Monday, March 31, 2014

Visiting Belgium, for a Day or a Lifetime

If you've ever seen the movie RV with Robin Williams, you may recall the logo on the side of the family's caravan: Rent Me for a Day or a Lifetime, and the image of the guy with open arms, convincing you to climb aboard... or run away (Sonnenfeld, 2006). Planning an international vacation or accepting an expat assignment is a bit like that. The adventure awaits with open arms to take you awaaay. Away from your “normal” and into a wilderness of expectations and surprises.

Coming and going from Brussels Airport

Whether by your own free will to live something new or by request from your or your partner's employer, it's all up to you. You ultimately choose to make it a short experience to get a taste of what's “out there” or you sit down for a gourmet, multi-course meal where your senses are excited by how unpredictable flavors work together. If you remember in that movie, many tastes (of clothes, of lifestyle, of food – the “vegetarian” meal with no meat, but all organs) come together in a whacky adventure that makes the viewer laugh, out loud, and sometimes roll off the couch. That is the attitude one needs when going abroad.

To encourage more laughter than tears, I'd like to offer a few helpful hints specific to arriving in Belgium – for a day, or a lifetime.

Assuming you've had a good flight and that you've arrived in Brussels airport, found your luggage, (swung by for one last Starbuck's coffee or, in my case, chai tea), it's time to get somewhere...

If you're driving:

Good luck! Driving in any new city, even in your native country, can be tricky. The two rules that still leave me baffled are “no turn on red” and “priority to the right.”

Turning Right on Red

When an intersection consists of five or more lanes, it is tricky to know which lane will have the next green light. Even if you think you can tell, don't chance it!

On a positive note, there are certain intersections of Brussels where acrobats and jugglers will entertain you across the street until your light turns green. They will ask for a small coin in exchange, but are really nice about it. Keep your window up and smile if you don't wish to contribute. They will smile back. So, be patient and enjoy the show. These acts are apparently a special local treat. One performer told my husband that he and his friends went to South America to do the same, but got arrested.

Giving Priority

If you are coming to a four-way stop, everyone should slow down to check that no one is arriving on his right... in theory. However, what would seem logical could turn into a very dangerous game of chicken. Don't chance it! (After a decade here, I never assume I have the priority)

city of Leuven
If you choose public transport:

Buses and trains are wonderful options and, generally, keep to the time schedule. However, certain hiccups can occur, including but not limited to strikes. And not just by the drivers. Anyone else in the country could also strike or manifest in the middle of major axis points. These events are less entertaining than the acrobats and jugglers (see above).

Now that you're here, you've got to eat!

Fast food:
“Quick” is the belgian fast food restaurant. It is good, but at the end of the day, it is fast food.

These restaurants are among my favorite because of their laid back atmospheres and because they are the easiest to experience with children. Strollers usually fit through the doors. But beware of where the restrooms are located. Older brasseries, although great for their charm, tend to still have “facilities” (nothing facile about it) up or down a very narrow and winding staircase.
A typical brasserie menu offers meals from hot sandwiches and cold salads to nice, warm belgian specialties and are really good!
Le Falstaff - restaurant/brasserie in art nouveau style

Fine Dining:
The last time I checked, there were nearly 100 restaurants in Belgium with at least one Michelin star! But don't think you have to eat only in one of them to get an exquisite taste of Belgium. Coming from the New York region, I have found that restaurants in general offer very good quality and delicious meals for the prices they ask. What's better is that the lunch menus (2-3 courses) are often the same as the dinner menus but less expensive, just because it's lunch hour and not dinner time. So, it's a great way to discover those Michelin stars!

Tips are included in your restaurant bill, even at cafés. However, I have tipped for exceptional service or when the children were quite young and we were dining at a place that wasn't necessarily destined for children. Even in these cases, the tip doesn't need to be more than 5%.

And so after a good meal, it's nice to have a cozy place to go home to...
Town if Vaulx in Wallonia

Hotels and Bread-and-Breafasts:
A simple internet search will give you the whole range of possibilities throughout Belgium. If you want familiar surroundings, there are always Holiday Inns, Radissons, Hiltons, etc.

Renting versus Buying a Home:
If you're planning on staying under five years, I would suggest renting a home. The closing costs of buying can reach 20% and wouldn't be worth it unless staying longer.

Now my family's expat assignment was for two to three years, so we rented... for ten years! All I can say, it's a gamble. The reverse also happens where expat families get called back to their native countries earlier than expected.

For more on this, please read my post: An Unexpected Expat Life.

Now that you're settled into the best housing option for your situation, it's time to meet the neighbors!

Don't know what to say?
Two words: Language school.
Language centers are abundant throughout Belgium (of course, as it has its own three official languages to learn), from private schools like Berlitz to less expensive schools with bigger class sizes to local community classes.

Luckily, I already spoke French when we arrived. And so, I took Dutch classes in a nearby Flemish community at its community center (for almost nothing). I loved it! My teacher taught us everything from the language to the culture (which I personally feel is so important). I was in a class with other adults from all over the world. Despite our initial differences, we had the one common goal of wanting to communicate with each other and that brought us together... not just as classmates, but as friends.

Take that first step...
Even with limited language, a smile is sometimes all you need, or a wave from one backyard to the next. A great tradition is “l'heure d'apéritif” or cocktail hour. Invite your neighbors for a drink. It doesn't take much to put out some juices or wines and a few snacks. It's also a great excuse for a Belgian beer tasting. Besides, who doesn't speak a foreign language better after a drink? You might even discover your guests speak a bit of your native language... you'd be surprised by how many do. About five years into one of my friendships, I was astonished to go to her house one day and hear her speaking to her other guests in English, and really well! You never know.

Tredegar House Folk Festival
I could give you a hundred more tips on your future trip or expat experience, but instead of just reading about it, go to it! Jump into a new place with wide-open eyes and ears. See the sights, listen to the people and their music whether it's a hoe-down, classical, or new jazzy beat. At the end of RV, the cast sings a great rendition of Get Your Kicks on Route 66, I think we can get our kicks just about anywhere with the right attitude.

For more personal stories of my expat life and of my experience raising Third Culture Kids, visit Good Night, Sleep Tight and click on Third Culture Stories.

For more expat tips from expats all over the globe, visit HiFX's expat page, where I have also added my two cents worth.

Have a great trip!


Luton Airport Parking said...

Belgium is that place where you could live for the lifetime.
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Daisy Parker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daisy Parker said...

It would be my best day when i visit Belgium.
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