For two glorious years I lived abroad, as a “trailing spouse” expat living in Waterloo, Belgium. Yes, that Waterloo. As in the battlefield, which is the site of the famous 1815 Battle of Waterloo. As in Napoléon, Emperor of France, who met his great defeat at the hands of England’s Duke of Wellington. In July of 2002, to prepare for my husband’s two year assignment at NATO headquarters located in Brussels, I quit my stressful but lucrative position as a real estate paralegal, sold our house, and sorted our belongings into three separate areas: long-term storage, sea shipment, and air shipment. Then, we loaded up our tween-aged daughters, our Persian cat, and four giant suitcases, and jetted off to the heart of Europe for our big adventure.
Maria in The Sound of Music sang about “a few of her favorite things”. I have many favorites from my two years in Belgium, and many of them line up with Maria’s favorites as well.
Raindrops on roses. It rains a lot in Belgium. Before leaving for Belgium, I bought a three-quarter length, lightweight raincoat with a hood at LL Bean. I wore that coat nearly every day the whole time we lived there. Cloudy and overcast most days, the lack of sunlight never really bothered me but I had several expat friends who struggled with the climate, ultimately resulting to their taking melatonin supplements. For me, chilly rainy days were the perfect excuse to snuggle under a blanket on the sofa, reading a good book or knitting a scarf, or busy at work in my warm kitchen, making a pot of soup and a loaf of freshly baked bread.
Whiskers on kittens. Well, that one really needs a slight adjustment: whiskers on puppies. Dogs, everywhere. Small perfectly groomed dogs on leashes are seen everywhere in Belgium, as in France. Outdoor cafes, farmers’ markets, buses, trains, everywhere. It was not out of the ordinary to have a meal in a fine-dining restaurant and see a small dog under a nearby table eating daintily from a dish on the floor. In many cases, these dogs in restaurants were better behaved than most children in American restaurants. Sad, but true. I think I started my transformation into a dog person while living in Belgium, with the full conversion occurring when we welcomed our adored Maltipoo, Puccini, into our lives.
Bright copper kettles. Where to begin on this one? For a self-proclaimed foodie, living in Belgium was a dream made in heaven. Each meal out was an adventure in itself. Take, for example, the inexpensive cafeteria-styled Lunch Garden, where I first had the classic Belgian vegetable side dish, chicons au gratin, Belgian endive sautéed with leeks and bathed in a white cream sauce, dusted with breadcrumbs and then browned to perfection in the broiler. Ordinary beef stew, cooked over low, slow heat with caramelized onions and Belgian beer becomes the extraordinary carbonades flamandes, served with mustard and frites (the thin ultra-crispy French fries.
Every meal, regardless of the price point, was served with impeccable style. Table manners and dining etiquette in general are greatly elevated from what we experience in America. The fork and knife you used for your salad or appetizer are whisked away and replaced with fresh silverware for your entrée, which is also removed for your dessert course. It is not hard to get used to that, and then return home bristling at the thought of using the same knife and fork throughout your meal.
Warm woolen mittens. Hats, scarves, and gloves are de rigueur in Europe. Men and women alike accessorize every outfit before going out, even on the simplest of errands. Football jersey and sweats? Uh, no. Baggy sweater and yoga pants? Certainly not. Tailored, well-fitting slacks accompanied by sleek sweater sets are then brought to life by scarves artfully tied, matching hat and glove sets, and raingear. The main reason behind this is that European bedrooms do not typically have built-in closets. “Wardrobes”, portable closets, are purchased for each bedroom. Since storage space is at a minimum, clothing is purchased carefully to mix and match with other pieces. Also, since most Europeans have dishwasher-sized washer/dryer combo machines, not everything is washed each time it is worn. The addition of accessory pieces extends the look and seasonality of a limited wardrobe.
Brown paper packages tied up with strings. I had a plethora of choices for food shopping while living in Belgium. My husband had shopping privileges at the U.S. Military Commissary at Chievres. This was all-American grocery shopping where we could find all of our favorites from home, and shop tax-free to boot! What’s not to like about buying exactly what you ate at home only cheaper? Well, for one thing, why not just stay home? How do you fully experience a foreign culture if you don’t shop and eat as they do?
A few blocks from my rental house on Avenue de Versailles in Waterloo was a Delhaize grocery store. It was similar in size and style as the Safeway grocery store in my current neighborhood here in Maryland. There I shopped as the locals did, seasonally. One day when strolling through the produce aisle, I saw a display of freshly washed but oddly shaped radishes, still glistening with droplets of water, tied in neat bunches with their greens still intact, arranged artistically around platters of what appeared to be softened butter and small dishes of coarse salt. I watched as shoppers stopped at the display, selected a trimmed radish from a silver bowl, dipped it in the soft butter and then into the coarse salt. When in Rome, right? The taste was out of this world. I don’t think I had ever eaten a whole radish before, and certainly not buttered and salted, but it was exquisite. This display was announcing the arrival of the new crop of French Breakfast radishes, a signal that spring was on its way.
While living in Waterloo, I also had access to specialty food shops, many dotted around the circle at the center of town. Every purchase made in these shops, la poissonnerie (fishmonger), the patisserie (pastry shop), or the boulangerie (bakery), all come to you in the same way, presented as if on a silver platter, wrapped in clean brown paper, tied with butcher’s twine. Une baguette? Rolled in the brown paper, with the ends tucked in. Tarte au citron? Laid gently on a lace paper doily and placed in a box which is then wrapped in the twine and tied.
Nowhere else was I happier, however, than in the fromagerie (cheese shop). I’ve been told that there is a different Belgian cheese for every day of the year, and if I could but live a year trying a different cheese each and every day, I would die a very happy girl. I once entered the fromagerie in the center of Waterloo where the shopkeeper asked if she could help me. In my very beginner French, I explained I needed to create a cheese plate. She asked “pourquoi?” You see, the story of why the food is needed and what it is needed for is almost as important as the selection of the food itself. I then explained that it was for a book club meeting. “Ah,” she said, “après-dinner?” “Oui,” I replied. She then set about offering me samples of different types of cheese which followed the basic formula for a successful cheese plate: a soft, fresh, ripe cheese such as a Brie; a mature, hard, sharp cheese such as an Emmentaler; and finally, a semi-hard crumbling cheese such as a Bleu. Since then, I’ve also learned that it is nice to combine cheeses made from different milks, such as a goat’s milk cheese or chèvre with a sheep’s milk cheese such as manchego.
After two years of life in Belgium, we packed up our now teenage daughters and our Persian cat, and sorted all of our belongings into their original three areas for transport back to the U.S. We came back home with better French, hundreds of photos of our European travels, many friends from all over the world, and a true understanding of what it is like to live in a foreign culture. We returned to Maryland with its crazy traffic, four seasons, 24/7 shopping, fast food, workaholic lives, increased competition in school and sports, and all of the friends and family we had left behind. We also came home with a lifetime of good memories of happy times where we all broadened our world view, an experience we still cherish.