Monthly Archives: October 2008

World Traveler

As I said before, I hadn’t been out of the United States, Canada or Tijuana, so this recent trip was my first overseas adventure, and I encountered some issues I hadn’t expected. We think our way is the best way, but some of their customs make sense and, then again, some don’t.

Bathrooms – I could go on and on about my struggle with European bathrooms, but I’ll try to keep it short and as close to G-rated as I can. First of all, in about half the bathrooms, you have to pay. Sometimes 40 cents Euro…54 cents U.S. and sometimes more. Sometimes one fee for a urinal and a different one for “other”. But when you do have to pay, it is often to a bathroom attendant. What a crappy (pun intended) job. It is usually a woman, often an older woman (yes…older than sixty one). There is a dish to put the money in and, if you don’t have the correct amount, you feel weird getting change. Often times the door doesn’t exist if you are using a urinal. In several of the places, you could see women and men walking by a few feet away as you did your business. That’s just wrong!! In Chez Moeder, a lambic pub in the Southern part of Brussels, there was a stool with a door on the left, a stool with a door on the right, and in between a urinal with no door at all. Standing there, if someone opened the door to the bathroom area, you could see all the way to the street. And what if you, all of a sudden, have severe abdominal distress (don’t say you never have) and didn’t bring any change with you? And if you did bring change, do you want the door open with an older woman standing six or seven feet away while your “evacuation plan” is executed? There are a few times in your life you want complete privacy and, for me, that’s at the top of the list. For the safety of others, you hope you can leave the door closed for a few minutes after you’re done and the fan does it’s work. But, on the plus side, the bathroom attendant keeps the bathrooms cleaner than they are in the U.S.

Language – This is very obvious and it says a lot about how we, as Americans, think of our place in the world. Most Europeans speak at least a little English, so it’s easier for us to get around in their countries. We go to their countries and don’t make the effort to learn even the slightest amount of their language (me included…a minus sign in my book of good things and bad things done in my life). They make it easy for us to think that the world revolves around us, and it’s getting obvious that a few years down the road, it won’t. When we needed cash, or when we were buying tram tickets from machines, they all had a language feature that you could switch from Dutch, or French, or German, to English. The language barrier was a little more of a problem when eating. Most of the places didn’t have an English menu, so most of the time I had no idea what I was ordering. In one German restaurant in, you guessed it…Germany, I couldn’t figure out what all the choices were. When the waiter came back to take our order, I said “I can’t read the menu, but I would like a brat and some sauerkraut”. He pointed to a line on the menu and said this is what you want, so I ordered it. I was expecting a six inch Johnsonville Brat with a side of sauerkraut. What I got was a bratwurst that hung over both edges of a very large plate, a large helping of sauerkraut cooked to mush, and about a pound of mashed potatoes. After the meal, I looked like the guy in the old Alka Seltzer commercial who was sitting there in distress with his pants unbuttoned saying “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing”. This past Saturday, Matt and I took a train from Brussels to Liedekerke, about half an hour away. The downtown area is about a mile from the train station, so it took us quite a while to walk through the streets. On the way, we saw several bakeries with some awesome pastries, but we didn’t stop. We were on a mission to visit De Heeren Van Liedekerke, a pub/restaurant with a great selection of beers. When we got there , there were no cars in the parking lot, no lights on in the building, and a sign in the window. It may have helped if we had understood the line on their website that said “De Heeren zijn op verlof van 6 tot 29 oktober !” We settled for a visit to the Retro Cafe where we drowned our sorrows in Duvel, Boon Kriek and spaghetti. Again, on the way back to the train station, I kept saying, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing”.

Waiters/waitresses – In the United States, no matter where you go, waiters and waitresses come to your table over and over, asking you if everything is alright, or offering you another drink or dessert. No so much in Europe. We would get seated and may have to wait a while before anyone came to our table. We would order a drink or a meal, and wouldn’t see the waiter again until the meal or drink came. During the meal or drink, the waiter would not stop by at all. When the meal was done, or the drink was finished, the waiter did not come over to ask if you wanted another drink or to take your plate away. You would have to catch their eye, sometimes not very easily, and they would come over with a look of surprise, wondering what you want. In Chez Moeder, there was one girl tending bar and waiting tables. It was a neighborhood pub that served drinks and a selection of fine cheeses with bread. She was so busy, it took an hour for us to get our second drink (Hanssens Oude Kriek) and another hour to get our third (De Strusse Black Albert-13% ABV). Maybe that’s a good thing! In Europe, waiters and waitresses are not paid a sub-standard minimum wage like they are in the United States, so tipping is not necessary. Maybe that’s why they don’t over-do the service part.

Greetings  I’m not sure if this is a plus or a minus. Most people, in the parts of the countries we visited, would greet each other with a touching of cheek to cheek (not that cheek…get your mind out of the gutter) on both sides with an “air kiss”. That was fine for women to women or women to men. But to see a couple of guys that looked like they were longshoremen or football players touching cheeks and blowing air kisses just doesn’t seem right. Again, at Chez Moeder, they went a little overboard. There was a table of young guys having a few drinks, playing some kind of dice game, maybe for drinks, and having a great time. When Matt and I got to the place, there were four of them. Soon, more guys would come and a couple would go, but the group stayed at about eight for an hour or more. When a new guy came, they would kiss each other on the cheek with a loud juicy smack. Girls came and went with some of the guys, so I don’t think it was anything other than a greeting, but a little over the edge for my taste.

PDAs – I’m not really a prude as you can tell from some of the things I write, but extreme public displays of affection are a little disconcerting. Here in the United States, couples will be holding hands, sometimes with a squeeze or a pat in restricted areas, but I witnessed many PDAs in Europe that went to extremes. The couples were locked in an embrace that resemble those little metal puzzles that you can’t get apart without knowing “the secret”, usually with the girl on the guy’s lap, groping and fondling like they were teenagers parked at the drive in movies that have pretty much disappeared (resulting from a concerted effort of a splinter parent group called Fathers With Daughters). To keep this G-rated I won’t even go into the tongue action or the targets of the groping. I wanted to yell “Get a room”, but I didn’t know how to say it in the local language. If they keep it up (no pun intended), it will lead to a population explosion that we don’t want.

I’ve just touched the surface and, I’m sure, I will bore you soon with more complaints.

Just (Had A Blast But Glad To Be Home) Jack

Is This A Great Country Or What?

I’ll be leaving for Belgium on Thursday, landing there on Friday afternoon, and knew I would need some money (Euros) for tips, busses, etc. when I got there. So I went down to my local bank to get some just in case they had to have extra time to get it themselves. They couldn’t get it, or at least, that’s what the tellers told me. It is a local, independent bank, and I know most of the people there. I was a little surprised, and then I panicked, not knowing exactly where to go.

I have a small Bank of America account that I use when I’m out of town to get cash from ATMs without paying any fees. So I came home, got on their web site and checked out their customer service. I found that I could order money!! Is that great or what?! I could order up to $5,000 worth from any country if I used my Bank of America  bank account or VISA card. I have both, so I ordered 200 euros. I could have it delivered to the closest branch (Grand Rapids or Kalamazoo) for $7.50, or I could have it delivered to my house, also for $7.50. I chose the house (duh!). I have to sign for it when it comes, so I’m tied down until then. The exchange rate isn’t very good, $1.45 per Euro, but it’s getting better every day. Apparently the jerks on Wall Street that screwed up our economy have affected Europe’s as well.

I did go to Kalamazoo last week to let Bank of America know that I would be in Europe, so don’t cut off my ATM or credit card availability when they see unusual charges. I didn’t tell them, but I’ve never been outside the United States other than trips to Canada (that’s like being in the US so it doesn’t count) and a day trip to Tijuana (that’s not really being in Mexico), so they’ve never seen foreign charges on my ATM or credit card.

Matt just sent me an e-mail telling me to be sure to have a suitcase with wheels since we’ll be walking a lot with our bags. The trip over shouldn’t be bad, but the bags may be loaded on the trip back. I’ll be bringing back refrigerator magnets for Margee, poker chips for Tommie Campbell, and rocks (not diamonds…actual rocks) for daughter Sara. Also, since I didn’t do any races in 2007 and only two in 2008, I’m running short of t-shirts that don’t have food stains on them. So I may (hold onto your seats) actually buy some clothes while I’m there. That won’t leave any room for beer, but I’m sure I’ll have a couple while I’m there.

I’ve checked out the weather over there and it looks like it will be much like it is here in the fall. Highs in the fifties and, sometimes, sixties and lows in the forties at night. The one downside is that there is likely to be widespread fog on Friday, both in Brussels where the trip ends, and Frankfurt Germany where I have a stop after an eight hour flight. The plane is supposed to land at around noon their time, so maybe the fog will burn off by then. If not, wherever we land won’t be in the US, so I’ll be in awe.

Matt is in Amsterdam this week after a long weekend in Munich for Oktoberfest. He and three friends left Munich yesterday for a few days there before meeting me in Brussels on Friday. I gave him the Dad advice…have a safe trip…don’t go anywhere with strangers…and don’t sample “the wares” in Amsterdam. He didn’t know what “the wares” were. He’s such an nice, naive boy, doesn’t know that prostitution is legal over there, and I didn’t want to let the cat out of the bag (no pun intended), so I told him it meant that I didn’t want him to break his teeth on hard candy. On the off-chance that he and his friends have gone there to check into the Amsterdam branch of the Betty Ford clinic for a couple of days after too much beer in Munich, I don’t want to know about it.

Just (Looking For My International Travel Clothes) Jack