The Belgian Surprise

Belgium is one of these countries you don’t really hear too much about so it has never been on my bucket list. It happened that I was attending two weddings in Europe and had to kill the time in between somewhere.  Since my significant other has academic collaboration at the KULAK university in Kortrijk, we decided to hang out in Belgium and combine work with pleasure.

I have been getting progressively worse about planning trips and therefore didn’t even bother buying a travel guide or researching the top sights to see. I figured that we could wing it by asking some locals once we get there. And this is what we did. Winging it around Belgium turned out to be a wonderful experience!

Belgium has a really nice railroad system that lets you get anywhere in the country within 1-1.5 hours. The trains drop you off in the center of all the action of each city, then all you need to do is localize the main street and start strolling towards the main square, which is always called the Grotemarkt. The Grotemarkt always has a cathedral, whose size may vary with the wealth of the city (or perhaps the ambition of its former architects). Normally, it also has a city hall which is decorated with statue tributes of all the former mayors. I could never figure out at which year cutoff happened though (as in when did they run out of space?!)..

From the Grotemarket there are always opportunities to explore side streets, visit delicatessen shops or chocolatiers and discover cute architectural treasures.  There is really no need for a tour guide or a guidebook because one can just absorb the lively atmosphere instead.

Even though Bruges is the famous touristic spot these days (probably due to Colin Farrell’s In Bruges movie), my favorite city by far happened to be Antwerp. It’s much more lively, combines the ancient and the modern, has many wonderful museums and a rich history of being a port city transporting merchandise and immigrants to the New World. Especially noteworthy is the Red Star Line Museum which tells the stories of the 2 million emigrants who went to the USA onboard of the Star Line ships in the beginning of the 19th century. The museum focuses on their story, on that of the shipping company that transported them and on the city and port from where they embarked on this journey.

On this trip I also visited Brussels and dropped by some local friends’ house, getting to experience Brussel’s version of suburb life (beautiful!) plus surveying some of the most amazing dessert displays around town. We had a meeting in the university town Leuven, where I actually tried some of the best artisanal desserts possible.  Finally, since Lille was only about 35km from where we were staying in Kortrijk, we got to have a french experience by eating (French!!) fries in a nice garden bistro, visiting their fine arts museum and stocking up on some baguette and pastries from Paul (I know it’s a chain but it was still so so delicious).

Belgian culture is a mix of french and dutch cultures and this is something quite weird for an outsider. Even though it’s a small country, you may start your journey from Brussles to “Cortrei” and 1.5 hours later arrive at “Kortrijk” – meaning that your journey starts in a french speaking area. By the time you arrive, you’re in dutch Flanders region, where everything is in Dutch instead of French, even though your’e taking a train with the same railroad company. I have to admit that reading menus and figuring stuff out in French was much easier than in Dutch! (Good thing everyone spoke in English anyways..).





Networking: Texas Style

Networking in Texas

On my mission to build my local network in Austin, I signed up for a speakers’ breakfast club that someone recommended to me.

I got up like a zombie at 5 am to make it for this 7am event (seriously, why so early?!). I drove in the dark to the university where I spent 4 years of my undergrad, got lost with all the construction around the new medical school and finally found my destination near the Football Stadium, which I’ve never been to despite the fact that football is THE thing about the University of Texas.

Anyhow, the event turned out to be pretty full, mostly with very energetic middle-aged people. I met the other young woman in the room. She was very attractive and stylish, with short blond hair and an 80’s style blazer and spoke with the confidence of a CEO of Fortune-500 company. She turned out to be an opposition consultant who recently moved to Austin from DC. If you’re wondering what’s do opposition consultants do, the answer is that they dig up all the dirt on the opposition if one decides to run for public office. “How interesting!”, I exclaimed (imagining a British accent inside my head). But she said it were a really boring job and that she had a bunch of 25 year old dudes locked in a room, doing research all day long. I could definitely imagine it as a scene from Mad Max.

There were around 50-70 participants in this breakfast and at some point they were all asked to introduce themselves. What happened next seemed like a 30-minutes-long infomercial. One after another, people stood up and threw marketing taglines into the audience – “Hi, I am Bob with Bob’s Wood Flooring Co and I hope to floor you today”, “Hi, I’m John with ABC Tech Co and I can help you make technology less scary to use”, “Hi, I’m Jane and I can save you from your financial planning hell.” Some taglines were more creative than others but of course I forgot all of them just equally. It was something from a Woody Allen movie when you don’t know if you should cry, laugh, give them a hug, or buy them a drink.

Just before my turn, a lady introduced herself saying she’s retired but works as democrats community organizer and apologized for being that. Of course I had to step up to the discussion because I can’t keep my mouth shut and said she shouldn’t be shy about this, and I am with her. “How can anyone vote for Republicans in this election anyways, “ I said, looking around the room. “They’re all crazies!” I twirled my finger around my ear to gesticulate. At that moment I realized I was in Texas in a room that was probably mostly Republican so I added “The candidates, that is. Not the voters.” Even though I didn’t really believe it. People seemed to laugh at my boldness and non-PC attitude. Perhaps they were just trying to figure out what would be the best way to assassinate me.

My timing was perfect because it turned out that speaker afterwards was a history professor who talked about the 2016 election and his views on which candidates could win and why. He was clearly not neutral but he did a fairly good job stating the obvious that radicalization and fear factor don’t really win elections in the USA because people like the message of hope. He talked a lot about Reagan and how he won because of his personality and good sense of humor and despite talking all about small government, raised taxes as soon as he got elected because he had to be pragmatic and deal with the budget deficit.

He also pointed out how politicians treat the American people like children; they don’t talk to voters in rational logical manner nor bother talking about real issues because people don’t really care and vote for them anyways. Nothing new there. He kind of contradicted himself saying that Bernie Sanders has no chance because he’s a joke and no one would elect a socialist. What the distinguished professor he was clearly missing was that Bernie is picking up exactly because he’s giving people hope while Hillary is just repeating old mantras. He though Hillary for sure will be nominated but didn’t offer insights for the Republicans. Me thinks I should write some books about this nonsense too and become famous by stating the obvious.

From networking perspective this event was completely useless but from a cultural perspective I was definitely priceless. And that’s why ladies and gents, you should always network.

Just kidding.

Austin Skyline
The Austin Skyline