A Taste of This, A Taste of That

I put this piece together exactly one year ago while travelling through Luxembourg and Belgium during my study abroad semester. It is a perfect example of (truly) homeless media, so I’m glad it can now live here:

On a recent Friday in Luxembourg City, the city’s only vegan restaurant was bustling. Bustling, that is, by the standards of the tiny town. About 10 customers occupied the colorful one-room space.

“There’s not a lot of anything in Luxembourg,” the owner said with a laugh as she hustled back to the kitchen.

Vegan fare at Ananbanana

But here, in a central European city of only about 100,000 residents, “Anabanana” opens its doors to people who are looking for something a little different.

Europe is comprised of about 50 countries. Each region, country and city is arguably distinct in, among many things, its cultural practices and dominant religious and linguistic trends. Despite the differences between these borders, the proximity between the countries allows for easy travel. Many European residents and tourists alike take advantage of this.

Train from Luxembourg to Bruges
Train passenger gazes at landscape
Backpackers at a Belgium train station

Nicolo Colombo, a post-doctorate student in biology, was traveling to Namur, Belgium on recent Saturday. He was visiting his girlfriend of two years and her parents for the Easter holiday, and used the short train ride to get some schoolwork done. Colombo lives in Milan, but appreciates the efficiency of travel in Europe.

Nicolo Colombo

“It’s easy to go everywhere…it’s nice because everything is so close,” he said with a smile.

Coming from Luxembourg, where Colombo stayed for a few days, he said he could see the influence of the surrounding cultures on the small country, creating a very diverse blend of residents.

“There’s a main community of Luxembourgish people, but it doesn’t cause fights. About twenty percent are Portuguese, then you have the Belgians and French.”

Qi Zhang took the same train. Born in Zhenjian, China, Zhang moved to Munich, Germany four years ago to work for an electric car company and noticed differences in European culture right away.

Qi Zhang

“There is more diversity in Luxembourg than in Germany,” she said, “maybe because it’s easier to find work.”

When reflecting on her childhood growing up surrounded by large, extremely diverse Chinese cities, Zhang remembered finding German culture initially hard to stomach.

“It’s not right to say [Germans] are close-minded…but they are very proud. They are proud of their people.”

Lut Bullen owns a small bed and breakfast in Bruges, Belgium. Previously, she lived in Brussels, a larger, and in her words, “more cosmopolitan” city.

Bruges, Belgium

“In Brussels, there is a big contrast in parts of the city,” she said as she thumbed through an English-Dutch dictionary. “There are Arab neighborhoods, and Belgian people don’t live there anymore.”

Lut Bullen

She described Belgian people as somewhat close-minded about diverse perspectives, asserting, “even the Flemish and French don’t get along.” She said this is true particularly of smaller towns.

Bullen said there is very little racial, religious, or cultural diversity in Bruges.

“Here, people are very proud of their city, but people can be closed off…it is very difficult to integrate here.”

Bullen’s relatives

Moreover, she said, it’s a very expensive city. Even if people could integrate, she said, those who aren’t financially stable have no chance of living in Bruges. When responding to whether she’d like to see more diversity in her neighborhood, Bullen chose her words carefully.

“It would be nice to have people with different opinions…but nothing extreme,” she said hesitantly.

Government building signs advertise “Laicité,” meaning secularism, written in different languages
Heavily Arab-populated neighborhood, Brussels
Chinese restaurant, Brussels
Twist on typical French-style pastry shop

On a recent Monday, two friends shared pints at Delirium, a famous local pub in Brussels. Kathryn Verboom and Grace Fishbein moved from Canada to Germany several years ago to play semi-professional basketball. They met as teammates and became close friends.

“It’s entirely different to be a foreigner, right?” Fishbein asked Verboom, “I mean we don’t look that different, so it’s not automatic, which is a whole other thing.”

Fishbein (left) and Verboom (right)

“You go to subway and try to order, and [the cashier] immediately switches to English,” Verboom said.

The women agreed that their small town, Spyer, which is home to only about 50,000 people, is not diverse in any sense of the word. However, in other German cities, they said, sometimes one can hear even more English spoken than German.

They said that in most cases German peopl are very open-minded and accepting, and told stories of adapting to German customs, like full nudity in locker rooms and saunas. Still, they said, there are ongoing controversies, such as whether or not girls should or should be allowed to wear the hijab, or Muslim headscarf. This has been a point of contention in many European cities for years.

The women work as substitute teachers at local German schools when they are not practicing with their teammates.

“I was tutoring one girl who was about fifteen, and when she decided to wear a headscarf as her own decision, she kept thinking ‘what do I have on me that everyone is staring at me now?’” Fishbein said.

Verboom likened the experience of moving to Germany to the foreign students who attended her multicultural high school in Canada.

“It’s very humbling,” she said, “to realize you’re the foreigner…but you integrate, and you accomplish it, and it feels good.”

Train pulls up to Brussels, Belgium
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