An adopted Belgian abroad

Gaining some new perspective

I have just discovered an unexpected side effect of moving to another country: When we go on holiday, it feels surprisingly different.

This may be a bit hard to explain, so do bear with me. We have always travelled a lot in Europe, with and without our kids. My partner travels regularly for work and, at the moment, it is unusual for him to spend a full week at home in Belgium. We are pretty adept at navigating public transport and deciphering tourist information and enjoy throwing ourselves into new experiences.

So, other than the journeys starting in Brussels and therefore being a bit shorter, we hadn’t expected a weekend in Paris or Amsterdam to feel any different than it did when we were living in the UK. But it did.

Here’s what we discovered:

No need to empty our purses and wallets as we exchange pounds for Euros and then back again. Seems obvious but the advantages of using the same currency as at home go much further: We already know “how much” 5 euros is and whether this is too much to pay for a sandwich, without having to do any mental calculations. We don’t have to pay commission or exchange rates and can use our bank cards as normal.

We are safer crossing the road because we are automatically looking in the right direction for oncoming traffic. We are also used to cars coming round the corner even when the pedestrian light is green. This is especially helpful with day dreaming teenagers in tow. (Amsterdam note: bicycles still present an extra challenge.)

When we hire a car, I no longer try to climb into the wrong side and look foolish. It’s also easier to judge lane positioning and go the right way round roundabouts (!)

The supermarket chains and products are familiar. Albert Heijn (a Dutch chain) now has branches in Flanders. Carrefour (the French chain) is omnipresent in Belgium. We have already done the hard work of figuring out that whipping cream comes in bottles rather than pots and that breakfast cereal only comes in chocolate/marshmallow flavour for children or sawdust flavour for dieters. We know which products should be obtained from a pharmacy rather than a supermarket.

Signage in French and even in Dutch now “looks right” and moving about town is quicker and easier. We are also more used to switching between French and English (our Dutch still needs a lot of work.) The kids don’t need any prompting to say please and thank you in the appropriate language.

We can cross borders without showing our passports. To travel to France, the Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg, we can just go to the station and get on a train. No need to turn up hours before departure time (though there is currently some additional security at Gare du Midi). When driving, we scarcely notice that we have crossed a border.

Clearly not all of the practical advantages above will apply next time we travel to, say, Spain or Poland. Obviously (and gloriously) not everything is the same everywhere we go. Local dishes, beers, music, TV game shows and architecture are still pleasingly idiosyncratic to the country or region we are visiting.

However, being part of a single market and a single currency (and driving on the same side of the road) does make life a lot easier. Rather than eliminating the differences between countries until everything becomes boringly homogenous, I see this as an opportunity to free up the mind from practical matters so that I can notice and enjoy the genuinely fun and interesting differences which are the reason I love to travel in the first place.

Brussels, March 2017

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