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!