The Expatriate Life
This month Memphis in May salutes Belgium. Memphians working there offer a glimpse of a country where shopping is a challenge, driving is an adventure, and the national symbol tinkles — and it’s not a bell.
Photographs by Jake Shaw
Belgium is mainly beer, waffles, and chocolates — or so its reputation goes. But for dozens of Memphians who call it home, the reality is considerably different. The little European country, crammed between France and Holland with borders brushing against Luxembourg and Germany, is surprisingly complex for a nation just one-third the size of Tennessee.
For starters, Belgium’s 10 million citizens report to four different regional governments, not to mention the national government. That latter group is barely worth mentioning, though, because if you’ve paid any attention to the news lately, you’d know Belgium currently has no national government. Following recent elections, disputes between political parties have prevented many elected officials — voted into office last June — from ever taking office. Many of them have since resigned in frustration, leaving no clear majority rule.
Oh, and perhaps we should mention that Belgium also has a royal family and a king, Albert II, just to make things even more confusing for newcomers.
Not many countries can say they are worse off than Iraq, but in one sense Belgium is. In mid-February, the political discord here actually broke Iraq’s modern-day record of 250 consecutive days without a national government in place. As of press time, Belgium was still cushioning its lead.
If that sounds strange for a civilized country, the rest of Belgium’s societal dynamics aren’t much simpler.
Take communication. Residents of Flanders, the northern half of Belgium, speak Flemish, a dialect of Dutch. Southerners, called Walloons, speak French. German is the official language of a small enclave on the eastern edge of the country. In Brussels, the capital and heart of the country, any language goes.
As both the seat of government for the European Union and the NATO headquarters, Brussels hosts thousands of expatriates from dozens of nations.
And in the midst of that melting pot — mixed in with the Polish and the British, the Italians and the Romanians, the Spanish and the Slovenians (the list could go on for a while) — are ex-pats from East Memphis and Midtown, Germantown and Collierville — Memphians all making Brussels their temporary home.
Some of these Memphians work for FedEx, some for International Paper (both companies have large offices based in Brussels), while others are employed by various U.S. corporations that have international operations here. At any given point, there are always some Memphians inhabiting Brussels.
With the move across the Atlantic to Belgium — this year’s honored country for the Memphis in May International Festival — comes a series of adjustments that often don’t stop until the expatriate assignment is finished. The flurry of life changes is usually kickstarted with a so-called “Welcome to Belgium” moment — an event that indelibly reminds the ex-pats that they’re not in Memphis anymore.
“We knew where to buy this or that at home in Tennessee, but every such event in Brussels was an adventure for the first few months,” says Jon Moorehead, an accountant at Deloitte who, after working for 15 years in Memphis, moved with his wife to Brussels last summer. “We bought buttermilk instead of milk on one of our first trips to the grocery store. Fortunately someone tipped us off before we poured that over our cereal.”
That’s actually a common mistake. More than 97 percent of milk sold in Belgium is Ultra High-Temperature (UHT) milk. The pasteurization process of UHT milk allows it to be stored on shelves unrefrigerated for upwards of seven months. Look for buttermilk in the cold storage section; you’ll find regular milk on the shelf (next to the room-temperature eggs).
As off-putting as warm milk on Wheaties sounds, the “Welcome to Belgium” moment for Mimi Gibson could’ve been fatal. A week after moving to Brussels in 2009 with her husband, Greg (an executive at International Paper), and their now 17-year old son, Johnny, Mimi realized she needed to adapt — quickly.
“I pulled out of our garage and almost hit a biker,” she recalls. “He clearly had the right of way, but all I heard was this ‘BAM’ on the back windshield. I was almost in tears. I could’ve killed this guy. I realized I was in their place, and I’ve got to figure this place out.”
Driving in Belgium could be the biggest challenge of all. Few expatriates hit the road without trepidation. It’s not just that circles (i.e., roundabouts) replace traffic lights at most intersections, or that street signs are nearly impossible to locate (hint: look for a tiny sign nailed somewhere on the side of a building). It’s not just that Belgians have earned a reputation across Europe for their poor driving skills. And don’t forget — as Mimi did — that pedestrians and cyclists have priority when they’re on a crosswalk (and there are lots more of them than you’ll find in Memphis).
No, the driving rule that confounds non-Belgians the most is the “priority from the right” rule. It makes every intersection an adventure.
The rule is actually pretty simple: As a driver approaches an intersection without a traffic signal or stop sign (and they’re everwhere), the driver must yield to traffic approaching from his right. That oncoming driver, in turn, must yield to his right, and so on. If four cars enter the same intersection from four different directions at the exact same time, there’s literally a standstill — four drivers waiting for someone to make a move. It’s typically Belgian: easy conceptually, difficult practically.
“I had been here two days and was given a company car, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got to drive’,” says Greg Gibson, who, as vice president of packaging at International Paper’s Europe/Middle East/Africa office in Brussels, is no stranger to everyday stresses. “You can’t read the traffic signals,” he continues, “and this whole thing about right gets right-of-way, and not really knowing where you’re going, and not knowing if you put the right address in the GPS. I was only going 15 minutes to my office, but I thought I had climbed Mount Everest when I made that journey.”
Such is life as an ex-pat in a country where you not only don’t speak the language, but the customs and tradition of the land are equally foreign. But before even hitting the roads or (futilely) searching stores for cold milk, one must by law register as a resident at the local “commune,” which is essentially a smaller city hall governing a specific section of the city. Every town and city in Belgium has a commune; the bigger the city, the more communes. Brussels, with a population exceeding 1.1 million, has 19 different communes.
The experience can seem a bit intense. Upon moving to Belgium, a new resident reports their arrival to the commune, and within a few days, police officers are sent to that address to ensure the resident is in fact living there.
If the police approve, the new resident then makes an appointment with the commune, where the resident hands over several passport-sized photos (plus about €50 — roughly $70). In exchange, the commune gives the resident another appointment to pick up his commune ID card when it’s ready. Once the ID card is handed over, perhaps three or four weeks after the initial step, the process is complete.
It’s big government at its finest (or worst), says Ed Weston, who lived in Memphis for two years, spent five years in Belgium with his wife, Kathleen (the director of global tax planning at International Paper’s headquarters in Memphis), then moved back to the Memphis area in 2009.
“The bureaucracy in Brussels and Belgium in general is almost oppressive,” Weston says. “Everything involves lengthy processes and things are over-regulated.” Belgians have managed to survive in a land where “institutions and organizations run their country,” Weston says, through what he calls an “absurdist sense of humor.”
To wit: When the Belgian government broke Iraq’s unenviable record for consecutive days without a government, Belgians actually “celebrated” that dubious achievement in various inane ways. One TV celebrity encouraged men to stop shaving to protest the lack of government. A political analyst urged the spouses of politicians involved in the dispute to abstain from sex with their partners until there was a resolution. University students across the country took to the streets for a massive party and stripped down to their undies, ignoring the sub-40 degree temperatures to help make their voices heard.
At some point in the ex-pat journey, though often in a more sensible fashion, Memphians living in Belgium make a discovery: If they accept the changes inherent with ex-pat life, they begin to foster a respect — and sometimes even preference — for the differences. They start becoming a little bit Belgian themselves.
For example, recycling — mandated by every commune in Belgium but still looking for traction in the U.S. — becomes less a nuisance and more a sense of duty.
Rather than driving five minutes to the closest store, ex-pats begin opting for public transportation instead. It may be slower and slightly inconvenient, but at least it cancels out the search for a parking spot (a recent study showed 30 percent of traffic in Brussels was caused by drivers looking for a parking space).
So what if nearly every single shop, grocery store, or restaurant is closed on Sundays all across Belgium; the weekly shutdown of business may not be great for the economy, but, ex-pats discover, it promotes time spent with family or friends.
And yes, Belgian customer service may be considered an oxymoron — “Customer service is not good — I would almost say it is hostile,” says Weston, but sometimes it’s a relief to walk into a retail store and not be badgered by an employee wanting to “help.”
It enhances the caliber of your life to understand the different cultures and histories of other places,” says Greg Gibson. “It becomes fascinating to learn the nuances of why people do things that they do today — because they are steeped in the history of yesterday. It’s also very important to try to understand what is likely to happen tomorrow by understanding how people interact with each other today. Whether the past, present or future, it’s not only interesting, but highly relevant.”
“It’s very educational,” says Weston of ex-pat life in general. “You learn what Americans do well and what we don’t do well. You almost learn more about your home country.”
Weston’s sentiment is one several other ex-pats voiced. As these Memphians learn more about their temporary home and form a tighter bond with Belgium, they begin to see Memphis in a new light.
“I’ve only lived in a few places in my life, Memphis being my longest stay,” says Moorehead. “I’ve realized that while Memphis may not be perfect — there really isn’t a perfect city out there — I am proud to have called Memphis home for almost 15 years.”
And, oddly enough, the Memphians start to see parallels between their old home and their temporary one. There may not be a barbecue place worth a dang in the country, and you’re more likely to hear techno than blues in Brussels, but the Bluff City and Belgium do have connections. Similarities aren’t always visible or tangible. Some are sensed rather than seen.
Both Memphis and Belgium have to fight generalizations. Outsiders to Memphis hear of high crime and other social ills. Europeans, meanwhile, often claim Belgium is the “most boring” country on the continent, a blemish TripAdvisor.com didn’t clear up when its readers twice voted Brussels the most boring European city to visit. It appears neither Memphis nor Belgium is truly appreciated until you call one of them home.
“I think the similarity [between Memphis and Belgium] is that there are great people and fun things to do wherever you live — you just need to have the right attitude,” says Greg Gibson.
“Along those same lines,” his wife, Mimi, interjects, “each has its own distinct culture that should be respected and each is deserving of that respect. It’s important to understand what Memphis is about: The music is beautiful; it’s richly endowed with Southern history. There’s so much to learn about Memphis, as there is with Brussels and Belgium.”
Living abroad also has a way of shedding light on things taken for granted.
“I miss the ability to watch college sports,” says Johnny Gibson, a basketball fan who must stay up well past 3 a.m. just to watch his beloved Tigers and Grizzlies. “First and foremost, I miss friends and family, but I also miss good beef,” his father, Greg, adds with a smile, while Mimi gets a bit more sentimental.
“I miss my girlfriends to laugh with on a daily basis,” she says. “It’s actually the beauty of it too — what we have realized is the preciousness of a moment. We understand the value of a minute together and we never take it for granted anymore.”
And that’s what expatriate life will do to someone, be it a Memphian living in Belgium or the flip side — a European temporarily making Memphis his or her home. It forces some irrevocable changes in the way you live, the way you think, how you treat relationships.
On the surface, Memphis and Belgium have little to nothing in common. But for a handful of Memphians, the two will always be inextricably linked.
Freelance writer Jake Shaw experienced Belgium’s bad driving and broad beer selection firsthand, having spent the past two years as an ex-pat in Brussels, where his wife, an accountant, completed an international assignment. The couple will soon call Memphis home with a planned move to the Bluff City in June.
A waffle in Belgium is like barbecue in the states. There’s not just one kind, and everyone has an idea of what’s best. The Liège waffle, named for a city on the eastern end of the country, is thick, dense, and sweet. The Brussels waffle is similar to the Liège waffle but with a more defined rectangular shape. Stroopwafels are thin, circular, and filled with a concoction of syrup, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Binding the waffle varieties: All go perfectly with ice cream and hot Belgian chocolate sauce.
“If surreal had a nationality, it would be Belgian.” So reads the slogan of the “Only in Belgium” blog, and perhaps that’s best symbolized by this famous Brussels statue. Dutch for “little peeing boy,” the Manneken Pis, all two feet of him, somehow attracts millions of tourists every year. Several legends suggest the origins of the statue, one being that a little boy’s urine defused the burning wick on a cannon, ending what had been a bloody battle for the city. The statue is dressed in odd costumes on various days of the year, one day recently appearing as Elvis to commemorate Memphis in May.
For a couple weeks every two years, Brussels lays down an elaborately designed carpet of flowers, but this city’s central square doesn’t need much enhancement. Stunning architecture, with some buildings dating back to the 1300s, form a perimeter around an open rectangle. The buildings, once the offices of various unions or guilds, are now mostly retail shops and tourist-driven restaurants. Several other cities in Belgium — especially Bruges — have their own Grand’Place (or Grote Markt, as they’re called in Dutch), though Brussels’ main square ranks with any open area in Europe.
Reputation: Belgium has certainly earned its reputation for incredible beers, specifically their ales. At last count, the country’s brewers had created more than 1,000 different beers. And six of the world’s seven Trappist breweries — where monks brew and sell strong beers to support their monastic life — are in Belgium.
Reality: Despite the variety and complexity within the country’s brewing industry, Belgians are almost disinterested in their homegrown beers. A survey released by the Belgian Brewers Union revealed nearly 70 percent of the population prefers wine rather than beer when dining out, while the average amount of beer consumed by Belgians is on a steady decline. Thankfully, the export market (with many Belgian beers destined for the U.S.) keeps the smaller Belgian brewers in business.
Reputation: Waffles, chocolate, and fries — all fattening foods — come to mind when thinking of Belgian food, and deservedly so. Worldwide chocolate vendors Godiva and Neuhaus were founded in this country. Belgium also claims it, not France, invented the French fry. One legend has it that U.S. soldiers stationed in southern Belgium during WWII first ate fries there. Because French is the language of the southern half of Belgium, the soldiers called the items “French fries.” With more than 5,000 friteries (French fry stands) in Belgium, we’re not going to argue.
Reality: The country is gaining widespread recognition for fine cuisine. Per capita, Belgium actually has more Michelin-starred restaurants than France. Typical Belgian dishes include carbonnades flamandes, a beef stew simmered with beer; stoemp, a mashed potato topped with sausage served over vegetables; and last but certainly not least the national meal of Belgium, moules-frites, a concoction of mussels, seasoned several different ways, boiled in their seawater and always accompanied by, you guessed it, French fries.
Reputation: For eight or nine months out of the year, one thing remains a constant: gray skies. Whether it’s freezing, cold, cool, or even warm, the Belgian skies seem to be perpetually overcast. Oh, and it also rains quite frequently. Not roof-rattling thunderstorms, but condensation that falls somewhere between a mist and a drizzle.
Reality: The reputation is reality, but Belgians do get a respite for a few months out of the year. Belgian summers almost make the rest of the year’s weather worth bearing. The sun shines at its brightest — and doesn’t set until after 10:30 p.m. — during the late-summer months yet temperatures rarely go north of the upper 80s, and most often they linger in the 70s. Belgians come out of the woodwork in these months (as do tourists), flocking to the country’s coastline, city parks, or just the outdoor patio at the neighborhood café.