Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Paris Cemeteries

A couple of weeks ago, we drove to Paris for the weekend. It's so close. I was the map reader that got us there, and I traced out the Arrondisements in a circle with my index finger while my husband drove. I never knew that they spiraled out from the center like that. I suppose I had never bothered to study a map of Paris before.

We left our umbrellas in the car, stayed in the 20th and took the subway across the city and back again, had cocktails at the Place de la Bastille, found Victor Hugo's house, got caught in a downpour in the Latin Quarter. We stood in a phone booth (thank god Paris still has phone booths - perhaps they'll leave them as 20th century relics for future historians to point to) while the rain pelted the streets and finally decided to make a run for it, ending up at a little Algerian restaurant. We drank Algerian wine and spoke broken French. It was some of the best wine I've ever had.

Mostly, we saw cemeteries. I know. There's the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Champs Elysee, and we passed our time among the dead. But it was cold and rainy, a fall weekend in the summer, perfect for cold stones and iron gates.

Pere Lachaise

With the Tour Montparnasse

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

The ever-loved Gainsbourg

Thursday, July 7, 2011


My experiences in the south, French-speaking part of Belgium had been limited to lovely little towns in the Ardennes, picturesque locations in the mountains with colorful awnings and gelato places. Until a few weeks ago, most of the cities still remained a mystery.

Ask any Belgian why they would want to visit Charleroi, and you will get an answer in the form of a question. The airport? The photography museum? It's no Paris. If anything, it's known as a former maiden of industry, now littered with factories, functioning and abandoned, and choked by its periphery of abandoned coal mines and slag heaps. To top it off, unemployment there is soaring.

My friend suggested an Urban Safari of Charleroi a couple of months ago, and I was game - it sounded like an interesting way to discover a city I would probably never venture into otherwise. Our first encounter with our rough-and-tumble tour guide was watching him roll cigarettes and throw nervous glances at my friend's pregnant belly. You're pregnant? You can't do this. Are you sure you can do this? She assured him she could. You have to climb over fences. Run from the police, if need be. I was starting to get nervous.

The next four hours were indeed doable, but he assured us they were a bit toned down due to her situation. We went to a grand train station, built in Charleroi's hay day of coal wealth and since abandoned and never used. Entry may not have been quite legal, so we crawled through fences and walked along the tracks to make it inside. We went to a deteriorating coal hub on the outskirts of town and ate lunch on a blanket spread outside of the ruins. We walked along the city's waterways and saw functioning factories and graffiti-ed walls. We climbed a slag heap and looked out over the lackluster suburbs. Our tour guide spoke a broken, practically unintelligible version of English (as much as I don't mind grammar mistakes, there's a certain point where understanding breaks apart), so I'm not sure I learned as much about the town as I could have. But I certainly found the scenery interesting.

There were two film students there as well with a small portable camera, catching the spirit of the trip and asking questions every once in awhile. They pulled me aside when we stopped for a drink and asked me questions about why I had come. Do you think, their last question probed, that this just reinforces stereotypes about the city? I had to reflect for a minute. Yes and no, I said. Is it any different than looking at other relics of a past age? And, all truth be told, without the tour I would probably have never visited the city. I walked around the bar where we had stopped later, a humongous former factory that had been converted to not only serve drinks but show artwork. There were interesting pieces and displays everywhere you turned. I picked up a map that they were giving away with all kinds of interesting haunts flagged over its paths. I wish I could go back now and refine my answer. Because I think the tour isn't just about urban decay, it's also about the creative ways people are converting that decay into something interesting. The graffiti we saw, my friend asked before we headed to the train station, that was a contest? I hadn't caught that on the tour. He nodded, and I thought back. It made sense - it was really too good of a display to be anything but designed and developed.

I still have the map of the city that I picked up in that raftered bar, and it offers really interesting suggestions. Perhaps I'll be back again.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Grammar Lessons

I recently sat in on a talk by a language instructor, a confident and fiery teacher of Spanish who regaled the audience with interesting and hilarious tales of language learning. To what extent, she asked us, do you have to be grammatically correct to be understood? If someone asks in, say, a bar in the U.S.: You has here things for eating?, most likely they'll not only get a straight answer, they'll get one in fast-paced normal English that the bar tender won't even bother to cushion with simple vocabulary or more clear annunciation for an obvious second-language speaker. She shook her head and said Teachers are the only ones who are obnoxious. They're the only ones who will say 'You can't say it that way!' Her point settled in, and I've been going over it as I measure my progress with Dutch.

When I go over the evidence, it occurs to me that most native speakers are actually very slow to judge someone's grammar as a second-language speaker. I have been in conversations with plenty of non-native speakers and I very rarely think Wow, they said that all wrong. I'm usually too busy combing for meaning, trying to get the gist, searching for an appropriate response. My H. will let me ramble on in Dutch and I finally turn to him upon composing a particularly daring sentence that could be very clever but is most likely just wrong. He nods more often than not, prompting me to continue with what I'm saying. I finally ask him flat out Is that how you would say it? And he has to think. He reflects. He has to take himself out of what I'm saying and put himself into the how, analyze the surface for cracks in grammar or misused vocabulary. I've begun to love these moments. The larger picture is, at least, recognizable. And isn't that the important thing? It is wonderful to find that someone has been listening to what you've been saying rather than how you have said it.

And so I'm trying to cut myself some slack. My lofty notion of fluency may have inflated over the years, but now, I am thinking about all kinds of past conversations. Conversations with U.S. foreigners, all those times I've said No! Your English is really good! when their confidence lagged - I always meant it. And conversations with native Dutch speakers who give me those same encouraging words. And I am contemplating graduating myself from I speak a little Dutch - to something else.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Circus was in town

This past weekend marked the second annual Leuven Circus, a charming, home-grown affair whose organizers mine the local Circus school for participants. There were performers who can balance expertly on stilts, women who can dance atop enormous moving balls, men who are masters at manipulating exceedingly large puppets. There were trapeze artists and gymnasts and even a little wagon with a bug circus, a queue snaking out its door with wiggling children and their smiling parents. There were fireworks, right above our heads, in time with the energetic sounds of a percussion band, De Shemayet, and night goblins who rode around lighting fires. We could not have had better weather for it. It was delightful.

For the opening, they brought in the professional Big Boy, a tight-rope walker who made it from one side of Ladeuzeplein to the other, over the heads of a buzzing crowd, ending at the University Library steeple. No less than 200 meters, and with, I’m sure, quite a wind, up there all alone. In the introductory announcement, they laid all his cards on the table – Michel Menin, in his mid-60’s. He had done tight-rope walks more than 500 times, a true veteran. H. leaned over later and commented - It makes it all a little more boring to say he’s an expert. They should have told us he was an accountan who just discovered this new hobby after his retirement, and after he learned to manage his severe tremors, less than a year ago! I did plenty of nail-biting anyway.

My sister, at some point, wondered aloud if New York had anything like this – fun and cute, community-grown and community-oriented. I smiled. I don’t know, but it seems a bit unreplicable, even (or maybe especially) in the Big Apple. Authentic to my small, charming home.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Pitching Belgium

Several months ago, I was leafing through a brochure from a Marketing school here in Belgium (no, not for a degree, just because it was there and convenient in some waiting room or other before some interview or other). The brochure was pitching the school to foreigners and said something like: Why choose Belgium? Belgium is centrally located in Europe - just a short train ride from Paris, London and Amsterdam! Oh Belgium. You’re like the middle child in some incredibly elitist family. In London, you compete with a distinguished older brother who just loves to talk about how proper and interesting he is, and in Paris, a romantic day-dreamer of a beautiful younger sister always stealing away your friends. And let’s not even talk about Amsterdam. You don’t even get the label of wild child of the family.

It is not a little bit twisted that this organization – a marketing school - chooses to pitch Belgium by saying that it’s incredibly easy to get the hell out of. And, I guess, that’s what people know about Beligum. This is what people said to me when I was moving here. Oh! It’s right there in the middle, it’ll be so easy to travel around!

I suppose they say this for lots of reasons, not just because Belgium might suffer from low self-esteem or an inferiority complex. It’s incredibly small, so traveling any kind of major distance really does mean getting out. It’s just a spatial certainty. Because it’s so small, the location is sometimes one of the only things foreigners know about it. And it really is an advantage here that it’s so easy to travel. I jetted up to London a couple of weeks ago, happily and without a second thought.

My mother and sister are visiting now. We talked about going to Paris. Giverny in France. Luxembourg. Germany. Amsterdam. But, in the end, we decided to pass our time here, in Belgium. They have had to cast out on their own since I have been tied to the obligations of my job (and they have done beautifully well at exploring without guides), but a four-day weekend has given me a chance to enjoy the country I now call home. Walking around Antwerp yesterday, my stomach tumbled with the excitement of discovering new nooks and breathtaking areas once again. Sometimes the weekly grind distracts me from appreciating the amazing things that are easily within reach. Today, we stayed in Leuven, enjoyed good food and beautiful weather and ice cream on busy, bustling squares that only a charming Belgian city can offer. There is so much, so close to home.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Poor trip planning (Part 2)

We arrived in Italy in the middle of the day, and parked at a rest-stop for a late lunch. Waiting in line for my Panini, my stomach started to turn. I knew absolutely no Italian whatsoever, besides a basic bonjourno, prego and gratzi (and don’t judge me for my spelling here - this post is about not knowing Italian). I couldn’t even count to ten. And here I was, Italian phrases unfurling around me at every direction. We didn’t even have a hotel reservation for that night.

Perhaps I’m getting used to Flanders, where everyone and their mother speaks a bit of English, or perhaps it was just that we felt like we would pass through Italy so fleetingly that it really wouldn’t matter, but it had never occurred to me to be nervous about not speaking Italian.

We got to Livorno, the port town where we would take the ferry the next day, and literally just drove around until we saw a couple of hotel signs. We stood in the dimly lit little entryway of an old-fashioned pensione, a plump woman asking us questions that we couldn’t answer. We held up our fingers. One night. One. The t.v. was blaring in the other room, and a little dog barked a couple of times. We surrendered our id’s much too readily, and let her copy the details down by hand in an old ledger before she handed us a key with a giant chain.

The room was somehow incredibly romantic – large and sparsely furnished with a cold tile floor and a high ceiling. There was a picture of the Virgin Mary above the bed, and a Catholic cross right outside our door. We had a sink in the room, and the water was refreshingly cold.

That night, we went out on the street, narrowed in on a couple that looked like they knew where they were going, and slipped into their restaurant behind them. We were embarrassed when the wait staff tried their best to give us details in English, only to go search out the one kid on staff who had apparently passed his English exams in school, or had bragged a bit sometime that his English wasn’t shabby. He was kind to us and served us a good, Italian meal accompanied by good, Italian wine, and he asked us questions eagerly about our travels. At the end of the night, we left a sizeable tip, even though it’s not the custom. Something for the care they took with a couple of unprepared tourists. It was a really lovely time, I suppose, partly because of the language barriers. Somehow, it was more romantic that way. But I must admit, once we made it to Corsica and were back on French-speaking soil, I felt a swell of relief.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Poor trip planning (Part 1)

We decided to go to Corsica before the new year. We told people we were going, and daydreamed about the trip. And then, for some reason, we did nothing. The week wholly snuck up on us, or honestly, perhaps we were just lazy. One month before H. brought home a guidebook that I did manage to thumb through. Three weeks before, we finally sat down and made a reservation for a ferry to take us and our car over to the island. Two weeks before, we still didn’t have a place to stay. It was one of those catch-22’s – we kept asking each other where we should stay, but the more research we did, the more possibilities there seemed to be, and the more difficult it was to decide. Finally (finally!) with a week left, H. e-mailed several places, and we found that our procrastination had actually paid off – it was still the off-season, plenty of places had availability, and we snagged an upgrade for a good price.

I still wrung my hands a bit. What about a hotel for the nights we’ll spend on the road? I asked. Roadside motels, he said. Showing my ignorance – But I had always stayed in sweet little, independently-owned bed and breakfasts or hostels in Europe! Do they even have road-side motels here? Yes, yes they do- enough to make America’s trucker population proud. We cruised around the edges of Strasbourg the night we stopped and passed numerous possibilities in one go. What about that place? I asked. So cheap! When we couldn’t reach it because of the giant fence (it looked more secure than the American Embassy in Brussels), we circled around to the back for access. There, we found several –ahem -ladies of the night standing in short skirts and sequenced jackets, squinting suspiciously as we did an awkward U-turn in front of them. So, perhaps my on-the-road skills need to be honed a little for the European landscape. But still, we did quite well, and found a nice place to stop down the road. A place that didn't rent by the hour or protect themselves with giant fences. With clean rooms. And families. And free breakfast. Can you really ask for more?

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Free samples, Belgian style

As I've said before, I'm a sucker for free samples. Sometimes in Philly, I would pop in a Whole Foods or a Trader Joe's just to see what kinds of scrumptious little nibblets they had on offer that day. Cheese squares? Microwaveable meatballs? Free coffee? Oh, I suppose I'll try it, if you insist.

It's the little things that make life here different...

A little wine tasting with your groceries? Don't mind if I do.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Drive

When we were back in Philly, we drove to my hometown a couple of times, over the dreaded Pennsylvania turnpike and then through the hills and eventual flat of the Midwest. It always felt long. I’ve never been one for car trips, and the trip across the four or five states seemed to drag on forever.

The U.S. is big. Huge. And it’s a driving country. I know people from Ohio who hop in their cars every winter and drive to Colorado for the skiing – practically in one sitting. People who have driven literally all alone from the California coast to Tennessee without so much as a shrug. People in Philly with a little place on the coast of North Carolina. Ten hours’ drive. For a long weekend. No problem.

When H. proposed driving down to Corsica, my eyes got wide and I shook my head slowly. What? Drive? Are you serious? It must be, like, twenty hours. Through the entirety of France? That’s just not doable. It turns out, as Google maps showed me, it’s more than doable. It’s doable in a day. Well, friends, we did it. We left after work on Friday and drove to Strasbourg, then completed the trip the next day, between the mountains of Switzerland, heading down to Italy, through the rolling hills of Tuscany (if we squinted and waited for a part in the bushes, we could actually see the Leaning Tower of Pisa!), and finally to the port town of Livorno, where we (and our little two-door car) caught the ferry at 8 a.m. the next morning. And the drive, quite honestly, was beautiful. And doable.

Everyone talks about the differences in mentality when it comes to distances between Americans and Europeans, but the fact that southern France is reachable in a mere day still comes as a surprise – and strikes me as a romantic luxury. When we got back, our car dusty and ready for a break, H. nudged me and smiled. This opens up so many possibilities for travelling! he said. Prague is probably the same distance by car! He knows I’ve always wanted to visit Prague. And do you know? It’s even closer.

Monday, April 25, 2011


We took the one week I have off before August and decided to do something big. H. was the one who suggested Corsica. Mediterranean? Beachy? Warm and sunny? Gorgeous views? Yes, please.

We drove down – wasted no time and left on Friday after work. For some reason, as the ferry brought us into the port of Bastia on a spectacularly sunny day, the short boat ride over from the coast of Italy, I was surprised at how incredibly beautiful it was. The whole island is just one amazing landscape after another, a patchwork of very small mountain towns that seem to be built into the green landscape, cascade off the jagged cliffs and nestle themselves into the nooks of valleys.

Driving in Corsica is not for the faint at heart. The roads twist and turn around the edges of the mountains, and, if you go fast enough to keep up with the natives, you’re flung from one side of the car to the other over and over again until you stop resisting. But every turn, every bend and every passageway, offers views that will take your breath away.

We went on two hikes while we were there, up and down the mountain ridges, explored hidden beaches where the water was so blue and so clear it makes you ache. The weather was not hot enough for bathing suits, but it was perfect, nonetheless, sunny and cloudless, with a breeze that kept the shady areas cool. And we did swim, once. We couldn’t stand not to, since we were there. We changed into our bathing suits the car and ran into the cold water. Goose bumpy and paddling to warm up. The tourist city of Calvi leaning over to us close by, rising off a mountain ridge, the color of sand, like the beach climbing vertical.

It was a lovely, lovely vacation. The weather held out for us, and on our last day, after our final half-day hike was over, it started to rain. We left the island in fog and rain, and drove back to a surprisingly summery Belgium. For now, after such a wonderful week, I feel like the sunshine is following us.

Coming into Bastia from the ferry.

Bastia restaurant and a blue, blue sky.

A private beach.

A lovely cup of coffee.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Last weekend, I attended a shin-dig for a tried and true expat population. There was champagne and wine and beer, and we were seated at a table full of American couples (there were some Canadians in the mix, but damned if I couldn't tell the difference). Business men and their wives, relocated corporate managers and their trailing spouses. They laughed loudly. They slapped each other on the back and talked about sports. They teased each other and toasted their friends. If I closed my eyes, I could swear I was in the U.S. The man sitting next to us wrapped his knuckles on the table and told us about the crime rate in Brussels. He discussed Brussels politics with my husband, with interest. And at some point he gestured across the table to a petite, pretty brunette. My wife, he said, is Italian. But she's become more American here in Belgium than she ever was in the states. I looked at her friends, women who were perfectly quaffed for the evening out, women who spoke with the wide, standard accent of American English. They left me at one point at the table, alone with the men, a pack of them off to the bathroom to check their makeup and chat, and me sitting between my husband and the manager of a shipping company, a short man with a moustache, who cradled a Belgian beer. So how did you end up back in Belgium? the man asked my husband. My H. opened his hands and replied: It was a mutual decision. She wanted to come. We both wanted to come. The men laughed and shook their heads. Just wait until she's away, and we'll get the real answer out of you! She followed you! That's what you gotta tell people! Because, I suppose, that is what they tell people about their own wives. That's probably what their wives tell people, too.

Later in the evening, after even more wine and beer, that same short, moustached man leaned over to us once again. This country's great for expats, he said. We live in an expat neighborhood here. We have a great community. In fact, you're practically the first true Belgian we've met! An expat neighborhood, I imagine, full of iron-gated houses and large, green gardens. They shake their heads when they discuss Belgian bureaucracy, and speak loudly to the postal carriers to compensate for not knowing French or Dutch. And why should they learn, after all? For many of them, this is stop number four or five on an endless string of relocations, a fleeting arrangement that will surely fold in on itself if they make any drastic movements towards permanency.

The entire crowd was all very American, in fact -- a few other Western Europeans scattered in, those who know English well, Swedes and Dutch and Germans and, of course, the British. They are a tight group. I am endlessly lucky, I find myself thinking, that my native tongue is English. Had I been a Spanish speaker with weak English, or an Arabic speaker with a smattering of English, or a Persian speaker with decent English, my job would have been inaccessible to me.

The very next day I attended a party, a lovely little picnic on a lovely day with fresh watermelon and wine. There were French speakers and English speakers, and an invisible line drawn between them. I sat snug on the English side, and smiled shyly when a Francophone would make their way over for a brownie or a refill. I do know Belgians just by virtue of being married to one, and I do take part in their culture, at least on holidays and special occasions. But I enjoy life here partly because of this English crowd. I am comfortable with them, I don't struggle to express myself with them, and we cling together in some ways, people navigating a different terrain, but with things, very valuable things, things normally not even an issue, in common.

I persist with Dutch and I must admit, being around those French speakers even for an afternoon made me anxious to get back to working on French. I take little, comfortable steps, and I certainly don't live in an expat neighborhood. I do feel like I put up something of a fight to challenge myself. Then again, the transition to life in Belgium has been smooth, and I know that's partially due to the English that's so accessible, the speakers, native and otherwise, who are scattered the globe over.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


When we were in Philadelphia, we used to get humongous packages from my mother-in-law, gargantuan Pandora's boxes wrapped in brown paper and tied with string (I know, but they really were tied up with string), things that held the secrets of the universe. Opening them was like Christmas morning no matter when it was - they had chocolate bars and chocolate cookies, Turkish delight and gummy candies, magazines, clothes, coffees, soaps, shampoos, lotions, and always a sweet note tucked into it all greeting us both and offering a few words about daily life, this or that, who was doing what.

Now it's my mother's turn to send us things, and her packages are smaller, slivers that usually fit in our mailbox, padded envelopes or tiny boxes that hold a book or some magazines, newspaper clippings from my hometown, little explanatory notes written on scrap paper. She is quieter with her packages, but more frequent - just about once a week, sometimes twice, I open the mailbox to that hopeful little yellow envelope. She always slides our address in, too, printed neatly on an index card, just to make sure that there is no mistake, that it will reach us. As if upon seeing the envelope shredded and the contents spilled everywhere, some helpful stranger would tie up the lot with a rubber band, card on top, and carefully see it to our door. I love these little packages, I love their eccentricities (an article from the newspaper about someone I might have known in second grade, an Alumni magazine from my alma mater), and their understated, home-grown tone.

Western Europe has, somewhere in the last ten years, been saturated with just about anything an American could want. I worried that there wouldn't be good peanut butter, but I've found some of the best here, faithfully next to the chocolate and Speculoos spread. Even Mexican food, while a bit different Belgian style, is possible. Cereal choices are abundant. My mother asks me sometimes what she should send, and then I sit and wrack my brain. An American measuring cup. That's handy. I once had her send a big vat of stove-top popcorn. That I haven't found. Boxes of couscous. These things don't seem to be at any grocery store I've been to. Then again, perhaps it's no accident that I've been looking in all the wrong places. She has a collection, I know, of little, personal things to send. All she needs is that last item, a single request for something compact and package-able, and it's on its way.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

English slippage

As a good little English major in college, I was required to study how tricky language could be, how often the signifier just does not directly correlate to the signified (Ah, literary criticism. Be still my heart.). I could write a book by now on trying to learn another language, but that's for another day. This post is about English.

I work in English. Most people here speak English. It's so pervasive - American t.v. and movies are so pervasive - that it feels almost obnoxious. Yet it's amazing to me, even here, where it seems everywhere, to find layers of the language that people aren't comfortable with. People who speak English eight hours a day for their jobs, people who have no trouble watching an American movie, will stare at me as a sentence, an expression, quickly slides off my tongue without a second thought. We speak so often in metaphors, folded into our speech patterns like spices in a dish, impossible to parse out, and mixed so thoroughly in with the watery stuff that you literally forget that they're there.

We'll put that on the back-burner I said a few days ago to a man who sometimes apologizes for his English. Blank look. No. Scratch that. We're putting the breaks... Let's try to make it as simple as possible. We're putting this on hold...Stopping this for now...

It'll snowball... I might write, before deleting it and taking an extra minute - how else would I say it? It might become an issue...

We're trying to raise the bar...I stifle to replace it, just in case of confusion, with: We're trying to do better...

At this point, we're just going to play it by ear...Oh dear. See how the chips land... And with this, readers, I'm stumped. How better to say it? Improvise? React after we see the initial results? Bleh. How boring. And those don't quite get at the meaning!

And then gradually, over the weeks, everything starts to feel slippery, everything seems questionable to me. Saying at a meeting if anyone wants to throw out some ideas might be mistaken for literally throwing them out, getting rid of them, as in what ideas are not good enough. Why is let's go imbued with action, getting something accomplished, whereas let it go - almost the same word sequence! - mean leaving something alone, holding off? And what about holding off, while we're on the subject?! It has almost the same meaning as hold on, but then there is a subtle difference there that's hard to put my finger on. Put my finger on!!

There is so much in native speech that's hard to put your finger on.

I'm not saying that these things really get in the way of communicating at the office - they don't, and most people will catch their meaning easily, if they don't know it already, in the context. But it is interesting to me, as I become just a little bit more careful about the way I say things, how these slippery phrases, the ones that seem absurd if you really think about the word sequence, are sometimes the first thing that comes to mind. How difficult they can be to put a simpler definition to. And how restrained you feel in trying as best you can to make the signifier match as closely as possible to the signified. Because who wants to improvise when you can play it by ear?

(Haven't I been writing blog posts? Surely I have. They must be around here somewhere. But I've looked for them - in between the couch cushions and under the bed, and have had no luck. Perhaps I left them on the train or carelessly strewn about the locker room at the gym. And so, I admit, weeks have been lost with no trace, no record here. I'm sorry. I'm going to try, without promises, but with a hearty, deep breath, to begin again.)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Train trouble

Before I started work, H fretted over me having to take four trains every day, two there and two back withe a change-over in Brussels. I gave him a whimsical shrug. I didn't mind, I said. It seems romantic to take the train every day. I love trains, I love train rides. He looked at me incredulously, and then, after reflecting, mentioned that car rides were much more romantic to him than train trips. He had trains growing up, I had cars, and I guess in the end we both wanted what we didn't have.

That was before. After just two weeks of commuting by train, I'm amending my opinion on the train system here for the much, much worse. In theory, when it works, it could work beautifully, and there are certainly moments when I find myself in a particularly quiet and uncrowded car, gliding along, watching the patches of green and red and gray fly by, and thinking to myself how nice this is. It feels cozy and safe and warm. But the train system here has proven itself to be a veritable mess. I took about two trains last week that were actually on time - that's two trains out of twenty trains I take per week. I'm not very good at math, but I'm sure that that's a pretty lousy record. This is only after I had two trains totally cancelled on me the week before. I reluctantly climbed into a cab and gave the address of my office building. Twice in one week. At twenty-five euros a pop. (It was either that or be almost an hour late for work in my first week. Perhaps I'm old-fashioned, but it seems to me there's only so many times you can call in and let them know your train was cancelled.)

Recently, my husband picked up a pamphlet from the NMBS - the train system here in Belgium - with the title, roughly translated: We thank you for your understanding and your trust. It explains that in the last few years there has been a massive influx of people commuting by train on a regular basis. Expansions have been planned, construction has begun, and disruptions are an inevitable result. Delays. Cancellations. The panic-stricken faces of people scanning the announcement boards for alternatives to their interrupted course. The crowds in Brussels-North Station that are hurrying in mass unison, two minutes before their train leaves, from one track to another because a change in arrival was announced at the last minute. The people standing in the aisles during a rush-hour ride because, when a train is actually on course and on time, everyone better take it.

This has apparently been the month with the worst train record in the history of Belgium. I can feel the ripples in the pond. When I get into that quiet train car where I can settle back, stick my nose into a good book and let the steady whir of the train relax me, I still hope I find the ride romantic. In the meantime, maybe I always underestimated car trips. Maybe I can borrow some of H's visions of the open road. The symbol of independent adulthood for over half a century. Sounds romantic enough. I will, at the very least, give her a good try.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


I'm impressive in interviews. I've been to lots, I know the ropes, and I can knock the ball out of the park at any time. I wiggle my way around questions ("Because of my extensive experience unjamming photocopiers and refilling staplers..."), throw myself whole-heartedly into management speak ("Firstly, I think it's very important to pre-plan for the planning before you plan..."), and come across as the most easy-going person ever ("There was nothing I didn't love about my last job. God! I would have married it if I could have!").

I started a new job this week. It all happened very quickly - I submitted an application in early December and was interviewed two weeks later. They called within 24 hours and offered me the job. Because I'm just that good. They knew they couldn't live without me the moment I left the interview.

Okay. The truth was they were slightly desperate (someone left last-minute), they didn't do a very good job of advertising the position, and it's quite possible that I was the only person who applied.

And so, I'm a working woman again, in a slightly different field, but sitting behind a bigger desk than I had in Philadelphia (and I mean that quite literally - my desk is, for some reason, the size of sturdy six-seater dining room table). I feel silly now for all that stewing and hand-wringing I did over whether or not I would find something. All those hours after Dutch class I poured over job ad sites, more and more obscure as the time ticked away, feeling a restlessness slowly build into panic.

And now, after all that, my time off seems so short. Not that I'm complaining. Because, as much as I joke, it really is nice to feel like I'm contributing to something again, to get up every morning and have somewhere to go, have things to do that people are depending on. One step closer to calling Belgium home. And for that, I have to say I'm thankful.