American, dreaming?

The author in front of Liege City Hall with his new ID.

The author in front of Liege City Hall with his new ID.

The police officer feigned horror: “An American? Moving to Liege? But we all want to move there!” My wife Stephanie assured the officer, responsible for making home visits to confirm the stories of new emigrees in my neighborhood, that her American husband had in fact relocated to Belgium. But he could not quite get over it: “Is he SURE? Did he THINK about it?”

His reaction, it turns out, is pretty much the norm. Sightseeing and shopping downtown with my Mom and Pat a week ago—using my horrible French to translate—the small talk led to the same reaction. “Married to a Liegoise?” exclaimed the optician, while laughing, “Catastrophe!” A native of Montreal, it turned out, his partner in the shop was his wife of 30 years, also a Liege native.

The welcoming cleric at St. Paul’s Cathedral told us about the stained glass, and the art exhibit, and some other historical facts that went by rather quickly in French, and smiled broadly when I was outed as a new local: “The Liegois are intelligent and very nice,” he smiled, before rapping his knuckle against an enormous granite column, “But they have a head like THIS! No?”

We made a pilgrimage to a Belgian textile designer, Ariane Lespire, whose work is selling in the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. My mother had a picture of her scarf, and it turns out her workshop is not only in Liege but on our daily bus route. We poked through the whimsy of hats, scarves, and other adornments, while chatting with the designer and congratulating her on the MOMA gig. “MOMA,” she said, “It’s a nice place, no?” As we were leaving, she shook her head and laughed at the notion that an American had actually come here to live—the third person of the day to echo the same sentiment.

Most recently, the fruit store guy got in on the act. Working quicker than any psychiatrist you will ever meet, it took him about one minute to learn that Stephanie and I had met in Barcelona, were expecting a baby, that I was learning French in a local continuing ed. program, and that I had relocated from America. “But we all want to go there!” he said. “You know, the American Dream!”

While the locals obsess about the American Dream, I have been getting Belgian: in addition to regular consumption of gaufre de Liege (Liege-style waffles, not to be confused with the Brussels version) and boulet frites (meatballs in a sweet sauce, served with piles of fries), I have a Belgian Identity Card, a student ID, a bank account, and health insurance.

Each time Stephanie pulls out a 50 euro note ($62 US dollars, more or less) to pay for the gynecologist visit/ultrasound to check on the baby, I feel like I am on Mars. I called Cambridge Hospital early in the pregnancy to find out about the cost of an initial exam and ultrasound, and not only was the person in the billing office unable to quote a price, he was unable to understand my question, and the hospital never responded with a quote. A little googling reveals an average cost for a single pregnancy ultrasound in my old zip code–without accompanying doctor visit–at $1300. Multiply that times the six ultrasounds we’ve had here so far…

Perversely—and I write this as a long-time and fervent supporter–Planned Parenthood, which seemed the obvious call as we were planning our parenthood, offered us no medical support at all. A lengthy discussion with the Boston headquarters suggested that our only option for an ultrasound there was to go in and pretend we wanted to terminate the pregnancy!

In Liege in our first visit the GYN doctor very clearly summarized her fees for following the pregnancy and delivery. She estimated the total for her prenatal care, delivery, and hospital charges at 2,000 Euros ($2800), against an American total of more than $16,000. Last week, in an intake visit with a midwife at the delivering hospital, the very helpful sage-femme (wise woman!) went over a booklet the hospital provides, a comprehensive guide for new parents. Imagine my shock: there in black and white was a whole section called ‘How much it costs.’

Perusing the xeroxed cost-list of having a baby, I could no longer listen to anything the midwife said. I just stared at the page, at the prices which seemed surreal: for example, $188 for a shared hospital room for four days, including a medication supplement. The annual premium for our health care is 120 euros for Stephanie, myself, and soon the kid as well. $168 per year for a family of three. We purchased an expensive ‘single room supplement’ which costs twice the price of the actual policy, and will allow us privacy during the hospital stay (and which we will cancel after the birth). Still, including the supplement, total annual cost of health care coverage for three: $530/year. (By comparison, for the move to Belgium I had picked up an international catastrophic care policy, premiums approximately $1000/year, with a $5000 deductible. Bye, bye, catastrophic care…)

I had my first doctor’s visit yesterday, with a dermatologist who examined me, confirmed a diagnosis, and charged 40 euros ($52). At the pharmacy, the three medications he prescribed came to a total of 9 euros and change, which S’ discount card brought down to 5 euros ($7). The fee I paid the doctor, as well as the 50 euro payments for each GYN visit, are partially reimbursed by our Belgian health care. So while we do not have 100 percent coverage, we have access to health care that is comprehensive, affordable, priced transparently and in line with real wages and salaries.

Meanwhile back to the American Dream: the Republican fringe is threatening to shut down the US government in a last-ditch effort to derail universal health care, and the Koch brothers have mounted a perverse and insidious ad campaign to try and sabotage the system by convincing young healthy people not to enroll in the new health plan. The same politicians have also rallied to cut food assistance for the needy, and staunchly defend the right of every citizen to carry a weapon. Can there be a more cynical public policy in the world? Starve ’em, let them get sick, and shoot ’em.

I am sitting here in Belgium thinking that a significant portion of the US population has been lobotomized; or rather, would have been lobotomized, if the costs were known and the procedure affordable.

(click here for a brilliant op-ed from Britain’s the Guardian on gun control).

(click here for a NYT piece detailing one man’s trip to Belgium for a hip replacement.

Shuffling Papers

S. and I happy that the paper chase was over.  Or was it?

S. and I happy that the paper chase was over. Or was it?

The most shocking thing about trying to make a baby was that it worked, the very first time. An anonymous pharmacist in Brussels was the first to hear the news; with a headache, and perhaps an embryo, Stephanie asked (in French) for ‘something safe in case of (muffled word here).’ Behind her, listening intently, I missed the key word: ‘PREGNANT.’ I hissed, ‘Did you say it?’ She elbowed me, ‘Yes!’ ‘Are you sure you said it?’ The pharmacist glowered at us as though Stephanie and I were a pair of unlucky teens

Confirmation came via text message–after a 7:30 AM blood test a few weeks later–between flights, as I headed home to Boston and Stephanie headed off on a two-week American tour: ‘First congratulations and best wishes from security woman.’ I could not quite believe my eyes, and nearly abandoned my flight for the planeload of Hasidic Jews at the next gate headed to Newark, to meet S. in New York. Thus began our ‘Pregnancy World Tour,’ a three-month odyssey involving intense planning to find time together in Belgium or Boston, and fast-forwarding a mad chase for some kind of diplomatic solution that would assure me of not missing the birth in Belgium.

Deciding to relocate to Belgium with Stephanie, and raise our child there, was not that difficult. I have always loved Europe and have a great network of friends and work opportunities. My work in the US had become ‘adjunct for life’ at a pair of prestigious Northeast Universities, jobs I was happy to have but that required more driving than actual classroom instruction. My local classes—the famous Saturday Morning Classes—and private lessons in Cambridge were wonderful, but not nearly lucrative enough to pay even a studio apartment in Greater Boston.

S. has a house, a fantastic job with an internationally renowned orchestra based in the Netherlands, and a large, loving family nearby. Her orchestra provides free day care—right now there are 9 or 10 orchestra children at the creche–during morning rehearsals: musicians tumble out of their cars with kids in tow, drop them off across the street, settle in for three hours of music-making, pick up their kids after rehearsal, and head home. I was flabbergasted when S. told me that Belgium sends each family a monthly stipend of 150 euros (around $200) for the first child, to support the kid in any way necessary. I was too shocked to listen: ‘For 18 months they send the money?’ ‘No, 18 YEARS’. The stipend increases at a reduced rate with each subsequent child. Imagine: monthly government support for raising children.

Deciding to remarry was largely bureaucratic: a helpful contact in the Belgian consulate in NYC, answering my numerous visa questions, suggested via email that the easiest way for me to move to Belgium would be to marry, then apply for the ‘family reunification’ visa. I forwarded the email from the consulate to S. with the added line “marriage? could it get more romantic than proposal by email with forwarded info from the consulate?” Marriage also guarantees our ‘unborn genius’ dual citizenship.

If anyone would like to see my FBI background check–‘no prior arrest data at the FBI’– I don’t need it.(While I was relieved to find that the FBI had no record of the four grams of pot I sent myself from Amsterdam in 1993, those clever FBI devils, however, now have my fingerprints on file.) Having abandoned the quest for a ‘cohabitation visa’, which involved more paperwork and a longer wait time, I can also offer up: the Cambridge Police Department statement of record–‘NO CRIMINAL HISTORY RECORD’; a certificate of residency in Cambridge–‘this is to certify that Joshua Hilberman is a registered voter in Cambridge, MA’; and a ‘medical certificate for family reunification and cohabitation’ stating that I have been examined and found free of ‘illnesses requiring quarantine…pulmonary tuberculose, active or progressive…(and) other contagious or transmittable diseases by infection or parasites.’

Easily the most disturbing difference in the paper chase for marriage versus cohabitation was that, though simply living together required a health check, marriage allows me to bring unlimited communicable diseases, tuberculosis, and parasites to my new homeland.

Applying for the marriage license together in front of the clerks at city hall was funny: S. turned bright red having to hold up her right hand and swear that her statements were truthful, and I felt strangely relieved when the form asked ‘Is this your 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc., marriage?’ The form actually offers ‘etc.’ with a blank line to fill in infinite marriages. The fact of it being my 2nd seemed suddenly mundane.

Repeated trips to city hall in Cambridge and Liege were required to ensure our marriage would be recognized by the Belgian authorities. This included tracking down 8 middle names of S. and her parents, complete with accents going two directions, and umlauts. When I inquired about the accents and umlauts, apparently crucial to Liege city hall, the response was loud, hostile, clear: ‘Sir, the English language has 26 characters, no accents or anything else. That would make it NOT English!’

The 13-week ultrasound in Liege revealed a large-headed creature—an improvement over the initial test which pretty clearly showed a potato—which prompted S. and I to say to each other, simultaneously, ‘It looks like YOU!’ Two weeks later S. was in Cambridge and we walked down Mass. Ave to Cambridge City Hall to tie the knot.

Our 8-minute ceremony with only my mom and Pat in attendance went off almost like Obama’s first inaugural oath of office. I repeated the vows, then the justice of the peace turned toward S: ‘I, Joshua’–S. dutifully repeated–‘take you, Stephanie’–also dutifully repeated, at which point I began to wonder if I was the only one listening. After a short silence, we all began to laugh. S. said later, she was so nervous about getting the English right that she assumed the J.P. had said ‘Hi, Joshua’!

All forms for visa applications are certified by apostille, an international form of notarizing documents that most people will never encounter. Your local secretary of state office provides the service so that official documents in the US can be recognized by foreign governments. The MA secretary of state public records division, in downtown Boston, charges $6 per document: you provide notarized originals, and they attach via lovely blue ribbon and gold sticker an official MA cover sheet. If public records ran the rest of local government, Greater Bostonians would all be thrilled with the results.

We bolted city hall with both marriage certificates plus two certified copies of the application–umlauts and accents clear for all to read–taking the T to the secretary of state for apostilles. Then we drove to NYC to deliver my dossier to the Belgian consulate. Observing my agitation as the clock was ticking, my Israeli friend in NYC said, ‘What, you think there’s going to be a line of people beating down the door to get into Belgium? You want a line, you should come with me sometime…’ We were in fact the first and only people in the ‘visa’ line at the consulate, my amended passport with visa was returned an amazing 2 business days later, and a simple formality in Liege will net a 5-year family reunification visa which also serves as a work permit. The paper chase was over!

Back in Belgium, triumphant, S. took the MA apostilled marriage certificate and application–down to Liege city hall. Somehow in the quest for proper punctuation, we had overlooked one of her mother’s three middle names. Belgium recognizes our marriage, but without the 15th family name on the marriage certificate we are not allowed to buy property together, engage in any number of other legally married behaviors, or get divorced. For $50, Cambridge city hall will make the correction, as long as S. appears in person with her birth certificate, and then we can make one LAST trip to the secretary of state’s office, one LAST trip to the town hall in Liege…and then we can get busy changing diapers.