Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tourist in My Own Country

After a week of running errands and taking care of health check-ups, Mark joined me in my home country Belgium for two weeks of “vacation”. Of course, there was the usual business to attend to (what did we expect?), but we managed to visit many friends and family members, adding up to an extremely busy schedule. While I used to be treated like a princess on previous visits, Mark’s infrequent presence (once every five years at the going rate) turned us into a temporary "queen and king".

Every time we showed up at somebody’s house, good company awaited us and sumptuous portions of traditional dishes were served, whether it was for breakfast, lunch or dinner. We got to savor many of Belgium’s favorite foods, beers and treats and never felt as full as we did on one particular “combined visit” day! From pastries at my parent’s to a whole breakfast buffet at my cousin’s, from “stomp en worst” at my other cousin’s to Bouillabaisse soup at my aunt’s, from lasagna to sweet and sour chicken at friends’ places to a wonderful and extensive high quality lunch at a restaurant for my oma’s 90th birthday. I think we are done eating for a while… after Thanksgiving!

Despite the cold and grey weather (I saw the sun for a whole five hours, all on the same day, before Mark arrived, and Mark saw her for a full 5 minutes), we took a few daytrips with the help of friends, family and my mum’s car. Mum was so accommodating that she took days off to be with us or lend her car. With Rosy and Peter, we visited Brussels’ biggest landmark, the atomium. There are several exhibitions in the spheres, reached by escalators, and the view from the top can be amazing in better weather. Unfortunately, it rained that day, so we couldn’t explore much beyond the Expo ’58 attraction.

My cousin Griet and her husband Wim wanted to return the favor from their visit to Irie, exactly one year before. They treated us to a whole bunch of delicacies and showed us around Antwerp on a historical walking tour. Together with their kids Sam and Eva, we went to the top of one of the biggest buildings of town, coincidently Wim’s work place. The view was unbelievable and special. The rain held off until we returned homeward, after a quick glimpse at the totally and impressively renewed Central Station.

On another cold and crappy day, we took a little drive around the countryside of Belgium and Holland, with stops in the very cute town of Damme and tourist attraction number 1: picturesque Brugge. Every ten minutes or so, we had to dive into a museum or other heated structure to take care of our numb face and hands. Taking pictures was hard, but we nevertheless enjoyed the sights of historical buildings, canals and windmills.

Our personal highlight was a “weekend” away in the small country of Luxemburg, new to Mark and me. After three hours of driving, we reached the foresty environs of the Luxemburg Ardens. Our first stop, Esch-sur-Sûre proved to be a very idyllic valley town in the bend of a river. The houses of villagers were cozily grouped together, dominated by castle ruins and a watch tower on a rocky hill top.

After lunch, we gazed at the impressive castle of Vianden. The well maintained “house of the dukes” is perched on a hill and could be taken out of a fairytale book. Mark and I decided to have a look inside as well, taking in some historical facts, artifacts and information. Some of the rooms sported ornate era-furniture, giving a good impression of the life of the rich in the earlier centuries. Our drive continued to touristy, but attractive Echternach with its big abbey and green surroundings, called Little Switzerland. Just for the sake of it, we crossed the river to set foot in Germany. Dark arrived around 5 pm, a good time to head over to our basic, but affordable hotel in France.

Sunday, November 21st, brought more grey skies and frigid temperatures. Mark and I were determined to make a walking tour in Luxembourg, the capital of the country. It wasn’t too hard to find free parking (hurray for Sunday), but keeping warm was more of a challenge. At a pretty fast pace, we crossed squares surrounded by historical buildings and walked the old walls of the raised city. The vistas across the river and beneath the walls were incredible. We couldn’t agree more with the name “prettiest balcony of Europe” when we took in the scene.

Not much later, we descended the hill and entered the Pétrusse valley, an oasis of peace and nature in the midst of the busy capital. Foot paths bring you past a very old chapel, built against the rocks and underneath two immense arched bridges. We finished our tour without freezing to death and regretted not being able to just hang out and take in the views a bit more. Especially the area in Grund seemed to deserve more time. Luxembourg has a lot to offer and a status to maintain. I wouldn’t mind coming back here in the summer one day, but for now, I was happy to be “traveling” again!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Belgium: Socialism at Work

When you are cruising around, whether it is the world or the Caribbean, you hope not to get sick. In case something doesn’t feel right, you wait until you reach a cheaper country to deal with it, you suffer through what’s going on or you pay for medical help on shore. Medical assistance is practically always cheaper than in the US. Most of the time, however, you are able to swallow some of your onboard medicines or accept the ones offered by other cruisers. This is the most affordable option. When you are really fortunate, you have a doctor amongst your surrounding cruising friends. Since many of us on the water don’t have adequate health insurance, we hope the Sea Gods take mercy on us.

When somebody gets sick in the United States, it takes quite the amount of nausea, tooth ache or pain to check out a doctor. Most (working) people have insurance, but the deductible is high and even the fees are steep. If you get away from a hospital or examination room for under US$ 100, you scored and you are happy. I don’t think that happens frequently.

In Belgium, on the other hand, going to the doctor requires little pain or thought. You have a cough? A little bit of fever? Need a teeth cleaning? Are you sure it’s the flu? Better get it checked out. And, if you really feel crappy and are bed bound, the doctor comes to your door. Your cost? Less than US$ 10. Initially you pay full price, but then you go to your health care provider with the receipt and get most of it back in cash or transferred to your Belgian bank account. At the pharmacy, you pay a relatively small amount and your insurance covers the rest.

Once a year, I am really happy to be a Belgian. I save all my questions, aches and health problems up. I make a list of them and take it with me on my yearly doctor’s visit. At the time of my appointment, we go over the list, my questions are answered, I receive a full check-up, a gynecological exam and some recommendations for specialists if needed. Since recently, my house doctor (as we call our favorite general practitioner) joined a health center and when you are a member, all the care you receive there is totally free. Health insurance is mandatory in Belgium and I pay about US$ 100 a year. That does not include (extensive) coverage abroad for months on end. To me those 100 dollars seem a lot, since I don’t really live in Belgium anymore. So, I better get some return when I visit.

On the home coming program is also a visit to the dentist. Most years, I manage with just a check-up, but this year I have to go back. A cavity. I am annoyed, because that will cost me more. Then again, better get it taken care of here, instead of that unknown place where it will start to hurt, somewhere in the future. That could be in the States and the price there will be incomparable!

My knee has been hurting for a few months, on downhill slopes. I wanted to know what the problem is. Doctor looked at it, appointment in the hospital for a few scans after some painful liquid got injected in my poor knee, later in the day followed a visit to the orthopedist with a conclusion and advice. I should still say hi to a dermatologist and eye doctor this year, but –to be honest- I am a bit doctored out at the moment and hope to add those two chores to next year’s list. The extra visits for knee and teeth cost me less than $100 (on top of the yearly coverage).

Compared to other countries in the world, we, here in Belgium are lucky with our “socialist” “government” (I have to put both in quotes, since technically we still don’t have a government at the moment). To the wallet, health care is cheap and when the cash goes out, most of it will make its way back. We pay for it a different way. Even though Belgians realize they are having it “good” in this country, they also know why and have their answer ready: “We pay for it with taxes!” Income taxes are so high (up to 50% for an average household) that when Belgians talk about their wage, they only mention and (pretend to) know their net income. If we consider how much the employer actually pays for each received pay check, we won’t feel so “good” anymore!

Even the sales tax (21%) is hidden, because it is included in the prices we pay for goods and services. So is gratuity. No tipping necessary in Belgium! Over all, Belgians are pretty happy in their country and with their (lack of) government. 9% of the population is unemployed and none of them will go hungry. Socialism does work!