June 11, 2003

Lifestyles of the not so rich and famous

I have never - at least as far as I can recall - put forward a policy on e-mail here at Pedantry, but since I'm going to respond to an e-mail I received today, I guess I should start with one. I'm not going to go with the conventional disclaimer, which usually reads something like "I'm going to feel free to do what I want with your e-mail unless you ask me not to." Instead, let me try this - I promise not to be a jerk and post your name, e-mail address, personal details, whatever, unless I think you've been awful and really deserve it. I may, however, choose to answer questions by posting on my blog and may quote your e-mail briefly in doing so, but I will try not to disclose your identity thereby. In short, you have to trust me a little if you send me e-mail, I will endeavour to act in a manner worthy of trust.

The e-mail I got today compliments me on my blog and flattery is the fastest way to my heart, so let me first express my appreciation to its author. My already quite monstrous ego thanks you.

My correspondent appears to be an American woman who would "love to read more about your lifestyle in Belgium and how you came to the decision to leave California. I've been reading through your archives and have found your post from February 11, when you mentioned that it was not a political protest, but something more personal." She is herself contemplating a move abroad and mentions France and Quebec and asks how I came to be specifically in Belgium. Since I know that some of my readers have also been down that road, I thought I might respond with a post and let people add their own experiences.

I don't think I have ever written a post on my reasons for leaving the States, in part because it's complicated. You see, it has to do with why I went back to the States in the first place and why I stayed so long. I grew up in the US, but I decided to leave when I was 17 and finally managed to do it when I was 19, with the intent to leave permanently. That was when I went to Montreal. I moved back just before my 23rd birthday and went to California.

Why did I go back? Well, I was very tired of school. By the summer before my 23rd birthday, I had been in university for seven straight years and I was burned out. I was very close to finishing my Master's when I ran completely out of money. There was very little work in Montreal and I had no university experience that led immediately to a job. I had a degree in Physics and an nearly completed Master's in Terminology and Translation Studies. Employers were not exactly banging at my door. I thought I would probably have to leave Montreal to find work, and I didn't want to live with my family.

The reason I went to California in particular is because I had met this woman in Santa Cruz on the Internet. Nowadays meeting on the Internet is hardly special, but you have to understand that this was early 1994 and what I was doing was almost unheard of. I expected to stay for a year, maybe two on the outside, make a bit of money, and then go back to Montreal and finish school. It didn't turn out that way. I stayed seven years and married the woman I had met on the 'Net.

My wife was always more than a bit reticent about going abroad, but not impossibly so. I don't doubt I would have left earlier if she hadn't been so hesitant and I don't doubt she would have come if I had insisted. In the end, that's actually sort of what happened. At times, I wonder if she was afraid I would leave her if we didn't go. My mother's not too happy about it either. Living on separate continents keeps us from seeing each other as often as we would like, but I've lived away from her since I was 17, so she's used to it by now.

I was pretty miserable in California. My first realisation was discovering that the only kinds of entertainment that seemed open to me were shopping, restaurants and movies. When I first got to California, I expected to have a chance to experience the really quite rich social life available in San Francisco, or Santa Cruz, or even Berkeley, but somehow, it never quite seemed to happen. It was always hard to park the car (a giant 1972 Pinto station wagon), and it was difficult to schedule during the work week, while on the weekend we always had to get the groceries, or clean the house, or simply didn't have the energy.

And then, when we really did go somewhere, what did we do? Going out dancing just seemed sillier and sillier as the years went by and we both got fatter and older. Bars have never been my thing - they're not like the caf?s I was used to. People who don't live in northern California don't realise that the beaches are freezing cold year-round. We always ended up shopping, went out to dinner, maybe saw a movie - all things we could have done at home. Everywhere it was the same, up and down the California coast and inland to Reno. The food didn't change, the stores didn't change and the same movies were always in the theatres. Some people went skiing, or liked to gamble in Reno, or could surf. I wasn't into any of those things.

My parents were both homebodies, and I had fought that tendency in me as hard as I could once I got away from home. I hadn't exactly been a social butterfly in Montreal, but I had had a life. I went out for drinks with my friends after classes and we talked about politics and French intellectuals. I went out dancing on fairly regular basis. There were rep theatres that showed art films, and galleries with interesting exhibits. I met interesting people and did things.

But, it was all proving to have been for nothing. In California, I had few friends and the ones I had I didn't see that often. I wasn't very close to anyone at work, certainly there was no one to go out for a drink with. There are museums and rep theatres in California, but everything was always so far away, and going anywhere was such a production. I was gaining weight. I was perceptibly less fluent in French, and I had been so proud of my effortless French. My efforts to learn Chinese were paying off even less than before. I was no longer reading enough in my field to stay up-to-date. I felt locked out of any sort of political life, since I wasn't a citizen and America was going one way while I seemed to be going another. My jobs were mostly a lot less than satisfying. On my last job, I worked on four projects in four years, none of which ever went anywhere.

California was, as it turned out, a lot less than advertised. The weather was okay, but the whole "California lifestyle" turned out to be a joke. It was really an endless treadmill of commute, work, spend and sleep. People actually bragged about how much time they spent in their offices. It grew harder and harder to imagine even having children when we both needed to work, much less living to a nice neighbourhood with good schools. My hopes for a PhD and the chance to pursue my own interests keep moving further and further into the future. It wasn't what I had signed up for and the longer I stayed, the harder it was to entertain thoughts of escape.

The thing that really got to me was to think that my youth was being wasted in some code mill.

So why did I stay so long? Well, there was the money. It was a lot of money. You see, when I had come to California in '94, the state was just emerging from the '89 recession, which had been particularly acute on the West Coast because of the defence cutbacks of the Bush and early Clinton years. The dot-com boom had not yet started. At the time, the only work I managed to find was as a customer support agent on Williams-Sonoma's phone banks and I had only managed to get that job because I had previously worked as a pizza dispatcher in Montreal. Three years and four jobs later, I was at Sun Microsystems, earning more money and stock options in a year than my parents had earned in two. My wife was comparably employed.

Of course, easy come easy go. Our rent was astronomical. We needed a new car after the Pinto died. The wife and I both had enormous student loans. We got involved in real estate in Idaho (don't ask). We needed our vacations badly - her family in Idaho, mine in Winnipeg, and vacations for ourselves - we shopped, we went out to good restaurants. It all cost money. We told ourselves that we weren't being irresponsible with our money because we had planned for retirement. We put 10% of our pre-tax incomes in our 401k's.

Eventually, in the fall of 2000, I managed to convince my wife that it was time to go. The Bay Area economy was clearly on the brink and Sun had a hiring freeze. Sooner or later, my head was going to be on the block. My wife was a contractor at Intuit and thought they were likely to start letting their contractors go soon. We had quite a lot of stock, mostly in Sun, and I figured we would still have quite a nest egg even if we were out of work for a year or so while I was in school. Being poor in California costs too much, and if we were going to be unemployed then there was no longer any reason to stay there.

I wanted to return to Montreal and finish my Master's in Terminology. However, it had been a lot of years and I didn't know if I could start over again. My interests had changed some - I was into a different branch of applied linguistics - and I wasn't sure Montreal had the resources I needed. Besides, I wasn't the 20 year old anymore who fell in love with Montreal while hanging out in clubs and smoking pot. I thought there was a good chance that some of my malaise might be as much some sort of premature mid-life crisis as anything particular to where I lived. Plus, my Californian wife didn't like the notion of "Canadian winters."

In the end, I decided to let my memories of being young in Montreal stay memories rather than run the risk that my wife might hate it and that things might be less rosy as a grown-up than I remembered. I still don't know if I might have a had a whole different vision of California if I had come as a student at Berkeley instead of broke, unskilled and looking for work. I was terrified that what was really wrong was just growing up.

Montreal did have one big advantage though - I am a Canadian citizen. My American wife had little to worry about from immigration, and as long as I could work, I thought we would be okay. By deciding to do something else, we were taking some risks, but at the time I had a small fortune in stock, so I thought we could afford some risk.

We looked at a few places seriously. We seriously considered moving to China so that I could study there. Osnabr?ck in Germany has a 2-year Master's programme in my field, and several very important people in my rather strange discipline work at the University of Nanterre in outer Paris. But we ended up in Belgium because the schools were cheap (< €500 a year), the programmes were short (a Master's only takes a year) and the cost of living isn't out of control.

In the end, I had to choose between a Master's of Artificial Intelligence at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and a Dipl?me d'?tudes compl?mentaires en ing?nierie linguistique at the Universit? Catholique de Louvain. Both were one year programmes - I wanted to get my qualifications with a minimum of invested time. One was in English, the other in French, and both schools had accepted me. I chose the programme at KU Leuven primarily because it offered more opportunities to study heavy programming and because it looks to the untrained eye like I have a Master's in Computer Science, which is a qualification that pays substantially better than linguistics.

The AI department offices at KU Leuven, formerly the Château d'Arenberg

So, the day before our first wedding anniversary, July 5th 2001, we boarded a plane from San Francisco to Singapore and spent the next nine and half weeks in (roughly in order) Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and China. For some insane reason, it would have cost $2000 to fly from Hong Kong to Brussels, so we had a ticket back to San Francisco arriving on the ninth of September and I had a ticket from there to Brussels for the twelfth. My wife had decided to follow later, after I found a place to live. Of course, during the first half of 2001, Sun stock fell by roughly 90% and the rest of the market and my 401k's had gone to pot too. I was broke.

Then, on the morning of the eleventh in a hotel near San Jos?, my wife wakes me up and tells me I need to see what's going on on CNN. I was not going to be flying to Brussels the next day. It took me a week to get on a Lufthansa plane bound for Munich. My wife decided to stay in the States and see if she could find consulting work for a few months, in hopes of getting us some money before we were over our heads in hock.

The 19th of September was only a couple of days before school started, and the only apartment I managed to find so late was twice what I had hoped to pay. In the end, getting it was an amazing stroke of luck. The owner is a retired man who seems to be financially quite well to do. The apartment had just been refurbished, and he had intended to use it whenever he stayed in Leuven, where his business and doctor are. However, after discovering that he was only in Leuven one or two nights a month, he decided to rent it out. Since it is fully furnished with his stuff, he didn't want to entrust it to some irresponsible student, but since I was an over-30 graduate student with a wife, he was quite content to rent it to me. It came fully, fully furnished, with a TV, a fully equipped kitchen, dishes and cutlery, even towels. It's a gorgeous apartment, and renting meant I didn't have to buy anything. Our apartment is in the centre of Leuven, in the best imaginable location.

Out my living room window

My wife couldn't find any work in California, and after two months joined me in Leuven. For a year, we lived off of credit cards and lines of credit, hoping our banks wouldn't work out our situation before we found an income, at usurious interest rates. Her efforts to find work in Belgium went badly. I went to school for a year and graduated cum laude.

I was not having an easy time finding work either. My speciality is natural language processing, the love child of computer science and linguistics. In 2000, all the graduates of my programme had found work at a large Belgian software company called Lernout & Hauspie, but L&H had gone bankrupt in early 2001. Its failure had a chilling effect on the entire industry and dozens of smaller shops across Europe and America were facing the end of their capital. No one was hiring, but I got a job offer at a small and distinctly troubled firm in Leuven that had suddenly discovered that they only had one programmer on staff who understood a large part of their process and realised just how threatening a situation that was. It turned out that getting a work visa in Belgium was terribly easy if you have a job offer in high-tech.

But, my income wasn't enough to pay both my expenses and my debts. Just as we were about to give up and go back to the US to look for work, my wife was offered a job as a webmaster by a Brussels-based international treaty organisation of which the US is a member. That meant that she could live and work in Belgium without worrying about her visa. Once again, she is taking home more money than I am. At this rate, we hope to be out of debt in 20 months.

That is the great difficulty: I went into deep hock to be here, and I can only credit extraordinary luck for our home and jobs. Belgian firms are very credentialist. You have to have the exact education that your employer thinks you're supposed to have. The biggest barrier to my wife finding work was her degree in German literature, although the language barrier didn't help. Getting a student visa to come to Belgium was nearly impossible, and the reason is because once you are here, it is remarkably easy to get a work visa if you can find work. Of course, it's expensive to live here without work, and it's impossible to find work here if you aren't physically here. We maxed out all our credit cards finding that out.

As for our lifestyle here in Leuven... some of the things that bothered me in California are back. I don't put in anything like overtime at work, but my reading has slowed down, and I'm afraid my PhD is beginning to fade further into the future again since I will have to work at least until either our debts are gone or the dollar collapses. But, I still do know people. I can't go out as often as when I was a student last year, but I still have more of a life than I had in California.

Nearly everyone in Leuven speaks English, and everyone speaks either English or French. My boss speaks neither French nor Dutch, so my company operates almost entirely in English, with bits of other languages where useful. The lack of true immersion is a major barrier to learning Dutch.

With cable - which costs me something like €65 annually - I have BBC 1 & 2, BBC World, CNN International, and another news channel in English. There are two Flemish channels that broadcast nearly 100% American and British TV shows with subtitles, and the six other Dutch channels are 30%-100% English as well. Even the Cartoon Channel is in English after 9pm. All English language films are shown in the original language with subtitles. There is an English language bookstore in Leuven, and most of the books in the stores are in English. Furthermore, with Waterstone's in Brussels, I have almost as much access to good books as in small American cities. For British titles, I can actually buy them before they're available in the US. My wife's job gives her an APO address, which means I can receive mail and deliveries in the US at no extra cost, so I can order things over the Internet from the States. With the 'Net, I'm as well connected as I was in the States as far as media goes.

Every Friday morning there is an open-air market in the square in front of my apartment. When I was a student, I bought most of what we ate there, but now I end up going to the supermarket with my grocery cart. The food... Belgians eat things bland, but the produce is better than supermarket produce in California, and the meat is tastier too. Around Christmas, the pineapple crop comes in in Africa and we get the most delicious pineapples you've ever eaten for €2 a kilo.

There are four caf?s within sight of my front door and probably 20 within three blocks. I live next to the central university library and about a block from the psychology department's building. I take the bus to work. It's about 20 minutes from my front door to my office and the bus passes every half hour. There is a town square perhaps five minutes away with some 20 bars and outdoor tables year-round. A small park built around the ruins of the medieval town wall is adjacent to my block. There is almost nothing I need that is more than ten minutes away on foot.

The ruin of the town wall

For the first time, I have the ability to both set my own goals at work and the freedom to pursue them. I've managed to convince my company that their processes can benefit hugely from cutting edge AI techniques, and that I can apply them at very little R&D cost. There are days when my job is a drag, but much of my time is spent researching new algorithms and trying to make them work commercially. The recession in the language technology industry - and the poor quality of the competition - means I don't have managers who live on Internet time breathing down my neck.

My wife works in Brussels. We live ten minutes walk from the train station, and Brussels' Gare du Nord is about 25 minutes away on the train. She can take a company shuttle from there to her office. In the end, it's over an hour. If we move to Brussels, we may be able to find a point where my commute is only twenty or thirty minutes longer, and hers is fourty or fifty minutes shorter.

There are things I miss. I hate to say it, but I miss fast food. Leuven has a McDonald's, but I never liked them much. We've got a Quick Burger, which is a sort of European McDonald's clone that's everywhere, and there is a Pizza Hut. There are super cheap kebab shops everywhere though, and I love kebab, but it gets old after a while. Yo quiero Taco Bell.

Belgians eat these odd sandwiches. I mean, who puts hard-boiled eggs in sandwiches? And their sandwiches are very skimpy. But, they are cheap, and they are everywhere. There is a sandwich shop in the industrial park where I work that takes faxed orders and delivers daily, so that's my typical lunch. I've developed a taste for sandwich am?ricain, something I wouldn't have eaten to save my life in California. It's raw beef with mustard, ketchup and pickles.

There are big grocery stores and Walmart-style stores like Carrefour, but you need a car to get to them. Some days, I wish I could just go into a Walmart and get what I want instead of hunting over half the town. Most of the time I don't miss it. Lately, I've begun really missing having a car. Sometimes, I just want to pick a direction and see someplace I haven't been before. But, I know that even if I had a car, the feeling would pass once I had seen that most of my immediate area looks just like where I am.

What I wish I had was more vacation. Belgians get 20 vacation days a year, and people who work 40 hours a week instead of the mandatory 38 get an extra day every month. However, if you are a foreigner, you only get 11 days your first year in Belgium - less than I had in California. I'm only two hours from Paris or Cologne, and less than three hours from Amsterdam, but I've only managed to take two weekends out of town in the last year.

I'm happier with my current lifestyle, but I have to warn you: it may be me, and it may be luck and circumstance. My job is better, even if I'm paid only two-fifths as much as I was. I feel less like I'm running the Red Queen's race, but that may have as much to do with getting off the Internet merry-go-round as anything else. My immediate environment is a lot more pleasant. There aren't as many cars and things are within walking distance. I actually know people. Learning a new language also usually makes me happy. Furthermore, the beer and cheese are so much better I don't even know where to begin on them. I've even lost some weight, although not as much as I'd like to thanks to the incredibly good french fries and waffles that the locals are always offering. The food may be bland, but damn it's good.

The things I want to do with my life seem at least a bit more possible. I've even started to take writing "the novel" seriously again, although how seriously is hard to say.

Anyway, I hope my correspondent has found this useful and I invite comments on voluntary expatriation from all my readers.

Old Comments

Posted 2003/06/11 22:43 (Wed) | TrackBack

I, too, studied at KULeuven and found much of what you said to be true. Although I was a 21-year old American in Leuven and did not have to commute to work. However, I agree about the food and the idea of wanting to go to a Walmart instead of hunting around town! However, about the sandwiches....Chicken curry sandwich is outrageously good and not found in the U.S.!

Posted by: Katherine at July 7, 2004 17:42

I was not at that college but found that getting Chicken Curry snadwiches are very common around here. Must be the fact we have good taste buds and can apprieciate the good things in life

Posted by: Ron at June 2, 2005 17:35
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