Hair

For the first time since ninth grade, I have been letting my hair grow out to the point that I actually have to do something with it to keep it out of my eyes. I must admit that a significant factor in this decision was a combination of laziness and frugality. In selecting what I would bring back the US in my most recent move, my hair clippers didn’t make the cut….

Take as long as you need.

That, of course, begs the question: why didn’t I just prioritize my clippers higher than, say, a book I had already read and would cost only a few dollars to replace?

I must also admit that I was a little excited by the prospect of not having a need to keep my hair short and professional. Last fall, I went through a brief phase of interest in Native American cultures. In many, hair is held as sacred. The first person who really valued their tribal culture whom I got to know was a young Cherokee man living in Sweden. He told me that his culture believed that their hair acted as a sort of antenna to the Earth, and if that is true, he is picking up lots of signals. There are many such beliefs among Native American tribes.

I’m not really sure how to write the previous paragraph without sounding patronizing. I feel like most white Americans are going to read that to have a sort of subtext of “That’s what they believe, but of course those are just primitive delusions!” I thought that a way to try to understand it honestly would be to try it myself. I didn’t expect to gain any superpowers, but it’s a low-risk experiment.

However, even the skeptic ought not write off such mystical assertions so easily. I’m not going to argue that there is some energy out there that continues to elude physicists but that long-haired people are tapping into. If that were the case, I wouldn’t expect to see the current world order in which most men with long hair find themselves on the more difficult side of power relations. There is, however, some circumstantial evidence that our hair ought to be treated with a bit more respect than I have given mine for most of my life.

Let’s first take an obvious assertion about where we grow hair and flip it on its head: Why don’t we have hair most other places on our body? We’re the only primates to be so naked. Evolutionary adaptation doesn’t happen without good reason. Why did our ancestors who had genes that coded for a bit less hair survive while their hairier cousins died out?

The most compelling theory I’ve heard is so that we can sweat better. It’s only we primates who sweat primarily for temperature regulation, but if you’ve ever gone for a long run on a summer day, you’ll know that even dripping sweat is barely enough. Our hairy cousins sweat to cool off, but they still wear their winter coats all summer. Ditching our fur allowed us to run through the summer heat of the African savanna. Even a moderately in-shape person can hold a 10-minute mile. A gazelle can get up to a one-minute-mile pace, but it’s going to peter out after 5-10 miles. Then it has to stop to cool down. If a band of humans could get one to break off from the herd and repeatedly force it to run again before it has dumped enough heat, it’s only a matter of time before the poor animal is stumbling in a fever-induced hallucination. Even with a wooden spear, that’s easy meat.

That seems like a very compelling reason to ditch the hair! So why keep any of it? The internet is surprisingly devoid of good answers to the question of why we still have armpit hair and pubic hair, but anyone who has shaved either will have gotten a sense of the slimy, sticky, irritated petri dishes those areas become when skin rubs on skin for too long.

The cranium isn’t in danger of that though, so why have the bushiest of all hair on top of our well ventilated noggins?

The internet has again failed me. The only article I found on a reputable website (Penn State University) was a blog post that cited the New York Times and Wikipedia.

I guess it’s time to start speculating!

My best theory: IFF (“identification friend or foe”). Have you ever tried to describe someone’s face? “They have a nose, and a mouth, and a pair of eyes. Green eyes! but not totally green. Like brownish green. But not as brown as some people, but…” Or simply, “He look … like a man.” It’s difficult! In general terms, faces are all the same. The differences are incredibly minute, but you can recognize a close friend from 50 yards away no problem. We are very highly adapted for recognizing facial features. And what frames the face? Your head hair! It’s part of our identity. Ashley cried when she saw all those flowing locks piling up on the floor. Given that we are such social creatures (and yet creatures of such potential for evil), it’s crucially important for us to be able to recognize each other quickly. A distinctive hair color, or texture, or curls, or braid, or twist can certainly identify a person, and we’re already looking for faces, so that seems like a good place for hair.

But that’s all pretty suspect. Perhaps there’s something else. As I have recently learned, taking care of a head of long hair is not easy. Why have thousands of generations of humans put up with it? There’s got to be a good reason.

If you’re paying attention, you’ll have noticed that I have failed my Slavic barbarian ancestors; I have returned to the style of the modern materialist man: practical.

I mean… it’s fine, I guess.

Today’s featured image: heatwave in Oostende. The water is pretty cold (about 65F/19C), but when it’s 95F/34C outside, that feels pretty good. This part of the world isn’t built for those temperatures though. As these extremes become more common, places like Belgium will need to start converting their buildings to be more like those once fit for Spain.


It has only been in the last few weeks that I’ve actually made the effort to clean the grimy surface of the small marble-topped table before I sit down. The rough layer of spilled sugar and cake crumbs can be distracting, but it’s the only cafe in town that serves a half-decent espresso. From the outside, the cafe looks like a sleek yet retro boutique. Large LED bulbs fashioned to look like antiques hang exposed from the ceiling, giving the off-white walls a warm glow. Classic photos of famous musicians and a healthy population of green plants give the space a bit of life, but the life from outside intrudes. Spiders hand in their webs in all of the corners. A small cloud of flies hangs about the brightest lights, occasionally pestering coffee-drinkers and taking tastes of the sugary residue on the marble-topped tables.

The owner is a friendly young man named Johan. He’s also the only employee, sitting at the counter six days a week. On Tuesdays, I occasionally run into him at the gym, working on his body-builder physique. We speak very little, but he’s happy to open up. Ashley’s natural inquisitiveness has cost her hours of lost studying when she doesn’t have the heart to interrupt one of Johan’s soliloquies on current affairs, local politics or his favorite roasteries. I’ve been more reserved, popping in my headphones and allowing him to return to his almost perpetual position, seated behind the counter, head lowered to his smartphone. He breaks that position only to make a coffee, hold vigorous debates with his two regulars, or light up a cigarette outside but not far enough from the door to prevent the smoke from wafting in.

He’s not the only one to make the oversight that is only perceived by us non-smokers. He seems to be a pretty typical Fleming. (I’ll speak here of Flemings instead of Belgians more generally because I’ve only had any experience with the Belgians living in the northern region called Flanders, who speak a dialect of Dutch called Flemish.) There is often a customer contributing to the never-empty ash tray on the table in the make-shift patio that takes up half the sidewalk in front of the cafe.

The floor-to-ceiling cafe window makes my seat just inside a perfect viewing location to observe the locals and tourists traversing the grey-brick street leading to the beach just a couple blocks away. Most are overweight but not in the way Americans are. Life in a city first laid out in the 12th century and rebuilt in the 19th century requires a good deal of walking. Despite the fact that most Flemish cities are like this, Flemings love their cars. Even with the daily ubiquitous traffic jams on the highways, it’s still often faster to drive than to take a train. It’s unpredictable though. Being an hour late to a meeting because of traffic is not uncommon, and being a few minutes late to everything is normal.

Oostende is a tourist city. In winter, it’s quiet. Only the geriatric locals remain. When I arrived in December, I was quickly convinced that my 28 years was at least a decade below the median age. It was far from exciting, but the sea kept the weather mild, the stone and cement buildings stayed warm, the limited traffic was reminiscent of a small town, and the handful of medieval buildings, grey under the winter clouds, gave the place an enchanted feel. As spring arrived, the weather warmed enough to sit on the jetty and listen to the waves. The walking path drew a few locals but not yet the tourists. The days grew refreshingly longer, and the anxiety of freezing my fingers to my handlebars subsided. But the joy of change was short-lived.

Where I grew up, spring meant budding trees on the sidewalks and the return of the songbirds. In Oostende, there is very little vegetation. The coast is an endless wall of vacation condominiums that slowly fill as the temperatures go from warm to hot. As the weeks pass, the beaches fill with tourists in the day. After they leave the waves, choking the paths I use on my evening commute, the seagulls have their turn at the ice cream, waffles, baguettes, prepackaged meats and cheeses, and bags of junk food strewn across the manufactured beach. The daily meals are supplemented by the weekly feast as the locals put their bags of waste on the sidewalks on Sunday night to be picked up Monday morning. The gulls take what the humans wouldn’t, tearing open the plastic bags, eating what they can, casting the rest across the sidewalks and streets, and fighting viciously over the tastiest prizes. With the mating season in the spring and the pressure to bring back food for the chicks throughout the summer, the birds grow more and more aggressive. More than once have I seen a gull with a three-foot wingspan collide with a tourist as it tries to swoop in to knock a wax-paper boat of french fries from their hand. Day and night, the birds shriek their calls of intimidation, screaming for attention for what purpose I have no idea. From my apartment, they are always audible, often loud enough that I need to shut my balcony door to hear the person on the other end of the phone conversation.

Most people in Oostende don’t seem to mind the avian pests. They drown out the noise with their own. In the shopping streets, 80’s American pop blasts from speakers, and pop up bars on the beaches compete with their own retro mix if they haven’t been outblasted by a weekend music festival, thumping until midnight or later. The wealthy (or heavily indebted) middle-aged tourists from France, Luxembourg or the Netherlands rumble along the narrow streets in their classic sports cars, the nouveau riche rev the engines of their brand new sports cars, thrashing them for the two seconds it takes to catch the ambling line of cars, held up by a horse-drawn carriage carrying tourists pretending not to mind the smell of horse piss. Packs of twenty-somethings from North Africa or the Middle East shout over each other in the Arabic dialects that to me always sound like they’re angry. Throngs of people, speaking a dozen tongues (and on their own behaving perfectly reasonably) coalesce into a mass of half-naked bodies, some with personal boomboxes, raising their voices just to be heard over the rumbling human mass.

The supermarket nearest the beach can’t handle the volume; lines at the registers back up through the aisles of packaged sweets and cheap alcoholic beverages. I never seem to learn when to go to the store, hitting the flood every evening as tourists recede from the beach and other locals return from their day jobs.

I’ve welcomed the recent drop in temperatures and return of the grey drizzle that feels much more characteristic for the North Sea coast. The streets are noticeably quieter, and the flood of drivers seems just a touch thinner and more patient. I like to think that the summer is actually coming to an end. The tourist season was made enjoyable only by the fact that I had imported a friend. Had Ashley been unable to spend nine weeks in Europe this summer, I may have tried to flee even earlier than I did. I commented to a colleague one particularly muggy afternoon that I may have survived another winter in Belgium, but I would not have lasted another summer.

Being in Europe used to help me keep sight of the reasons I’ve embarked on this career in renewable energy. Especially in Scandinavia, it’s easy to see people trying to contribute to the cause of sustainability. Stockholm hosts dozens of Tesla taxis, many Scandinavian universities have degrees in sustainable energy or development, government officials clamor over each other to be the most “green”, it can be cheaper to own an electric car than one with an internal combustion engine, and we buy all of our wind turbines from Denmark. Most importantly, though, being in Scandinavia allows one to forget that the greatest challenge to sustainability is population.

The low countries are a stark reminder of what happens when you have fertile agricultural land. Most of the people here are, on balance, good people, just trying to live their lives free from suffering and if they’re lucky, to find a bit of meaning in the endeavor. But they crowd together, piled high in apartment buildings, spread densely across the countryside. Over the last few millennia, the forest gave way to farmland, and now the farmland has given way to housing developments to be reached by cars, mobile boxes of isolation carrying the commuters to work for their brief and cordial interactions before returning home to entertain their evenings away.

I have no lens into these lives. It was mostly my own fault, but I never made friends here. Too much time at home and too little effort to learn the language kept social interactions shallow and limited. As I sit and enjoy my final espresso at Fitzgerald Coffee, I can’t help but wonder how it might have been different.

A young woman sits in the low chair on the other side of the narrow boutique. Behind her thick-framed glasses, she wears an expression of impatient discontent, but she has been here longer than I have, slowly sipping her sparkling lemonade. She is constantly distracted by some silent conversation behind the smartphone screen that looks large in her small hands. Ashamedly, I take the opportunity to steal lengthy glances. Her open petticoat and tight-fitting jeans belie a fit physique on a petit yet womanly frame. Were I not already in a wonderful relationship, I hope I would have the courage to say hello. I feel a sort of connection, a sort of sympathy, sharing with this stranger the sense of being surrounded by people yet feeling alone. She’s clearly connected to someone on the other end of those messages, but my long looks catch no hint of joy from it. She waves away a fly from her sweet drink, puts down her phone and stares at the clock above my head. Is she waiting or just killing time? What would she rather be doing right now?

I’ll never know. She puts her phone away, grabs her wallet, and stands to pay and leave. As with almost everyone in this country, I’ll never see her again. It’s a common excuse to reserve the effort and anxiety required to make new friends, but I’m not sure it’s a valid one.

The cafe fills with groups. Two couples and two families of three. One couple settles at a small table against the wall when they receive their drinks. They chat amicably. They look into each other’s eyes as they explain their thoughts, often smiling, laughing to show their approval. They stop briefly to think and sip their coffee. I know that their marble-topped table is dirty, but they don’t set their hands on it. The flies go after their cookies, but they swat them away thoughtlessly. The floor is dirty, and Johan pays more attention to his phone than any customer, but neither of them seems to notice. Nor do they now seem bothered by the crowd of tourists or cigarette smoke wafting inside or the fact that the centerpiece of their town is a sleazy old casino or that their country is best known for beer, chocolate, and over-sugared waffles. They’re too distracted by each other to notice such trifles.

I’m often asked what I think of living in Belgium. I don’t have particularly strong feelings about it. It’s got all the basics: passable roads, decent public transit, modern medical services, and most everything you’d expect from Western grocery stores. But it’s not nearly as refined as other places I’ve lived. There’s an amateurishness about businesses that I couldn’t see past, and there really wasn’t anything attractive to see or do.

Maybe I didn’t see enough of the good things about Belgium, but maybe I just saw too much. I did see the nice craft coffee shops and the thick forest of the Ardennes and the warm sand of the beach and fairy tale alleyways of Bruges.

But for much of the time, I didn’t have anyone to distract me from seeing everything else that balances it out, so instead of really enjoying my time in Belgium, I didn’t think much of it.

It’s not that it’s a bad place. It’s alright. It’s just not great.

I mean… it’s fine, I guess.

A (rationalist) history of Belgium

Today’s featured image: The Royal Palace of Brussels where the royal family conducts their official business and their staffs do whatever royal staffs do. I took this photo back in December of 2016 when I had a layover in Brussels that was just long enough to go wander for a couple hours.


A couple weeks ago, I shared what I had learned about the history of the Netherlands. I left off at a conveniently natural inflexion point at which the Netherlands took on more or less its current boundaries with the loss of its southern provinces in the Belgian revolution. 

Especially for us Americans, this piece of history isn’t peculiar. “Of course, Belgium would have a revolution to throw off the shackles of an oppressive imperial invader! Of course, a unified people would want sovereignty over their land!” we might say.

However, for a foreigner living in Belgium, both of those statements seem ridiculous.

“The Dutch are possibly the most tolerant and pacific people in Europe, and Belgium is probably the least unified country in Western Europe,” I would retort.

I’ve lived here for seven months now, and I still see Flanders and Wallonia (the two main regions of Belgium) as separate countries. They have different cultures, they speak different languages, they have different economic foundations, and public transit between them is noticeably divided.

Even though they’ve had nearly two centuries to sort out their differences, Belgium is only a little closer to a unified country. Belgium is governed by seven governments: one for each of the national languages (Dutch, French and German), one for each of the regions (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels) and one federal government that is so dysfunctionally divided that it holds the record among “developed” nations for the longest period without a government. The people are fiercely patriotic, but the only thing I see that they actually unite over is football. Flanders and Wallonia even have their own holidays. Golden Spurs Day is celebrated in Flanders to commemorate a Flemish defeat of French invaders, and September 27th in the French-speaking community commemorates their defeat of Dutch invaders.

In this long overdue post, I try to answer the questions (at least to my satisfaction, but probably not yours) of “Why is Belgium still so divided? How did Belgium come to be this way? Why does Belgium even exist?”

There’s actually a surprisingly good place to start: The Eighty Years War.

One of the questions that I never had satisfactorily answered when I was in high school was “If the Nazi’s were supposed to be the Third Reich, what were the first two?” The first part of the answer is the Holy Roman Empire, which having often been maligned as neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, was, in fact, a successful governing body that could fairly be called a “thousand-year Reich”.

For a solid 300 years (1440-1740), the crown was worn by members of the Habsburg family. During this time, the empire picked up the region we might term “The Low Countries” of the Netherlands and Belgium. In 1555, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of the Austrian Habsburgs announced his abdication and his plan for dividing the empire. In a time when the fastest way to bring news overland was by a man on a horse, holding onto huge empires was tricky business, and it seemed more reasonable to give half to his son, Philip II of Spain, and the other half to his brother Ferdinand I.

The part we care about is the part that went to Philip. Technically, the “Spanish Netherlands” was still part of the Holy Roman Empire, but Philip and Spanish royalty were effectively responsible for it. In the style of basically every conflict of the late-middle-ages, what should have been a bit of administrative minutiae turned bloody when religion got involved.

Charles V and his son Philip II were Catholic, just like most rulers in Western Europe for the preceding millennium. Indeed, there wasn’t much controversy here until some short-tempered yet influential German theologian nailed a list of grievances to the Wittenburg castle church door in 1517. Within the next couple of decades, the ability to print “protestant” ideas quickly and distribute them widely spurred a religious reformation in much of Northern Europe. One of the regions where the Protestant tradition started to grow roots was the Habsburg Netherlands.

Partially due to the craziness that happened in Munster in the 1530s (I’ll be telling that story next month), the Netherlands remained mostly Catholic but tolerated the Protestant minority. However, the abdication of Charles V meant that the Protestants were about to gain their best friend and worst enemy.

Nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition in the Netherlands, but Philip II had no sympathy for the Protestant heretics taking refuge in his territory, so he started to crack down. Ironically, it was the end of Dutch Inquisition that meant greater persecution of non-Catholics in the 1560s. The stereotypically tolerant Dutch pushed back.

One of the most prominent Dutch leaders (and devout Catholic), William of Orange led the resistance.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff that happens during wars, but I feel like histories always get too bogged down in the details. The tactics of killing each other don’t really capture the reasons why the fighting started or how the chips fell when it stopped.

The important bits here are how and when the fighting stopped, if only briefly. In the south, French-speaking, Catholic regions of Wallonia entered into the Union of Arras, a defensive agreement aligning themselves with the Spanish against the Protestants of the Republic of the Netherlands. From the Catholic strongholds in the south, the loyalist forces struggled against the Republican forces of the north, until the Peace of Münster in 1646. The Spanish kept what they were able to reclaim (basically from the French border to the strategically important port of Antwerp and down to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg). The Dutch unified into the Seven United Netherlands shortly thereafter and finished out their Golden Age of global exploration, trade and conquest.

Another important factor during the war is the people who weren’t fighting. As with many wars, the causes of the war don’t really concern the people who live in the region where political leaders have decided to send their pawns. The agrarian communities of Flanders were exactly these people. Those who were either Protestant (and at risk of persecution by the Spanish) or who were Catholic but didn’t want to live under the tyranny of the Spanish, fled north to the lands of the Republic.

This left behind people who were either fervent Catholics who supported the “cleansing” of their community or people who didn’t have the means or the will to relocate or fight (primarily the latter). This will be important.

After the Spanish finally gave up trying to reconquer the lands of “over there” in the Netherlands, they had declared bankruptcy twice and were embroiled in all sorts of other shenanigans elsewhere. The South Netherlands were left to their own devices for much of the rest of the seventeenth and basically all of the eighteenth centuries. The agrarian communities returned to their insular lives. In the case of Flanders, the Dutch-speaking populations became isolated between the encroaching French and the border with the Netherlands. To this day, even I can hear the different dialects of the Flemish regions that developed in their relative isolation, and my Dutch is infantile.

At the end of the eighteenth century, the French Revolution deposed the crown, conquered the Netherlands, gave Napoleon a new crown, overextended itself, and then fizzled out when the original crown took power again. These convulsions of libertarian fervour were not bound to France, but the European powers of the time were still afraid of another incarnation of Napoleon or some successor. In hopes of putting a bit of a buffer between them and France, the signatories of the Congress of Vienna gave the Netherlands the perfectly flat region of Flanders that had been (and would continue to be) the battlefield of choice for warring European states.

The reunion wasn’t exactly a popular decision. The South – which had been part of the Catholic Spanish Netherlands, had been partially occupied by France and still mostly French-speaking, and had been much more focused on manufacturing and agriculture than the North – was disadvantaged from the start. The Dutch royalty remained almost exclusively in the North, paying attention only to the issues of the North. The Catholic church was hamstrung, being barred from working with the government. In response, the Catholic clergy encouraged its parishioners to boycott the government, leading to a huge disparity in the elected governing body.

We can’t overlook the economic aspects though. The free-trading Dutch brought their economic reforms southward, and this initially had a positive impact. The Dutch economy continued to grow steadily until the revolution. However, these gains were not shared evenly. The South, which relied on nascent industries and agriculture suffered from cheap goods due to free-trade policies. People are often quite tolerant of their annoying neighbours when they’re all in the same boat financially. Seeing their over-represented, politically favoured neighbours getting rich was a perfect storm of resentment for Trump’s supporters… I mean Brexiteers… I mean Le Pen voters… I mean… umm… what are we talking about again?

Oh yeah. Back to 1830.

Things were precarious in France as well. Wanting to try again, but this time without all the guillotining and complete dissolution of the monarchy, the French people revolted again in what would become known as the July Revolution. This time, they kept the crown, but they wanted the person wearing it to rule with the consent of the people.

The success did not go unnoticed, especially by the French-speaking Brusseloises. Following an exceptionally patriotic opera that was meant to celebrate King William I’s birthday on August 25th, 1830, riots filled the streets of Brussels. They demanded independence. Only a month later, the Belgians formed a provisional government, and they issued a Declaration of Independence on October 4th, 1830.

Over the course of the next year, a constitution had been approved, a monarch chosen and plans proposed by the surrounding powers rejected. Unfortunately for the Belgians, King William I wasn’t satisfied, and he refused to accept the coronation of King Leopold I. After the French joined the fight and retook Antwerp, an armistice was reached in 1832. They remained in a bloodless stalemate until the Dutch formally recognised Belgium in 1839.

This is a good place to pause.

We started this whole exploration in search of an answer to the question of why Belgium exists at all. It seems to be a product of religious division, political inequity and economic inequality, which is understandable enough. But it still doesn’t quite add up to me.

If cultural differences were such a big part (in the early years, the French-speaking majority turned around the tyranny on their Dutch-speaking countrymen), why is Flanders a part of Belgium? Why didn’t it stay in the Netherlands? Why didn’t it end up being its own entity? Why didn’t France and the Netherlands just divide the region along linguistic boundaries like the French wanted to do?

Honestly, this looks like a way more rational situation than what we have today (assuming that all the lands marked “Prussia” here became Germany):

The rest of this is my opinion based on all the information I gathered to write the above and my experiences with Belgians over the past half-year.

It appears to me that the existence of Belgium is really a consequence of the political posturing of the larger powers of Europe. Flanders has had its share of powerful regional kings and dukes, but none of them had the materiel or will to expand far beyond their townships. By the time of Belgian independence, the region had been battered by centuries of political exploitation, religious wars and the dick-swinging contests of hot-headed generals. Centuries of Spanish occupation left this area isolated from the other Netherlandish cultures to the north and from the French culture to the south. When there was a chance for reunification, paranoid European powers did what they could to keep the French sphere of influence from encroaching any further on Central Europe.

By the time of the Belgian Revolution, the Dutch prefered a unified Netherlands, but the ties weren’t there. The Flemish of the early nineteenth century were the descendants of those who had been left behind in the eighty years war. They were provincially minded, Catholic and unfit or unwilling to fight for some king, regardless of whether he spoke Dutch or French.

Flanders came along in the Belgian Revolution somewhat unwillingly. The Belgians wanted the crucial port of Antwerp, and they didn’t want to be surrounded as they would have been if they gave up Flanders in the west or Limburg in the east.

Certainly, some would have liked simply to rejoin France, but that wasn’t an option. They would need to go it alone, and they would need the resources of Flanders.

It doesn’t seem obvious now that the French-speaking Belgians were the powerful ones. Dutch is now an official language, on equal footing with French, and French is no longer the official international language; it’s English, a language Flemmings speak better than Walloons. Flanders is the economic leader, and Flemmings sometimes joke about the “lazy Walloons” being the reason France won’t take them back. From a modern perspective, it almost seems like Wallonia is the one being dragged along, but that is a development only of the last few decades.

Even though Belgium doesn’t really seem to work as a country, it doesn’t seem like it would work divided either. Neither Flanders nor Wallonia is economically strong enough to stand on its own, and the fighting over Brussels would never end. Wallonia is a liability that would not be annexed by a French government that already has enough problems with declining industrial and agricultural areas of its own. Flemmings like to think they’re more Dutch because of their shared language, but the cultural differences are obvious even to outsiders (and even the language is hardly a tie when Dutch people prefer to speak English in West Flanders because they can’t understand the dialect).

Belgium doesn’t make any sense. Its name comes from Germanic tribes who once lived in this region, the Belgae. They were massacred by Julius Caesar, and it appears that hope of a truly unified Belgium died with them 2,000 years ago.

So, why does Belgium even exist?

Politics.

An Economic History of Luxembourg

This weekend, I decided to check off my list one of those tiny little countries that one rarely has a reason to pass through. While I’m only a four hour journey from Luxembourg, I figured that this might be my last reasonable chance. It’s also convenient because the Ardennes forest is the nearest place for me to find something that resembles a mountain and low population density.

I took off Friday for a three-day weekend, took a bus from Brussels to Luxembourg City, and then had a bit of an adventure with the public bus system to get out to a little town called Mullerthal, where I met up with one leg of a hiking route around the northeast of the little country. I spent a sleepless night in the dense forest and spent the next morning exploring the capital where I had started. The trip had some real highlights that I’ll get to eventually, but they’ll need some context.

For now, I’m going to continue my history kick and share a bit about this tiny country that most of you probably couldn’t place on a map (indeed, many world maps don’t even have enough resolution for it).

That’s actually a good place to start. Where is Luxembourg?

Well, I live in Belgium, and you know that it’s close to me, so it probably borders Belgium.

Indeed, it does, but can you even put Belgium on this map?

blankmap

Did you find it? Still struggling? It’s a small country. I’ll zoom in a bit.

blankeurope

Ok, now you can see it. And even tiny Luxembourg made the cut!

If you’re still struggling, here’s the answer.

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At about 1,000 square miles, Luxembourg is a cutout at the junction of France, Belgium, and Germany.

But don’t let its size fool you. Both the World Bank and IMF have estimated Luxembourg to be the wealthiest country in the world (per capita; the UN disagrees, and I think I know why), and I can attest that it looks like it. Luxembourg city is so well maintained and so full of fancy cars, it’s actually a bit weird. This was the second six-figure car I saw in the first 20 minutes of walking through the city. Most of the others are new luxury cars.

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How did tiny little Luxembourg get so rich?

It’s actually not as complicated of a story as one might think, and it actually has a lot to do with its tiny geography.

Luxembourg has actually been around for about a thousand years. ‘Lucilinburhuc’ (literally translating to ‘small castle’) was a castle which became the centrepiece of what would become the County of Luxembourg over the 11th-13th centuries. The aristocracy of Luxembourg led successful armies and expanded their reach during this time. They were so successful that the house of Luxembourg even led the Holy Roman Empire during the 14th and 15th centuries. In the mid-15th century, neglect by the nobles who had gotten too comfy in their foreign roles allowed the Burgundians to conquer Luxembourg. Over the next four centuries, the area would change hands several times between the French, the Spanish, the Dutch, the Austrians, and the Prussians.

In 1815, with the defeat of Napoleon and liberation of his conquered lands, Luxembourg became a Grand Duchy, but it was divided. The Netherlands (more specifically King William I) was awarded the western provinces of Luxembourg. The eastern provinces became part of the new German Confederation. Most of the area makes up modern-day Luxembourg. Some of the eastern areas are now in Germany, and some came under Dutch control in the twentieth century.

The western provinces were treated just like any other Dutch province, but if you read my last post about the history of the Netherlands, you’ll know that this was a very brief period of unification. The Belgian revolution began in 1830 and ended with the Treaty of London in 1839. I’m skipping over all of this because the important part for our purposes is that the treaty gave Belgium the western half of Luxembourg, which is now (somewhat confusingly) also called Luxembourg (dark blue in the southeast here).

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Actually, when I told my colleague that I would be spending the weekend in Luxembourg, he asked, “The province or the country?”

And that’s how Luxembourg gets its current form.

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Even though the borders would be set for a long time to come, Luxembourg was in no condition to be a sovereign state. It remained part of the German Confederation until its dissolution with the Austro-Prussian War in 1867. Emperor Napoleon III tried to buy Luxembourg from King William III of the Netherlands. The Prussians still controlled the fortress (in what is now Luxembourg City), and they were not about to let the French just walk in. The most dissatisfying compromise for everyone was that no one would get the province, and it would remain neutral and disarmed. Though still technically the personal playground of the King of the Netherlands, Luxembourg was basically on their own at this point. With the death of William III in 1890, Luxembourg passed to the hands of Adolf of Nassau-Weilburg, the progenitor of the dynasty that still reigns today.

But despite all these pretty pictures, it doesn’t seem like any of this would make Luxembourg rich!

No, it didn’t. Luxembourg was pretty poor at this time. It wasn’t until the turn of the twentieth century, that Luxembourg started to put its mineral deposits to use. During the decades leading up to the First World War, immigrants flooded into Luxembourg to work in the mines and steel mills replacing the thousands of emigrants who flooded out of the industrializing capital in the nineteenth century. The increase in labourers led to legislative actions that would lay the groundwork for progressive worker protections in the twentieth century.

The First World War put a real damper on the economy after Germany violated the country’s neutrality, and devastating fighting ruined much of the countryside when they were pushed back. After the war, Luxembourg broke ties with Germany and realigned with Belgium. The “Roaring Twenties” is often characterized in the US by massive steelworks and the first skyscrapers; much of this steel came from Luxembourg. With increasing wealth came pressure for labour reform, and Luxembourg led the world in workers’ rights legislation such as a sliding pay scale that was pegged to the cost of living.

The economic crisis of the 30s hit Luxembourg as well, and another German occupation in the 40s meant that little progress was made until the end of the war in 1945.

It turns out that rebuilding a continent ravaged by four years of the most destructive warfare in history is pretty good for a country whose dominant industry is steel. On top of that, a forward-looking government pursued diversifying policies that attracted investors from around the world and aligned industries with other European nations through the European Economic Community (EEC), a predecessor of the EU.

By the time of the oil crisis in 1975, Luxembourg had 23 registered unemployed. No, I didn’t forget a unit there. Less than two dozen Luxembourgers were registered as unemployed in 1974.

The decade of the oil crisis saw a massive reorganization of industry and government as Luxembourg tried to weather to storm. A fundamental change was the creation of the Tripartite Coordinating Committee. The government was heavily involved in industry (holding a majority stake in the monopolist steel company), and from the 1970s onward, it would do so in a tripartite arrangement: requiring the approval of business owners, labour leaders and public officials. This restructuring alongside other very generous social welfare reforms allowed the Luxembourgish steel industry to survive the crisis and remain an important industry even today.

In the final two decades of the twentieth century, Luxembourg hit its first real boom. Ventures into the financial sector and IT alongside a very friendly tax environment (for both businesses and wage-earners) led to an average GDP growth per annum of over 5%, just behind Ireland, who is often hailed as the great European success story.

The next two decades were even better. With only a small faltering after the 2009 financial crisis, Luxembourg’s GDP has increased every year since 1980.

Good timing, a proactive and nimble government, and some valuable expertise have set Luxembourg in the perfect place to ride the waves of the global economy all the way to immense prosperity.

But this doesn’t feel particularly satisfying because lots of countries are in finance and IT. Lots of places can be seen as tax havens. What makes Luxembourg so special?

I’m going to offer my own hunch here. I think it stems from two things:

  1. They were first. This reorganization took place in the 1970s and 1980s. Most of Europe was still recovering from the war, the Asian Tigers were just starting to figure out how to do modern economies, Latin America and Eastern Europe were mostly trying to figure out how to get rid of totalitarianism, and the US was already too big and diverse to make sweeping reforms.
  2. Labour protections. Wages pegged to cost of living, tripartite decision-making, and strong unions. Luxembourg requires that employers pay fairly, and business-friendly policies attract the kind of capital to make such pay possible. This way, Luxembourg actually pays lower than the EU average in wealth redistribution, yet the minimum wage is about $28,000. That would be about $15/hour.

There is another reason why Luxembourg is the wealthiest country in the world per capita:

Lazy statistics.

Typically, GDP is calculated as the amount of money earned in the country over the course of the year divided by the average population over the year. That would give GDP per person, right?

Kind of.

Here’s a fun fact: about 40% of the people who work in Luxembourg don’t live in Luxembourg. Another third are immigrants and the rest are actually Luxembourgish. I’m guessing that’s why the UN statistics put Luxembourg third behind Liechtenstein and Monaco. Although it skews the data a bit, even correcting for it leaves a GDP per capita of over $100,000 (on the same scale, the US is at about $60k).

I think what you’re seeing when you walk around Luxembourg City is that the only people living there are the ones who can afford to stay. The ones who can’t afford to commute live on the outskirts of town (there are outskirts, and they’re definitely less pretty). The rest live comfortably in places that are a bit less expensive, but they can afford to commute.

So why is Luxembourg so rich? They work with money. It’s the best way to make money.

dammit, I knew I should have gone into finance…

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Mullerthal trail

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These are the kinds of German forests that must have inspired Grimm’s fairy tales.

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Monument to the United States military that liberated Luxembourg twice.

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Upon crossing the bridge into the old city, my first reaction (and I think many others’ is too) was “Is this place real?”

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The city is immaculately well tended.

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A (very) abbreviated (unverified) history of the Netherlands and Belgium (sort of)

Today’s photo: A random shot from a bridge while meandering through Rotterdam last Friday evening. In all our wanderings, Ashley and I have been very good about taking shameless selfies, but somehow we completely forgot to take pictures in Rotterdam. This is all you get. Sorry.

Backstory: The whole reason Ashley is staying in Europe for the summer is that she figured out how to take all her summer courses online. Fortunately, that means she has plenty to keep her occupied while I’m at work. Unfortunately, that means she sometimes has to study on the weekends. Last Saturday, we stopped at Hopper Coffee in Rotterdam, so Ashley could get some work done. I took the opportunity to educate myself about the flat little country we were visiting for the weekend. Here’s what I accomplished in the three hours while Ashley was fighting with the (extremely uncooperative) Kindle version of her textbook:


Starting from the very beginning, we set a hard limit for the earliest point of any human history in the region English speakers often mistakenly call “Holland” but should actually call it “the Netherlands” and that the Dutch call “Nederland”, which literally translates to “low country”.

Paleontologists estimate that humans left Africa about 50,000-60,000 years ago. They probably took the route across Arabia and up through the Levant (present-day Syria and Iraq). If you’re just looking at a world map, it would seem most logical that they would then continue north to where they are now throughout the European peninsula. However, some research suggests that they continued north through the Caucuses and around the Black Sea to the north. Either way, best estimates put the first Homo sapiens settlements in present-day Europe at about 40,000 years ago. I used the species name intentionally. Homo sapiens were not the first humans in Europe. Homo neanderthalis were already here. There is strong evidence that H. sapiens interbred with H. neaderthalis throughout their journey from the Levant to Europe (whichever direction they took).

However, those first people to reach Europe may not have been our ancestors. Despite the continued interbreeding, we Europeans have no more Neanderthal blood than our cousins in Asia or the Americas. This suggests that the first people in Europe actually went extinct. There were probably a series of waves of humans, who were genetically similar enough to reproduce with one another, who populated Europe over the past 40,000 years.

These tribes of people lived in hunter-gatherer societies for thousands of years. The first people to start living in settled farming societies in the Netherlands are known as the Trechtervolk, who lived in the northeast of the Netherlands. Very little is known about these prehistoric people, but they had spread out throughout the Low Countries over the ensuing 3,000 years. As the beginning of the Common Era approached, the Romans began to expand their empire to the north, first led by Julius Caesar in his slaughter of the Belgae, the people of the Low Countries in Antiquity. They were brought under Roman control around 12BC under Caesar Augustus and remained part of the empire until the decline of the western Roman Empire in the fourth century.

When Western Rome fell, the Low Countries were mostly autonomous and under Frankish control. The Franks were the early kings of the people in the lower Rhineland region at the edge of Roman control (if your European geography is about as good as mine, you’ll need the hint that the Rhine river winds through the western German cities of Cologne, Dusseldorf, Bonn and Basel before draining into the sea at Rotterdam). They weren’t officially Roman, but some (the Salian Franks) were permitted to live within Roman territory. A military general names Childeric I is regarded as the first of the Merovingian line and fought for control with a seemingly autonomous Roman General for the Rhineland in the decade prior to the fall of Rome. He and his son Clovis I ruled in a form of kingship likely modeled on that of Alaric I, who was elected king of the Visigoths after the death of Emperor Theodosius in 395 (Theodosius was the one who first split the empire, and his sons basically started a civil war using Germanic tribes, and Alaric I was the one who sacked Rome during this sort of civil war).

As Rome receded to its new base in the East, the Low Countries occupied themselves in such local matters as to keep me from finding out really anything between the rise of Clovis I in the last decade fifth century and the first attempts at Christianisation by British missionaries in the eighth century.

The period of 800-888 CE is officially known as the Carolingian Empire, starting with the crowning of Charlemagne as Emperor of Rome, thus marking the revival of the Roman Empire. This empire encompassed most of modern-day France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland, western Germany, and northern Italy. Obesity struck even in the early Middle Ages, and the empire split up after the death of Charles the Fat in 888. The empire was revived again in 962 with the rise of Otto I, now calling it the Holy Roman Empire. The empire encompassed basically the same borders minus France. I like to the think of the Holy Roman Empire as Germany in the Middle Ages.

The Hanseatic League of powerful merchants in the North Sea saw much power shift to the private sector in the Netherlands in the 14th century. This focus on seapower would lead to the Golden Age of the Netherlands in the 16th century with the massive fortunes brought in by the Dutch East India Company. 

In the middle of the 16th century, the Netherlands was still under the control of the Holy Roman Empire, now ruled by the Hapsburg family. Emperor Charles V abdicated, giving his son Philip II control of the Hapsburg Netherlands. Though technically under the control of the HRE, the Netherlands was mostly governed by a union of seventeen republics, who maintained similar legal codes (ones very friendly to trade and very much shifting power to local control). 

However, Philip was the son of the Queen of Spain, Isabella. She was, more importantly for the Netherlands, Catholic, and Philip was a mamma’s boy. He had no patience for the rise of Protestantism in the Netherlands and made it a point to reinstate the control of the Catholic church in the region through counter-reformation (an Inquisition in the Netherlands). Many Dutch nobles who stood to lose greatly because of the reorganization of the church, engineered the recall of the guy who was supposed to lead the whole reorganization. This coup was led by William, Duke of Orange, who is seen as the Father of the Netherlands. They tried to get Philip II to back off, but he refused. Protestant rebellion broke out and thus began the Eighty Years’ War.

During the war, the Republic of the Seventeen Provinces became more powerful and unified in their fight for independence. Unification would not last, and the Peace of Westphalia (1648) that ended of the war also divided the Netherlands into the Republic of the seven provinces (north) and the Spanish Netherlands (south; more or less the region we now call Belgium). The Republic was independent, but the south remained under Spanish control. The bankrupt Spanish empire consistently gave up territory to France (thus giving rise to French-speaking Wallonia) over the course of the seventeenth century. In the Netherlands, the Republic maintained control through most of the 18th century. In 1795, the French revolution spilled out of its borders and conquered the Netherlands to form the Batavian Republic. Britain capitalized, gobbling up most of what was left of the Dutch empire overseas. In 1806, Napoleon appointed his brother, Louis, King of the Netherlands, but he took back the decision in 1810 when Louis started being a bit too sympathetic to the locals. The British liberated the Netherlands in 1813 on the road to defeating Napoleon once and for all. With the fall of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 (on the border between Flanders and Wallonia), the Netherlands was united from Groningen to the Ardennes for the first time in over 200 years under Kind Willem.

And everybody lived happily ever after.

Just kidding. Revolution broke out again in 1830, and Belgium formed its own sovereign state in 1839, thus relegating it to two hundred years of political infighting and developmental sluggishness.

That’s about as far as I got. I might finish the story, but I really should do Belgium first because it is about to become the country where I’ve had the longest residence since I left the US in 2015.

That photo from Singapore

Those of you who follow me on Facebook might remember this strange photo that popped up about seven months ago. A handful of dark, South Asian faces smile pleasantly at the camera, held by a man at the end of a long table, adorned with a paper-plated feast. But on the right side of the table, the beaming smile of a goofy American might make one think this participant had been Photoshop’d in.

Yes, that goofy American was me. And I would bet a lot of money (at least a large proportion of what little I have) that none of you will recognize that place as being in the heart of the island city-state, Singapore. It was one of the many shenanigans I have gotten myself into during my global travels, and that day very much reminded me of the reason I enjoy such solo travels: I can get myself into such shenanigans that almost always make for a good story. I’ve told only a couple people this story, not for any effort to hide it. It’s just one of those stories that need a fair bit of explanation, and I haven’t had many opportunities.

So, here it is. The somewhat strange, but very enjoyable story of that one photograph from Singapore.

It was another adventurous day of couchsurfing. It was actually the only proper couchsurfing I did in Southeast Asia. It appears that the community hasn’t reached Malaysia and Singapore the way it has in China, Korea, and Japan. My host had gotten tied up with some work that he was trying to finish up with the last days of his current job, and so I was left to my own devices to wander the city. I was perfectly happy to do so. Singapore is very easy to get around, and it lives up to the hype when it comes to cleanliness.

I don’t chew gum anyway, so I wasn’t paying attention to whether or not they sell it.

I found my way to Little India. It wasn’t hard. There’s actually a subway stop called Little India. I wandered by one after another of overpriced restaurants. The selection was practically endless, but it was coming to the end of my trip, and I seem to have a habit of saving the most expansive places for last.

But I was suddenly stopped by a sign resting against a wrought iron fence. It said exactly what every hungry and stingy traveler wants to see:

“FREE MEDITATION CLASS”

Just kidding. It said “dinner will be provided” (or something to that effect). But having recently completed 10-day meditation retreat on Koh Pang An, Thailand, I was also interested in the meditation. It said that the class started at 6:00, so I wandered off for a bit, but I was careful not to go so far as to forget which street I had been on.

The sign had only been a printed poster, set out in front of an inauspicious and unmarked boutique. Beside it, a door was propped open, and it led only to stairs going directly to the first level. A piece of paper taped to the wall with “MEDITATION CLASS” printed at the top also told me instructions: take the stairs up to the first level, and then take the elevator to the third floor (also the roof). I followed cautiously and curiously. At the top of the stairs, I seemed to hit a dead end, but light from around the corner guided me around a sharp bend. The light was coming from the glass door of a jewelry shop. A smartly dressed salesman watched me blankly as I inspected the concrete walls around me. I had been led to the front of the elevator. I quickly pushed the button and waited without making eye contact with the black-suited young man.

The elevator carried me slowly up two floors and let me out into a short hallway, lit by the sunlight illuminating the rooftop to my left. A sign on the wall across from the elevator asked me kindly to remove my shoes. On the rooftop sat two rows of empty white plastic chairs facing an altar of sorts. On it, a picture of an Indian swami leaned against a temporary wall. Flowers adorned the photo, and a bunch of bananas sat on the corner of the altar. On a wide rug in front of the altar, a woman sat in full lotus position, rocking back and forth and chanting quietly. Her face was pained, her eyes were closed, and she paid no attention to me or the rumble of the elevator doors as they closed behind me. I slipped off my sneakers, peeled off my sweaty socks, tucked them inside, and pushed my shoes neatly against the wall.

I stepped silently over the threshold of the open gate onto the rooftop temple. I walked silently around the chairs, keeping my distance from the woman deep in prayer. No one else seemed to be on the roof, but I explored all there was to see. Around the corner, a narrow path led to the other side of the building. I could see a makeshift kitchen through hanging drapes. I approached, expecting to find someone preparing the promised meal.

Instead, I saw a pair of feet. Against the wall, a man in nothing but a pair of shorts and a tank top (in this kind of heat, even that much clothing is too much) stretched out, fast asleep. I padded slowly closer and spotted his compatriot a few yards away. I decided not to disturb the napping fellows and figured they would wake up when it was time to begin.

I walked back to the main area and surveyed the view. As sunset approached, it was quite beautiful to look over the rooftops. And a few floors from the street, it was very quiet.

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It was just past 6:00 by now, but I figured I could wait a bit longer. Having recently spent much longer blocks of time in silence, I had no problem pacing the tile floor, feeling the cracks and dirt with my bare feet. The dampened sounds of the street below and the packed city beyond made the rooftop peaceful, a veritable refuge.

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I paced slowly, staring out through the bars of the protective grate topping the low wall that surrounded the rooftop sanctuary.

Going back to the lessons I had learned at Wat Khao Tam, I started counting the rhythm of my steps.

One – lift, two – swing, three – place. Lift-step-place. Lift-step-place. Lift-step-place…

and so it went.

As I was rounding a corner, facing the hallway to the elevator, I heard it slide open and looked up. A middle-aged gentleman, dark of face and hair, with a long-sleeve button-down collared shirt and jeans, stepped through the gate, smiling. He paid only a glance at the woman still entranced on the floor and let her be. He turned to me. I smiled in return, and he approached me.

Unfortunately, I don’t remember his name, or anyone’s name from that day. None were familiar; simply collections of sounds that people identified with themselves. But I remember he was kind and genuine. He spoke softly in good but accented English. Where the accent was from, I could only guess, but his features told me he was Bengali.

He asked if I would like to begin. I was sort of confused because I thought more people would come. A young man, mustachioed and dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, had entered behind my interlocutor and was setting up a table in the back. I had no objection though, and he asked me to take a seat anywhere I felt comfortable. I chose the chair in the front row on the far right. I didn’t turn around to see if he was following me, a bit of military training that has stuck with me. It was the younger man who walked into my view.

He introduced himself and shook my hand. He said that the session would last about 45 minutes. I said that would be fine. Then he told me to close my eyes. I did so.

I felt the tip of his right thumb press forcefully but not aggressively into the spot directly between my eyes. His left hand rested calmly on my shoulder.

“Focus on this spot,” he said. “Do not stop focus on this spot. Do not open your eyes. Keep focus here. I will tell you when the session is finished.”

And then he disappeared.

I felt the skin between my eyes where he had pressed his thumb. It tingled gently and persistently. I felt my eyes slightly cross as I tried to focus on that spot. My hands rested gently in my lap, and my back fit comfortably along the curve of the plastic chair. I could hear mutterings in a strange language behind me and the soft chanting of the woman on the floor in front of me. I did not focus on those. I focused on the spot between my eyes.

Having had hours of practice recently, my focus stayed for quite some time, but within minutes it was wandering. How I had gotten there… which street I was on… that park I had walked by… there seems to be a lot of green for such a concrete jungle… and a lot of sports facilities… I found three pull-up bars within a short walk of my host’s apartment… I don’t think I’ve seen that many in all of Fort Collins… Americans are so lazy… but I don’t know how people exercise in this heat… I’m sweating sitting down. Sitting. Focus.

And back to the spot. It still tingled. Like he’d put a sticker there. I’m not much into the mystical parts of Buddhism or Hinduism, but this felt different than all the other times I’ve meditated. A lot different.

And the focus stayed. Until I heard a familiar and exhilarating sound. The sky was being torn in two. An angry god was ripping through the blue fabric above me. As it got closer, it moved faster, and as it passed, it stopped ripping, it rumbled like thunder in the cloudless sky. The thunder grew louder as the tail end of the low-flying F-16 pointed almost directly at me.

And then it turned, made another pass. And another. I could hear him wheel in long circles above the city. I wondered if I was right in my identification. I knew there was only one. I knew it was a single-engine fighter. But I couldn’t remember if Singapore had gotten their first F-35s yet. Or if they flew anything other than the F-16… what is he doing?… Why is he alone…? Is there a holiday today…?

Focus.

The roar of the jet faded away.

Minutes passed.

The elevator door opened, and a few voices chattered. A little girl came running onto the rooftop. She ran right by me. So close, I could feel the eddies of air fluttering from her dress. It startled me enough that I opened my eyes for a brief moment. But I closed them again without focusing on anything.

My heart rate was now up, and focused on that. Before I could calm my nervous system, I jumped again when a hand landed softly on my shoulder, marking the end of 45 minutes that had passed in what felt like seconds. I looked up into the smiling face of the older gentleman.

“That was very good,” he said.

“Yeah, that was amazing,” I replied.

He asked me to come to meet our new guests. He explained that they would be having a small service and that I probably wouldn’t find it very fun, but that I was invited to join them for dinner in about an hour.

I went back out into the city, now glowing with artificial light, and wandered the bustling streets, half dazed, partly still meditating. I was incredibly relaxed. It felt like a pleasant dream. It felt a bit like walking out of a massage parlor. I wasn’t anxious or bothered by anything. I was just there, taking it all in.

When I returned, a feast had been prepared. I enjoyed as much as I could, but I literally could not continue despite their insistence to go for a third plate. At some point, the gentleman decided to document the night and stood to take the picture. He is not in the frame. The young man first on the left had started my session. The little girl is mostly hidden behind her father three men down the left side of the table. You know which goon I am.

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I got the gentleman’s phone number, and he sent me the picture. He added me to a WhatsApp group of followers of the man in the picture whom they call Swamiji. Even though he died several years ago, they believe that he is influencing their lives even now. Apparently, Swamiji meditated for 23 hours a day until he achieved enlightenment. The other hour in the day is for us. All of these followers make a point to meditate at least one hour a day.

I’m still part of the group, but I’ve silenced the notifications, and I haven’t checked it in months. There are literally thousands of unread messages. But I can’t bring myself to leave the group. It reminds of that experience every time I see it when I’m checking messages from friends.

I’m not up to an hour a day, but I’ve started my day with 30 minutes every morning for the past 19 days. I try to focus on that spot. I might have solid focus for a total of three minutes out of every 30, but the impact on my mental state has been undeniable. I’ve been happier, more relaxed, less anxious, less emotionally reactive – less “neurotic” as the psychologists would say.

And now that I’m finishing this at a reasonable hour on a Sunday night, I’ll sit for another 30 minutes and get my hour for Swamiji.

Rond Ter Streep op de fiets

I have made an almost complete survey, and I can say with high certainty that Ter Streep is indeed still an island. If you read my first post from Oostende, you may have caught that the origin of the name Oostende (literally “east end”) actually does make sense even though it is in the far west of the country. The city was on the east end (really, the northeast end; the coastline runs basically SW-NE here) of an island called Ter Streep. After a few centuries of ambitious civil engineering, this island has been brought into the mainland. Almost. The water that separates Ter Streep from the rest of the country has been reduced to a series of canals, perhaps a meter deep and a few meters across at some points. But it does appear that Ter Streep is still only connected to the rest of the country by bridges.

I confirmed this by circumnavigating the island. It took me a few hours, but I could have done it in half that if I didn’t stop every 10 minutes to take pictures.

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Google Maps will tell you it’ll take several hours, but Google’s rider is on a rusty old fat tire. My new machine moves a bit faster. Indeed, it startled me how much this horse wants to jump out from under me when I crank on the pedals. I’ve made quite a leap from the aluminum wreck I wrote about last weekend.

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I mentioned last weekend that my new ride just wasn’t very enjoyable to ride. Getting my new Orbea up to speed is sheer joy. That’s the way a bike should be. I honestly didn’t think I’d own a bike like this anytime soon. I’ve had to do some creative budgeting, and I’ll need to make some sacrifices, but it’s about priorities. And when a bike like this in on 25% discount, it’s very hard to pass up.

My ride this morning started before sunrise, but the bike paths in the city are fairly well lit, and I got a pretty powerful headlight. In a place where daylight hours bottom out around eight, I figured it was a good investment. It was the intention to circumnavigate the island, so it started by getting out to the first lock of the canal that forms the southeast side. There are a handful of historic buildings at the junction, which was once a guarded entrance to a Spanish fort. It is also a popular meeting place. As I was figuring out which way I wanted to go, a group of cyclists started to form. They kept looking at me, and I guessed they were trying to figure out if I was joining them. They were headed toward Bruges, but they were going offroad. Most of them had mountain bikes. And they were properly outfitted in matching spandex. They were only the first of several such pelotons I saw today.

 

 

 

They headed east to Bruge, and I headed south along the canal. The bike trail continues almost uninterrupted all the way to Westende (and maybe next time I’ll turn left to take the route to Dunkirk). But I kept getting distracted by things in the middle. Including this random little nature reserve.

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Of course, I had to go check it out.

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Soon enough, I bypassed the town that marks the middle of the island, Middelkirke (“middle church”), but it didn’t take long to get to Westende.

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Although I don’t buy into the myths and ceremonies that the building was constructed to support, I find the social utility of such a conspicuous and beautiful civic center very charming. Even though most Europeans aren’t religious anymore (apparently I qualify as “Christian” by Belgian standards because my family celebrates a purely secular Christmas), there is definitely a community culture here. People seem driven to participate in local events and take pride in their communities. I’ll have to dig into specifics at some points, but that’s a feeling that I’ve gotten throughout northern and western Europe.

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There’s a focus on more than just utility here. Even simple buildings are aesthetically pleasing. Few buildings are merely a collection of walls to accomplish some purpose. Even new buildings copy the traditional style with distinctly 21st-century additions.

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Ashley had a conversation with someone a couple weeks ago who claimed that Belgium got something like 50% of their electricity from renewables. In truth, their goal for 2020 is to get 18%, but I can see where there’s confusion. Everyone has solar panels! What more electricity could we need?!

Do you think those panels are generating much electricity with that kind of sky? No. And it’s like this most of the year. It’s a nice gesture, but there are a hundred better ways to spend that money to increase renewable energy. Here’s one of them:

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A combined wind & solar farm that powers probably a couple thousand homes. They’re old turbines. The ones with the boxy nacelle (the house on top where the blades are attached) are 900kW machines. The next wind farm Parkwind builds will use turbines that are 10 times as powerful.

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Orbea should pay me for advertising. I wonder if they pay for renewable energy for their factories? That’d be cool.

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Finally, I reached the end of the island and on the other side of the water, I found Nieuwpoort. I hope I don’t have to translate that one.

I thought Oostende was cute, but this takes it to a level that’s actually a bit uncomfortable.

 

 

The way back was far less distracting. And I also threw off my elevation measurement because I climbed an observation tower. It says I gained 84m on that section. That was almost all on the tower.

I once made a comment that Rotterdam was flatter than Kansas. Seems to be true throughout the coastal areas of the low countries.

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When I reached a section that follows the beach, I stopped while I was walking my bike over the piles of sand that had blown onto the walk. Having recently watched a documentary on World War II, I thought about how Oostende could have been the site for D-Day.

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When I turned around, I realized that Hitler had the same thought.

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This area is teeming with history. The system of canals has been in progress since the British and French were bickering over their colonies in the Americas. The layouts of the streets can probably be traced back to the Middle Ages. This beachfront has concerned military commanders since amphibious assaults became a viable military tactic, and many of the fortifications the Nazis had hoped would keep the Allies from opening up a second front in Western Europe are still here.

And now that I have a liberating mode of transportation, I get to go see all of it!

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An adventure in Bredene

Today’s image: my new ride!

First off, don’t get used to this frequency of posts. I just so happened to have a day off in the middle of the week and a bit of a weekend adventure very reminiscent of my time in Korea. I remember enjoying recounting those explorations as I learned as much as I could about my host culture. Whether or not you all enjoyed it is irrelevant. These were the times that reminded me that despite the banality of my daily routine, I actually was on some sort of crazy global adventure. Belgian culture is far more like the one I grew up with than is Korean culture, but it’s the subtle differences that keep things interesting.

And so, after finally assembling my mail-order bike to the point that I was more or less satisfied with its safety, I decided to take advantage of the mild weather. My new steed and I were on our first adventure!

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I suppose the first thing I noticed was that I didn’t much enjoy riding this bike. It was the cheapest bike I could find that fit my criteria, but it was the same amount I paid for the bike I had in Visby and the one I also bought online in Denver. Both of those served me very well, so I figured I just needed a little time to adapt.

Even though I wasn’t particularly excited about the particular bike, it sure felt fast to move faster than a walk! It’s been several weeks without wheels, so the fact that I could cover several kilometers in a reasonable amount of time was exceptionally refreshing.

First stop was the entrance to the harbor. I assembled the bike at my office which is on the north side (the opposite side from my apartment), so I headed for the old Fort Napoleon.

This part of the harbor seems much less used than the industrial area where our office is and is lined with decaying old vessels, some still floating, others hauled onto the pier.

 

The Fort was closed, but the sandy hill it is built into is crisscrossed with paths. I might have to start using this area for a lunchtime run. It’s a surprising encounter with Nature adjacent to a military installation commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte (who feared an English invasion via Ostend) and very busy industrial park.

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Just down this little hill is a beachfront walk. It runs for a few kilometers further on up the coast. On the Sunday after Christmas, however, it was rather busy with pedestrians and less than ideal for my lightning-fast racebike! That’s a joke. I actually just couldn’t find a path that connected to it.

But that also meant that I got distracted by the sign for “sporthal”. I had seen a pool on the map that I had been meaning to visit. I knew they wouldn’t be open, but I wanted to see if it would be a reasonable ride from the office so I could go before work. I ended up failing to follow the signs and getting lost in the seemingly endless network of dedicated bike paths.

Side note: in places in the US that are trying to be more bike-friendly (I’m mostly thinking of Denver and Fort Collins, cities ranked near the top of bike-able US cities), painting a bike symbol on the street and posting a few signs that supposedly form “trails” seems to be good enough. Spending an hour riding in this very ordinary, par-for-Northern-Europe town reinforces what a pitiful effort that is.

But in my getting lost, I stumbled upon a sight that seemed very out of place.

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Look closely at the animals in this apparent schoolyard. Yes, those are deer. It’s a literal deer-park.

I found my way to the center of Bredene, the town adjacent to Ostend and the host of the pool I was seeking. I knew it was the center because I found the church.

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More thoughts later on the presence of the church in Belgium, but it seems that its primary function at this point is a storehouse for the remaining bodies of the quickly dwindling number of those who die as believers.

In a smooth segue from human corpses, I also found food!

And in a form that I had never seen before. I suppose it makes sense though. Belgians love bread. Actually, I don’t know if they love bread or if they just can’t conceive of a meal that doesn’t include bread. Walk around any Belgian city at lunchtime and most people will be walking around with broodjes, baguette sandwiches stuffed with an assortment of meats, cheeses, and/or veggies. The local supermarket consistently stocks an enormous cabinet (five racks high and probably 30 feet long) of fresh-baked bread. All of it delicious. Anytime I go to the store after about 6pm, it’s probably picked clean. But Belgians are bread snobs (for good reason). The prepackaged bread section, tucked away around the corner, looks to be full of expired loaves.

And so, I should have been surprised only by the fact that I had not yet seen a fresh-bread vending machine.

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If for nothing other than pure curiosity, I had to get one. The bottom two held one klein wit and one klein bruin (small white and small brown) for €1.60 each. I dug out the baggie of change in backpack and started dropping coins in the slot. They backed up, jammed, fell back down to the return tray. Once I got enough of them to register, I pushed the “8” key for what I wanted with no response from the machine. I tried pushing the button before inserting the money, tried other buttons, started with a “0”. After about 10 minutes (during which multiple people had entered and exited the adjacent bakery that stocks this thing), I finally accepted that it wouldn’t give me my klein bruin but it did give me a klein wit! I opened up the paper bag. It was cold, but when I stuck my nose in it, it still smelled like top quality, chewy and delicious, fresh-baked bread!

Proud of my successful cooperation with the machine and starting to get cold from standing still so long, I mounted my steed and headed home. The next road up led straight by my gym, so I knew where I was going, and I was excited to taste my treasure after being warmed in my microwave/convection oven combo box (more on that in another post).

But my adventure was far from over. As I gently pedaled along a quiet bike path the frame shuddered, the bike made an awful snapping noise, and pedals spun freely. I’ve had chains fall off before, but this is different. This is a single-speed bike. The chain does not fall off of a single speed bike. Nor can one get it back on without tools and knowledge that I did not have. And no, it was not user error. The drivetrain was one of the few parts of the bike that were assembled by the manufacturer. It also wasn’t their assembly failure. No, the damn thing just couldn’t take the pressure.

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If you’re wondering, it’s not supposed to look like that. The chain busted.

And so, after pushing my awkward behemoth of a scooter back to the office, I walked home like usual. I took consolation in two things:

  1. I had fresh bread in my bag that was about to make a delicious addition to dinner.
  2. I had a good excuse to send this piece of junk back to the rubbish heap from whence it came.

The next time I write about my cycling adventures, I will be very excited to tell you all about the amazing man-powered machine I will have acquired.

And there will be many more adventures! I may have spent my New Years Day at the office (it’s very productive when no one is here), but my explorations of Europe have only just begun!

Tot ziens!

Back to writing

Today’s image: Sunset over Oostende harbor. The fastest way to work is via a ferry across the harbor, mostly used by tourists who can park for free on the industrial side and ferry to the city center. The six steel columns in the left of the frame are attached to the ship. It’s called a jack-up vessel. Those legs push down into the sea bed, lifting the ship out of the water, making it a stable platform for heavy lifting. In a few months she will begin assembling the turbines of Belgium’s next offshore wind farm.

Hello readers! It has been quite a while since I’ve had any travel stories for you. Not that I haven’t had any travels, but I’ve been distracted by other media. After my brief endeavors into video and audio, I’ve realized that I prefer the written word far more. It’s not always the best way to take in information, but in terms of putting ideas straight and reinforcing my own memories, there’s nothing like it. It seems to be the purest form of collected thought. There’s no worrying about my voice or the frame or monitoring the recording equipment. Really the only limitation is the speed at which I can type/write, which doesn’t always keep up with my thoughts. But I’d rather have that than the opposite situation, which I find myself in every time I open my mouth.

Video and audio have their advantages, and I’ll use them when appropriate. But for now, it’s back to the written word. And not a moment too soon! Indeed, several moments too late. I’m already embarked on my latest adventure.

A few weeks ago, I made a week-long stop in New York City to see some family and finalize my paperwork for a visa. Early this month, I arrived in Belgium, where I’ll be based for the foreseeable future. A former classmate-now colleague kindly allowed me to stay in his spare bedroom in his apartment in Gent for 10 days, but a couple weeks ago, I moved into my own place in Oostende (more about the city further down). For the first time in a while, I have a space where I truly feel comfortable and at home. Part of that comfort is the fact that this place is very quiet. Oostende is a quiet town this time of year already, and my courtyard-facing balcony of an apartment building on a one-way side street means that it can get deathly silent in here. I really like that.

One thing that has become more and more clear over the past few weeks is that I don’t do well in big crowds. Busy cities, packed streets, crowded rooms. Not for me. I’ve known I was an introvert since I learned the word, but despite my training to be more socially adept, I’ve gotten more in touch with my introverted self. Susan Cain, in her book Quiet, mentioned some research into extroversion vs introversion that has helped me understand what makes someone introverted or extraverted. They can actually figure out with pretty high accuracy your level of extraversion if you’re when you’re an infant. Some study examined how babies react to noise. Depending on how much noise it took to get them to react, they were classified into two major groups: “high reactives” and “low reactives”. The former reacted strongly to a little noise, while the latter required a lot of noise to get them to react. Can you guess which ones grew up to be introverts?

Here’s a hint: many of us introverts hate the sound of chewing. Even a distant sound of someone’s barbaric gnashing can set us grinding our own teeth in forced civility. We react highly to small stimuli.

That bit of knowledge has helped significantly in understanding why I find it so difficult to enjoy places like New York City. The noise is overwhelming. The crowds are consuming. The lights are often unbearable. When I don’t have anywhere to be, it can be an interesting ethnographic exercise to observe these strange creatures who thrive in such an environment. But when I have reason to join the crowd, to dodge aggressive taxis, to squeeze into crowded subway cars, or match the impatience of the long-adjusted New Yorker, the input is simply too much. Either I find my frustration and annoyance bubbling over in rage, or I simply shut down all emotions, including those of tolerance, patience, respect, and generosity.

I don’t think that New Yorkers are mean people. Indeed, I was able to spend a week there because of the generosity of my family who took me in, fed me, guided me, and provided a listening ear. But they can often come across as rude and inconsiderate, selfish and intolerant. I think I understand. Even the low-reactive types, who feed on the energy of a bustling sidewalk or cramped cafe, can only take in so much and give back so much. We only have the capacity to show care and deference to so many people. The thousands of strangers one comes into contact with in New York City have little hope of joining that small circle, and so at best, they treat each other with the indifferent cordiality of social convention.

The time in New York was definitely enjoyable. Explorations of the seemingly endless museum collections, lively dinners with family, and jazz clubs brightened by musicians who would be the talk of the town in just about any other part of the world. But I’m glad to have found somewhere a bit quieter to settle.

Oostende isn’t the place you would expect an adventurous twenty-something to enjoy, but it works for me. It’s a tourist town right in the middle of Belgium’s short North Sea coast. The local demographic probably has a median age decades my senior, but that means people turn in early. Like me! The coffee is pretty good, and the dining is endless. The city center is built for people, not cars. The nearest mountain is two countries away, but the sea is only a block away, and that seems to provide the necessary contact with Nature. The train station, bus station, and tram stop are only a 10-minute walk. From there, I can be almost anywhere in Belgium in less than two hours and almost anywhere in Western Europe in a few more. There are more kilometers of bike paths than I will be able to explore. The weather isn’t great for cycling right now, but it will probably be summer before I can put away the money I’ll need for the kind of bike I want anyway.

This place is also brimming with history. The town of Oostende dates back to the Middle Ages when this area wasn’t even connected to the rest of Europe. Until about 600 years ago, it was an island, on which the villages of Westende, Middelkerke, and Oostende (West-end, Middle-church, and East-end, respectively) developed around the fishing trade. Improving hydrological engineering and the money from trade allowed the people of the town to build a series of dikes and canals that protected it from the sea and connected it to the mainland. This is actually the second time I’ve lived in a strategic Medieval trading post. Visby constantly changed hands as it was the central port for trade across the Baltic. Oostende was sacked multiple times for its strategic position on the North Sea, especially when the port of Antwerp was blocked. Between 1601 and 1604, it became the site of the bloodiest battle of the Eighty Years’ War, which culminated in Dutch independence from the Spanish Empire in 1648. The siege of the city by the ruling Spanish Empire took just over three years and ended in over 100,000 dead or wounded and was a major loss for the Dutch and English. The current layout of the city center (where I live) was set by the 18th century, but most of the buildings from that period were destroyed in a magazine explosion in the late nineteenth century and when it changed hands during both of the world wars in the first half of the twentieth century. Most buildings appear to be from the post-war period. And that’s what I’ve learned just from Wikipedia! Lots more exploring and learning to be done!

And I’ll have to brush up on my war history. I know I’ve heard the names of many of these battles, but I didn’t realize that they were in Belgium: Liège, Antwerp, Ypres, Mons. Actually, much of the first World War was fought in this region! Much of World War II centered around the German offensive and the Allied counteroffensive through the Ardennes, the forested region in southern Belgium. So much to explore!

Also, this town just got a lot smaller. I finally found myself a bicycle. It’s not much, but it’s a pair of wheels, and it will get me a lot farther a lot faster than I could go on foot.

I’ll be sure to take lots of pictures, and I’ll try to post them on here. But many of them will show up first on Instagram and Facebook.

New Podcasts! Former Congressman Bob Inglis and retired professor John Grant

Some of you only get my updates via the blog, but I’m mostly working on the more conventional feeds of Twitter and Facebook. At least for now.

Just a few updates.

  1. I have some new podcast material up. I spoke with former Congressman Bob Inglis of republicEn.org about small-government approaches to decarbonization. I also spoke with retired professor John Grant about his fears and hopes for the future. Links below.
  2. I have two more guests confirmed, one of whom will be my first climate change skeptic. We’re meeting on Friday and hopefully recording next week. The other is CSU climate scientist, and we’ll meet on Monday to discuss details. Big week ahead
  3. In unrelated news, my Belgian work permit got approved! I leave Colorado November 28th, and I plan to be in Belgium the following week. New adventure on the horizon!