Earlier this month, my husband and I spent eight days on the other side of the big pond. It was an often exhilarating, frequently fun, sometimes exasperating and occasionally frightening experience. Spending some time in a place far removed from the world you normally live in makes you think – about all the things that are right with this country, state and city, and about those things that don’t work quite so well.
We traveled to New York and took a transatlantic flight to Brussels, Belgium. The primary purpose of our trip was to attend TechDays Europe 2012 in Braine L’alleud, where Tom was a featured speaker and I was invited as a VIP guest and member of the tech press. The conference itself was a big success, and the European IT professionals and developers were wonderful hosts. As a Microsoft MVP for the past eight years, I’ve gotten to know many folks in the tech community from all over the world, and those who speak “geek” seem to always be able to communicate with one another regardless of where they come from.
Tom, giving a presentation on private cloud architecture in Braine L’alleud
I also got the opportunity to fly up to Denmark for a day, where I learned that the legendary hospitality of the Danes is not exaggerated. It was a day I’ll never forget, and I hope to visit that pristine clean, friendly and proud little country again one day. Best of all, in Copenhagen I got to meet and play with a group of Japanese Chins who looked very much like my own puppies back home, whom I was missing badly.
At Copenhagen Airport, with a pair of friendly Danish Japanese Chins
The Cost of Living There
The first thing that one can’t help noticing when visiting most other countries is how much smaller, older, and less luxurious the housing is. Sure, Europe is full of castles and palaces, but that’s not where the “ordinary people,” what we would consider the upper middle class, live. People think nothing of paying the equivalent of over a million dollars for 1200 square feet of living space. The Europeans would think the 3000-4000 square foot houses in our neighborhood are fit for a king.
Many of the little luxuries that we take for granted here are nowhere to be found. The cost of living is incredibly high. We complain about gasoline prices, but if you want to experience real sticker shock at the pump, just wait until you see the sign in front of a Danish gas station that says “12.35.” That’s kroner, not dollars or euros, but that’s also per-liter, and it still translates to over eight dollars per gallon. In the Belgium grocery stores, an eight ounce chunk of cheese can cost as much as 30 euros (about $40.34).
Getting the Groceries, European Style
Speaking of grocery stores, though, I fell in love with the grocery store across the street from our hotel, despite its high prices. We stayed in the small town of Nivelles, in the southern (Walloon) region of the country. The night we got there, Tom was surfing the Internet in search of a grocery store nearby, and Google was telling him the closest was about 19 km away. I looked out the window and said, “Hey, that looks like a Food Lion right over there.” He thought I was nuts, but I’d know that logo anywhere. Sure enough, another web search confirmed that Delhaize (the name on the sign) is the Belgian company that operates Food Lion in the U.S.
The walk to the shopping center that housed “our” Food Lion was about half a mile, and we walked it numerous times while we were there. It was a whole different world from our grocery stores back home. If you’re used to “one stop shopping” at WalMart or Target, forget about that. You won’t even find the kind of comprehensive inventory you get at Kroger or Tom Thumb, or a WalMart neighborhood market, for that matter. For instance, the “Parapharmacie” section is nothing like the “drug store” area of one of our stores. Instead of taking up ten aisles, it consists of a four foot wide section of one. There you’ll find band aids, rubbing alcohol, a few common vitamins (C, E, B12), a thermometer (no fancy electronic ones, just the old fashioned mercury-filled model), some contact lens supplies and a few powdered diet drinks. No over-the-counter pain and cold remedies, esoteric nutritional supplements, fancy health maintenance implements (blood pressure cuffs, blood testing kits for diabetics) or all the other things we expect to be able to pick up at the grocery store.
The selection of canned, boxed and packaged foods was pretty sparse. The frozen food aisle (just one) sported a few dinners, some frozen pizzas and quite a bit of ice cream (which seems to be popular despite the cold temperature – or maybe because of it). But when it came to the fresh food, Oh. My. Goodness. The produce section was full of beautiful fruits and veggies, but it was the bakery that took my breath away.
There were about a million different types of freshly baked breads. Five full aisles of them. In other sections of the bakery, there were plenty of cakes and pies and sweet goodies. I was salivating as I walked through. And waffles were everywhere. We happened to be there on Valentine’s Day, so we encountered lots of heart-shaped waffles. There were also chocolate waffles, combining two of the things Belgium is famous for. There were even waffles in every vending machine we encountered at the hotel, airport and train stations, and vendors sold waffles covered in nuts, whipped cream, ice cream, or just about anything else you might want to put on top of a waffle.
The seafood section was pretty impressive, too. They had all sorts of shrimps, from tiny to gigantic, and fresh fish to rival any dedicated fish market I’ve seen in the states.
I’d have to say the food is one of the most impressive things about Europe. While the grocery store prices were somewhat high, the “all you can eat” buffet at the hotel restaurant was a fantastic value for gluttonous Americans. For 27 euros each (and tips are included), you could choose from a spread that included all kinds of fish, seafood, pasta, cold and hot appetizers, beef, chicken dishes, and a splendid layout of desserts. There was lobster, foie gras, pate and other expensive treats.
The odd thing (at least, at first glance) is that so few of the people who live there are overweight. But if you watch them at the buffet, you soon see why that is. Most put a few small bites of a few dishes on their plates; you just didn’t see the plates piled high that you see in our buffets. But even those who were eating heartily had a “secret weapon” against obesity. Many don’t own or use cars (thanks in part to the aforementioned gas prices) and although there are generally some pretty good public transportation systems, they walk a lot.
In fact, being able to walk for miles and miles was one of the nicest things about the place. Our part of Rowlett is not, unfortunately, very pedestrian-friendly unless you want to stay within the walls of Harborside. Tom and I walk our dogs here, anywhere from 2 to 4 miles a day. However, I would love to be able to walk to Target but with no sidewalks in some parts of the route, it’s not easy (or safe) to do.
Taking a Walk
Even if you take the trains, you’re going to have a nice long walk from the train station to your destination (sure, you could take a taxi – if you can find one, and if you can make the driver, who will probably speak only French, understand where you want to go), but we took the scenic route, and walked through the Nivelle city center to our hotel. It’s a little over two miles and it’s a fascinating journey.
Those of us who have spent most of our lives in the U.S., and especially in the southwestern part of the U.S. where everything is relatively new, will be struck by how very old everything is. Some of the buildings have been around longer than our country. I love the architecture here in the French-speaking part of Belgium (which is different from that in the northern Dutch-speaking area).
A big difference between here and Europe is the pace at which we live life. There is not the frantic race against the clock there that most of us experience here on a daily basis. There is a much more laid-back and lackadaisical attitude. People in general aren’t as motivated to get ahead, to work all the hours they can, chasing the almighty dollar (or euro, or kroner). To us, they might seem lazy. To them, we might seem maniacal. Neither lifestyle is “right” or “wrong.” They’re just very different.
But one way in which Belgium and Texas (at least the parts of Belgium and Texas with which I’m familiar) are very much alike is in the general friendliness of the people and the kindness of strangers. As we tried to navigate our ways through the city streets (whose names didn’t necessarily always match what Google maps had told us to expect – and oh, “by the way,” even though the GPS on your phone will work fine without a data connection, most navigation programs have to access the Internet to get the maps to go with it), English-speaking Belgians stopped to offer their help without us even asking.
Sure, we ran into the occasional stuffed shirt who looked with distain on our Texas-accented attempts to use the lingua franca, but they were few and far between. Sadly, we also ran into the “ugly American” who fulfilled the stereotype and made me understand why many Europeans think we’re all rude, unthinking and crass.
The language barrier certainly presented a challenge in Nivelles (but not in Denmark, where children learn English beginning in second grade). My limited knowledge of Spanish and Italian was of no help whatsoever. Being on the minority end of that equation made me stop and think about my own feelings toward those who don’t speak English here. Although I still believe that if you’ve going to live and work in a country, you should learn its language (and assimilate yourself into its culture), I now have a lot more sympathy regarding how difficult that can be and how lost you can feel in the meantime. English (like French) is a language that doesn’t make a lot of sense to someone coming to it from another tongue where the rules and pronunciations are far more consistent (such as Spanish).
All in all, it was a fantastic trip. There’s nothing like a few days in a cramped hotel room to make you appreciate how much you have at home and the comfort of your own bed. In the next post, I’ll talk about my side trip to Copenhagen and the challenges of using modern technology in the Old World. I also wrote about how I prepared for the trip, tech-wise, on GFI’s WinNews newsletter last week, and in next week’s edition, I’ll be writing about how my expectations and reality didn’t quite match up.
Meanwhile, if you’re physically and financially able, I encourage you to visit other countries. It’s a cliché, but travel really does broaden your perspective. For a long time, I thought just because I love my home, I had no reason to go anywhere else. Now I realize that what I bring back from those other places – the experiences, not the souvenirs – enrich my home and make it an even better place to live.