An American In Brussels–Six Months Later


Six-months in Brussels—longest I’ve lived outside Illinois.  I’m a proponent of the adage, ‘home is where you hang your hat’.  Brussels is home.  My husband is here as is our beloved Golden Retriever, Sadie.  After that, everything else is secondary.  Sure we miss family and friends, but social media and video calls keep them present in our lives.  We have a lovely apartment and garden—a good life.

I love many things about Brussels.  My favorite?  Outdoor markets where I buy fresh food and flowers.  Tomatoes and strawberries are divine, flavors popping like they did in the States before geneticists hijacked farming.  And bread—sheer magic.  European bakers must have kept something out of recipes taken to the New World.   All the stuff sold in the US may as well be Wonder Bread.  My favorite market is Chatelain, an upscale neighborhood akin to Chicago’s Lincoln Park where I trek every Wednesday afternoon, rain or shine—mostly rain.  I’m now a bit of a regular, exchanging bonjours with the Roi de Poulet people, chatting with Swiss flower girls and talking Spanish to a bread lady from Ecuador.  Wine is another nice feature of afternoon markets.  Imagine enjoying a fine St. Emilion or Haut Medoc while strolling the aisles of Jewel or Marianos.

Many things make our list of favorite things: day trips to cities that flourished and declined long before North America saw its first European; 450 beers; dozens of preparations for mussels; French cuisine at Belgian prices; and walking, walking, walking everywhere which brings me to my biggest disappointment about our new home.

I’m told the Belge are a friendly people and we’ve met some.  But, one wouldn’t think so when walking on the street.  One day, I’ll snap photos of the sneers, pouts, frowns and grimaces that meet me daily on my walks through Brussels.  Perhaps it’s harder for me as a Midwesterner.  We smile all the time, at strangers, babies, dogs, cats, children, flowers, etc… Perhaps we’re a bit too toothy.  Smiling at a Belge with a dog, baby or just about anything is usually met with a sneer.  When I encounter a grimace, I want to ask, is life really that miserable?  I’ve got another theory why the Belge look down at their feet rather than making eye contact—an abundance of dog poop on the pavement.

For me, dealing with what I call ‘Belge Face’ is a cultural adjustment.  But despite a sea of frowns, I keep smiling.  Maybe that’s why tourists constantly ask me for directions to the Grand Place or Mannequin Pis while frowning Belge go about their business, undisturbed.

But if you were to ask me about our first six months in Brussels, I’d still say we’re having a grand adventure.  And I’ll be grinning from ear to ear when I say it!

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2 Comments

  1. melissa haussman

    Hiya-I visited St. Gilles last summer and stayed with a friend. As an American expat who has lived in Canada for ten years (and shared some of your experiences with Brussels folk) I am very glad to have found your blog-even though you’re now back in Chicago! (another great city as the home of the current US Ambassador to Canada). Anyway, thanks so much for your blog and sorry you had a hard time adjusting to Brussels as a spouse.

    • T.D. Arkenberg

      Dear Melissa, THANKS for the note. As you can see through the blog progression, we both grew to LOVE Brussels. We’re looking forward to a return visit this summer. And I didn’t know that our Ambassador to Canada is from the USA, merely our President! Cheers

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