1) "Bring your boyfriend with you next time."
Five days after landing in Belgium, I decided it was time for a cell phone plan. Erik had already been set up with a plan through work, so together, we had our North Star and new-age operator at the ready when wandering through parts unknown. It's amazing how safe you can feel equipped with a working cell phone. It's amazing how unsafe you can feel wielding a quasi brick sans service.
I downloaded an offline map of Brussels so I could get acquainted with our new neighbourhood while Erik was at work. I walked for 40 minutes from our Airbnb to a European-wide cell phone provider and asked if anyone in the store could help me, an English-speaking expat looking for a new plan.
The man at the front desk vaguely gestured to another employee and said, "he speaks English." Within 10 seconds of speaking to English Speaker (let's call him Tim), my brow began to furrow.
Me: Hi there! I just moved to Brussels from Toronto, Canada. I'm looking for a Brussels-based SIM card to replace my current one.
Tim: Let me see your passport and Belgian work contract.
Me: Mmmm.. I have my passport, but I don't have a Belgian work contract.
Tim: Then I can't give you a plan.
At this point, Tim was looking at the ceiling. Tim did not give AF.
Me: Sorry, just to clarify: there's no world in which I will ever be able to present you with a Belgian work contract. I work remotely for a Toronto-based company. Is this to verify I can afford the plan? Tim: No. I just need to see it. It's policy.
Me: Okay, well what do locals do who are retired or don't work?
Tim: They show their Belgian ID cards.
Me: It'll be months before I get that.
Tim: I can't help you without a work contract.
Me: Am I able to bring my boyfriend with me to co-sign for a plan? He has a Belgian work contract. Tim: Yes, bring your boyfriend with you next time.
My internal dialogue: Are you fucking kidding me?
I left the store enraged. In 2019, I, a working woman, who's had a cell phone since the 9th grade, had to ask my boyfriend to accompany me to co-sign for a Brussels cell phone plan.
I arrived at our Airbnb sweating and sad. Once I had service, I relayed the news to Erik. Also in disbelief, he offered to chaperone me back to The Cell Phone Patriarchy and verify there is a man in Jamie Lincoln's life, and he's okay with her receiving a cell phone plan.
The day was upon us. We strolled back into TCPP and again, asked for someone to help me, an English-speaking expat looking for a Brussels-based cell phone plan. This time, a woman rose to the occasion (let's call her Rose).
Rose: Can I see your passport?
Rose: Great, thanks. So, here's your new SIM card. It's a pay-as-you-go plan; all the instructions are included here. It'll take a few hours to activate. Anything else I can help you with?
My internal dialogue: Can you point me in the direction of Tim so I can scream, "Big mistake. Huge." in his ill-informed face?
Rose, if you're reading this, thank you. Tim, if you're reading this, big mistake. Huge.
2) "This is a level 4 advanced class."
At the risk of sounding like an asshat, fitness is very important to me. In the months leading up to our move, having cancelled my Orange Theory membership in line with our intended January start, I fell out of my routine - hard. As the months wore on, I hopped from free trial to free trial to free trial at virtually every studio in the downtown Toronto core, but ultimately felt stuck in fitness limbo: it didn't make logistical or financial sense to sign up for a new gym if our visas would arrive "any day now".
TLDR: I felt sluggish in early 2019, and vowed to find a gym or studio in Brussels that fostered the same sense of community I found through Orange Theory and Barreworks lickety split.
So on Day 3 of arriving, I signed up for a pilates class.
Oh, how I wish I stayed home.
I arrived at the class 10 minutes early. The front desk area and the pilates area were in two separate rooms, across the hall from one another.
I stood at the front desk, waiting for someone to emerge and give me the lay of the land. Meanwhile, a woman about 100 metres away was performing some kind of massage on another woman lying face down. Eventually, The Masseuse spoke to me in French.
Me: Sorry, I just arrived in the city. I don't speak much French.
Masseuse: Oh. Are you here for the class at 11?
Me: Yes, I am!
Masseuse: Okay. Well, have you ever done pilates before? This is a level 4 advanced class.
At this point, The Masseuse was elevatoring my body as I stood rooted to the spot, my Resting Bitch Face turning from stun to kill.
Me: I can handle it, thanks.
I kid you not, The Masseuse rolled her eyes.
Masseuse: Okay. You'll need to fill out this form. It's in French.
Me: Not a problem, thanks.
Then, the instructor walked in. If I was a betting woman, I'd guess she was in her early to mid-50s. She asked if I had any experience doing pilates, and reiterated that this class was in fact, a level 4 advanced class. Again, I assured her I'd be fine.
What followed will rest in my memory as one of the most hilarious hours of my life.
I walked into a veritable shoebox complete with four other people. They were all looking up at me as I walked in.
Me: Oh ... hi.
This was no Barry's Bootcamp.
We kicked off the class with "roll ups", which is exactly how it sounds: you lie down on a mat and roll up to a seated position.
The Instructor: You need to roll up vertebrae by vertebrae, Jamie. Try moving a little slower.
My internal dialogue: Oh, so, this is how this is gonna go. Got it.
For the next half hour, The Instructor and I became close friends, if only for the ongoing dialogue around what I should be doing and the pace at which pilates is intended to go.
The Instructor: Now let's lift our legs above our heads. Try to touch the floor when you do it.
Now, I know I'm not flexible. I also know my limits. At any point in a fitness class if I'm too tired or can't do an exercise, I have zero issue tapping out for a few minutes. I don't respond to instructors yelling in my ear as a motivational tactic; this is my time, and my body. If I pay for a class, I'll do it the way I want to do it. And if that means hanging out in child's pose for a minute, or stopping to smell the roses by way of walking on the treadmill while everyone else is running, I could truly care less.
So when The Instructor tasked us with lifting our legs over our heads to touch the floor on the other side, I opted to tap out. This isn't a pose I can do, nor is it one I strive to learn. So I lay on my back and put my legs in the air. This was my way of saying, "I'm not going to attempt this pose, but I support the good work everyone else is doing."
The Instructor then rises from her mat, hovers over me, grabs my calves, and forces my legs to cascade over my head and onto the floor.
My internal dialogue: Oh dear God in heaven. This woman is physically touching me now.
As I lay there, The Instructor on top of me, I thought: I guess this is what a level 4 advanced class looks like.
3) "Enjoy the ride."
As I'm sure you can gather from Story 2, fitness is different here. There's no Ride or F45 - or anything remotely close to the intensity and cult-like branding of a SoulCycle in Belgium. People walk everywhere, and eat well. I assume when they dine out, they don't feel the need to crush a bottle of wine and add dessert to their meals. People practice moderation - and it shows.
Up until about a week ago, I'd tried 7 different studios. Each one weirder than the last. But I was determined to find something that resembled North American fitness in Brussels.
It took me about half an hour to find a spin studio in the city (SEO here leaves something to be desired). I signed up for a class the next morning.
Oh, how I wish I stayed home.
I arrived to the class 15 minutes early. The woman at the front desk directed me to walk up two flights of stairs and keep turning right.
I walked into a veritable shoebox complete with 6 spin bikes, two plants, and a fan. Based on the layout of the room, it wasn't clear where the instructor should sit, or if the instructor was already in the room.
I hopped on a bike, and nodded a silent "hi" at the two other women in the cube. A man then entered and sat beside me. He was wearing a professional-looking unitard, which immediately made me perk up. Maybe we were in for a quality spin.
10 minutes later, our gregarious instructor emerged. Let's call him Kip.
Kip: Hello everyone, happy day! I don't know you. You also need to be higher up.
Kip points at me.
Me: Oh, me? Okay.
I don't tout myself a professional spinner. I'm the one at Ride who likes to sit in the back and watch the show unfold. So at this juncture, I was happy to accept direction.
Kip adjusted my bike so high that I could no longer reach the pedals. Good stuff.
Me: Um, I think I'm a little high up. My legs can't reach that far.
Kip: I think you're fine.
Thanks for the assurance, Kip! I'm sure you know best.
And so, we started our leisurely bike, my legs unable to reach their pedal mates below.
Kip: How you doing?
Me: I'm pretty uncomfortable. I can't reach the pedals.
Here's where it gets good.
Kip: You're not supposed to be able to lock your knees when you pedal. Unless you want big thighs. I mean, unless that's what you're going for.
Oh Kip, you're dead to me now.
Everyone looks at me. Is this a rhetorical question? Was I supposed to respond?
So I faked a laugh - as though big thighs are hilarious, and something a skinny white guy should be commenting on. I adjusted my seat, and started pedalling as fast as I could. Maybe the bike would unhinge from the floor and I could pedal my way home.
Kip: Slow down. Enjoy the ride.
I couldn't help but smile. If that statement doesn't resonate as the biggest difference between North America and Europe - I don't know what does.
4) "Madame, you are in a pharmacy."
Our first Saturday in Brussels marked a hell of a lot more than your average night out on the town. We were mentally and physically exhausted from over 5 months of waiting for our expat lives to start, and had opted to apartment hunt for 8 hours within 15 minutes of landing in our new city the day prior. I looked like hell in a handbag.
But we were also elated to be here. And so, what better way to kick off our adventure than with a celebratory Belgian beer at our Airbnb.
Our gracious host who was unresponsive to about ~70% of our messages hadn't left us a corkscrew (or cutlery). So I took on the task of finding one.
Stop 1: The Grocery Store
Stop 2: Another Grocery Store
Stop 3: A Gas Station
And this point, I was so tired that I looked at the cashier and said, "Do you have ... those things that open beers?" He didn't.
Stop 4: The Pharmacy
To date, I've likely spent upwards of 30% of my life wandering the aisles of Shoppers Drug Mart. Overpriced? Sure. Limited selection? Sure. But I still find comfort in the somewhat obnoxious red brand found on nearly every other corner in Toronto.
So I saw a sign for "Pharmacie" and thought I'd hit the jackpot.
I walked in, looked the woman behind the counter square in the eyes and said, "Can you point me in the direction of the corkscrews?"
She laughed - cackled, even - directly in my face for what felt like 20 minutes.
"Madame, you are in a pharmacy."
She continued to laugh as I walked back out the door with my tail between my legs.
I found a corkscrew at a convenience store about 10 minutes later.
Bumble BFF updates to come.