What I don't miss
"I've realised there are many things about America that I don't miss at all, that I dread returning to, that I'll miss when I leave Belgium."
In the year since I left my home in Virginia behind, there have been many people, places, and things I've missed and longed for. I've often mentioned how much I miss my grrrl friends, familiar faces in my community, the chance to visit with family, the house we left behind, my children's old school.
But the flip side of that is I've realized there are many things about America that I don't miss at all, that I dread returning to, that I'll miss when I leave Belgium. Here are a few examples.
For starters, I won't miss the noise. Belgium is a much quieter place. People put a higher value on not disturbing their neighbours. No one runs lawnmowers on Sundays, and it's rare to hear power tools or trimmers in the middle of the day when babies normally nap. People bring their dogs in at night and don't leave them out in the yard all day to bark at everything that moves.
Rent an apartment in Belgium and most likely you'll sign an agreement that says no showers will be taken or appliances run after 10pm or before 6:30am, that there will be no loud talking in the corridors, stairwells, foyer or elevator, no TV or radios playing loud enough to be heard outside your door. When I lived in an apartment in the center of the city, my sleep was never disturbed by noises from inside the building, only from the street below. One of the most annoying national phenomena in the US is outfitting cars with enormous speakers and sound systems and blasting music from them day and night. Thankfully, this isn't a practice embraced in Europe. The parks aren't polluted by boom boxes either.
Even the children are quieter. There seems to be a much higher premium put on teaching children not to scream, shriek or shout except at the playground. I almost never see Belgians take small children into restaurants other than fast food places like Quick. It's just not done. One native of Brussels with three children told me he didn't consider it appropriate to bring a child into a restaurant until the child could sit quietly. He and his wife go out to eat frequently, taking their nine-year-old son with them while leaving their younger children at home.
I joke with my husband that I've seen more dogs in European restaurants than I have children and the dogs are universally better behaved than the noisy kids in the restaurants at home. Americans are considered LOUD because, um, we are loud. I've also yet to meet a Belgian that talks non-stop. Americans (myself included) have a tendency to do just that. It's tiresome — especially in restaurants and on trains.
The second thing I don't miss about American life is being chained to my car. Back home it was impossible to do errands or go shopping without getting into the car. Not only are residential and commercial spaces completely separate in the US, but except in the big cities, there aren't sidewalks, bike paths or pedestrian crossings. Public transit is non-existent in most places and is limited elsewhere. Directly and indirectly, American culture is built around cars — which means growing traffic, pollution and an ever burgeoning demand for oil that threatens the environment and political stability.
Which brings me in a roundabout way to the third thing I don't miss about home: political apathy. While living in Belgium and traveling in Europe, I've seen more protests and been impacted by more strikes than I had in my entire life in the US. While the American government is quick to try and export democracy, the majority of Americans fail to participate in it at home. Presidential elections might get people's attention, but local and state elections often do not. People don't register to vote and those who are registered don't turn up at the polls. I'd be willing to venture that most Americans can't name their elected officials. They leave political activism to the professional lobbyists who will support any position at a price and use their money to grease the wheels of government behind the scenes. And except in Washington, DC, it's rare to see people gather in the streets and protest ANYTHING.
Yes, the strikes and protests here can be inconvenient at best and violent at worse, but at least people are passionate about the issues that affect them and are willing to publicly take a stand and participate in democracy. I admire that and will miss it when I'm gone.
Another cultural element I don't miss is the way Americans let work invade every corner of their lives and consider their busy-ness to be a mark of success. A European can take a three-week summer holiday and no one raises an eyebrow. The standard American vacation (for those who even take vacations) is one week. The standard work week in the US is 40 hours, but professionals and people in positions of responsibility or management regularly work 50 hours (or more) a week.
When we first moved to Brussels, it was an adjustment to get used to dealing with stores that closed at 5pm or 7pm and did not open on Sundays or Monday. It was a shock to see restaurants, pharmacies and stores shut down completely for as long as a month in the summer so that the owners, managers and workers could take a vacation.
In America, we were accustomed to being able to shop at almost any hour, day or night, and on any day of the week. It's not uncommon in the U.S. to see grocery or discount stores open 24 hours a day. And even when the big stores are shut, there's always a corner convenience store that is open. The bottom line is that in America, if you've got a dollar to spend, you can always find a place to spend it.
Yes, in some respects we were spoiled in the States. We did not have to plan our shopping trips in advance or worry that we'd need something and not be able to buy it. But the dark side is that the 24/7 retail environment is built on the backs of workers who cannot expect to have the weekend off, who work long hours and often very odd hours.
So while I find the limited store hours in Belgium inconvenient at times, I secretly admire a culture that would rather close the shop doors than add more euros to the till. Europeans seem unafraid to admit that while work is important, so is leisure, relaxation, time devoted to loved ones. I think this often translates to a quality of life that we as Americans can't buy or embrace — unless we're lucky enough to be expats.
V-Grrrl / Expatica
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