I woke up at 4am this morning. It was dark in our home in Boitsfort. I took a shower, got dressed, tucked a card beneath my husband’s pillow, drawing it back just enough so he would hopefully notice it peeking out.
While I was in the shower, my dear husband had gotten up to make me coffee and oatmeal, breakfast of champions. Our BWD (Big White Dog), Atticus, lay snoozing on his bed. This early in the morning is a bit much even for a dog.
Since moving from the United States to Belgium, I have embarked upon many of what my husband has termed “cultural adventures.” In fact, I often feel like I experience a cultural adventure every time I leave the house and often from within the comfort of our home.
A cultural adventure is our attempt to infuse humor into the challenges of living in a different culture. There are different customs, perspectives, and languages to contend with. Belgium does things differently than the United States. Many of those differences are fantastic (i.e., affordable, accessible healthcare; well-organized, affordable public transit; etc.). Of course, these items also offer many opportunities for what my husband calls “my path to Zen,” which he has assured me begins with my love-hate (mostly the latter) relationship with public transit.
The challenges of transit are many, and they are often expounded on trips to and from the airport. On one such occasion, I was headed to meet my dad, who had flown in from Boston. I set aside extra time so that I wouldn’t feel stressed or rushed. My careful plans all went the way of so many well-laid plans when I arrived at what had been a large area with buses traveling in many directions (one of them, the airport), only to find that the area had been completely razed for construction and the buses would not be running for the next nine months!?
I swore at Belgium, walked around several times in a vain attempt to find signs redirecting me to other possible modes of transit, cried, and then decided to get on with it. I found a metro nearby and hopped on. I arrived late, and my dad had already wandered out to the curb. When he tried to walk back in to meet me at arrivals, he was refused entry by security.
Say what, again?!
I managed to find him, and we wound our way around a ridiculously circuitous route to the train station en route to “home.”
In order to try to make this morning’s journey to the airport as smooth as possible, I embarked upon yet another cultural afternoon yesterday evening. With BWD in tow (well, to be honest, it was really the reverse), I headed toward a Zipcar parking area near the Boitsfort train station to see if I could get my card to work to reserve a car. Since we have US American iPhones with US American iTunes, we cannot just download the handy dandy Zipcar App without shifting to Euro everything and thereby losing everything we have purchased over the years on our iTunes accounts. We could book online from home, but we only have 15 minutes to get to the car and open it with our Zip cards. Since it takes us 15-20 minutes just to walk to the car, this is not a “safe” option (unless we want to live really dangerously, out there on the proverbial edge).
When I know I have to be somewhere at a certain time, I don’t like to mess around. My plan was to login to the Zipcar.be site by loading the Google Internet App and logging in from there. We also have really slow (painfully slow) Internet connections away from Wi-fi (oh, the travails of our difficult first world existence).
So, I stood on the sidewalk next to said Zipcar, waiting….and waiting….and waiting for the website to load, the login page to load, my login information to be processed, to input my address, for available cars to appear, and to choose and reserve one. While I stood there, BWD grew impatient and behaved as any adolescent dog will. He ate every possible object he could find that would fit in his mouth and mounted my leg (more times than I care to mention).
Passersby smiled at the dog while ignoring me for the most part. This was fine by me, as I was trying to stay calm (and not succeeding very well) and book the car while shaking my leg to get my dog off of it.
I finally booked the car but then could not figure out how to get the car open. I texted my husband.
Wave the car on the sticker.
What sticker? The car was covered in Z patterns. Was one of the painted Z’s on the side door or the front hood a magical sticker? Nope.
With traffic flying by, I walked around the car, holding BWD’s leash close to my body. I finally found the sticker, which was located on the driver’s side of the windshield. I held my card against it for the designated 25 seconds, which was noted in the instructions, and voila! There was an audible, magical sound as all four doors simultaneously unlocked.
I breathed a sigh of relief. I went back into the Google Zipcar.be webpage and clicked “Cancel Reservation.” Nothing happened. I clicked again. Still nothing happened. How did I end the damn reservation? I texted my husband again, but he was ensconced in interviewing candidates via Skype with colleagues from his previous job in Arizona.
It finally occurred to me to place the Zip card back on the magical sticker. The car doors locked! I checked my email, expecting to see a charge for 0euros since I had only checked the car out for a minute or so, but the email I received showed a charge of 1,25euro.
Did I mention I have a super distaste (I am not sure it is quite on the level of phobia) of making phone calls? I will literally do anything I can to avoid it. The invention of the Live Chat has been a godsend. Worst case, I will send an email. This distaste is even worse in Belgium, where most of the calls I make require me to speak in French and to try to understand the French words being communicated to me by a fast-speaking representative. To top it off, it costs us 20 cents/minute to make any calls on our phone because we don’t have a Belgium number (one assimilation step at a time, please).
However, when I need a human being right away, I take a deep breath and plunge in. I had already called Zipcar, dialed #2 for English, and promptly been transferred to a French-speaking representative.
The first time, I managed to get through the conversation and understand most of it (I think/hope) in French. This time, I followed the steps, anticipating that I would be speaking French (I have found that if I anticipate things will not go as I plan or desire, I can sometimes set myself up to not be completely overwhelmed and meltdown).
French it was, so I forged ahead. I wanted to make sure I had successfully canceled the car and wanted to find out about the charge. Apparently, since I did not have the blessed app, it was less clear as to whether or not I chose the “damage” fee of 1,25euro. To make up for this discrepancy and because it was my first time, the representative gave me 10 extra minutes (at least, I think that is what she said). I have gotten to the point where I just ask the person to repeat what they have said until I understand. No shame! I had zero idea of the final words of wisdom she imparted, so she explained the gist of it to me in broken English. I was grateful.
When I taught English to French elementary school children in France many years ago, I was always over the moon overjoyed if I was mistaken for a French person. Being asked directions was like a gift of manna from above (or somewhere providential). I never wanted to be mistaken for a US American (the horror!), and though it became clear fairly readily that I was not French when I had no idea how to get to where the person asking for directions needed to go, I nevertheless felt an added bounce in my step after we parted ways.
These days, I still feel a thrill at being mistaken for a European (I don’t think I appear Belgian, but people generally think I am from somewhere in Europe); however, I feel somewhat less shame over being a US American.
For one, I have stopped referring to my self as an American. Here in Brussels, there are people from around the world, including countries in several of the Americas. So, I am now a US American or from the United States. People often think I am Anglophone but don’t guess my true identity, and I am content with this state of immediate judgment affairs.
I was beyond thrilled when I went to a dermatologist the other day (another cultural adventure is figuring out the healthcare system….but that is a story for another time) and she told me I had no accent and that she wouldn’t have guessed I was Anglophone.
She did tell me I was a mystery because she was the second dermatologist to not have a clear idea why several of the fingers on my right hand have been swollen and covered in itchy spots for nearly three months, but what else is new.
I told her I was a mystery to myself and that my husband would likely agree with her as well.
Anything but normal, my husband will say. This is his family motto, so I fit right in with my big hair, wacky personality, and my mysteriously swollen, discolored, itchy fingers.
Back to this morning’s cultural adventure, replete with BWD and my luggage. I began moving through the several steps to logon onto the Zipcar site several minutes before we would arrive at the car. Google was clearly not pleased to have been woken so early, and told me to “Try Again Later.”
Every passing moment is later, right? So, I tried “later.” As we approached the spot where the car had been yesterday, there was only one black car. Shit! Who reserves a Zipcar at 5am in the morning? Ok, we do, but still. As we got closer, we could just make out the silvery contours of little zippie and breathed a shared sigh of relief.
We managed to reserve the car and get everything and everyone settled in. From there, it was a mere 15 minutes to the airport.
As I relayed directions from the GPS to my husband, I mused, It’s like experiencing joy after much suffering.
I was referring to the relative ease with which we were headed to the airport. For the first year and a half of our time in Belgium, we had spent an hour plus and taken anywhere from one to three forms of transit plus walking to get to the airport. Suffice it to say that we were both often cranky by the time we finally arrived.
We did have to walk 20 minutes to get to little zippie, but the powers that be recently set up a station for a carshare in our neighborhood, which is located mere meters from our front door! Granted, so many people have cars that they have reduced the number of cars from two to one, but still. I will take it!
I was in pleasant spirits when we reached the drop-off area at the airport. My good mood lasted through checking in, where the staff person was super kind, I didn’t have to pay to check my bag (another possible issue that might have cropped up), I was offered priority boarding since I booked the flight using my American Advantage card, and no one gave me a hassle over carrying my baritone ukulele on board.
Side note: I did spend a loooooong time going through security for said ukulele. When I attempted to follow the other travelers through the traditional security check, a staff person ushered me all the way to the other end, where the “special” people get to go through. I stood and waited among flight attendants, people traveling with disabilities, and so on while I waited. My ukulele cleared, but everything in my bag was rummaged and my careful order was destroyed in a vain attempt to find the perceived knife that I had not packed. Bags run through a second time, and I was allowed to repack my bag once more, shoulder bag, ukulele, and coat, and head to the gate.
My spirits and gratitude for humanity was further augmented when the person in the aisle seat agreed to switch with me for the window so that I could avoid having a panic-induced meltdown.
Now, here’s hoping I will be able to switch my L seat (unless it is an aisle seat already) before my next flight, and all will be smooth sailing from there.
Thank goodness for kind people, the abundance of leg room on this Iberia plane (I know I am small and tend to sit cross-legged, but my spirit breathes better with a bit of space around me instead of having the seat in front of me packed within inches of my body.
Onward to Madrid, then Boston, and finally to one of the many houses I have called home.