just 30 kilometers of coastline fronting the North Sea. The towns along the coast—Nieuwpoort, Koksijde, Oostende, Blankenberge—are historic beach resorts with lovely city centers, nice restaurants, museums and casinos. The beaches themselves are beautiful, with wide expanses of white sand and panoramic ocean views... except they are backed by row after row of high-rise hotels and apartment blocks. The Belgian coast is one of the worst examples of real estate development unfettered by government regulation, and of natural beauty spoiled by human intervention.

The Belgian coast

We avoided the traffic jams and the depressing sight of all those concrete towers by heading further east, towards the coastal area of the Netherlands called Zeeland (literally “Sea-land”). Zeeland, unlike the Belgian coast, is completely devoid of high rises, big hotels or concrete apartment buildings. The dunes are intact and the natural beauty is unspoiled. The beaches are much less crowded, too.

We went to a town called Renesse, which sits on an island created by estuaries of the North Sea. We parked at a big, free parking lot in the city center, a kilometer or so from the ocean, and boarded the free shuttle bus to the beach. The bus dropped us off at the bottom of a footpath that led over the dunes directly to the public beach. To either side of the path, just past the dunes, were two restaurants with big outdoor seating areas overlooking the ocean. Everything was so convenient and so well-organized, it was like being at an expensive resort.


I asked my husband later, on the way home, why more Belgians don't go to Zeeland instead of the Belgian coast. He said, “Because it's foreign.” After all, the Netherlands is another country—albeit one with a common language and similar culture to Belgium! Apparently most Belgians would rather put up with horrible traffic, crowded beaches and ugly views if it means they can stay in Belgium. Personally, I just don't get it.

Maybe that's because I'm already a foreigner here, so going to the Netherlands doesn't seem any more foreign to me. Then again, traveling to a “foreign” country to go to the beach seems rather exciting to me! Even if it's not Spain, or the Bahamas. All I know is, I much prefer the Dutch coast to the Belgian one, and will continue to head there when the sun shines and the temperature rises.  

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

When the potatoes come out

Just about every day, I come across some Flemish word or expression that tickles my fancy. These range from the curious to the hilarious, and I often think about putting them in a blog post. But as with all my blog post ideas, only about 10% ever make into the blog...

But this one was too good not to share with you.

The other day, my husband suddenly announced, apropos of nothing, "The potatoes are coming out!"

I considered this revelation for a moment, wondering what the proper response might be, so he repeated, "The potatoes are coming out!" To which I replied, "Am I supposed to know what that means? Is it code for something? Or is it one of your funny Flemish expressions?"

As it turned out, it was the latter. My husband, like many Dutch-speaking Belgians, loves to translate native phrases directly into English, with results that are usually quite cryptic, if not comical.

My husband proudly lifted his leg and waved his foot at me. I immediately "got it"--his big toe, peeking out of a hole in his sock, actually did resemble a tiny little potato.

So there you have it: The next time your toe bursts through the hole in your sock, you can announce the event with the Flemish expression, "De aardappelen komen uit!" The potatoes are coming out--not from the ground, but from your sock.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

BBQ time!

Today is a rare summer day that actually feels like summer, with clear skies and temperatures heading upwards of 30°C. (For the record, I consider June to be one of the summer months, along with July and August, whereas here in Belgium summer doesn't officially begin until June 21.) After the miserably cold and rainy spring, I'm starved for sun and warmth, so I'm suddenly feeling a bit giddy—as well as a bit stressed.

The stress comes from the knowledge that this summery weather will soon be replaced, once again, by clouds and rain. MUST TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE NICE WEATHER WHILE IT LASTS!!! Quick, let's drive to the coast and jump in the ocean! Or round up some friends and try to find a café that still has a free table outside! Or, better yet, let's fire up the grill and throw a barbecue!

Belgians LOVE to barbecue. It combines some of their favorite things: getting together with friends and family, eating lots of meat, drinking, and spending time outdoors. As soon as the weather permits, everyone's weekends are occupied with either hosting or attending various barbecues, which can range from casual, simple affairs or full-blown, catered extravaganzas.

We recently attended a family barbecue that fell into the latter category. A traiteur (butcher) was hired to supply the food for about 25 adults and a bunch of kids. He showed up with his grill and was soon stoking the coals while his wife laid out the salads and side dishes. There was potato salad and cole slaw, sliced tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, pasta salad, cucumber salad and rice, along with big bowls of mayonnaise-based sauces. (And, of course, bread.)

Here in Belgium, mayonnaise--plain or in its many flavored varieties--is the main condiment for both meat and vegetables. Salad dressing as we know it (Italian, ranch, blue cheese, etc.) is a rarity. And BBQ sauce? That staple of every American barbecue, in all its glorious forms, whether spicy, sweet, smoky, or hotter-n-hell—is completely unknown. Imagine that! All those Belgian barbecues with no BBQ sauce... Kinda makes you sad, doesn't it?

My husband's favorite BBQ condiment is something called "cocktail sauce," which is a mixture of mayonnaise and ketchup. Where I come from, that's called "Thousand Island dressing" and it's used on salads. To me, "cocktail sauce" is a spicy dipping sauce for seafood made from ketchup and horseradish. But I digress...

At our family BBQ, the grill man was soon churning out platter after platter of meat. No hot dogs or beef burgers—Oh no. But we had (pork-based) hamburger patties and big juicy bratwursts. We had marinated pork chops and thick slabs of bacon. We had pork skewers and chicken skewers. We had skinny sausages called chipolatas and spicy merguez. The meat just kept coming, and we just kept eating. A Belgian BBQ is first and foremost about the meat. Mostly chicken, pork and sausage, but sometimes beef as well.

The good news is, you don't have to hire a caterer or spend time prepping lots of food if you want to have a barbecue. The supermarkets are well-stocked with ready-to-cook barbecue meat, ranging from pre-marinated ribs to ready-made skewers of meat and veggies. All you have to do is pick up a variety of grill-ready meats, some pre-made potato or pasta salad, some charcoal, and you're all set.

In fact, you can probably forget about the salad, as long as you have meat and bread. According to my husband, the other essentials for a classic Belgian BBQ besides meat and bread are sliced tomatoes and canned peaches. Just don't forget the drinks. And the mayonnaise!

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

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Getting married in Belgium, Part II

This is a follow-up to an earlier post about my wedding, which took place last summer. I always meant to write another post about getting married here but somehow never got around to it--until now. Since our one-year anniversary is just around the corner, I figured I shouldn't wait any longer to write it!

One of the strangest things for me (as an American) to wrap my head around was the Belgian custom of inviting different people to different wedding events.

Where I come from, a wedding is considered a single event comprised of different activities, to which all guests are invited and expected to attend. The usual sequence goes something like this: wedding service (civil or religious) followed by wedding reception, either at the same venue or a different location. The reception usually involves drinks (champagne), then a formal dinner, and finally dancing.

The creation of the guest list is a complicated and tortuous affair, made even more difficult by budget concerns when providing dinner and drinks for everyone on the list. The final guest list has to include a carefully calibrated mixture of close friends, casual friends, immediate family, distant relatives, co-workers and professional acquaintances of both the bride and the groom, and perhaps the parents as well.

Here in Belgium, it is customary to have a different guest list for each wedding activity. For instance, pretty much everyone is invited to attend the civil ceremony; there's no cost to the couple and because it takes place in a public venue (at city hall) anyone can show up and watch. On the other hand, if there's going to be another ceremony (in a church) only close friends and family might be invited and expected to attend. In general, people outside the couple's immediate circle are happy to skip the church ceremony.

Then there might be two or three different celebratory events after the ceremony (or ceremonies). First, a champagne reception for the people invited to the church ceremony. Then a formal dinner for just the immediate family and closest friends. And finally an evening party with music and dancing for the wider circle of friends, acquaintances and other relatives. (At the evening party, there will often be a casual buffet served late in the evening with sandwiches or snacks.)

Breaking the wedding up into different events (sometimes taking place over two or more days) has two advantages: First of all, you can tailor the guest list to the event, limiting the more intimate events to your inner circle of family and friends and including everyone else in a big dance party. Secondly, it saves money since you're not expected or obliged to provide a formal, sit-down dinner to all of your guests--which is often the biggest wedding expense. It's a very practical system.

However, I just couldn't do it. To me it felt rude to exclude some of my guests from certain events. I couldn't bring myself to invite people to my wedding service and then tell them to get lost for a few hours while I went to a nice dinner with my family and closest friends, even though my husband assured me that no Belgian would take offense.

In the end, because our second ceremony took place in the same location (an old, renovated farmhouse) where we had the reception and party, it didn't make sense to break up the guest list anyway. Everyone who came to the ceremony stayed for the champagne reception, sit-down dinner and dancing. And because I had family and friends coming from the United States and England, having our guests spend the whole day together gave everyone the chance to get to know each other.

Some of our Belgian friends couldn't make it to the ceremony since it was on a Friday afternoon and they had to work, so they just showed up during dinner. I found that strange. In America, either you come to the wedding or you don't. You don't accept part of the invitation and you definitely don't skip the wedding ceremony itself. I'm pretty sure Emily Post would not approve, but then she's not Belgian.

I was used to thinking of the wedding ceremony as the most important part of the wedding and my job as guest was to witness and support the couple during this momentous and romantic event. Here, the ceremony is considered a boring formality, and the guest's role is to help celebrate afterwards. Perhaps this is because civil and Catholic weddings tend to be rather formulaic and impersonal, whereas we Americans put a lot of emphasis on customizing the wedding ceremony to reflect the couple's personality and beliefs.

In the end, our wedding day was a reflection of our marriage and ourselves: a combination of American and Belgian influences and traditions. The civil ceremony was in Dutch and the religious ceremony was in English. We sang songs and had readings in both languages. We served Flemish food for dinner and had an American-style tiered wedding cake. The DJ played both Belgian and American music, and the dance floor was full all night long.

It was everything I wanted our wedding to be, and it was perfect.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

White Gold Time

It's asparagus season in Belgium, which means that the markets (both supermarkets and outdoor markets) are overflowing with piles of white asparagus. In Flemish, it's also known as wit goud or “white gold,” because it's expensive and coveted.

Where I come from, I'd only seen white asparagus in glass jars. Fresh asparagus was always green, and in California it's available year-round. (Here, you can find green asparagus but it doesn't inspire the fervent devotion that the white variety enjoys. The white stuff is actually the same plant, but cultivated underground so it doesn't turn green.)

White asparagus is available in different sizes ranging from pencil-thin to great, thick stalks several centimeters in diameter. The thicker stalks have to be peeled before cooking, leaving just the tender, inner flesh. White asparagus is prized for its delicate flavor, considered sweeter then regular asparagus. It's usually boiled and served with a sauce, although it also turns up in soups and other dishes.

Many Belgian restaurants feature special asparagus menus during asparagus season, giving the true aficionado the chance to eat appetizers, main dishes and even desserts made with the beloved stuff. I recently ordered steamed cod served with asparagus and sea vegetables off the asparagus menu at a local brasserie.

My favorite way to eat this springtime treat is also one of the simplest: Asperges vlaamse wijze or asperges flamande. “Flemish-style asparagus” is just peeled and cooked asparagus spears topped with diced hard-boiled egg, clarified butter and fresh parsley. This classic dish is easy to find in Belgian restaurants this time of year, but it's also easy to make at home.

Belgians don't benefit from the warm, sunny growing climate of California, so the regular diet is heavy on potatoes, leeks, cabbages and carrots—what are usually considered “winter vegetables.” So perhaps that's why the annual appearance of white asparagus creates such excitement. It's only available for a short time, and then it's back to potatoes and cabbage. Until next spring.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Hungry? Eat a sandwich!

Today I want to talk about something near and dear to every Belgian's heart (at least in Flanders... I don't know if it's the same in Wallonia). Something that is essential to the Flemish character, something ingrained in the Flemish consciousness and necessary to every Flemish person's well-being.

I'm not talking about family, or cycling, or even beer. No, I'm talking about sandwiches.
The Flemish love sandwiches. A friend of mine (who's not Flemish) says that they're sandwich-obsessed. She may have a point. They sure do eat a lot of them.

At this point, I have to clarify my use of the word “sandwich.” Where I come from, a sandwich is any hand-held food item involving two pieces of bread with something in between. It could be a BLT, egg salad on sourdough, a turkey club, peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat, a Reuben, an Italian sub, or any variation of bread+not bread+bread you can imagine.

Here in Flanders, there are different names for different kinds of sandwiches. First of all, a “sandwich” in Flemish parlance isn't a sandwich at all. It's a soft, oval-shaped roll, kind of like a dinner roll, that's often used to make a kind of mini-sandwich. But to be perfectly clear, it's the bread itself that's called a sandwich. Confusing, isn't it?

Then you have the most basic type of sandwich: two slices of bread with something in between. This is what's known around here as a boterham. As the name suggests, it's usually made with butter (never mayonnaise!) and a thin slice of deli meat, like ham or chicken. Or maybe cheese. But a boterham has just one ingredient other than bread and butter! You do not put lettuce, tomatoes, pickles or anything else on your boterham.

I remember when I first came to Belgium, I thought that a boterham was a sad and boring excuse for a sandwich. It's so thin! And it's mostly bread! It's a sign of how long I've been here that I now view them as perfectly normal. My husband eats a boterham every day for breakfast, and another two for lunch. If I had to eat a boterham twice a day every day, I'd probably slit my wrists.

If you want a sandwich with more than one ingredient, what you want is a broodje. Now, a broodje (literally “little bread”) is technically a small baguette (or stokbrood in Dutch), so to be correct, what you want is a belegde broodje, or “filled little bread.” The most basic kind is a smos, which is shorthand for lettuce, tomato, cucumber, sliced egg and mayonnaise. I prefer a smos-kaas-hesp, which is a smos with ham and cheese.

But there are many other kinds of broodjes, and this is the kind of sandwich you will most likely purchase at a café or lunch counter. It's the standard quick meal when you're out and about, and they're usually fresh and quite good.

However, I must warn you about one type of sandwich filling you might encounter in a broodje. It's something called Américain, which is horribly misleading and actually rather mean. As an American, I object strenuously to this misnomer, which is used to describe raw ground beef.First of all, no American is going to eat raw ground beef. Ewww! And second of all... why call it something that makes me think it's from America? Which it certainly is not.

Besides boterhammen and broodjes, you also have the many variations on grilled cheese sandwiches, which are Belgian menu staples. There's the croque monsieur (grilled ham and cheese), croque madame (with an egg on top), croque Hawaii (pineapple ring on top) and croque Bolognaise (covered with—you guessed it—Bolognaise sauce). There are others besides.

Anyway, you get the idea. There are lots of sandwiches being eaten in Flanders. I know I've eaten more sandwiches since coming to Belgium than I had eaten back in the U.S. since leaving elementary school. More than fries, more than mussels or waffles, I have to say that the sandwich is really the national dish. 

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

Friday, April 5, 2013

A Crock-Pot in every kitchen

One of the hardest things about moving to a country on the other side of the ocean is getting rid of all your stuff. To this day, I sometimes think about things that I sold or gave away and wish I still had them. Some things I thought I wouldn't need again; others, I thought I could always replace if it turned out I did need them.

Once I moved in with the Belgian who's now my husband and started cooking again, I had to get used to a new kitchen, his pots and pans, and the mysteries of the Belgian grocery store--not to mention using the metric system for measurements. Everything was different. Time and time again, I found myself wishing I had my old potato ricer, or my old garlic press, or my set of nesting glass mixing bowls.

One of the things I missed the most was my Crock-Pot (the original slow cooker). I had an old one that belonged to my mother and probably dated from the mid-1970's. It, like all of my kitchen wares, stayed in Los Angeles with one of my friends. (To this day, I can spot my former belongings when I walk into a friend's house. "Hey, isn't that one of my coffee mugs?")

This is what my old Crock-Pot looked like

I started looking around for a new one... and quickly discovered that Belgians don't use slow cookers. They're hard to find, and the ones you do find (in specialty kitchen stores) tend to be expensive. Walk into any electronics store here and you will see two dozen home fryers... but not a single Crock-Pot. For the record, I never knew anyone in the Unites States who owned a deep fryer. But anyone who cooks is sure to own a Crock-Pot. Or two.

I find this absence of slow cookers puzzling considering the Belgian love of soups and stews. These days, people are getting creative and making all kinds of exotic things in their Crock-Pots: chicken mole, bread pudding, Chinese barbecue pork. But the Crock-Pot was made for dishes that need long cooking times, like your classic boeuf carbonnade or stoofvlees, a Belgian menu staple.

When I've asked people around here why they don't use slow cookers, I first have to explain what it is. And then I have to try and convince them that it's useful to be able to assemble your stew or soup, put it in the pot, turn it on and leave it for hours. Americans love the convenience of being able to cook something while they're at work, or sleeping, or out watching a softball game or a movie.

Belgians just can't seem to see the point. They're perfectly happy cooking their soups and stews on the stove, or in the oven, tending the fire and checking the pot for hours. At least, that's what they tell me. I suspect that if they actually had a Crock-Pot, and learned how to use it, they'd love it just as much as we Americans do.

This is what a fancy new Crock-Pot looks like

My Belgian husband couldn't understand why I was obsessed with buying a Crock-Pot. That is, until our most recent trip to Los Angeles.

We threw a Hawaiian-themed party for friends who couldn't make it to our wedding last year, and two of my friends volunteered to make kalua pork. For those of you who have never tasted kalua pork, let me tell you that it's one of the tastiest things you can do to a pig, and the Crock-Pot is the perfect tool for making it at home. Traditionally, kalua pork was made by roasting a whole pig in an underground firepit. The Crock-Pot is much easier.

Once my husband had tasted kalua pork, he was very motivated to buy a slow cooker when we got home. (The Crock-Pot brand isn't available here.) Luckily, the Aldi (a German discount grocery chain) near our house had them for a limited time and I picked one up for only 25 € the week we got back. I have great plans for it, starting with chicken mole and kalua pork. But I'm also planning to cook Belgian dishes in it too.

So begins my campaign to convert an entire country to the joys of the slow cooker.

Monday, February 25, 2013

My daily source of exasperation

It's the little things that drive you crazy.

As an expat living in a foreign land, I can accept a wide range of strange and unfamiliar practices that fall under the heading “Cultural Differences.” I understand that people here have their own customs and habits, and that it is up to me, as an outsider, to adapt and assimilate.

However, there are some things that I simply cannot accept—things that I view not as cultural differences born of this country's unique history, language or traditions, but as serious errors. Yes, it's true: There are a few things about life in Flanders that are just plain wrong.

Take TV, for instance. One of my pet peeves is the mysterious logic behind television programming. Flemish TV channels carry a lot of American shows, which is great—until you realize that they're showing episodes from last season. Or maybe it's the current season, but the episodes are several months old, so you end up watching the Christmas episode of “Castle” in February.

Often there seems to be no logic at all to the scheduling or programming of shows. They'll show the previous season of “Bones,” and then when it's over, start again with episodes that are 4 years old. For no apparent reason. Shows regularly jump from one time slot to another, or from one day of the week to another, without warning.

There's no respect for the intrinsic structure and rhythm of your typical TV show. A one-hour drama is built around commercial breaks at specific times, with one scene ending at the cut and another picking up after the lead-in. Flemish broadcasters run right through the break, and then insert a commercial somewhere else in the episode, usually at the worst possible moment, mid-scene or even mid-sentence.

Here's another thing that I find maddening: TV shows don't start and end on the hour or half-hour like they do in the US! Each channel has its own schedule with shows starting and ending at completely random times that are completely different from all the other channels. Nowadays, with DVRs, it's easy enough to record one show and watch another, but how did this system ever come to be in the first place?

And I have the distinct impression that the start and end times listed on the channel guide are just suggestions. Nothing ever seems to start at the time it's supposed to.

Maybe it's the fact that I used to work in the entertainment industry, or the fact that I'm addicted to TV (can you tell?) that makes me so particular about how my favorite shows are presented. Or maybe it's part of my greater frustration over being a slave to television broadcasters in the first place.

By the time I left the US three years ago, I was watching less and less TV on my television and more TV shows online. After coming to Belgium, I soon found that all of the digital content I was used to streaming live on my computer was now unavailable to me. Three years later, nothing has changed. Digital content from the US is still blocked in Belgium.

So I'm stuck watching TV shows on TV... when I can figure out what times they're on. One good thing about watching TV in Flanders: American shows are all subtitled, not dubbed. We also get the Walloon channels from our cable provider, but I simply cannot bring myself to watch American shows with the actors' voices dubbed into French!

(A version of this post also appeared on the website for Fans of Flanders, the English-language TV show for and about expats in Flanders. I'm honored to be one of their guest bloggers--and I even watch the show on TV.)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Carnaval time in Flanders!

Today is Ash Wednesday, the start of the Christian season of Lent, a period of penitence and fasting leading up to Easter. In New Orleans, Louisiana, the day before Ash Wednesday is celebrated with Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday” in French)--North America's only indigenous Carnival. In our mostly Protestant country, Carnival traditions never took hold anywhere else.

Here in Catholic Belgium, Carnaval (spelled slightly differently) is part of the culture. It doesn't seem to be celebrated everywhere, but there are local Carnaval festivities scattered all over the country. The most famous ones are in Aalst (Flanders) and Binche (Wallonia). Where I live, in Limburg province, there is a long history of Carnaval traditions which are tied to the neighboring regions of Dutch Limburg and the German Rhineland.
 On Monday, I experienced my first Flemish Carnaval in my husband's home village. Vroenhoven is located just over the border from Maastricht, which is probably the Netherlands' most famous Carnaval city, boasting the most outrageous parties and parades. Most of the villages in the area have their own home-grown Carnaval parade, led by local organizations who elect a Prince of Carnaval every year.
This year, the Vroenhoven stoet (“parade” in the local dialect) was organized together with the parade in Wolder, the Dutch village on the other side of the canal separating Belgium from the Netherlands. The joint parade started in one village and then made its way over the border to the other village and back again. A truly international celebration!

In America, we're used to images of scantily-clad Carnivale dancers in Rio de Janeiro, or slightly-more-covered revelers at Mardi Gras. The reality of Carnaval in Belgium couldn't be more different: Everyone is bundled up against the cold, and the most popular Carnaval accessories are big, funny hats (good for keeping your head warm), and scarves, gloves and legwarmers in traditional Carnaval colors of red, yellow and green.
Carnaval in Vroenhoven has a distinctly rural flavor, with all the parade floats constructed on farm trailers pulled by huge tractors. Each parade float had its own theme, with costumed revelers either riding on top or walking alongside. I wasn't prepared for the shower of candy and other goodies that were thrown into the crowd, but the children standing next to me came with big shopping bags which were soon full to bursting.

My husband grew up participating in the parade, wearing a different costume every year from the time he was a wee child. Our two-year-old niece is too young yet, but I look forward to the day when she'll take her place in the annual Carnaval parade. And next year, I'll be sure to bring a big bag so that I can help her gather up the candy.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Get that baby a borrel!

I recently attended my first baby borrel, a party given by the parents a few months after the birth of a Flemish child. (A borrel is a drink so it's basically a party to toast the arrival of said baby.) Apparently they can range from rather modest affairs to all-out extravaganzas, much like a wedding. This one fell into the latter category.

It was held not at the family's house but at a rented hall, for reasons that became apparent once I saw how many people had been invited. There were easily a hundred family members and friends, with their children, present. Like a wedding, there was a bar serving beer, wine and soft drinks. The room was filled with long tables decorated in theme colors, and there was a table for presents.

The baby in his carriage, along with his parents, was stationed by the entrance to welcome his guests. He seemed unperturbed by all the attention. An uncle hovered nearby, ready with his camera to take pictures of everyone. After admiring the baby and congratulating the parents, guests seated themselves at the tables with other friends, co-workers and family members.

An even longer table held a stupendous array of cakes and sweets, with a couple of token trays stacked with fancy sandwiches. Hardly anyone touched the sandwiches. Like everyone else, I went straight for the cake. Fancy decorated cakes made with sponge cake and layers of buttercream and whipped cream. There were bundt cakes, different types of vlaai (a kind of pie), two kinds of chocolate mousse, tiramisu served in individual glasses, and cookies.

For the kids, there was a separate table where they could decorate mini-cupcakes and cake pops. There was a clown making balloon animals and someone else doing face painting.

The father circulated throughout the room with a tray of little plastic shot glasses containing limoncello and a very strong local liqueur made from sour cherries--in case the wine and beer weren't enough. In the middle of the afternoon, I might add.

The baby borrel is a relatively new tradition in Flanders. The old custom was for friends and family to come to the hospital to see the baby right after the birth, or to drop by the house in the weeks following. Eventually, the constant stream of visitors got to be too much and someone had the idea to throw one big party where the new baby could be introduced to the family's wider social circle.

Where I come from, we have something called a baby shower (presumably because the mother-to-be is "showered" with gifts). It's usually held 6-8 weeks before the birth and is a more intimate affair, with only a few female relatives and close female friends in attendance. Rather than welcoming a new child, the focus is on preparing and supporting the new mother.

The Flemish, being a deeply pragmatic and cautious people, find it strange that you would have a party for a baby before the birth. After all, things can and do go wrong in the weeks leading up to the delivery, during childbirth, and even afterwards--although no one likes to think about that possibility.

I guess Americans are just naturally optimistic. We would rather act as though everything will be fine--and in most cases, it is. The Flemish, on the other hand, would rather wait a few months and then celebrate once it's clear that everyone really is fine. And once the mother has had a chance to recover a bit and appear in public looking her best!

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Is the grass really greener?

Whenever I meet someone new here in Flanders and they find out where I'm from, they inevitably ask me if I'm planning to stay in Belgium. And then they're surprised when I say “Yes.” With few exceptions, most Belgians seem puzzled that an American would choose to live here. Given a choice, why would someone choose Belgium over the U.S.?

I've had many people here tell me that they would love to emigrate to the United States and their dream is to live in New York, or Los Angeles. I look at them like they're crazy... But I suspect that they're not crazy, they're just missing some key information. Maybe all they know about life in America is what they see on TV or in the movies. Maybe they've traveled a bit in the States and had a great time—at Disneyland or on the beach in Florida or gambling in Las Vegas.

The Happiest Place on Earth

While I'll readily admit that the U.S. has some advantages over Belgium, especially in the areas of entrepreneurship, customer service, friendliness and cultural diversity—not to mention the incredible landscape and natural resources—there are many aspects of life in the States that are not so wonderful, and that Belgian acquaintances are usually surprised to hear about.

Belgians are always complaining about taxes, and it's true that the tax rate is very high here. They have this idea that people in the U.S. are wealthier because they get to keep more of their income. Well, that may be true for the very wealthy, who pay a lot less in taxes than their counterparts in Belgium, but it doesn't really work out that way for the average worker.

He gets to keep more of his paycheck but he also has to pay for more things himself--things that are provided free or at a low cost by the Belgian government, like education, child care and health care. Belgians are surprised when I tell them that a lot of Americans can't afford health insurance, or that even with health insurance they might still have to pay thousands, or tens of thousands, for medical care.

Belgians are surprised to learn that Americans don't enjoy the same government-provided services and benefits because they're used to taking these things for granted. Like most Europeans, they assume that the government will take care of its citizens and that everyone has the same basic rights to education, healthcare, decent housing, etc. In the United States, these rights are open to debate.

For instance, Europeans take it for granted that a mother is entitled to paid maternity leave even though the length of time may vary. Here in Belgium, a mother can take 15 weeks at 75-82% pay and the father can take 2 weeks. While individual American companies may provide paid parental leave, there is no legal requirement for them to do so, and most do not. California is the exception, requiring companies to offer 6 months at half pay.

I could go on and on, but I'll spare you the boring figures and statistics. I guess what I'm trying to say is: Don't believe everything you see on TV.

Not everyone in America has a perfect life, a fabulous wardrobe, a fast car and a natural tan. Those attractive 20-somethings in the latest Hollywood blockbuster couldn't possibly afford their spacious renovated loft in Brooklyn, or San Francisco. The friendly waiter who served you your hamburger and fries doesn't have health insurance and can't afford to go to the doctor.

Maybe the reason I love living in Belgium so much is that I know that the American Dream isn't all it's cracked up to be. Belgians have no such illusions about their own country, and yet they don't realize how good they've got it, in so many ways.

(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!)

Friday, January 25, 2013

The squirrel and the acorn

It's been way too long since I wrote about my adventures with the Dutch language. I've now gotten to a point in my language acquisition process where I understand most of what people are saying (in everyday conversation) even though the ability to express myself in Dutch continues to lag behind. This strange tongue, which sounded so alien to me three years ago, is actually starting to make sense!

Still, there are some Dutch words that are just too funny. The word for "sample" never fails to amuse; just the other day we were watching a detective show in English, and the Dutch subtitles said "Neem het monster naar het labo." I giggled and said, "Take the monster to the lab!" Hee hee. Get it? Take the MONSTER to the lab!

Another favorite is ijsberen. Literally, this verb means "to ice-bear." An ijsbeer is a polar bear, and if you've ever seen a polar bear in captivity, you know that they tend to pace back and forth. So ijsberen is pacing, which is very evocative if a bit sad.

I was confused the first time I heard someone talking about an "acorn" in Dutch. The word for squirrel is eekhoorn, which is pronounced exactly like "acorn" in English. Thus, the Dutch word for the animal sounds like the English word for the animal's favorite food. I wonder how that happened, from an etymological point of view...

It gets better: The word for porcini mushrooms is eekhoorntjesbrood. Literally translated, this means "little squirrels' bread." How cute is that?!!! It sounds like something straight out of Beatrix Potter. I suggest we English speakers stop using the Italian name at once and start calling this delicious fungus "squirrel bread."

I'm often struck by similarities between Dutch and English words, especially when the meanings are related but different. Take, for instance, the word stof in Dutch. It can mean either "dust" or "fabric" or even "matter" in the sense of "substance" or "material." I have no doubt that this is where our word "stuff," with all its many uses and connotations, comes from.

Even more interesting is the Dutch word for hydrogen: waterstof. The stuff of water. Oxygen is zuurstof, or literally "acid stuff," which makes sense when you learn that scientists originally thought that oxygen was a necessary component of acids. Carbon is koolstof, literally "coal stuff." Sometimes I find Dutch to be wonderfully descriptive.

Dutch is also much simpler than English. The same word, zuur,  means both "sour" and "acid." Logical, right? In English, we have two words that mean nearly the same thing: sour and tart. I've come to realize that in cases such as this, one word is often related to Dutch/German while the other comes from Latin/Romance languages. "Sour" is related to zuur while "tart" comes from Old French.

For someone like me who loves language and words, this stuff is fascinating. (See what I did there?) Stay tuned for more geeky word fun!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Learning to dress like a Belgian

It's soldes periode in Belgium—that's “sales period” to you (that is, fellow English speakers) and me. Twice a year, in January and July, shops are allowed to offer big markdowns on last season's merchandise. It's actually forbidden by law to have major, storewide sales at any other time of year. I'm not sure about the reason for this; my husband says it's to protect small businesses who can't afford to offer the same discounts as the big retailers.

In any case, the beginning of the soldes is always marked by the kind of shopping frenzy we usually see in the US on the day after Thanksgiving. This year, I joined a Flemish friend who'd taken the day off work for shopping on the first day of the sales in our home town of Hasselt. The discounts can range anywhere from a negligible 10% to a more tempting 70% off original prices.

And yet, this year I found very few clothes (of course we're mostly talking about clothes here) that I wanted to buy, even on sale. Fashion lately seems to have taken a turn for the worse. Much, much worse. High-necked granny blouses, loud geometric prints straight from the 70's, skirts and pants designed to emphasize the least attractive parts of the female anatomy. Colors are either screaming bright or dull as mud.

My gorgeous, slender, blonde friend lucked out and found a dress that actually flattered her figure in a pretty, tastefully patterned fabric. At half off. She always seems to know just what to buy. I think it's a Belgian thing.

One thing I've noticed since moving here is that Belgians are generally much better dressed than Americans. All right, I'll admit it—that's not saying much. Americans are universally acknowledged to be among the worse dressed people on earth. (Followed closely by the Dutch, Australians and Brits.) You can always spot the American in Europe: baggy jeans, sneakers, sweatshirt, backpack. All things that no Belgian over the age of 12 would be caught dead wearing in public.

Another thing I've noticed is that Belgians have no problem wearing the same outfit two days in a row. When he gets home from work, my husband takes off his office clothes, hangs them up, and changes into jeans. The next day, he wears the same shirt and pants again. He said he was taught to do this as a child. When he came home from school, he hung up his school clothes and changed into play clothes.

When I was a kid, wearing the same outfit two days in a row was literally inconceivable. We had one girl in our class who never, ever wore the same outfit twice. (I've always wondered what she did with her clothes after they'd been worn once, never to reappear on her person again.) Of course, that's an extreme example, but my teenage classmate had clearly achieved the ultimate goal: new clothes every day.

The Flemish approach to clothes is much more practical, sensible and economical. As far as I can tell, they tend to buy fewer items of clothing and wear them more often. The typical American has closets stuffed with clothes, most of which get worn a couple of times and then forgotten—to be replaced the following season with a bunch of new clothes. 

So, in a way I'm glad I didn't find anything to tempt me during the sales. I'm trying to buy clothing the Flemish way: occasionally and with care. After all, I don't have to have a different outfit every day of the week. What's more, I can wear the same dress to two different parties, even if some of the same people might see me both times. Here in Flanders, no one will be shocked.

(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!)