Saturday, December 17, 2005

A Picture Says A Thousand Words - In Any Language!

When I was younger, I always thought I would enjoy a career in politics. Fifteen years with Dan, coupled with too many games of "I Never," put that ambition firmly to rest, but the thought of participating in some grass-roots activism has always lingered. So, imagine my delight on Thursday evening, while enjoying a great little meal at the restaurant around the corner, the waiter/host/owner/bartender/my new friend, Josein, invited me to attend an upcoming neighborhood action meeting to address the issue of traffic in the area. Being the good global citizen that I am, and seeing this as a potential opportunity to counter any negative karma picked up during the Galleria Inno incident, I gladly accepted his invitation.

Last night, I drafted a list of all the points that I could address with the group if someone asked my input, including topics such as the safety aspects of the unmetered crosswalk in front of the school, the blocking of traffic on a one-way street by the construction crews, the lack of street parking in the neighborhood, the prospective increase in traffic volume based on the completion of the construction projects, high-speeds in a residential area, etc.

This morning, armed with my list and a bag of cookies hot from the ovens of Bon Beurre -- the bakery that we live above and which has now become our own personal "screw-you" to Dr. Atkins -- I trudged through the SNOW to the corner restaurant where the meeting was to begin promptly at 10:30 am. At 10:40, standing conspicuously in front of the closed and locked restaurant door with a bag full of cookies, in the SNOW, I began to wonder if I had somehow misunderstood when the meeting was to take place.

After mentally calculating how many glasses of wine I had Thursday night, I convinced myself that the meeting was, in fact, slated for 10:30. I began to doubt, however, the location. Just before doubt won out, the door opened and I was welcomed into the restaurant by someone mopping the floor, who did not speak English, but was kind enough to gesture me in out of the SNOW. I ordered a diet coke and grabbed a seat close to the radiator, truly excited about attending my first Belgian civic event. Not wanting to seem ill-prepared, I started reviewing my list.

The meeting began promptly at 10:50, when another individual showed up. His name was Dominique and he lives 3 floors above the Bon Beurre. I quickly learned that he speaks no English and he quickly learned that I speak no French. Unbeknownst to Dominique, I have perfected what I like to call Spengch. It is a mixture of Spanish, English and French, and, while I am fluent, apparently, Dominique is not. After several failed attempts at conversation, we both gave up and started in on the cookies.

At a little past 11:00, Olivier showed up. Olivier speaks French and Flemish, but limited English and no Spengch. He, too, quickly ascertained that I have no grasp over the French language and what French I do know is limited to "My name is Cindy. It is cold. I don't have 4 cents." While Olivier never came out and said it, I got the distinct impression that he understood more Spengch than he let on!

At 11:10, Matt arrived and, fortunately for all at the table, his English was quite good, so we were able to dispense with the Spengch (which is a good thing because I suspect they may have been intimidated with my fluency in the language, and their lack thereof, a feeling that I am all too familiar with!).

Josein showed up fashionably late and so began the actual meeting -- in French! Not being able to bring anything to the table, other than the bag of cookies, I sat quietly, nodding and smiling when appropriate, my list tucked in my coat pocket.

There was a lengthy discussion involving lots of gesturing, a cell phone call to some unknown entity, a couple of maps drawn on napkins, and the entrance of Patrick, who was identified solely for my benefit as "Monsieur Mayor of the Ville." More discussion followed by more napkin maps and one very elaborate coaster map. Then, everyone turned and looked at me!

It was Dominique's voice that finally shook me out of the flashback to my recent Belgian court appearance. Having absolutely no idea what he was referring to, or what had been said while I was reliving the single most terrifying moment I have experienced to date in Belgium, I looked him in the eye, nodded my head, and confidently said, "Oui." And, thus, this is how I became the official photographer for the neighborhood traffic action committee!

I don't know what I am supposed to take pictures of. I don't know what to do with the pictures after they are taken. I don't even know when the next meeting is. But, I do know this -- my neighbors, obviously adhering to the old adage that a picture says a thousand words, would much rather I speak in pictures than try to continue to converse Spengch!

© 2005 Cindy Lane. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 12, 2005

From Good Global Citizen to Nasty American in 1 Hour and 52 Minutes!

I went to Galleria Inno (Brussels' version of Nordstrom's) to return a pair of pants I bought for Dan on Friday. During the 46 MINUTES I waited in line for the register, I was able to make several key observations. First, the cashier (as in, only one) was either paid in direct correlation to the number of customers in line, or she was the sole participant in some sort of gift wrapping competition in which she was required to spend 7 minutes wrapping a pair of socks, 11 minutes for a men's dress shirt, to use 2 types of ribbons on a scarf box, and 13 little round "Inno" stickers to close a bag with a robe (yes, I counted!). Second, you can find a lot of Belgians in the men's department at Inno around mid-morning on Mondays.

When I finally got to the cashier, I was told that I would have to fill out a form and wait for "the boss." The form was completed in less than 30 seconds; "the boss" appeared 21 minutes later. [Clock is now at 1 hour and 7 minutes and counting.] The boss told me that I could not get my money back, despite what I was told on Friday, and that I could have to accept a store credit. Still being the good global citizen, I say, "Fine, I'll take the credit." I then learn that taking the credit requires me to follow "the boss" upstairs.

Upstairs, I wait 16 minutes in line at the customer service department. [1 hour and 23 minutes and counting - during which time "the boss" leaves for lunch]. When I finally reach the front of the line, I verify with Customer Service Employee #1 (CSE1) that the store does not refund in cash, but only in store credit. CSE1 assures me that this is most definitely the case and I am entitled to a 99 euro credit. He then asks me for 1 euro, so that he can give me a store voucher in the amount of 100 euros. I count my change and realize that I only have 96 cents. I say, "I'm sorry, I don't have a Euro, I only have 96 cents." He refuses to believe me. "You have to have 4 cents", he tells me. Again, I assure him, "I only have 96 cents." "How is it possible you don't have 4 cents", he asks? "I don't know," I reply. "I have a 20 euro note, if that will help." "No, of course that won't help" he says. "I need 4 cents." To which I respond, "well, apparently so do I."

Enter Customer Service Employee #2. CSE2 steps up to the counter and wants to know if there is a problem. "No," I tell her, "I'm just waiting on a store credit." Discussion in French between CSE1 and CSE2. CSE2 then looks at me and asks, "Do you have 4 cents?" "No, I don't have 4 cents," I say. "Why do you not have 4 cents? We need 4 cents to make the credit," she tells me. (Apparently, the vouchers are only in denominations of fives.) "Yes, I understand your problem, but my problem is that I don't have 4 cents." She looks at my wallet, which is resting on the counter, in such a way that I know she clearly does not believe me. Determined not to lose my patience over something as silly as 4 cents, I clutch my wallet tight, look her in the eye, and say, "I really, really don't have 4 cents."

Enter Customer Service Employee #3. Even longer discussion in French, much hand gesturing (in my direction), concerted effort by CSE1 and CSE3 to count the change on the counter (yes, it is still only 96 cents). CSE3 then asks me, "Do you have 4 cents?"

At this point, [1 hour and 36 minutes and counting], I'm feeling a little testy, but I am still within the parameters of a good global citizen. I calmly say to CSE3, "I do not have 4 cents. I have 96 cents and a 20 euro note. I do not have 1 euro." To which she replies, "You need 4 cents." She then starts looking and pointing at my wallet. "You must have 4 cents." I then make a huge production of dumping the change portion of my wallet on the counter to show her that it is, in fact, empty and that I am not hiding 4 cents from her. She then wants me to check my pockets. We just stare at each other for what seemed like forever. Finally, I crack first, and tell her, very slowly, "I don't have 4 cents. Not in my wallet. Not in my pockets. Not in my purse."

Enter Customer Service Employee #4. She talks, at length, with CSE1, CSE2, CSE3 in French, and then turns to me and asks, "Do you have 4 cents?" To which, I reply, "Yes, I have 4 cents, but I just don't want to give it to you. I want to spend another 30 minutes in line and see how many people are employed by Inno in the Customer Service Department and if they will each ask me for 4 cents!" Her response: "Why didn't you just give the 4 cents to my colleagues when they asked for it?" Really, really, frustrated at this point, I say, "I don't have 4 cents!" CSE4 then asks, "Then, why did you just now tell me that you had 4 cents?"

I took a huge breath, and started looking all around me for the camera. When Peter Funt did not come to my rescue, I took another, deeper breath, apologized and told her that I was just being sarcastic and that I really, really didn't have 4 cents. "I know this thing, sarcasm," she tells me and then asks me for, you guessed it, 4 cents. Now, at 1 hour and 47 minutes, I'm starting to lose it. I say, in a much louder voice, "I DON'T HAVE 4 CENTS!" CSE4, looks at me and says, "If you scream your voice at me, I will have to call security." CSE4 obviously does not "know this thing, sarcasm," or else she would have appreciated my reply, which was, "Good, have them bring me 4 cents!"

We are at a stalemate. They are staring at me and my wallet, and I am staring at them. No one is saying anything. Finally, I ask CSE1, CSE2, CSE3 and CSE4 if one of them could possibly give me 4 cents. "Why would we give you 4 cents? You need to give us 4 cents," says CSE1.

At this point, I'm trying not to bang my head on the very counter where CSE2 is counting my change for the sixth time (yes, it is still 4 cents short of a euro!). All hopes of being a good global citizen have flown out the window and I ask the CSE's, "what do you want me to do? I would go get change, but I would have to wait in line for 46 minutes? Isn't there something you can do? Surely, this has happened before?" Blank stares in response.

CSE4 finally tells CSE1 to give me vouchers in the following amounts: 1x $25, 1x $50, and 2x $10. I'm resolved to going from 4 cents short, to being shorted by 4 euros! At this point, I just want to get out of Inno without going carnival freak crazy. Just as I am leaving the counter, CSE2 hands me 4 euros in coins from the cash register, and says "We don't like to give cash back - only store credits." AAARRGGHHHH!

© 2005 Cindy Lane. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

A Tram Two-Fer

Today, I took the tram (No. 55 - Bordet) to Dan's office for the first time. (For those of you unfamiliar with trams, they are essentially trolleys or slow-moving trains.) During the 22 minute route, we wound through various different neighborhoods and I noticed several shops along the way that could potentially sell curtains. Since I still have 30 windows to adorn, I decided to get Dan's car and return to the area after lunch to see if I could do some damage.

Not familiar with the area, I decided the best way to get back to the stores was to follow the tram line. In theory, it's not a bad idea. In application, there is one massive flaw with this particular mode of navigation -- following the tram line may very well put you in the path of an oncoming tram!

I turned left at an intersection and found myself staring down a tram driver. I could not go around the tram, as both sides of the street were lined with parked cars. There was not enough room to squeeze between the tram and the cars, so my emergency driving skills (honed at the Bob Bondurant School for High Performance Driving) kicked in. I braked hard, stepped on the clutch, looked behind me, threw it in reverse, stepped on the gas, and executed a perfect emergency avoidance maneuver. Or, at least, that was my plan.

The way I see it, the problem was not so much with the execution of the emergency avoidance manuever, but with the gear shift configuration of the Opal. In the Opal, first gear and reverse are in the same location, only you have to pull up on the gear shift to get the car into reverse. (The Mustangs we were driving at Bob Bondurant did not have such a configuration!) When I stepped on the gas, I did not go backwards as planned, but rather I rammed right into the tram, having put the car into first gear instead of reverse!

I honestly can't say who was more surprised, me or the tram driver. Since I have no idea what he was actually thinking, I will do my best to summarize the driver's facial expressions, in the order in which I witnessed them, having had a front row seat, if you will:
  1. Crazy tourist! It's a tram line.
  2. Hey lady, I can't exactly back up here. You are going to have to do something ...
  3. What the ??
  4. Oh no, she's going to ...
  5. Merde!
No one was hurt, no damage to the tram, massive damage to my pride!

So, today was my first tram two-fer: I took a tram and I hit a tram.

© 2005 Cindy Lane. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Advice from my Daddy

Today, I received the following email from my Daddy, who apparently read the recent blog post regarding my untimely appearance at the courthouse during the bomb threat:
"You need to stay home until you learn French or go with Dan so he can speak it
Daddy, I hate to break it to you, but even though Dan took 7 YEARS of French, he still can't speak it!

To appease my daddy, please, someone tell me how to say "I don't want to be traded for a pack of smokes" in French! (This is not something covered by "French for Dummies" - I've looked.)

© 2005 Cindy Lane. All rights reserved.

One Month Down -- 35 to go!

Today is my official "one month" anniversary in Brussels. Here's how I mark my progress of "adjusting" to the new lifestyle:

  1. I no longer miss ice in my diet coke. (I'm also over the fact that I pay $6.48 a six-pack for them. As I told Dan, some addictions are just worth the expense!)
  2. The dog poop on the sidewalk no longer phases me. I am able to walk, watch my step, and hold an umbrella all the same time.
  3. I've totally disregarded the walk/don't walk sign. For that matter, while driving, I consider the traffic lights to be merely a "suggestion", and I stop and go as I please, or as motivated by the horn behind me.
  4. I'm excited when the wait at the grocery store check-out line is less than 30 minutes.
  5. I can pay my bills from the computer at the local bank.
  6. I consider an umbrella an accessory and I don't leave home without it.
  7. I no longer walk around with a city map. I have even given directions to "tourists".
  8. I can use the subway and tram systems. (Still haven't figured out those busses!)
  9. My vocabulary is expanding beyond the "universal" language of hand signals and animal sounds.
  10. My "friend count" now takes two hands: the baker, the butcher, the cheese shop guy, the trainer at the gym, the bar owner around the corner and my neighbor downstairs!

© 2005 Cindy Lane. All rights reserved.

Friday, December 02, 2005

My First Belgian Court Appearance - Bombs And All!

(This is a long one, so stay with me!)

Although not licensed to practice law before the Belgian courts, I thought it might be interesting to watch a trial or hearing to see how much the Belgian judicial system differs from the United States. So, today, I put on a black business suit with a white collarless shirt, donned heels, grabbed my long black coat and walked several miles to the Palace of Justice. (At this point, let me say that my hat goes off to all these European women who make walking on cobblestones in heels look easy!)

As I approached the Palace, which for reference sake is home to the highest court in the land, the Cour de Cassation (similar to our US Supreme Court), there was a policeman stationed about 100 yards in front of the main entranceway. He did not speak English, but I understood enough of whatever he was speaking to realize that this particular sidewalk was closed. He pointed to the other side of the plaza. I smiled, gave him a "merci", and crossed to the other side of the plaza, where I was met by yet another policeman. This one spoke English and, when I asked if I could enter the Palace, he said "oui" and pointed to the other side of the plaza. I headed off in the direction that he pointed.

I was now directly in front of the Palace and was amazed at how many police were suddenly arriving in the area. I didn't give it much thought as I overheard someone say that there had been an accident in the parking structure (which is located, I believe, below the Palace).

Standing in front of the Palace was this woman wearing a black robe with a white sash. She spoke English and offered to escort me into the Palace via the side entrance. Michelle, I later learned was her name, showed me where the various courtrooms were and told me which ones were divorce, administrative, military, etc. She assured me that I could just walk in and watch the proceedings. She even joked that she was my "personal guide".

I found Michele extremely helpful, which is why I was so shocked to later learn that she had completely failed to mention in her little tour that the building was under a BOMB THREAT! Call me crazy, but I think if you are going to assume the responsibility of "personal guide," you should realize that information such as this may prove invaluable to someone, who you know does not speak the language and who you know is going to be walking aimlessly around the highest court of the land, peeking through portals of doors and randomly entering courtrooms.

Blissfully unaware of what was taking place outside, I strolled around the various floors of the Palace, looking through the little round windows in the doors trying to find an "interesting" courtroom. I settled on Salle 23, which would turn out to be my SECOND major mistake of the morning.

Presiding over Salle 23 was a woman judge who, from my vantage point from the little window on the door, appeared to be quite animated. I've been around enough "animated" judges to know that, at the very least, there was potential for something "interesting" to happen in the courtroom. I was not disappointed! Once I entered the courtroom, I was able to see that there were, in fact, three women on the bench. Two of them in robes and one that looked like she may have been a clerk.

I would say the most obvious difference between US and Belgian courts is that the proceedings are in French, which I don't speak (File this little gem away for later reference as it is going to become very important very quickly). From context clues, I was able to discern that there were two parties, both represented and sitting behind their respective counsel, and that the party with the younger of the two lawyers was losing.

After hearing several minutes of argument, the animated Judge dismissed the case. The parties and their lawyers left, leaving the only remaining occupants in the room me and this attorney to my left, who, by virtue of his sporty black robe and white sash, was obviously admitted to practice before the court.

The clerk called the next case number and the attorney walked forward and took his place at the lectern. All eyes then turned to me. I turned around, hoping that the two judges on the bench, the clerk, and the attorney, were all looking at someone that had (please, God) entered behind me. No such luck.

The animated judge, who from this point forward will be known as "The Devil", said something to me in French. I stood and responded in what I had hoped to be my best French, which would turn out to be my THIRD major mistake of the day. What I intended to say was, "Je ne parle pas Francais" ("I don't speak French"). What came blurting out of my mouth was "Je ne comprends pas" ("I don't understand."). The Devil took this to mean that I spoke French, but I just didn't understand what she had said to me.

At this point, let's just say that I became the subject of her "animation," and she completely railed on me. Caught between a rock and a hard space, since I know that the only surefire way to piss-off a judge (even more) is to interrupt one, I opted for the hard space and just stood there and took her lashing. She was growing more and more animated and waiving a case folder in front of me. At this point, the attorney, whose sincerity I greatly question, turned and whispered to me in English, "she wants to know which case you are here on". Thank you, Einstein!

When she finally paused, I responded, in English, "I'm sorry. I'm not here on a case. I just came to watch the proceedings." The Devil then beckoned me forward. As I approached the bench, she stared me up and down, and apparently realized for the first time, that I was wearing a black flowing COAT with a white SHIRT and not a black flowing ROBE with a white SASH. Perhaps, her first mistake for the day. Exit Devil stage right.

Having been sufficiently berated for the day, I thought I would call it quits and head back to the apartment. I walked around the palace for awhile until I located the main exit, which had a sign with a big red X on it that said "verboeten." As I wandered around the massive building looking for another way out, I couldn't help but to notice how eerily empty the place was. I chalked it up to lunchtime. My FOURTH major mistake of the day.

I finally found an exit near the post office, which I took and made, hopefully, my FIFTH and last major mistake of the day. This particular exit put me out near the main entrance of the palace. Police were everywhere. Camera crews were everywhere. Fire trucks were everywhere. Bomb squads were everywhere. To be completely accurate, I should say that they were everywhere EXCEPT where I was. Somehow, the exit I used placed me smack dab in the middle of the area cardoned off by the police for the bomb!

So, there I am, standing INSIDE the police tape, looking out at the police, the news crews, firemen, and scores of people, carefully avoiding the curious stares of the onlookers, and wondering how in the world did I get myself into this situation!

© 2005 Cindy Lane. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Our First Visitor!

Tuesday night will always hold a special place in "The Belgian Years" journal -- it marked the momentous occasion of our first visitor to the Brussels apartment!

Our friend, Mike Vest, from San Diego, was the first to see our apartment, complete with little or no curtains, no light fixtures (just bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling), pictures sitting on the floor waiting to be hung, an office in shambles, and a couch that doubles as a coat rack! (How ironic is it that our first visitor would have a daughter that is an interior designer in Manhattan?)

For the record, it was so nice to have someone say, "Hey, Cindy, how's it going?" Other than Dan, he is the only person to have called me by name since I arrived in Brussels over 3 weeks ago. I felt like Norm at Cheers!

We had a great evening - thanks Mike.