Deliberate International Spaz

Brussels, HERE I COME!

Vive la difference!


Never having considered myself a materialist, and Belgium not lacking for anything in particular, I am struck at how much of the things I am missing most are just that – things. Items that I never particularly considered essential, until now. Here, beer replaces the cracker or juice samples you can try at the supermarket on Saturdays. Heck, you can even drink the beer you bought from the vending machine as you guard over your unmentionables at the laundromat. But Dryel? They don’t have that. Sulfate-free shampoos? Forget it. Missing natural product lines like Burt’s Bees, Organix, Dr. Bronner’s, Traditional Medicinals, Tom’s or Method? Go back to Norcal, hippie. Luckily, I did finally find a “bio” store to tide me over (yay for Yogi teas!), but the selection is a tiny fraction of what I had access to at my neighborhood cooperative, Other Avenues. If Belgian progressives walked into a Whole Foods, they’d probably think they’d died and gone to heaven.

But perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on myself for being irritated by the superficial. Products can have a profound impact on society and, with a background in economics, maybe I am more fond than most of innovations that save time. There’s even a feminist streak in there somewhere, since The Economist was pondering how division of labor at home affects take home pay. Another study estimated that in 1900, a woman spent 58 hours per week on household chores. By 1975, this fell to 18 hours.

Inefficiencies in the public sector are a frustration most can identify with – consider the DMV or post office. Yet, both are being forced to change their ways and become more customer friendly compared to a decade ago. Here? Not so sure. Garbage bags are piled out on the sidewalks on collection day, to be picked up one by one by garbage workers. No mechanized garbage trucks with arms, no cans to tidily hide the garbage bags away. As for the post office, not only did they fail to deliver my heavy box of books … I had to pay them a hefty sum for the privilege of picking it up from the nearest branch. Neither of these inconveniences was unknown to me given previous trips, yet I keep hoping for positive change. Especially since my native Poland, labelled a third world country just two decades ago, had more hygienic garbage disposal customs even when I was a wee one.

To be fair, there are similar trifles I simply do not miss at all about California. Shoddy, energy inefficient buildings where you constantly have to run central heating. Our obsession with carpets. Instead, I’ll take proper insulation, radiators and flooring any day from a place that understands seasons. And so I say, with the requisite Bruxellois good humor, vive la difference!


si fueris Rōmae, Rōmānō vīvitō mōre; si fueris alibī, vīvitō sicut ibi


Two days ago it snowed again. Nearly April but no sign of spring. Winter is a fairly foreign concept to me and I am learning how to deal by observing. Denial seems to be the path of preference for runners that continue to go about their business while wearing shorts and running on the snow. Adapting by replacing your daily run with a cross-country trip through your local park is another option. One that I would actually be keen on if I had skis. But there is a third, albeit unhealthy, way to chase away the winter blues – the BIG 5.

IMG_0016_2What are Belgium’s BIG 5? In order of accessibility they are:

1. Beer
2. Chocolate
3. Fries
4. Waffles
5. Mussels

Given that my favorite indulgence has always been chocolate, and my first job was at Ghirardelli’s, I know a bit about the substance but never pass up the opportunity to learn more. A visit to an artisan is a pleasant way to ignore the weather, too.

Manneken Pis chocolates at Chocolaterie Duval in Brussels

Xocolātl was considered by the Mayas and Aztecs to be a gift from the gods. They would grind cocoa beans into a powder and mix it with water to make a bitter, spicy elixir. It was also used as currency in bartering. While Columbus brought some beans back with him to the Old World, Spanish nobility was exclusively introduced to the drink by Cortés in 1528. Finally, in 1643 Princess Maria Theresa offered chocolate as an engagement present to Louis XIV of France and from there it rapidly spread to the rest of Europe. It wasn’t until the 1800s, however, that chocolate became available in solid form.

While the Swiss excel at silky milk chocolate, Belgians specialize in rich pralines, invented in 1912 by Neuhaus. Unlike the typical nut and caramel pralines we think of, Belgian pralines are actually chocolate bonbons consisting of an outer hard shell and various fillings. My mood, but sadly also my hips, can personally attest to the deliciousness that is the BIG 5. On that note, Happy Easter and enjoy your chocolate eggs!

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Like riding a bicycle, or why the more things change, the more they stay the same


My adventure thus far has been unfolding incredibly smoothly. The shared accommodations I booked online prior to my departure turned out to truly exist and include awesome roomies to boot, my flight neighbor was Tesla’s service manager which made for a fascinating conversation, and the weather has exceptionally bested SF’s for my welcome, I’m given to understand. And while I am still jetlagged, adapting otherwise has not been an issue.

Being in Europe again triggers many of the memories I’d forgotten from my last stay here a decade ago. I had assumed that either Europe would have changed or I would have changed, and while that’s true, there are more fundamental shifts shared by  both sides of the Atlantic than politicians would have you believe. I have failed to experience culture shock, much as I failed to experience it during an entire year abroad the last time around. I remember that I had a much harder time with reverse culture shock upon my return to the US, so I’m wondering if that will happen again.


A few initial anecdotal observations:

  1. Government officials have a great sense of humor in Europe. I suppose it’s necessary in gracefully dealing with bureaucratic obstacles and impossible policy challenges.
  2. People get out and about in Brussels. Coming from Cali, where the lightest of our rare rains is an excuse to stay indoors, and still traumatized by the six weeks of constant rain we endured in 2006, I give props to Belgians for continuing to move around on motorcycles and bicycles and opting to run in the park rather than on a treadmill.
  3. When in Brussels, never assume someone won’t understand you because you speak some obscure language. Speaking four languages is average here, and it’s not just the officials languages of 27 European member-states that you’ll hear, given Europe’s colonial history and all of Europe’s expats living abroad that can exercise their dual citizenship.
  4. It’s a pleasant sensation to no longer be exceptional because I’m a dual citizen that’s trilingual. Many of my fellow colleagues have similarly colorful life stories. There’s a bit of negotiation that occurs when meeting another complicated cosmopolitan. For example, the language of choice for communicating with a French native turned out to be Polish even though we both speak French, English, and Polish.
  5. Finally, I am amused to have come half way across the world only to land smack dab in the middle of a heavily Polish neighborhood of Brussels completely by chance. The community is larger here than it is in San Francisco, as there are easily four Polish stores and restaurants within a fifteen minute walk. In SF, we only have two.

Embarking upon a new adventure … AT LAST!


This morning I woke up to a new message awaiting me on my BB. Obviously, that happens every morning. But this morning the sender that caught my attention was EAC STAGES. My head was on my pillow I opened one eye and attempted to judge the content. Assuming it was an official rejection I hit snooze and went back to sleep.

When the alarm went off again, I mustered the courage to start my morning with bad news. I opened the email and read:




There was no need to read further. I ran downstairs and screamed at my roomies in a voice still hoarse from sleeping – “I’m off to Europe!”  And thus my next five months interning for the European Commission in Brussels begins.

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Ancient History