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!)