Life Lessons

By alison - July 12, 2005 (Updated: November 30, 2014)

I am sitting here internet-less again. It was supposed to be installed yesterday, ‘sometime between 9 and 5.’ Despite my sitting inside on a beautiful sunny day, perfect for enjoying the patio, and hardly daring to go to the bathroom, lest I miss the doorbell, they didn’t arrive. I guess I should be glad that some things are just like home.

This weekend was one of new experiences. Our first was born of frustration at still not having our lease car. Andrew decided to rent a small car for the weekend so we could escape Everberg. We ended up with a Smart Car… the new Fourfor, four door version. While I can understand the appeal of a tiny car in busy European cities, it is not the car for me. The car, or Gutless Wonder, as Andrew dubbed it, is very basic, plastic and not meant for driving long distances as we like to do. I had always wanted to drive in a Smart Car to see what they are like… now I have, and I’m over it.

Saturday morning we decided to take our wheels and go shopping. Oddly enough, a few days ago a friend asked if we had Walmart here. We don’t, but we do have Carrefour, and honestly it’s the same thing. The French conglomerate owns many different stores, GB, our grocery store, being one of them. Carrefour is the flagship store and has everything you would expect from a North American box store. It’s big, crowed and full of cheap, unoriginal goods.

While in some ways, I guess these types of stores are unavoidable: they are affordable and convenient and when it comes down to it, isn’t that what we all want? But it makes me sad, that here in Europe, the local stores and markets are losing ground to these large chains. It has already happened in North America and I would so hate to have the same thing happen here.

After Carrefour we went to the electronics store and bought a phone, in anticipation of having a phone line yesterday. It still waits for a dial tone. Then we went to Ikea with the hopes of buying a table. You don’t really realize how important tables are until you don’t have one anymore. Ikea was having a huge sale, but of course my table wasn’t marked down. The box for the table was also way too big for the Smart Car, so I am still table-less also. We did however get two chairs and a foot stool; actual indoor chairs… not patio chairs. What a novelty. Of course the cats have taken these over and I am still left sitting on the floor.

Once we were shopped out, we decided to go into Grand Place and have our first real supper out in Brussels. We consulted the guide book (yes we still have no idea where anything is in Brussels) and found a restaurant that specializes in beer cuisine. Well, Andrew had to give that a go, so off we went.

La Rose Blanche is right in a corner of Grand Place. Generally we try not to eat in the heart of tourist centres, but this one was highly rated and sounded interesting. It was warm enough to sit outside so we grabbed one of the last available tables and had a look at the menu. I had duck a la Kriek (cherry beer) and Andrew had mussels. The food and beer was good but it is the lesson I learned that will stick with me…

While we were perusing the menu I noticed that the people beside us were American tourists. This is where the trouble with being an Expat begins. I can only speak from my own experience but I don’t think I’m alone on this… When you are living in a foreign country, you don’t quite fit in with anyone. You obviously don’t fit in with the locals because you are from away and have that pesky accent. You don’t fit in with the tourists because you’re not stumbling around with a guide book in hand looking to check the top sights off your list in three hours.

I had started to develop an unhealthy attitude about tourists, which frankly is ridiculous as I am one myself … if not in Brussels, than at least everywhere else I go. I feel embarrassed for tourists, knowing what the locals are thinking, because they’ve thought it about me, but yet I feel somewhat superior because hey, I live here. So while I overheard the Americans reading their guidebook aloud, I was feeling a bit smug and figured I had them pegged: wealthy Americans who expect things to be like home and are disgusted when they aren’t. I was due for a wake up call.

Eventually the man noticed that we were speaking English also and asked if we were American. ‘Here we go…’ I thought. We explained that we are Canadian and asked where they were from – Salt Lake. It turns out that they had just biked Corsica and now had a few days to explore Belgium and the Netherlands before flying home.

The woman was a University professor and they had both spent several years in the Peace Corps. They had not only heard of Nova Scotia but had investigated doing a bike trip there in the future. Their pet peeve was trying to explain George Bush to the Europeans when all they could get across was ‘We didn’t vote for him.’ By the end of the meal, at my request, they apologized for George and I apologized for Celine and Shania. This chance meeting was the wake up call I needed to drop my superior attitude towards tourists.

While there are people from any culture who travel with a sight-seeing check list and are annoyed by anything different and unfamiliar, there are many who want to experience what life is really like in the places they visit. Just because they are not able to live in the country they visit, doesn’t make them any less open to new things than those of us who are Expats. I came here to broaden my horizons and be open to new experiences. I just didn’t expect the lessons I learned would be so close to home.

Sunday was also an eye opening day. Andrew has declared that we are reinstituting the Sunday Drive and this week would be his choice. He wanted to drive to Spa because that’s where our bottled water comes from. Personally I can think of more interesting things to see in a town called Spa than bottled water but it was his call. We hopped in the Smart Car and headed east. We stayed off the main highways so we could enjoy the country side. Belgium has a bad reputation as far as traveling goes… or maybe it is more appropriate to say it has no reputation.

Most people don’t know much about Belgium outside of Brussels and it is a country that is often driven through without stopping, on the way to somewhere else. Before moving here, I had my doubts about Belgium as well. While we had visited Brugges and Ghent and they were beautiful, I wasn’t blown away by the scenery we saw on the way to those historic towns. Belgium doesn’t have the picturesque canals that the Netherlands has and the architecture in the country side didn’t seem as quaint. But as with the American tourists, I’ve learned not to judge a Belgian book by its cover. Once we moved here and got to see the back roads I started to see the beauty that is here. Belgium has a little bit of everything: flat to rolling fields, forests, coastline and mountains. It was our journey to Spa that lead us to the latter.

While I loved the flat fields of the Netherlands, where you felt like you could see forever, there is something magical about a drive through the mountains. While the Netherlands gets a bit bumpy the closer you get to Germany, there’s not much there that would be ski slope worthy. As you head south east in Belgium you enter the Ardennes mountain range. While Spa is just at the beginning of the mountains, our drive has left we with a desire to explore further.

We drove through fields and fields of produce: pears, cherries, corn and grains, which became more and more rolling. After an unintentional tour of Liege, we started driving steadily upwards. I can only describe it as a cross between the Nova Scotia Highlands and Yosemite in California. It was a welcome change from flat. We didn’t stop in Spa itself. It looked resorty and crowded. There was a casino… enough said. We may go back and explore the actual spas and thermal pools someday, but yesterday was not about the destination… it was about the journey.

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Big Cheese at CheeseWeb
Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Canadian freelance writer and travel photographer and the founder of She is the author of The Foodie Guide to Brussels: Local Tips for Restaurants, Shops, Hotels, and Activities. Alison landed in Belgium in 2005 and, over the years, has become passionate about slow and sustainable travel, in Europe and beyond. She loves to discover hidden gems - be they museums, shops, restaurants, castles, gardens or landscapes, and share them through her words and photos. She has visited 45 countries and is currently slow travelling through North America in an RV, with her husband, Andrew, and two well-travelled cats. You can also follow her work on Google+
I loved my time in Riga, Latvia a few years ago and Adi's post takes me right back. It's a European travel... - 1 day ago


  1. Comment by mare

    mare July 13, 2005 at 22:29

    i love the scenery in belgium. 🙂 sigh. i wish i was there right now.
    have you been to ypres? i know, it’s all rebuilt since ww1, but it’s quite pretty. and historically interesting! i can’t wait to show it to people 🙂

  2. Comment by Jenn

    Jenn July 14, 2005 at 09:29

    As much as my fondness for the smartcar last summer, I’m slowly losing my likeness for small cars. While they may be cute and great on gas, I love our intrepid for its comfort and smooth ride. We were talking about what to get for our next vehicle in a year or two and our ideas have completely changed since we last had that discussion. While the escort treated us really good, midsize is where I think we’ll stay…
    I hope you get internet soon. I miss you lots 🙂

  3. Comment by Alison

    Alison July 15, 2005 at 12:59

    I agree with the suckiness of small cars (unless they are BMW and/or Miata convertables). I like to feel like there is a slim survival chance if someone decided to run me off the road again. It’s also nice to have lots of room to puts stuff: Ikea furniture, more people, Saint Bernards …

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