Banter from Brabant

Friday, July 20, 2007

Health Care Systems

I recently had to see a doctor (nothing serious) and I must say it was a very interesting experience. My appointment was at 9:00am and I was instructed to arrive early to fill out paperwork given that it was my first visit. I arrived about 10 minutes early to find that the receptionist was not yet in the office. A couple of other people had arrived before me and naturally, we queued up in the order we arrived. The receptionist arrived about 5 minutes late – 9:05am. She rushed in, knocked on her own door (which I found rather puzzling), entered her office and then closed the door without so much as a word or acknowledgment. We all glanced at one another questioningly, but none of us said anything or made move to enter the receptionist’s office. Given that I was already late for the appointment and work, I was a bit irritated by this seeming incompetence.

About 5 minutes later, the receptionist opened the door and called in the first visitor. When she was done (as she was just given a form to fill out), the receptionist again shut the door without a word to the others waiting in line (and by this time, there was about 10 of us). This went on until I was finally seated in the waiting area (merely a hallway with a couple of chairs) to see the doctor. By this time, I was 40 minutes late for my 9:00am appointment – something that just wouldn’t fly in the US.

Finally at 10:10, I was seen by the doctor. At this point, I was wholly irritated and had been thinking about how inefficient this Belgian system is. While the health care may be cheap, I really questioned whether this is a better way. My confidence in the system was restored, however, when I saw the doctor.

While the process may be slow to see the doctor, the visit turned out to be rather efficient. In the US, I would have had to see the doctor, go to the lab to have tests run and then return to see the doctor. Here, it was a one-shot deal. The doctor did it all and I was in and out within 5 minutes – and I was very grateful for that. The only concern that I had was that she was not familiar with an allergy that I have to medication… and she didn’t seem all too concerned about it. She prescribed the medicine and told me to come back if I experienced a reaction. Fair enough, and luckily, I do not appear to be reacting to the meds.

There are three striking observations that I made outside of the efficiency issues. First, the US This visit made me understand that some things are really unnecessary - as well as wasteful. For instance, is it really necessary to wipe my hands (and other unmentionables) with alcohol pads before I give a urine sample? In Belgium, it certainly is not. In fact, the doctor didn’t even wear gloves when she accepted my sample (something I did find a little gross – especially when she shook my hand afterwards).
seems overly obsessed with sanitary measures – probably to a fault.

Secondly, you pay the doctor in cash for the visit – directly. I had to shovel out 20 euro on demand, and then I submit the bill myself to the insurance company. At least it was only 20 euro – I am sure this appointment would have been at least $200 in the US. Thank goodness for socialized health care!

Finally, the visit to the pharmacy proved interesting. I had my prescription filled immediately but instead of giving me the usual 10 antibiotic pills that are necessary, I was given a whole box of 50. I found this quite strange… what am I to do with the other 40 pills? Save them for a rainy day?

All in all, there are pros and cons to each system but if they found a way to integrate the pros from both, I think the turn around times per visit would be far more efficient. I was also impressed that the doctor seemed willing to spend all the time I needed without worry of the others who were waiting to see her. I did get to ask a few questions that I had from a more personal interest point of view and she didn’t seem to be annoyed with spending an extra couple of minutes in discussion.

And for those of you who are dying to know why I saw the doctor but can’t guess based on the info I provided, it turns out that I have a UTI. And for those of you who don’t know what that is – lucky you! I’ve had enough of them in my life and I think I should be on a list to get drugs on demand without seeing a doctor when they crop up. If only such a list existed…

There is more to come… we will soon write about our experiences with our Belgian friends, work and the next few months so stay tuned;)

Monday, July 09, 2007


In February a friend had a party in Brussels that coincided close enough in time to my birthday that it was considered to be for my birthday by the guests. This party was hosted by our (married) friends Nico and Luciana from Argentina/Spain/Italy... (Argentines seem to commonly have multiple citizenships). This party began with a game of Risk that lasted 7 hours and had to end with a peace agreement rather than world domination. Interestingly, another time we tried a round of Risk, the game also lasted 7 or more hours only to end in armistice rather than domination. This reflected a continuous shifting of alliances that effectively blocked significant gains made by anyone cashing in Risk cards (we got past the 60 armies mark with no victor!). For anyone that plays Risk... this is an unfathomable outcome.

In this particular risk game, it was an American from Louisiana and an Egyptian from Cairo playing together -- both good friends of ours -- and holding on to Africa most of the game. The Argentine of course struggled to hang on to South America while the girls (Beth, Luciana and Keisha of the Bahamas), with their German 'advisor' who was actually in the German Army, were centered around Greenland (Canada and Northern Europe). I held Australia after taking it from a Greek guy who was eventually relegated to Irkutsk and decided to end himself in a tragic display of Greek 'heroism' against the dominant power - at that point me. This crippled me significantly. However, the self-proclaimed victor (and decidedly dominant power at the end) -- after armistice was signed -- was an Italian that held most of Asia and North America.

Aside for that little spiel about the Risk game, what was interesting about this party was that 10 or 11 nationalities were represented and the party was a great time and went quite late. Everyone got along quite well.

Now, six months later, we had a party/BBQ in our backyard. Many of the same people were here. However, we also invited the friends of ours from Leuven (both those we met through Beth's program and some Flemish guys we met randomly at a bar and eventually became good friends with). This party had about 10 or 11 nationalities represented again, however, had one other aspect: a two crowd social division. While Beth and I, along with Bert and Peter the Flemish friends mixed between the two cliques, they themselves did not interact much with each other. Namely, the people from Leuven in Beth's program sat on one side of the lawn while the people from Brussels in my school sat on the other.

I find that it is interesting that people can become fast friends across continents when they have very little choice and know nobody, however, in less than a year, social groups have already coalesced and intermixing becomes more difficult. This reminded me of the dinner parties we used to have in Minneapolis, or should I say Kelley's dinner parties, where the St. Paul and the Minneapolis crowds did not mix voluntarily despite having mutual friends. Fascinating.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Retrospective Post Number One

The Dean has Left the Building

Over Christmas break the students of BSIS were informed that our dramatic musclehead Dean ‘resigned’ from his position. As the guy founded the Brussels School (as a department of the University of Kent in Canterbury [UK]), and spent the last 10 years as Dean, it was a rather sudden announcement.

After a brief Q and A session regarding this subject, the students were implicitly informed that the cause behind this sudden departure was indeed a titanic confrontation between massive egos. Our Dean’s muscled up ego against a group of British overlords in Canterbury resulted, quite predictably, with the forced resignation of the Dean. It appears that this was a typical power struggle over future direction, offered courses and financial allocation (and, assumedly, all the things that “powerful” positions entail), injected with a healthy dose of haughty superiority complexes. Interestingly, a few of the female students, most particularly an American girl, were utterly devastated by this turn of events – clearly reflected in their shrill protestations at the Q and A session. This particular American, who previously, in one of the “Student Council’s” dubiously appropriate fundraising schemes, donated some 175 odd euros in order to have one ride on the Dean’s Harley (Yes, this guy drives a Harley in Europe), protested to such a level that she claimed she came to the school and subsequently staked her entire academic career on this guy. Hmm…

Fortunately, aside for the unexpected and rather bizarre despair exhibited by some of the girls, this was opportunity for those of us in the International Political Economy program. Because our program is run by Dr. Azmanova, (the former Bulgarian agitator and product of the New School), we were positively affected by the change. Of course, she was immediately saddled with more work and thus less time for the IPE students, however, we were no longer subject to any meddling by the Dean and all in all, in retrospect, I believe the freedom of inquiry and student-inspired direction the program took in this power vacuum was a positive thing. I do not think this student involvement in decision-making (for instance we basically designed an instructive intermediate macroeconomics course with guest professors coming from Canterbury to teach us) would have happened were it not for the Dean’s departure which created space for Azmanova and her democratic sentiments. Of course I do not know what happened behind the scenes…

Sunday, May 13, 2007


So I (Doug) have now finished my exams and have only a 40 page thesis to write by August (Snap)... At this point my academic standing is the best its ever been. We shall see after the exams are corrected -- I am confident it will be maintained.

The last 5 months were rather tumultuous so major apologies for not writing. I think the forthcoming postings (if anyone is still reading this), will have to be retrospective about, well, the people... Those that we have met, grown to adore, grown to despise, etc... Or we could write about what we have been learning. What Adam Smith actually said, Immanuel Kant's ethics, Marxist applications to the concept of 'human capital' (good stuff there), Feminist Ethics, why there used to be a welfare state, Consequentialism, liberal arguments for US hegemony (world domination), Marxist deontological ethics, why the French are French and the Americans are Americans (J.J. Rousseau vs. James Madison)

So if anyone still reads this blog... of course we certainly understand if you don't due our negligence, make a post soon and we will try to revitalize the blog...

Sunday, January 21, 2007

It’s been awhile. There are a few reasons for that, namely laziness and busyness. I (Beth) am full into exam season, which means that I am studying hard and relaxing little. I guess when we come down from a time of extreme busyness, we need a lot of laziness to recover. Unfortunately, it appears that my upcoming semester will not allow for much laziness.

In any case, we are very much alive (in response to the last comment from Martha). Perhaps you heard about the interesting weather in Europe? It appears that Belgium experienced the mildest of the winds. Nonetheless, Doug had some trouble returning to Leuven from Brussels. The weather caused chaos for travelers and workers as the wind shut down train lines, preventing most from reaching their desired destinations. According to Doug, the message at the train station was indeterminate delay. After a four hour battle with the train, Doug finally arrived. Actually, he did not battle for long – he found relief in the home of a friend and fellow classmate in Brussels while he waited out the worst of it. (So don’t feel too sorry for him;)

Despite the wind (which reached max speeds of close to 65mph in Belgium, I believe), the weather has been alarmingly warm. In general, the temperature stays pretty close to 50 degrees – give or take. It appears that in the course of the next week, that will change and we’ll have some more wintry weather. I see the US has already had a fair dose of that.

As for Christmas, it was lovely. We spent some time in Paris (4 days) where we saw the Eiffel Tower, Napoleon’s Tomb, the Sacre Coeur, the Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe amongst other things.

We visited the Louvre and saw the Mona Lisa – and apparently people ONLY go there to see her. It was Christmas Eve, and we were surprised at the fact that we did not have to wait in line to enter. We wandered about the various sections filled with ancient artifacts and sculptures where it seemed that we were two of very few tourists to be visiting the museum. As soon as we hit the section with the Mona Lisa, our sense of solitude was over. All of a sudden, there were at least 500 hundred people milling about, with at least 300 packed into the room with the Mona Lisa. Given that I dislike crowds, we caught a glimpse of the painting (barely as it was difficult to see over the heads of the many in front of us) and made our exit.

Other than that, we walked around much and tried to explore as much of the city as possible in four days. It was exhausting, but magnificent. Paris is a most impressive city with much to admire.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Five Weeks in Brussels

So, I figure I should write something about the school I am attending in Brussels. The school is small with about 100 Master's students and a few PhD students. The faculty is compromised by four main professors and a couple adjuncts.

"The Dean" is the main professor for the dominant International Relations program. (My program is International Political Economy). He is very difficult to take seriously. He is about 45 and, as it is the very first thing posted on his public resume, his "Marital Status is Single.' He obtained his PhD from the University of Kent when he was 23 -- a fact that he has stated more than once. He has meticulously styled long hair that he continually brushes back in a deliberately dramatic fashion while giving lectures about the merits of Positivism in Social Science. If any of you have SS degrees, you will know that positivism is the use of natural science methodology in the social sciences and suffers from the severe shortcomings. Not only does it masquerade as objective truth when contradictory empirical evidence usually exists, it also fails to capture the 'unobservables' such as cultural distortions on reality perception. He of course used natural science examples in medicinal advancement as proof of the validity of Positivism in Social Science. Such is an invalid set of examples.

Another fact he oft reminds us of is his regular attendance at the 'gym' to pump some iron. However, this he does through obviously conscious body language rather than actual words. For instance, he will have a sport jacket on at the beginning of lecture but, sometime through the hour, when the attention is focused on him, he will casually take it off and drape it over the chair. Lo and behold, what does he wear under the jacket but a ridiculously tight muscle-shirt! And soon we have him flexing like Uncle Rico. The guy is an eye-roller I tell you. Of course the general consensus is that he is after the female students -- but nothing has thus far been confirmed.

However, with said personal opinions aside, some of his lectures are clear and useful. I would not however think him up to par with the faculty member responsible for the International Political Economy (IPE) program. She is originally from Bulgaria and was an active student during the 1989 revolution there. She obtained a PhD from the New School of Social Research which is a highly influential university for a particular strand of contemporary Social Science Theory -- along with Frankfurt in Germany (The Frankfurt School). A likeable strand of thought in my opinion. She is more of a 'teacher' than the Dean and is easily approachable with questions. I am taking a class with her called ‘States, Markets, and Society.’ Good stuff.

The other two main professors of the school are leaders of the Law and Migration Studies areas and therefore I have less contact with them. However, I am taking a law class entitled International Economic Regulation, which, I must say, is quite enlightening. This is taught by the main Law Professor – a Dutchman with a British English accent. The class mainly points out the lack of actual international economic regulation from a legal point of view. If one were to compare the amount of regulations for domestic commerce, the international scene is quite light. Because international commerce has been accelerating faster than legalities can be worked out between countries, private companies have been opting for arbitration of disputes by an ‘international arbitration tribunals’. These are also private. Therefore, the international commercial/legal field could be described as having two groups of lawyers (private corporate representation, and lawyers from arbitration tribunals) creating de facto laws of international commerce behind closed doors. From this critical point of view, the argument states that these groups are undermining democratic legitimacy in the creation of de facto laws without congressional debate. However, because the arbitration panels have no enforcement mechanism, the value of the judgement is based on the good-will of both parties. Therefore, these tribunals only erode democratic legitimacy if national governments enforce the arbitration results. Evidently, for the sake of free-markets, governments tend to do so. Perhaps a student of law could tell me how I am oversimplifying this? Hmm...

ANYWAY, we could say its all a bunch of biased academic BS spewed forth by 'liberal professors', and even worse, liberal European professors! I need some no-spin O'Reilly Factor over here to relieve some of this mind-pollution with dose of O’Reality! Har har. So, by the way, how is the media environment now that elections are almost upon us? I bet it is fun.

Friday, October 13, 2006

A Fine Day

As I was walking home from class this morning, I took notice of the beautiful day – warm, sunny – I am talking mid-60’s, which I understand is unseasonably warm for Belgium. It has been fairly dry as well with little rain in the past 2 weeks. I think I have used my umbrella just twice since I arrived!

I decided to compare this fine weather with the states. Now I hate to gloat, but 35 – feels like 25? What? (I guess it is about 6am there…) It is sure to snow on Halloween – and I will be thinking about you poor mothers and fathers who will be walking around endlessly during Trick or Treat. I do hope for finer weather. In fact, I remember one such Halloween… a foot of snow, but Sam and I were bound and determined to get our candy, much, I am sure, to my mother and father’s dismay. Does anyone remember our costume that year? Were we snow people? ;)

Do not be too jealous… while it is a fine day and appears that it will be a fine weekend, I am not to enjoy it. First, we have been jolted from sleep nearly each day this week by an incessant jack-hammering. It seems that in Belgium, it is perfectly acceptable to begin such noisy work at 6:30AM! Unbelievable. Those of you who know me will understand… I am not a morning person. If they are work over the weekend, there may be war. In addition to being tired, I have an alarming amount of papers and presentations during the month of October, which will keep me chained to the library all day, every day. I will be heading there shortly after my lunch of tuna melt and chicken noodle soup (which is more like chicken broth, actually).

Despite being tired, I am enjoying the day for what it is. I had an early class, and I am starting to appreciate the early start to the day. (Perhaps the biological clock is ticking in? I don’t think so…) On my way home from class, I have the luxury of enjoying a street market. Many of you know how I loved the farmers market in Minneapolis… and this one is ten times better (albeit a bit more expensive. The produce is the same price as the grocery store – sometimes more). The market itself is quite large – it spans all over the city, and you can really get lost in it. Today, I found a few things that I have been looking for such as homemade rhubarb sauce, dried cranberries, pumpkin seeds, etc. These things are not found in the grocery store. There are endless clothing sellers, bakeries, delis, produce sellers, crafts, and the list goes on and on.

And so I am off to the library to study. Tonight, we will be visiting a new friend (from Poland). It is apparently her name day, which is similar to a birthday, only you celebrate on the day that your name is assigned. (I think they have a similar custom in Russia?) So two parties in one year to celebrate yourself;) I don’t know quite what to expect.