Friday, February 24, 2006

Why is there always a child that is left out?

Today the boys were expected to come dressed up to school for a carnival party. When I dropped off my Batman and Superman in the front school yard, all the kids were running around as pirates and princesses, and you could tell there was excitement in the air. Every child that walked into the school yard got an “ooooh” or an “aaahhh” from the greeting teachers. There was one boy however who didn't have a costume on. He came up to me and showed me his t-shirt that had a picture of a race-car on it, as if to say "look, I also have something" but you could tell that he was quite conscious of the fact that he was the only one without a costume. I've noticed that he sometimes doesn't wear the special clothes or bring the special things the kids have been asked to bring to school, but the carnival party is a big deal so I suppose I expected him to not have been forgotten this time. I told him I thought his race-car t-shirt was really awesome and gave him a hug. His teacher will probably provide him with a mask or even an outfit, but it probably still won’t make up for the loss of the moment of entrance to an “ooooh” or an “aaahhh”. It broke my heart.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

An interesting life took a funny turn

Today I am going for a drink after work with M. the philologist and T. the Dane.

T. the Dane came to Belgium in the 1960’s. He and his wife were driving home to Copenhagen after a couple of years holiday work on Las Palmas and stopped in Antwerp on the way. They never finished their journey and have lived in Antwerp ever since.

By Lovain

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Honey, could you put out the trash?

The husband has taken up gardening. As with anything he does, it is a thorough and precise operation that quickly becomes an obsession.

Winter, in the world of gardening, is about preparation. The husband is tending to
the compost which will be used for gardening in the spring. He can’t just throw dirt, old plants and potato peels in a pile and call it compost. Oh, no. He has to have a special container, where he meticulously layers yard and kitchen waste with straw and other magic compost fillers such as cow manure. Then he will put a glove on his hand and check the temperature inside the compost. Apparently it’s around 50 degrees Celsius in there. Imagine that.

Here in Belgium, garbage handling has always posed a bit of a challenge. The system is based on plastic bags that you buy in the store and put outside your home at a given date. There are 3 different bags: a blue bag for plastic and metal containers, a green bag for organic waste, and a brown bag for everything else. Paper is collected separately, and you are expected to take glass to a “GLASBANK” (a glass collection point) yourself. Once every few months you have the possibility to put out extra large trash, such as broken furniture, but these items must have an orange sticker on them that you can buy in the city store, or they will not be collected. Depending on where you live, the garbage bags are collected every or every other week. In the city, green bags are collected on Friday mornings. In the summer when it’s hot, riding through town on your bike a Friday morning is insufferable. The greatest challenge of all is to figure out where to keep the bags for a week or two, while pending collection. You’d think Belgian houses would contain separate rooms for this but they don’t. Most people seem to keep their trash on their balconies. We have a backyard storage room that I use for the blue & brown bags. And the organic waste I hand to the husband, who will give out little shrieks of joy if he notices anything particularly fertile, such as potato peels.

By Lovain

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Do not serve me, just give me my fries!

“Normally it should work. If you’ve done the procedure right then normally it should work”. The words fly out of my mouth almost as a reflex. “But I’ve gone through the procedure several times now and I can’t get it going”. Well.

You know you’ve been in Belgium too long, when you find yourself having this conversation, and you’re not the one with the problem. Correspondingly, when somebody tells you that “normally it should work”; although you know that something is wrong, you accept the reply and dismiss your own problem, because, well, “normally it should work”. How did this happen to me? I used to be a demanding customer and consumer, and now I am… accepting?

The husband doesn’t seem to have this problem, but then it’s not a significant difference from his past service encounters. He is quite shy and will choose not to argue if he can. This suits him perfectly.

I have noticed that the attitude toward services and the service profession differs from country to country. The service profession in the USA is a means of making money. You fulfil your duty and you are compensated. You play a role and do it well, and you will be rewarded; a waiter will smile at you and do his or her best to serve you as a waiter is expected to. It’s good for business. A hotel manager will let his or her customers know that he/she is there to serve them. He is playing a business role. In Belgium, a waiter will not smile at you, and you will rarely see a hotel manager in the lobby. Why is this?

With a little imagination, you can trace this difference in attitude back to the European
feudal society (a setting that never really presided in the US). In the feudal society, a person that was a servant, was also of a lower class and had less respect. This feeling of inferiority (and superiority from the other end) has prevailed past the evolution of the society, and impedes the potentiality of prosperity for the service provider. Because of its association with class inferiority, there is no pride in the service profession, and the waiter feels compelled to constantly remind you, that just because he/she is a waiter, he/she is not inferior to you and does therefore not need to serve you. You will have to wait for your order, and you will be attended to when the waiter chooses. The hotel manager is now a manager and considers him/herself above serving. The mentality is oriented toward personal value, and has a negative effect on something that nowadays (in the western world) should be nothing more than a profession.

By Lovain