Monthly Archives: December 2010

Gritting My Teeth

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“Is the lemon tea warm?”

“No, it’s iced tea.”

“But is it warm?”

“No, iced tea is with ice.”

***

“May I have a marshmallow in my espresso?”

“Sorry? In your espresso?”

“Yes, can I have that?”

“Well, um…the marshmallow is as big as the cup…”

“And? Yes? Can I have that?”

***

“What exactly is a steamer?”

“It’s steamed milk, with a flavor of your choice, and whipped cream.”

“I’ll take one of those then.”

“What flavor?”

“Milk.”

 

Wishing you all a happy new year, filled with health, wealth, and less stupidity. Thank heavens I have the next two days off!

Leather

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Two weeks was the longest I’d ever been away from Western Pennsylvania until I moved to Belgium.

Today marks my third year living here: my third anniversary (which is the leather anniversary, hence the title) as an expat.

Three years ago I spoke one, and only one language. I knew about 20 words in French and how to count to ten in several other languages, and colors in Spanish thanks to Dora the Explorer.
Now I speak English and Dutch and can operate semi-functionally in very basic French. I can also understand chunks of German news reports and advertising.

Three years ago I couldn’t imagine going anywhere if it wasn’t in my car. The bus scared me and bikes were toys of childhood, meant for racing friends down steep hills and jumping homemade ramps.
Now I’ve lived virtually car-free since moving here. My main means of daily transport are my 6 speed bike and the Flemish department of public transportation (trams and buses).

Three years ago, had you asked me if I wanted to go have a drink, I’d have assumed you meant a night out binge drinking on the southside of Pittsburgh. If you had mentioned sitting out on a terrace, I’d have just looked at you quizzically.
Now I find sitting out on a terrace with a view on a city square or a waterfront with a nice glass of pineau or a cold Rodenbach the perfect way to spend an early evening out. Unless it’s cold, of course. Then I opt for a seat indoors with a koffie verkeerd or a cup of tea.

Three years ago, a fifteen minute walk was long, annoying, and often not worth bothering with. If it took that long to walk somewhere, you could make it less than half the time if you took a car, so why walk?
Now, I often prefer the half hour walk home from the city center as opposed to taking the bus. Even the hour long walk home from the train station isn’t bad if the weather is decent and I’m not carrying anything too heavy. It’s not abnormal anymore to go on a walk just for the sake of walking.

Three years ago there was HOME and there was here. When I was upset or tired or lonely, I immediately pined for HOME and hated here.
Now, there is home and there is home. I confess, there are still times when I get utterly fed up and long for home: for my parents and my friends and my old job and so many of the familiar things I grew up with my whole life. But there are plenty of times when I think about home and that means thinking about Belgium, more specifically Gent.

One of the few things that has stayed the same over the past three years is that no matter where I go, what language I speak, what lifestyle I grow accustomed to, there is one essential component necessary for me to live a happy life:

Ding Dong

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I never celebrated Christmas growing up and I was and still am cool with that.

I love the time of year and the sights, sounds, tastes and smells that come with Christmas, but I’m cool with not having a tree or a fat guy in a suit hang out in my house. Hanukkah was super early this year, plus in Belgium I don’t celebrate that either.

But I’m not a grinch and I do like the season, so I’m wishing you all a happy Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Yule or whatever you celebrate by sharing my favorite Christmas choral song, Carol of the Bells.

Treating Myself Right

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I’ve been trying to change some of the ways my brain works lately.

It used to be I would only do small, nice things for myself as a means of bribery.
For example, if I had to go to immigration and sit for 2 hours to get one paper stamped, I would often avoid it. And by avoid I mean, work myself into a panic at the prospect of having to wake up early/take a crowded bus/sit in a jammed waiting area/etc., etc. until any motivation I originally had trickled out of me altogether.
But, if I promised myself a trip to the bookstore or Exki afterwards, I usually managed to suck it up and go.
Eventually.
When I needed new reading material or craved an organic mozzarella sandwich with basil and tapenade.

Lately I’ve had several things I’ve needed to do, none of them horrible, but all of them somewhat inconvenient and easy to procrastinate on. But I’ve been doing them. Going to Brussels for paperwork, heading to the town hall for translation services and a new drivers license, getting a new pin for my credit card at the bank (plus a digipass and a stamp for a vacation money form), going back to the hospital for blood work that was supposed to be done yesterday, but the doctor conveniently forgot to tell us we had to get it done at the hospital so I had to wake up early on my day off and get the blood drawn today.

Taking the initiative, straying from my comfortable work/home schedule, is uncharacteristic for me. I haven’t been bribing myself, I’ve just been doing things because, well, dammit, I have to do them some time. Guess now is as good as any.

But with that change, I’ve also kind of stopped doing nice things for myself.

I guess that’s why I decided to get some breakfast today, after the trip to the hospital. I was in the city center because I still had to buy some wrapping paper and cards for the holidays plus I had to pick up dessert for Christmas eve dinner with Piet’s family and I decided, on a whim (and a stomach growl), to stop at Le Pain Quotidien for something to eat. Nothing fancy, just scrambled eggs with some bread and a warm drink, but I sat at one of the large communal tables, pulled out a notebook, and took some time to relax and write some blog posts (that you will see eventually).

It’s been quite some time since I sat down and wrote and enjoyed some peace and quiet along with a simple breakfast.
I noticed, afterwards, I didn’t feel as cranky as I usually do, despite the cold weather and crowded buses. I felt positive and upbeat and the abundance of negative thoughts that often pick at my mind while I’m running errands wasn’t really there.

Pretty much the same feeling I had after I went to Julie’s House for scones and tea.

I just felt calm and if not “good” then at least better.

So I think I’m going to try to do something small for myself a little more often. Even if it’s just breakfast or a time out to write with some old fashioned pen and paper. I think it will probably result in a happier, more positive me.

You Gotta Fight For Your Right

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Ah Belgium.

Such a contradictory country.

Land of, quite possibly, the most passive aggressive people I’ve ever met.
Land where people seem to think that if you glare at something angrily enough, it will get the hint and change itself.
Land of negotiations, compromise, hemming, hawing, and even more compromise (anyone know how long Belgium has been without a national government?)
Land of progressive ideas: socialized health care, socialized work training programs, Catholics that are okay with condom usage and euthanasia.
Land of antiquated ideas: Zwarte Piet, resistance to teaching some masters degrees in English in order to preserve the Dutch language (which is already a hearty mishmash of Dutch, French, Latin and English), refusing to drink coffee through a hole in the lid.

Belgium, a country that, even now, occasionally throws me a curve ball that I can appreciate.

See, when I said earlier that Belgians are the masters of passive aggression, I meant it, whole heartedly. And this is coming from someone who was constantly labeled as passive aggressive in the US.
Back in Pittsburgh, if I saw something really bugging me or if someone was being more than understandably rude, I had no problem saying something. If  nothing constructive, at least  a sarcastic comment or a backhanded remark to let the person know that their behavior wasn’t what I found to be acceptable. Earlier this week while I was getting on the bus some old guy was pushing me from behind when I didn’t move fast enough for him, so I threw my elbow back. He started grumbling in some language that wasn’t Dutch so I turned, glared at him and said something along the lines of, “Please, why don’t you bitch a little more.”
His response was to breathe gustily from his nose. Obviously he has mastered the passive aggression far better than I have.

I have observed, time and time again, people being pushed around, treated rudely, inconvenienced and several other manner of irritating things and in almost every case they have done or said nothing in their own defense or to confront the person behaving rudely. They just breathe heavily and glare and clench their teeth in a not so menacing way.

I’ve come to expect this and usually act pretty much the same unless Piet’s around to back me up (I’m still not good at Dutch snark, but give me another year or two, I’ll keep working at it). So today while I was standing waiting at the bus stop in the middle of the center, while I found it irritating that a teenage girl was riding her bike on the platform rather than down on the street, I simply prepared to back out of her way. If we’d been in my neighborhood I’d’ve stood in her way and forced her to get off the bike or ride onto the street, but this platform was elevated and she could’ve fallen, so I  was going to let it go when an old man who was stepping up to the platform reached out, grabbed the girl’s arm while she was still on her bike and started reprimanding her.

She pulled her arm away, didn’t bother turning her head and kept riding, in true Belgian fashion, but another woman who was waiting on the bus and had seen what happened actually grabbed the old guy and started yelling at him, telling him he’d had no right to touch the girl. He got all uppity, complaining that bikes weren’t allowed on the sidewalk but the woman kept at him, and really gave him what for.

It was awesome.

Technically both parties were wrong. Riding on the sidewalk is fine-able here in Belgium. Bikes belong on the street unless it’s a very small child and then I believe there is an exception. But the old man wasn’t in harm’s way. He went out of his way to try to pull the girl from the bike and in doing so he was behaving just as dangerously as she was.
And I was pretty happy to see someone open their mouth and actually say something when they saw something wrong going on.

Guess it just goes to show, there are some people here who are willing to take action to achieve the desired outcomes. Maybe those people should be the ones trying to form the national government?

Welcome to The Tea Party

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I think, deep down, every girl (even one like me that played with G.I. Joes and super hero action figures) loves a tea party.

There’s just something special about sitting down to pretty little coordinating pieces of porcelain and sipping on a warm drink and nibbling something baked and sweet.

So today I did something I rarely ever do.

After going to my union and finding out that for the first time in a long time the Belgian system has actually worked to my advantage, I found myself walking, not back to the bus stop to head home, but rather in the direction of somewhere a bit more special.

I ended up standing in front of Julie’s House, the only place I know in Gent that combines cottage cozy with tea party and Anglo-style baked goodies. Half the time Julie’s House is so full that we aren’t able to get a seat, but this morning it was still early and I was by myself. So I settled down with a new book and treated myself to a breakfast of scones with jam and clotted cream and a big steaming cup of Anastasia tea.

One of the things I really like about Julie’s House, aside from the muted mauve and beige colors accented by old brick walls and weathered looking but comfortable furniture, is the way they serve the food and drinks. The tea is served in a teapot/cup combination made of pink porcelain and swirled with gold and the accompaniments (cream, jam, small piece of brownie to go with the tea) are all presented on a matching pink, swirly tray. The tea is loose leaf and given in an open do it yourself tea bag. The silverware and plates are tan with white polka-dots and the obsessive little troll living in the back of my brain that derives extreme pleasure from matching items practically does somersaults when everything is sitting in its proper place in front of me.

It’s like having your own little personal tea party, somewhere in the Shire or somewhere equally cute and cozy. And it was a really great place to celebrate a tiny little personal triumph.