Our responsibility as expats

Sometimes it’s hard to really process all images, the heartbreaking tributes, the frightening eye-witness accounts. And it’s true, innocent people are killed everyday, all over the world, out of the glare of international media.

With the sheer volume of information and from the comfort of our own expat buncles, it is often easy to switch off. Unless the locations touched are places that we have visited, or where we have loved ones, or where we are posted. Unless you’ve been in other cities also touched by terrorism and the horror, fear and anger are awfully familiar.

Over the last week Brussels has been firmly in the spotlight.  This normally sleepy, laissez-faire capital city has had a rude awakening. The impact of the country’s linguistic and cultural divisions on its security apparatus, the lack of integration for sizeable immigrant populations, the lack of accountability for senior officials as more and more failings are broadcast around the world have been held up for all to see.

What does this mean for the city’s expats? Those living here know the rich vein of bureaucracy, sheer incompetence and weird traditions that underpin life in Belgium. Recently a journalist dubbed Brussels ‘the city that doesn’t give a damn’. Yes, it’s pretty easy to find things to complain about and mock in Europe’s capital. But this is bigger than Brussels, Paris or Beiruit.

Look, I don’t want to come across as a crazy, bleeding heart liberal but I’ve said before that expats are in a privileged position. We get to live amongst different cultures, languages, religions. We do ‘deep travel’ and the more postings we have, the more we realise that people are the same, their basic hopes and fears and dreams. We see the cultural differences and they fascinate and frustrate us but we also see the links across cultures and geographies.

I feel pretty strongly that expats have a special responsibility to pass this on. To keep debate alive. To encourage others, especially young people to get out and explore for themselves. That it’s our responsibility to live life to the fullest. To celebrate diversity. To savour the freedom that allows us to travel. To laugh. To have a glass of beer. To challenge the world views of those around us but also our own. Constantly. Above all, to draw on our experiences to tackle misinformation and prejudice.

Life begins at….

Happy birthday N!

I hope you’ll forgive me but this is one for you.

I was trying to think of a way to celebrate this momentous occasion and that’s when it struck me that this might be a good time to thank you.

You’ve stuck with this little blog over the years, using it to check in on me from afar and to keep up with my life when you have so much going on in yours. Thank you for that. Thank you also for introducing me to black olives. Thanks for showing me that aiming high for grad school was not a completely ridiculous waste of time. Thanks for our conversations about a young Sean Connery and Betty Boothroyd.

My only regret is that I’ve not yet seen you do nearly enough tap dancing…

While you were gone: December

While you were gone December

This was a big one wasn’t it? We finally got to travel together, meeting up to explore a region that is new to both of us. And to do what we love best: have adventures.We were saddened to see how everyone was struggling in Jordan given the dramatic but needless collapse in tourist numbers.

In December: 

  • We explored Amman, ancient and modern. We spent some time in the beautiful desert and learned a little about Bedouin life. I fulfilled a life long dream to see Petra. The walk down through a silent Siq to the Treasury in the moonlight was magical and something that will remain imprinted upon my memory. Petra was very different to what we expected; the scale of the city took us by surprise but it was as beautiful as I had thought it would be.
  • I caught up with friends from Beijing in London, always a treat. We shopped for Christmas and spoiled ourselves with afternoon tea. I spent a wonderful Sunday catching up with my dear uni friends. I got to have a roast lunch for the first time in a long time.
  • I had an unexpected hour to wander around and explore Ghent, with its beautiful cathedral and riverside. Despite the grey and the rain, the Mediaeval buildings are impressive, with their rich, gorgeous paintings.

I missed you.

While you were gone: October

Like Alice’s white rabbit, I’m running late.  Before 2015 gets too old, I’m posting in catch-up mode; a little photo diary to show Mr B what has been happening. And perhaps prove to myself that I’m doing OK back here too.

One of the ‘benefits’ of being in a Long Distance Relationship is the time and freedom it gives me to travel. I do a lot for work but now that you’re away, my weekends have become empty stretches that I fill by exploring Brussels itself and catching up with friends.

In October:

  • I took a spontaneous trip to Cologne one evening for dinner;
  • Went up the BT Tower and was treated to gorgeous views across the city and a freaky sensation when the Tower began to rotate;
  • Had a weekend in beautiful Paris – a chance to revisit well-loved monuments, wander Montmartre, discover suburban life and experience a Halloween cabaret featuring dead French and international singers (a lot of fun);
  • Saw autumn produce emerge; Brussels always seems to go mushroom mad at this time of year!

I missed you.

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside

My best friend A is lucky enough to have a family apartment at Oostduinkerke on the Belgian coast. It is from A that I first heard about the dying tradition of paardenvissers, an ever-shrinking group of shrimp fishermen who still use horses to trawl for their catch. It is a tradition that can be traced back half a millennium and was once common not only in Belgium but also in the UK and France.

By 1968, there were only seven horseback shrimp fishermen left in Oostduinkerke, this number had risen to around twelve when they were recognised as an ‘intangible cultural heritage’ by UNESCO in 2013.

Being a bit of a sucker for quirky Belgian events, seeing the fishermen in action has been high on my ‘must see’ list for some time (the Ypres cat-throwing festival is also waaaay up there, roll on May 2015). Mr B and I had checked the timetable for this summer, only to be thwarted by his departure for a year-long project abroad.

Readers, the stars aligned and Mr B returned for a few days of R&R that coincided with the last outing of the season. The morning was gorgeous, one last shot at summer for this year. There is always something magical about having a day off when the rest of the world is working, isn’t there?

We decided to start at Koksijde, the amusingly named village just down the coast from Oostduinkerke, and strolled along the broad, golden sands hand in hand, feeling quite giddy with being reunited, albeit briefly, and the sense of pending adventures.

The UNESCO recognised shrimp fisherman of Oostduinkere, Belgium

The UNESCO recognised shrimp fisherman of Oostduinkere, Belgium

Clam diggers and horse lovers alike at the Belgian coast

Clam diggers and horse lovers alike at the Belgian coast

High tide markers, Koksijde, Belgium

At the Oostduinkerke end of the beach you’ll be able to see a small group of the shrimp fishermen working together (Alison at CheeseWeb has a beautiful account of her visit last year here). We, however, were lucky enough to stumble across a lone fisherman, well away from the crowds, surrounded only by his wife, a couple of clam diggers and shrimp fisherman working by hand…and a practically every seagull in Belgium.

Paardenvisser, a rarer and rarer sight in Belgium.

Paardenvisser, a rarer and rarer sight in Belgium.

We caught the paardenvisser as he emerged from the sea after his first run of the morning, unloaded his catch for his wife to sort and went back in for a second trawl, his feet hitched up high by the horse’s neck in the traditional way.

Fisher horse

Fisher horse

Hitched up & heading for the sea

Shrimp fisherman gears up

Horses scare me but this little fisher horse was a peach. So patient, and perfectly accustomed to wading along the water up to his neck, fearless in the face of the waves breaking around him.

Heading out to for the 2nd shrimp sweep of the day

It is an incredible sight and, I can’t help feeling, a much more sustainable way to gather the tiny, grey shrimp that Belgians love so much.

Brussels Food Truck Festival 2014

Brussels Food Truck Festival 2014

Mr B and I took a gamble, weather-wise, and strolled along to the inaugural Brussels Food Truck Festival this weekend.

The festival coincided with celebrations to mark the 25th anniversary of the Brussels region and signals yet another step in the slow transformation of the city becoming a modern metropolis.

The diabolical weather had not deterred a good crowd of mostly young residents, visitors and families from coming out to sample the various wares on offer. Mr B and I agree that it is cheating somewhat to have ‘frites’ on offer here in Belgium. That aside, the Mexican cantina attracted a steady crowd of North Americans and the Patatas Bravas truck (shaped like a potato) delighted everyone. There were bagels, thai food, soup, coffee, duck, an absolutely charming Piadina stand also offering good Italian wine and above all plenty of burgers.

For a first time festival, it was a good turnout, both in terms of the number of trucks and also in terms of the level of excitement generated amongst the foodies in the city. We really hope the Food Truck Festival becomes a regular fixture in Brussels’ ever growing number of city-wide celebrations. Only next year, it would be great if the organisers could find a spot with wider pavements or arrange for traffic to be halted completely. Oh, and some dry, sunny weather would be awesome too.

Dear Eurostar, part deux

Dear Eurostar, part deux

Dear Eurostar,

Well, it has been fun hasn’t it, the almost weekly to-ing and fro-ing we’ve had over the last three years? Alas, I won’t be needing you anymore. It’s time to move on. Oh, it’s not you, it’s me! A new job means my focus will be elsewhere. You’ll be fine, trust me. Something else is sure to come along. We both know you deserve better.

They say the mark of a good relationship is the ability to appreciate the time you’ve spent together and take away the lessons learned. So here goes.

Things I have learned in our time together and some words of encouragement, if I may:

  • Carriage 11 is closest to the escalator when boarding at Midi – this is good for those days when you forget your passport and have to go home again. And we both know there have been a few of those. You were very patient;
  • Those black buttons on the ceilings above the door to each carriage? They hold the door open for about a minute; handy when everyone is struggling through with cases to start a weekend away and it means no one panics when the door starts to squash them (but oh how we laughed!);
  • If it is not blocked off, you’re right, it is quicker to go right to the end of the platform when arriving at St Pancras and take the second escalator down to passport control;
  • The ‘quiet carriages’ in Standard Premier are a great idea but the raucous laughter of groups of Flemish colleagues often shatters the peace. I think you secretly encourage this;
  • Speaking of the Flemish, I’ve noticed they often make fun of your Franco- and Anglophone train managers struggling with announcements in their non-native languages. We’ve always agreed this is rude. You won’t find the Brits doing this. We’re in awe of anyone tri-lingual. And besides, we’re more likely to be tutting quietly at the length of time it takes to get through the announcement, “that Calais is a short stop” in three languages. Sometimes, my darling, you do go on a bit;
  • Your sense of service has improved dramatically. Thank you. We can now gloss over that particular winter period in 2010 can’t we? I will miss your attempts to please and delight. I should have told you more often how much they were appreciated;
  • However, the furnishing of pain au chocolats at the breakfast service is still hit and miss. You really did disappoint me sometimes. There are mornings when an apple just doesn’t cut it;
  • You have, hands down, the best frequent traveller programme and I’m a member of quite a few. No block out dates for reward points? Genius. You deserve far more praise and recognition for this;
  • The sense of cameraderie in the London lounge on Friday nights is palpable, especially before holiday periods. Likewise the Brussels lounge ahead of the first train out in the mornings is blissfully quiet to allow us all to wake up. Thank you for that too. It would be handy if you kept the ‘take away’ paper cups out permanently by the coffee machine in the Brussels lounge, not just at breakfast. You see, we all need a little extra pep now and again and it does feel like a treat to carry a cup from the lounge and continue to enjoy it once in our seats;
  • Your newspaper and magazine collection in the lounge is unrivalled and one of the things I love most about you. You’re really very generous. I’ll miss being able to delve deeper into Belgian news and culture whilst simultaneously catching up on the latest gossip about Victoria Beckham and uncovering new eating spots in Brussels via your in-house magazine Metropolitan. You’ll be pleased to know that your sedate air has rubbed off on me. I no longer tear out pages from your magazines (shocking, I know) but capture them on my iPhone instead. And you said I’d never change.

This is it then.

Look after yourself.