Tuesday, June 30, 2009

independence (part dos)

It's not all 4am grocery store runs and sipping margaritas on the beach...so as promised, here is the second half of my inventory: the top 10 things America can keep.

Starbucks coffee. Blechhh. Only for emergencies. (This one is a superspecial shout out to the person who told me that I would get "lynched" by Europeans because I preferred an American brand of coffee.)

99.9% of American TV. Especially anything that tries to put the words "Entertainment" and "News" together in its title. Exceptions: Weeds, Flight of the Conchords, the Colbert Report, and NCAA basketball.

Workaholics. It will be hard to return to American “vacation” days and American lunch “break”.

American health care system. Or lack thereof – I will even have to buy travel insurance when I go home for Christmas this year because I won't be covered. In Belgium, I pay less than 10 euros per month (that’s about $13) and I am covered for 75% of my doctor’s appointment fees and prescriptions, dental care, and my contact lenses. And if I can get a doctor to approve it, even a chiropractor and acupuncturist! Hooray welfare states.

Driving half a mile to the grocery store. I now find it absurd that I actually used to do this constantly, even when it was nice outside. In high school, I drove literally two blocks to get to school in the morning, and because of traffic, I probably could have gotten there faster walking.

Fat People. If you've ever taken any flights wedged between two guys who had to get the "lap belt extenders" because they were too big, you know what I mean. Oh, you're European? I guess you don't...

Open container laws. Last week, I spent an evening with a few coworkers in the park in the middle of the city with some burgers, wine and beer (an unlikely yet winning combination). We drank in the park until the sun set at about 10 pm and watched little kids chase around bunny rabbits. And it wasn't even creepy! Or illegal.

Values. I'm not talking about real concepts by which any thoughtful person would abide to help guide his or her life. I'm talking about the ones that Christian evangelicals pronounce like this (usually in some sort of southern accent): vaaaaal yoooooooouz. (But maybe vaaaal yooooouz don't exist in America any more with a liberal in the White House?)

Apathy toward the English language. People here have actually told me "thank you" for correcting their grammar. In the US, if I corrected someone using the wrong "it's" I would probably be called a jackass.

Geographic blandness. I could drive the whole 10 hour stretch between my hometown and my college town on I-95 and mile 1 looked no different than mile 451. Usually, it involved a Texaco and a stripmall. Here, if I take a train for 2 hours in any direction, I am in a completely different country, with a different language, different architecture, different cuisine, and different culture.

But really, I do love America - which I why I reserve the right to criticize it, any time I want, with an uppity voice of authority. So anyone who's at home this weekend, please eat some pulled pork and watermelon (not together) and set off some illegal fireworks from South Carolina for me (watch your fingers). Happy 4th!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


It's really weird to think about this time last year... I was sitting on a plane taking off from Chicago, watching the independence day fireworks go off over the city. Poland? Umm....why not? The crazy ecstatic feeling of being free from responsibility faded as soon as I settled in to my corporate job, but somehow, I am still here. It's getting to the point where my friends stateside are asking me half-jokingly, "are you never coming back?"

So, a week early, before the next independence day I'll miss out on, here's to you, America: in no particular order, the top 10 things that still bring a tear to my eye even after getting stockholm syndrome in Europe.

Cuban sandwiches from the Black Bean Deli. This is the first thing I eat anytime I return from abroad. Grilled to perfection, spicy mustard slathered on top, just the way Fidel likes it.

My white VW beetle. Her name is Daisy and she turns on a dime.

Dunkin Donuts coffee.
I remember days in college when my roommate and I would make bets about who would drive for an hour just to get a cup. Yes, it’s that good.

Trader Joe’s. The best grocery store known to man.

St Augustine beach. For most of my childhood and adult life, I went there every July with my family, my childhood friends from Atlanta, and a giant, loud, fantastic clan of Cubans. I wish I could be on the gazebo near the water, drinking goombay smashes and watching the dolphins a few dozen feet away jump out of the water.

Clothes dryers and 24 hour stores.
Inconvenience is part of the daily routine when your duvet cover is still wet after washing it two days ago and the grocery store closes at 6.

sized pitchers of margaritas.
Split with friends of course…

Wearing my PJs in public.
Well, truth be told, I have started doing this anyway. But I'm the only one.

Fresh fruit.
And when I say fresh, I mean: oranges, limes, lemons and grapefruit by the crateful from my uncle’s citrus groves, and the tangerines and oranges my Mom catches as they drop off the trees in our backyard. She juices them or makes them into orange cake with glazed frosting.

‘Nuff said.

Next week: the things America can keep for all I care.

Monday, June 15, 2009

my castle

The windows have a constant layer of grime from the stream of trams and cars from the street below. The hot pipes in my closet should probably not be exposed. Someone has written the word "scream" on the wall of our living room in pencil (but I'm too afraid of what will happen if I erase it). One of our kitchen counters is held up by a single, sturdy Jupiler beer can.

Our elevator is circa 1958, and its floor was completely covered in water the other day when we had a particularly strong Belgian rainstorm. I am far too afraid to use our potentially lethal gas oven.

The saving grace of our apartment with character, the beautiful Moroccan lamps, are now sold.

And I think I'm in love.

After two days spent google translating a Dutch newspaper, it really seemed too good to be true. When we came to see the flat for the first time, Nacho and Laura, the previous tenants, ended up drinking wine with us and cooking us dinner. A supposed 15-minute visit turned into five hours. Their curly haired four year old rode her bike around the living room wearing a tutu and twirled in circles to Flemish singer Ann Christy's "Bla Bla Bla".

What I'm trying to say is that my couch is now officially open for business. Who wants to be the first to crash on it?

(Not counting almost me, the night of our housewarming party, when my bed was occupied by two very sleepy Belgian boys.)

Et moi, vraiment je t'aime....

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Getting out of the vote

It's Election Day in Europe, and the streets are not filled with canvassers. I haven't gotten any recorded messages from candidates on my cell phone or mudslinging junk mail. Nobody is honking if they love a candidate.

Instead, on Friday, there was one man wearing a clown nose standing outside of my workplace and handing out "stop het politieke circus" flyers. The dour looking man in the middle of the poster is Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, who has been in control since 2008.

There was at least one guy other than lone clown man trying to encourage voters: Frank de Winne, Belgium's second ever astronaut. He used the coincidence of European election day and a trip to space for a PR opportunity:

"Europe looks united and great from up here! I have arranged to vote by proxy, so I will not miss out of the next European elections while I am up here," he said.

Actually, Frank is not just a nice guy doing his civic duty, he has arranged to vote from space because voting is compulsory in Belgium.

Belgium was one of the first countries to make voting mandatory, all the way back in 1892. Since then, there has been a voter turnout of something like 90%, because of what happens if you don't:

- a fine of up to 55 euro on your first offense
- a fine of up to 137.5 euro for repeat offenders
- losing your right to vote if you don't vote at least 4 times in 15 years
- being excluded from getting a job in the public sector

Of course, as a coworker suggested to me, you can just get a doctor's note. Unfortunately, being an immigrant from Morocco or Turkey and not speaking a word of Dutch is not enough to get you a doctor's note. You can show up at the voting booth and just not fill out the ballot, but if you're all the way there, heck, you might as well Christmas tree the thing.

Coming from the land of the hanging chad, I'm hardly the best person to comment, but it seems to me that forcing apathetic and Christmas Tree citizens to vote ensures that incumbents stay in power, corrupt or not. Psychologically for voters, it negates the idea that Every Vote Counts. Is it really a good idea to force people who don't care about the democratic process to make a choice?

Wherever you are, your vote should matter: this past week, I heard about friends in Poland celebrating 20 years of free voting after the fall of communism. There, voting is a precious right - and many people remember a time when they couldn't exercise it at all. As for me, every time November rolls around, I vote from overseas. Why? Because you never know when there will be another margin of 537...