Thursday, February 5, 2009

Helpful HINTS

The past 3 weeks I have been taking an intensive 6 day course called "HINTS for Living in Belgium" sponsored by the American Women's Club of Brussels. It has literally flipped a switch for me about the beauty and wonder of Belgium and in understanding our host country better - quirks and all! I guess today was graduation day, and boy am I going to miss my Tuesday and Thursday sessions. I have met women all in my exact same scenario - new and clueless to Brussels - and my confidence has grown tremendously over shared fellowship and questions. It is fun to delight in a common challenge or baffling experience as we all try to acclimate. I cannot recommend this course enough to any Belgian expat.

During this course I also joined this wonderful American Women's Club of Brussels ( as an official member. The Club was founded in 1949 and has grown in membership to ~650 women. It combines philanthropic and social missions and fosters ongoing good relations with Belgians and the Americans living here. There are so many ways to get connected and involved. The clubhouse has a huge English language book and DVD library (with lots of travel resources - yippee!), a cafe for lunch with yummy food, exercise and all types of special interest courses. There are tours and day trips organized - several per week! And best of all there is a Mothers With Young Children's group as well as an on site daycare for me to leave Connor to take time out for me. Hallelujah!!! Connor adores Rani, the creche (nursery) caretaker - pictured here. She calls for Rani all the time and seems to just have a ball with the other children and the "new" (to her) toys. I have signed up to volunteer as a librarian once a month in the library (in honor of my Cousin Dudley) and also to periodically help wait tables in the cafe (there has always been a part of me that wanted to be a waitress at some point in my life)! Will let you know how that goes.

Here are the topics/speakers we learned from during the Hints course:

1) Tackling the Grocery List - the groceries here are night and day different than in the US! You rent grocery carts, bring your own bags, bag your own groceries, and fend for yourself in the supermarket!

2) Understanding Technology - all electrical appliances are dramatically different and trying to get all the volts and watts to work in the right way is a master class in physics.

3) Insuring Yourself - there are more individual types of insurance here than you can shake a stick at. Even insurance to cover the illegal housekeepers so many employ here against injury while cleaning your home?!?! (illegal meaning they are not legally registered here and don't pay taxes - they call this "working in the black" yet they provide legal insurance for them should they fall while mopping your floors!) Obviously this is not applicable to us!

4) Public Transportation - the combination of metro, tram, and buses throughout Brussels is quite advanced and helpful. Pushing a stroller to those metros or getting them on buses is nevertheless a nightmare. I prefer to walk as much as possible to avoid the bus vs baby showdowns.

5) Pediatric, Women's, and Family Medicine - always comforting to a mother to know what to expect when someone is sick. In Belgium for roughly $10 more per visit doctors here will make housecalls. At all hours of the day or night. Hope we never need it, but wow!

6) Veterinary Care - N/A for us, but did you know they make doggie passports?!?

7) Dental & Orthodontics - they are not big on fluoride here from what I made out. Hmmm.

8) Driving in Belgium - no right on red; parallel parking is a skill that must quickly be perfected; no 4 way stops but at an intersection cars entering from the right have the right of way - even if it is a tiny street entering a major boulevard....this is crazy! But an effective way of preventing speeding since you have to slow down at every intersection big or small to make way.

9) Getting to Know the American Women's Club - an incredible club with an incredible history! So happy I am a new member.

10) What to do with all this Trash? - how to throw the garbage away - yes you need in depth lessons to do this successfully here to avoid fines for putting the wrong things in the wrong colored bags at the wrong times!!!

11) Mastering Cleaning Products - again I learned you must add dishwasher salt and washing machine anticalcaire to these key appliances. Also all the products are different - no Tide or Windex over here. So it was helpful to learn the recommended brands. Definitely helps cut down on the "deer in headlights" look when I am on the cleaning aisle.

12) Banking - in Brussels they very rarely use debit cards and credit cards don't really exist the way we know them. They just debit all the credit charges from your checking account automatically at the end of the month. I guess Belgium doesn't want its citizens to incur debt. Hmm. That might be a good idea in the USA given our current state of affairs!

13) Places to take Kids and Visitors; Traveling in Europe; and Things to do Just for Fun in Belgium - these 3 were my very favorite topics. I left all 3 talks anxious to pull out my calendar to see and do more with every moment of everyday in our limited time here. There is so much to do. Our wish list is miles long!

14) Commune Breakdown - we received detailed information pertinent to our neighborhood or "commune" - info on the English speaking services, swimming pools, and hairdressers; a valuable guide customized to where we each live

15) Safety & Security (presented by Security Director at US Embassy) - a little scary, but a good reminder to always be on guard and aware of our surroundings in this major capital city.

16) Places of Worship - surprisingly enough there are lots of English-speaking options in Brussels. Glad we found our IPC already - one less decision to make!

17) Intercultural Management & Belgian Etiquette - these 2 sessions were fascinating to learn the social, professional, and personal differences between Belgians and Americans. In Belgium they give 3 air kisses in greeting, it is rude to show up on time to a dinner party, and you must not pick out your own produce at the markets (wait for an attendant).

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