We went to the Bruges Christmas Market for a super quick 24-hour trip. We had to get Bruges in one last time before we head home. At first the cost of the hotel and bus fare seemed too extravagant since we've been to Bruges many times and have already gone on this trip already. But in the end the trip proved to be very worth it, just from what happened in a 2 hour period alone.
We decided to run back to the Christmas Market later that night to grab a bratwurst. It turned out to be one of the best ones we ever had. We went to the gazebo to eat our meal. After our meal was over, we offered to take a picture of a woman who had just met a couple from Bruge. They welcomed us into their circle, the man from Bruges bought us drinks (cokes and hot chocolate) and we had an incredible conversation.
I want to try to capture some of the highlights from that conversation, even though I won't be able to remember it all.
First the people:
Tatiana - A woman from Romania who used to be a Congressional Liaison to the U.S. Congress representing Romania and NATO interests. She speaks Japanese, Romanian, English, and Hebrew.
Louise - A woman who grew up in Kortrijk but now lives in Bruges with her boyfriend. She is a county clerk and whenever there is a murder she goes to the crime scene to process the evidence and also escorts the murderer to prison. She speaks English, Dutch, and Western Flemish.
The Boyfriend - (we never caught his name so I'll call him Johann) He is self-employed and grew up on a farm in Belgium. He speaks Russian, English, Dutch, and Western Flemish.
A certain Englishman - grew up in Utah, speaks English.
Me - grew up in New Mexico, speaks English and French very poorly.
Okay so obviously, the entire conversation happened in English. Johann was incredibly outgoing and friendly. He insisted on buying us drinks because that's what Belgians do, they drink. We explained that we don't drink alcohol.
He said, "Because you are a Democrat?"
I laughed, "No, that's not why."
"Oh, so you are a Republican?"
"No," I said, "I'm Mormon." (I know we aren't supposed to use that term, but it's the most recognizable word to Europeans. If I said, "Member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" their eyes would glaze over.
Louise jumps in, "Oh really? I thought you had to wear caps."
"Uh no," I said. I showed her my winter hat on the table, "I can take it off."
Later in the evening, after she asked me some more strange questions about my religion, I finally said, "Do you think I'm Amish?"
"Yes! You are Amish, right?"
"No," I said, "That's a different religious sect."
She was so embarrassed, but I assured it this isn't the first time I've been confused with the Amish. I need to learn to say, "I'm a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You might recognize us by our nickname, 'The Mormons' but we we are not Amish." It's a mouthful, but it gets the job done.
When we told the group we were from Utah, Louise got excited. She said, "Are you close to the Grand Canyon?" We told her we were fairly close. She said, "I would love to go to America. It's on my bucket list."
Johann said, "I don't want to go to America. Americans are so stupid."
I laughed and said, "You are right. When we are in Europe, we are quite stupid. The culture here is so different that we do many stupid things. But I assure you that when we are in our country, we are more comfortable and know what is going on, we aren't nearly as stupid."
Johann said, "But Americans don't even know where Belgium is or that Brussels is the capital."
Louise interrupted and said, "Johann, that's not fair to say. I have no idea where Utah is."
(FYI, I'm painting Johann out to be quite snarky, but he actually was incredibly nice and said all of this in a jovial joking way."
Bradford pulled out his phone and showed her where Utah is on the Google map. Louise and Johann started laughing. "Your borders are straight lines! Don't you have rivers to create your borders?"
I explained that the western part of the United States is quite large with few people. Many borders are straight and Colorado and Wyoming are simple rectangles.
Tatiana explained that she had lived in Washington D.C. for 9 years with her job. She's now back in Romania and was visiting Bruges for some training. Her English is incredible. She is incredible.
Louise and Johann asked Tatiana what it was like to live in America. She said she pretty much only got to know the eastern side, but one thing that she learned was that in America you have to smile at strangers. If you don't, people will think there is something wrong with you.
Tatiana was so friendly and engaging, it was hard to imagine her ever not smiling. Johann said that if he went around smiling at people in Bruges, people would think something was wrong with him. I told a story of how I was in Tokyo once tried to get Japanese people to smile at me by smiling at them first. It wasn't until later I learned, smiling in Japan is reserved for people you know intimately.
At one point in the night we were talking about putting your "foot in your mouth." I was explaining how it's in expression for when you say something that regret and are embarrassed you said. Tatiana told a funny "foot in mouth" story. She said one time she was supposed to meet with a Congressman on the Hill. She was running to make the appointment. This caused her to get hot and sweaty. She made it to the office. She told the aide. "I'm so hot." He answered, "Yes, you are." We all had a good laugh at that one!
Johann wanted to know what Americans thought of Belgium. I honestly have no idea. My first instinct was to say that Americans don't think of Belgium at all. But that's not completely true, many know that Belgium exist. So I started to wonder, what is Belgium known for? I said, "We think of beer, chocolate, and the U.N." He asked, "Do you think it's a poor, dirty country?" I assured him that we don't. I hope I'm right. If you think of Belgium as a white trash country, can I please help you see otherwise?
I knew Louise worked with murders but I wanted to know more. I said, "I know it's rude in Belgium to ask a person what they do for work, but I just have to know about your job." Johann assured me that it wasn't rude to ask that. He said, "It's only rude to ask what a person makes." I told him that was true in America too.
Louise lit up when she talked about her job. She's a short little blond person with a bubbly personality. She said that she gets excited when she gets called for a murder. She's disappointed when it's just an attempted murder. "Can't they finish the job?" she asked?
I asked her if her job ever gets her down. She said that it absolutely does. She said that one night at 1:00 a.m. she got a call to retrieve a dead body. She had to climb up an old house into the attic. A woman had given birth and then killed her baby. I could tell that one really shook her.
As is usually the case when I talk to Europeans, the topic eventually moved to healthcare in the U.S. Louise told me that 4 years ago she had had a flesh-eating bacteria on her brain and had been in a coma. Her total recovery was 3 months. She said, "My total medical bill was 3500 Euro." I asked, "How much of that bill did you pay?" She said, "None of it. I pay 25 Euro a month for health insurance." I told her that if that happened in the States the bill would have been over $100K and we'd pay 20% and our premiums are typically over $1000. She said, "What happens if you can't pay your medical bill?" I told her, "You either file bankruptcy, try to get a GoFundMe to get friends to help, or some people just die." (I realize was totally simplifying a very complicated answer.)
We then had a great discussion about sick days, health care being a privilege or a right, and whether people would take advantage of free health care or not.
Since Bradford used to work in Romania, he told Tatiana about his time in Timisoara. She told us something really interesting. She said that the mayor of Timisoara was actually German. He just lives in Romania. In the EU anyone can run for office as long as they live in the area they want to run. He's a very popular mayor and very loved.
We ended up having a lengthy discussion about immigration. Louise said that many of the criminals (thieves) are from other countries but aren't the ones committing murders. Tatiana said that Romania used to have 19 million people, they are down to 4 million. She said that if the country has strict laws, the Romanians aren't a problem, but if the country has loose laws, the Romanians become criminals (not all of them obviously).
She gave an example. She said that there are many Romanians who are pickpockets on the Champs Elysee. She said that France won't crack down on the crime. They round them up and let all the ones who are minors go. Then they tell Romania to come and get their minors so they stop committing crimes. She said, "It's not my job to police your country. You do it." She said if France had stricter laws, they wouldn't have the problems they do.
She said that as Brexit was about to happen, the Romanians (and other immigrants) had to leave. She said that 1 million Romanians left the UK.
It's kind of hard for me to wrap my head around the idea of Schengen countries. We have been to the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and France. I have only had to show my passport to get into France and once at a hotel. Bradford has had to show it at a couple more hotels. Since those in the EU can freely move around from country to country, those in poorer countries migrate to the wealthier countries. Kind of makes me think of how each state in the US has their own economy. We see Californians move to states where housing is cheaper and employment pays better.
Anyway, it was a really fun evening. Turns out you can talk religion and politics without getting into any arguments or disagreements!