27 October 2010

Are you learning Flemish?

While we waited at the doctor's office for Lily's stitch, an older gentleman spoke to us in Dutch. "I'm sorry; I speak no Dutch," I said, in Dutch. We say this often enough that our accent is decent, which is sort of misleading.

He must not have heard me, because he kept on looking at Lily and talking in Dutch. I repeated myself and said we spoke English.

"Well, let her speak English then!" he said.

"OK!" I said and braced myself.

"Are you learning Dutch?" he asked her.

Lily's smile was frozen, and she looked at me. "No," I said. I tried to convey vague regret via a slight grimace. "She attends an international school where she is learning French."

"You should come to our Flemish schools!" he said. "There you will learn Dutch, and French, and English, and German, and then when you are older, Spanish and Portuguese and [some other languages I can't recall, which is really quite impressive]."

Conversations like these have been happening a lot lately, and I absolutely don't know what to say next. I keep up my rueful countenance, make some noncommittal noises, and discontinue eye contact in the hopes that the conversation dies out. I become conversationally inept, and I'm embarrassed about that.

There is something in the air. We have lived here for three years now, but it is this fall that we are really getting told that we should speak Flemish. Four or five Flemish people have, in the course of brief commercial exchanges, either refused to speak English with me (even though I know they know it), or told us we should be learning it: at city hall, when I had to pick up some documents; at my physical therapist's office; at city hall another time, when I helped a woman who was confused (both of us speaking English), who then told me I should be learning Flemish and that my not learning Flemish is "exactly the problem they have here."

I thought that was pretty rude, but oh my good golly, we have lived here for three years, and we cannot speak the language of the region in which we live! Ridiculous. Matthew and I really have some regrets about this. We did not understand, when we came to look at houses in the summer of 2007, that we should think long and hard about whether we really wanted to live in this (lovely!) small Flemish commune, instead of five kilometers northwest, in the city of Brussels (where French is dominant); or three kilometers south, in Wallonia, the French-speaking region; or eight kilometers north, in one of the communes à facilités linguistiques (bilingual towns). We are so close to areas where speaking French is appropriate and we wouldn't fear offending stalwart Flemish people. As it is, as I go to the pharmacy and the grocery store and the post office, I utter a few sad little Dutch phrases (I'm talking travel phrases you could learn in half an hour) and then lapse into English.

Not only are we not speaking the language of the precise location in which we live, we are also not practicing our French that often, and thus haven't progressed as well as we would like. I do think our expectations are skewed by the fact that Matthew returned from six months in Spain pretty much fluent; we forget that he studied it, non-immersion style, in high school and college for six or seven years before that. And I learned this week that my French is good enough to have a conversation with a man in the grocery store about treatments for his son who is Clara's age and has diarrhea. That's something.

We told our French teacher about these encounters with Flemish people, and she apologized. She described this area (she lives 20k away) as "militant," which surprised me. She told us it is because of the current political climate, and that makes sense. I can understand wanting to preserve one's culture -- well, I really can hardly understand, because I'm American, and America doesn't really have to worry about preserving its culture; it's too busy exporting its culture elsewhere (like by sending us to Flanders, to live, and not learn the language -- blargh). I remain clueless about how to respond. I would like to say, "Yes, actually, I'm glad you ask me about that. This was a tough decision for us. Here is some of our thinking about it; tell me what you think about it; et cet."

Mostly I feel like we are the ones who should be apologizing; it's ridiculous that we have lived in this region for three years and can't speak the language. We decided to learn French because we thought it would be more useful and easier to acquire, we had a much greater desire to learn it, and we figured it was fair game since we're in the Brussels region (as in, we were free to choose which we'd prefer to learn). And I love knowing some French; I don't regret that choice at all. But I do think that if I had to do it over again, I might -- even though I love our little town, and especially love the forest we access at the end of the street -- choose to live in a different location.

On the topic of international communication: may I suggest a new universal hand gesture for use on the road. It's possible the man a lane over from me the other day, who wouldn't let me over in time to make my exit, saw a raised digit and assumed it was another gesture, but no, it was the sarcastic thumbs up. Just another American invention exported for the world to enjoy.

25 October 2010

A stitch in time

She put on a brave face,

but this sweet almost-six-year-old had to get a stitch (just one) at the doctor's office this afternoon. She got a pretty deep little gash on her chin on the stairs at school.

She squeezed my hand tightly as the doctor gave her the injections to numb the area, but she was quiet and composed. She must get this from Matthew. Around this same age I had to have a sketchy mole removed from a finger, and it had to be rescheduled because I threw such a fit when they were preparing to give me a shot. My mom had promised me a toy afterward, and I remember asking if I still got it. I didn't.

Soren and she had a fun surprise afternoon together, then, playing "toy store" in her room (which seemed like a lot of fun, but as the name suggests, involves a lot of pickup).

Do you think Clara is due for her first haircut? I could just about braid her "bangs"/fake widow's peak/reverse rat tail (her father's term).

Here's Clara's "biggest, happiest smile":

eyes and teeth clenched with joy, I guess.

12 October 2010

Handles and switches and knobs

[I'm going through old drafts of posts -- this one is from summer 2009.]

Matthew took some photos around the house last week [or, eighty weeks ago] so we could remember some of the Belgian/European features of our house that no longer look strange to us:

Screen-less windows that tilt,

two-prong outlets,

flushers on top of toilets (back in the U.S. Matthew watched Soren look befuddled at a toilet tank, not knowing to look for the handle on the side),

our enormous mailbox (not necessarily "Belgian," but memorable),

our handle-less front door -- if you're out without a key, tough beans,


and light switches.

08 October 2010

Like a good neighbor . . .

First, a warning. Please don't click on the first link, or scroll down, if you object to seeing the naked bottom of a man who intentionally goes nude in public. (Also, you should probably not visit us, because you're bound to see it if you do.)

I've written about our naked home-remodeling neighbor before. Previous posts about him are here, and here. When we were back home, he was the subject of the most inquiries about our life in Belgium.

One day this fall I looked out an upstairs window to see him talking with an elderly couple who were dressed impeccably (as all elderly couples are here -- they look like they're going to a funeral, or a wedding, but are just taking a stroll to the bakery).

He was not naked. Phew! Instead, he was wearing what appeared, by its tissue-thinness, to be a vintage pair of men's dark blue bikini underwear. Better than nothing, I thought, until the couple left, he turned, and I saw the hole in the middle of the back of the underwear.

A few days later, I saw him outside working with another man (who was clothed). From the back, our neighbor looked normal -- his normal, I mean, which means naked -- but upon closer inspection, I realized he was sporting a small garment.

It appears that he has crafted a modesty flap out of burlap and twine.

07 October 2010

06 October 2010

That sport where you don't touch the ball with your hands

Soren started soccer. Football! Football. Soccer! We're in Europe, so it's football, except that it's run by an English-speaking (mostly American) association, so it's soccer, but when I studied Spanish, it was futbol, yet most of you reading this are Americans, so it's soccer.

He seemed pretty interested on the sidelines when Lily played last year (he was too young), so we were excited to see him get a chance to don the jersey and get into it.

Team name: Fireballs. He's#6.

He's intense! He is all over the field, really going for it.

Last game, he scored two goals!

He's all red-faced and sweaty at the end of the games.

He's quite physical -- he bumps into other players quite a bit.

After one game, he observed, "I was multiple times on the ground." True.

No surprise there -- in junior high I was always taking other kids out during Knowledge Master.

05 October 2010

A few last notes about our trip home

1. This is what our grass looked like when we got back from a month in the U.S.:

And after Matthew took one pass with the mower:

2. Jet lag in a toddler is brutal. The big kids' clocks seemed to adjust pretty quickly, but Clara was still waking at night three weeks after we were back.

3. It sort of felt like we were on an episode of "This Is Your Life." Over the course of just one of the four weeks, for example, we saw: my high school friends; Matthew's cousins in Oregon; Matthew's parents; my mother's brother and his family; my maternal grandparents; my father and stepmom; my paternal grandmother; and extended family on my father's side. These were all planned visits, and as I reread it, maybe it's not that much, but this was just one of the four weeks. The others were similar. And then also, in that same week, I bumped into some people unexpectedly who I hadn't talked to or seen in years, e.g., a guy I went to prom with. (At first I wrote "a man I went to prom with," but yuck! Why is there a MAN at prom?) So, when my friend here described home visits as "social whiplash," I said, "YES!"

All of the visits were lovely! I had so much fun seeing people, catching up, meeting people for the first time, in some cases -- but/and somehow all interspersed with this it almost felt like an out-of-body experience. No, that's too dramatic. I don't know how to describe it. I kept using the term "floaty" for how I felt. Happy, comfortable every place we stayed, enjoying reunions and visits -- but just slightly not myself.

After one large group get-together, one friend said she felt like we were on an awkward first date, that she had to find a way to have some meaningful conversation with me in the course of not that much time together. YES! I couldn't really identify this until we were back in BE, but there is this vague feeling inside me that all the moments should be memorable, that when I'm seeing people I love once a year, we can't just have small talk. We need to really connect!! Make memories! Love each other well in a lasting way that sticks for the next year so they don't forget all about us. No pressure!

Thankfully the kids didn't seem to feel any of this. They just jumped in with both feet everywhere we went, not hindered by a sense of needing to make every moment count, which is probably a better way to make every moment count, anyhow.

04 October 2010

She's a BRICK! house.

Ouch. The title of my last post has become fitting as the weeks have passed since I've written anything on here. Today I start fresh, and I hope to post something each weekday this week.

There's a saying here that Belgians are "born with a brick in their belly," meaning that owning a home is very important to them. This is true in America too, of course, but it's different here. Our French teacher Pascale told us that banks only loan a quarter of one's salary, so people save for years while renting, and usually buy a first home in their thirties. Once Belgians have a home, they typically stay put, moving maybe once, she explained. In Pascale's case, their family grew to three children, so they eventually built a larger house, and this, she explained, is really the dream: to build one's own home.

This conversation was prompted by an article she has us read about the American economy and its effect on Europe, so we were talking about foreclosures, and then just in general the idea of credit. I said that in America people tend to always want to be at the economic level just above theirs -- that there is a sense of continual striving to get ahead and have more. Pascale sort of frowned and shook her head and said, "Here, once you have a home, you are happy." It seems less greedy and more accepting?, I guess, than the general American view on standard of living.

I asked if in their home their children have their own bedrooms, and she said yes, and looked sort of confused. I explained that sometimes in America siblings share rooms. She said she was sorry, but that was very bizarre to her. Then I identified Matthew as one of these weirdos, since he and his brother shared a room when they were young.

We just adore our French teacher, and this is definitely one of the reasons. We talk about cultural differences and she's willing to tell us when something is weird to her about America. I love this!