Note: While coming up with a title for this post, I first wrote the words “Quitting Belgium.” Then, I revised it to read, “I quit 2020: A Thanksgiving ____.” The word diatribe popped into my mind next. According to the very scholarly source, Wikipedia, the word diatribe can have a bit of an intensity to it, as a kind of rant or strong critique. However, it also tends to be a written commentary, “often employing humor, sarcasm, and appeals to emotion.” This seemed a bit much, so I deleted it and wrote “reflection,” then deleted that and wrote, “contemplation.” Then I decided those were both far too cheesy and went back to the more snarky and intense “diatribe,” which is, I believe, more fitting for my own nature.
As the countdown to Thanksgiving 2020 nears “celebration” (slash eating) time, I have been working on going down my “to do “list of items, trying to tick off as many as I can before something important slips through the cracks.
Items (listed in order of priority):
Call the vet
Contact Belgium to take us off their mailing list
Look up recipes and make a grocery list
Find my bag of mala beads to make presents for friends
Ask my husband if he has a tool that will cut the silver stem on a pair of earrings so I can put thinner stems on
Make loops I can use as extenders for necklace chains with the remaining silver stem pieces
The two top items were the ones I needed to check off most urgently.
Calling the vet
Call the vet to find out what time to drop our dog off Thanksgiving morning for his testicle removal surgery. Apparently, he has had a second testicle hiding up in there all of these years. I began suspecting maybe the vet who neutered him had only finished half the job when he Atticus started getting a bit too excited about spending the day with me. It started with basic leg humping and has increased in frequency (and enthusiasm) over time. It got to the point where his libido was making it difficult to invite people and a bit embarrassing when teaching yoga online or offering my “Life in Lockdown” concert series during the first lockdown. My final concert was all kids songs, and a song about the birds and the bees was not on my setlist.
All joking aside, it was with some relief when we learned that Atticus had indeed only been half-neutered before we adopted him. This little tidbit was discovered when we brought him to a specialist vet a little more than a month ago to try to determine why red blood cells and platelets had suddenly plummeted to dangerously low numbers within the span of a few days. The vet had down a very thorough ultrasound (“echo” in French) and informed me that she “strongly suspected” there was a testicle that had not descended (“testicule qui n’a pas descendu”). She recommended having it removed because it could become a malignant tumor a few years down the road.
The relief was short-lived when we learned the surgery, if performed at their hospital, would cost 570 euros. The vet suggested we ask our local vet, where she thought it would be less expensive. Relief returned when we learned the cost of surgery at the local vet would be 215. It is kind of like shopping for items that are far beyond your budget. When the vet bill was over 1k euros, 570 doesn’t seem too terribly horrifying (especially to avoid cancer down the road). In comparison to 570, 215 seems like a steal! Bargain bin central!
So this Thanksgiving, my husband and I will be offering thanks that our vivacious white husky might have a little less enthusiasm for the non-spayed female border collie next door, particularly when she is “en chasse” (in heat; literal translation from French “on the hunt”).
We are also thankful to have a roof over our heads and fresh bread and pastries from a selection of boulangeries, all within walking distance from our home.
Contacting Belgium to take us off their mailing list
When I say that I had to contact Belgium to take us off their mailing list, I literally mean the country and not a store or company that sends out irritating publicity by mail or email. The new tenant at our previous address in Brussels had received a piece of our mail, which she had agreed to send to us. In her email, she had written (in French), Thank you for doing the necessary to make sure this does not happen again. She had added a smiley face after, maybe to take the sting of what read as a bit passive aggressive?
My husband told me to ignore it, which I did. I have found that people often end emails with a line like, Thank you in advance for doing X, Y, or Z, so it may just be a lingual habit.
I had texted with a friend about it (they also suggested ignoring it) about what a typical US American would write.
If it isn’t too much trouble, do you think you might be able to update your address…..
At least, that is roughly what I would write, making sure to include provisional language in order to avoid sounding too demanding, but I have a super aversion to conflict and controversy.
I finally looked up the commune for the region of Brussels where we lived. By commune, I mean the local administrative offices and not an actual cult, though it’s possible there are people from the US who think someone who is crazy enough to voluntarily live in another country is indeed joining a cult.
I found the website and clicked on the link for “horaires et services” (hours and services). I found a list of departments with accompanying telephone numbers, though it was not entirely clear what services were being offered by the titles. There were also no references to the hours of operation whatsoever for any of the departments.
I called one number on the list at 20 minutes to 10am and let the phone ring several times before hanging up. In my experience, there is little point in a message because no one will call me back on my US phone number. They often do not call back even if I leave a Belgian number.
I spent our first two months here just trying to get our Belgian vet to send a prescription to our new address in France. I left messages, which were not returned, even to our phone with a Belgian sim card and Belgian number attached. When I got someone on the phone, they were either too busy to talk to me because they were preparing for surgery or I was passed (multiple times) to the vet, who first asked me to send a message by text. When several weeks went by without a response to my text or my request for confirmation that he received the text, which was also sent by text, I called again and the vet gave me his cell number. Maybe I had texted a land line? There is a certain mystery and lost without translation element to the life of an expat. In addition to voicemail and text messages, many questions of life go unanswered. As requested I sent a photo of the prescriptions. No response. I called one final time, and I was told they had sent the prescription, though I had never received. It was unclear whether they had thought my new address was actually in Belgium as opposed to France, so I shared the address again, emphasizing that I was in France and not Belgium. Again, I refer to mystery and intrigue, which are funnier in hindsight and make for more entertaining writing than daily living. The prescription never did arrive.
Back to calling the commune.
When I told my husband no one had answered, he looked up the number he had called to make appointments during the first lockdown when we were still living in Belgium. It was the same number. Maybe they don’t go into work until 10am? I suggested. If you have watched the recent Netflix series, Emily in Paris, the writers poke fun at French culture (or make a statement on the US American obsession with working ALL. THE. TIME. by having the main protagonist (Emily, the American) arrive at work at 8:30am, only to stand outside the locked building until several hours later in the morning.
I called before noon and someone answered. When I asked to speak with someone at the Counter for strangers (this is the literal translation from the French, “etranger”). I was given a number with a different final digit. I called that number and someone answered and explained to me that I would need to send an email to the address: firstname.lastname@example.org
I reviewed the address several times to make sure I had written it correctly and then sent a message requesting (as the staff person had explained) to have my address deleted from their records. Surprisingly, I received a swift reply, asking if I could complete a formal document and sign it.
In Gmail, there is an option to translate emails in a foreign language (at least in Google I am not a foreigner for speaking English). I clicked “translate” because it is fun to see how accurate the translations are. Translation software has come a long way since I started studying French in undergraduate school, but there are still some hilarious suggestions.
This translation asked me to “be so kind as to fill out the attached form and send it back to us as duly completed and signed so we can delete you.”
At least, they used provisional language with regard to erasing me from my Belgian existence.
The form itself was a bit more poetically titled “Declaration de depart pour l’étranger” (declaration for foreigner departure), though I was still referred to as a stranger. I have rarely felt like I belonged anywhere I have gone to live in the world, so “strange” seems apt enough. There was also a section titled “Declare quitter la Belgique” in bold letters. I think you can probably figure that one out.
My husband filled it out, sent it back to me, and I sent it back to the commune.
So far as I know, we have officially quit Belgium. Not by choice did we quit. We would have been happy to stay in a place where the national symbols are a statue of a small boy peeing and a cone of fries. Belgians do not seem to take themselves too seriously, which we enjoy. Plus, Brussels is incredibly cosmopolitan. There are people from all over the world, and so English becomes the universal language, which can be quite handy if you are a “stranger” and if you happen to teach yoga in English. My husband keeps telling me I could easily learn to teach yoga in French, but just learning to teach in English felt like learning a foreign language, not to mention that I would have to figure out all of those anatomy terms in French. Uff da!
Don’t get me wrong. We are habituating (as they say in French) to life in France. We both lived here decades ago in our lives before our paths crossed. When I taught English in elementary schools in France, most of the administrative stuff had seemed fairly straight forward. At least, I think there was a specific person who oversaw this element of life for teaching assistants for English as a foreign language. Another fringe benefit was that there were pre-determined places where teachers were assigned to live, depending on which age they were teaching. One place for high school level, another for middle school, and another for elementary school.
Sweet bliss that I did not fully appreciate at the time!
We are enjoying France, though it is a difficult time to get a real sense of place or to put down any length of roots since we are technically not allowed to travel more than one kilometer from our home if we are on foot and can only go to essential places like the grocery store, pharmacy, etc.
And I have to say that of all the people we have met, all but one have been incredibly kind, funny, warm, and welcoming. The one person who was unfriendly and decidedly unwelcoming was the person I bought a used Dyson vacuum from when we first moved here. I had asked if I could try the vacuum on a small mat to make sure it would work on animal fur. When I arrived, she not only would not allow me to try the vacuum on my mat but she also would not let me bring it in the house with me. If I wanted to make sure the vacuum worked, I could try it on her spotless rug.
Her reason? She wouldn’t be able to sell the vacuum if it was used on there was animal fur.
I was irritated and nonplussed, but in the end she was gave me back several euros from the asking price to help compensate me for the money I spent on gas to drive to her house.
We do laugh fairly frequently at how very seriously the French seem to take themselves, at least those in the food industry. There are entire sections of the store for food made by hand in France. Everything made in France has little French flags. Even the bananas have a sticker wrapped around them with the red, white, and blue stripes. Products from other European countries can be found in the international aisle.
I am definitely pro the sustainability aspect of having as much as possible made in-country. In fact, I think it is pretty awesome. I just have to laugh when I see my yogurt has text on it explaining that while it was technically made in Belgium, I shouldn’t worry because the milk came from France.
I write all of this to say that this is a year when it is important to not take ourselves too seriously and to find ways to laugh at all of the little challenges of life. I will be the first to admit that I have most likely shed more tears from frustration than laughter, but I am hoping that hindsight will offer more perspective, humor, and levity for our memories of 2020.
While I am not a supporter of the historical precedence for the holiday of Thanksgiving, I am looking forward to the comforting elements of a holiday, especially one designed around food. I love looking for recipes and spending the day around the kitchen. With our tiny metric kitchen and my over 6’ tall husband, this will likely present some challenges, but I think we are up for it.
Of course, when I suggested earlier this afternoon that we might try to use kinder tones and words when speaking to one another, he started laughing and speaking in an overdramatically unpleasant voice.
Why don’t we just bicker like that couple from the restaurant your parents used to go to? he suggested.
The restaurant was one in Cincinnati, Ohio, where I was born and spent the better part of my first year of life. I joke that I don’t generally tell people I was born in Ohio because it tends to go Republican in most elections, which is not a point of pride for me. Politics aside, the couple who ran the restaurant were Jewish and argued non-stop from opening to closing time. I remember my dad telling me he couldn’t tell if the bickering was real or if they were putting on a show for the customers.
I guess we have to keep ourselves entertained in lockdown, so perhaps I will should start speaking to my husband with a thick Jewish accent? I had one friend who found this so hilarious that I did it all the time. It was with some amount of horror when I discovered just how frequently I was employing this accent.
Her husband was seldom at home because he was the leader for the trail crew at the national park in our community. I worked at the part in the summer and then worked with my friend as an environmental educator for her outdoor education program that was based in a national forest that bordered the park.
On a rare occasion when I was at their house and they were both there together, he started when I spoke in my “normal” speaking voice because he had thought (the horror) that my unique blend of Michigan-New York-Boston—all of the places where I have Jewish relatives—Jewish accent was my natural way of speaking.
I tried to reduce the frequency from there on out because, as evidenced by this anecdote, once I start it is hard to stop.
So tomorrow for our vegetarian version of Thanksgiving, I look forward to trying to invite humor into the experience of figuring out how to cook a large pan of spanakopita, stuffing, and brussels sprouts in our tiny oven and navigating the small space on the stove top for multiple vegetarian dishes.
I look forward to sharing a warm meal and conversation with my husband and our landlord, who lives next door and is incredibly warm and we invited to join us.
I look forward to watching our favorite holiday movies, Scrooged and Home for the Holidays.
And I look forward to raising a toast to the countries we have left behind and loved ones who are far away.
Metric kitchen and wild Belgian backyard cat, becoming a bit of a feline daredevil
Pandemic be damned! No one must ever go without bread! Bread is available in France, day or night, rain or shine
Non-metric, US American-size Tabasco
Feeling obstructed in lockdown?
For humor, we like to say our husky LOVES doudou (pronounced “doo doo” and French for a child’s stuffed, plush toy)