Inspiring Awe and Envy

My girls, Chloe and I in the courtyard of the Country Riding Club, 1996

I'm not sure that I ever really appreciated what it meant to live in the United States, until I lived overseas. Oddly, it was another little group of expatriates - European expatriates - that opened my eyes.

Shortly after we moved into our home outside of Brussels, I was visited by a neighbor, an American expat from Texas, who had clearly made a real life for herself overseas.

Coincidentally, we were both horsewomen. We talked horse-talk for a few minutes, before I asked her, how she managed to get an invitation to the local, private riding club. She hesitated in her response, perhaps anticipating that I was going to expect her help, in getting my foot in the door. We shared a few awkward moments, and then she very bluntly told me, that she'd previously sponsored an American, who it seems wasn't the rider she'd represented herself to be. After making quite the fool of herself, the woman was asked to leave the club. Apparently, the pretty little Texan felt responsible for the fiasco and was worried about sticking her neck out again.

I expressed my sympathy and assured her, that I had no intention of asking her to do anything that might jeopardize her standing with the Belgians at the club. At that point, she apologized for feeling the need to be cautious, and explained that Americans in general, have a reputation throughout Europe, for being brash. She further explained, that she herself had worked hard to overcome the stereotype, and couldn't afford the embarrassment of having another American tear down the good-will she'd worked so hard to engender. I certainly wasn't going to argue with that - passed the cookies - and changed the subject.

A few days later, my new friend called to say that the owner of the club had a wonderful horse up for lease that might be perfect for me. She also offered to introduce me to the little group of men and women she rode with every day. I was overwhelmed, ecstatic and terrified, all at once! This woman was offering me the keys to the kingdom, and all I had to do was - not be offensive?

The only thing I was confident about, was my riding. Unless, they put me on some raging stallion, I knew I'd hold my own there. However, I was new to Europe and to the formalities associated with their culture. I certainly didn't want to do anything that would draw negative attention to myself or my country, for that matter. I was given the name and telephone number of the horse's owner and told he was expecting my call. "But I don't speak Flemish," I stammered. I was told not to worry, "Theirry speaks French." Oh God, French! I was in real trouble.

Brooke and Balkon at the club in Belgium. She loved him as much I did.

As it turned out, (Theirry spoke almost perfect English) I fell in love with the horse, and was offered a half-lease. Happily, my riding and personality passed muster enough that I was invited to ride with my neighbor's friends, a small group of well-to-do, retired and semi-retired members of the European diplomatic services. The group rode together twice a week - one day au pied de terre (cross country) and one day in the manege (arena). I could handle that!

Each month a different rider was responsible for planning a longer group ride out into the forest where we'd tie the horses, sip champagne and picnic on the forest floor. On one occasion, we rode out to the most quaint little three hundred year-old restaurant, accessible only by coach, foot or horse, and dined there.

Riding out into the Foret with Brittany and Chloe (on leash).

On days that we rode indoors, we'd ride as a quadrille team, to music. It was so much fun and something I'd never done before. Afterward, we gathered in the pub for a formal lunch (every riding club in Europe has a restaurant and pub). I was in heaven!

MaryAnn, the little Texan, was the darling of the group of ten riders, who were mostly in their fifties and sixties. The eldest member, Bridget, celebrated her eightieth birthday the week I first rode with the group.

With the exception of one Belgian and MaryAnn, the riders were all European expats, that had settled in Belgium over the course of fifty years. French was the common language between them, but most spoke fluent German and English, which I didn't realize until later. All had traveled to the United States at least once. One couple of German origin, had lived in New York in the 1970s, while working at the United Nations.

Brooke, Bridget, Nikita (horse), Britt and Baby Cool (pony) in front of the club.

At the end of my first month, we were enjoying lunch when MaryAnn announced that her family would be returning to the States. The little group was crushed and I was devastated. MaryAnn had been my shoulder to lean on, my translator and interpreter, as well as my friend.

After lunch, Silke, a very poised and serious German woman, anticipated my despair and pulled me aside. In perfect English, which I'd never heard her speak before, she scolded me for considering leaving the group as well. "You are a smart woman," she cajoled, "and its time you stand on your own two feet." She put her arm around me and slipped a small piece of paper, upon which she had written her name and phone number, into my hand. I was told to consider her a friend and call if ever I needed or wanted to talk.

The next week at lunch, the entire group began conversing in broken English. I was astounded. Once everyone was settled, Silke began tapping her glass of champagne (Belgians drink a lot of Champagne) to elicit the groups attention. She then commanded everyone to return to French, insisting that I would never learn the language if they placated me. I was mortified and disappointed but I knew she was right.

From that day on, my entire European experience was defined by my little circle of French speaking friends. They encouraged me in my struggle with the language, and informed me on all aspects of European life. They went out of their way to make me feel as though I was one of them, inviting me into their homes and introducing me to their families. I reciprocated, hosting a dinner party at our home, where we did speak English, at their insistence.

As friendly as we were however, I felt there was always a slight tension between us, especially when I became too familiar. I continually reminded myself, that Europeans are used to a certain formality and I needed to respect that.

As the months wore on, my friends began to show more interest in my life in the States and seemed more willing to share their thoughts and feelings about our culture. I was dumbfounded at the awe they expressed at our inventiveness, independent spirit and can-do attitude. They obviously admired those attributes and conceded that they contributed to the material success of the nation.

Balkon and I in the Foret

I also found, that many of their observations were indeed spot-on. They often charged that Americans were like spoiled children that didn't realize how lucky they were and how much they had.

One day, Silke complimented a holiday sweater I was wearing (no such thing in Europe). She mentioned that when she visited a friend in the States for a week, she never wore the same article of clothing twice. Another friend recalled his wonder at the fact that every American car is equipped with air conditioning.

I began to realize that a lightly veiled shroud of jealousy hung between us. It was the tension I felt. I'm sure, that MaryAnn had been equally astute.

About a year after I'd joined, I heard that the American that had been asked to leave the club was actually quite an accomplished horse-woman. It was her attitude that caused the problem. It seemed she suffered from what my husband and I referred to as ugly-American-syndrome. If MaryAnn had been apprehensive about my entering her world, it was because she was being protective of her friends and their culture. She didn't want them hurt.

I returned to the States, a different person in many ways. For one thing, I vowed that I would never take my good fortune at being an American for granted again. Americans are indeed blessed. I also realized that, along with our affluence, comes responsibility. Affluence is not something to be used to fan the fires of jealousy, but neither is it something to be ashamed of and apologized for. The inventiveness, independent spirit, and can-do attitude that Europeans both respect and envy, is what made our country prosperous and we Americans unique.

Dad, feeding Balkon menthol cough drops, his favorite (CA).

Footnote: When I said I fell in love with the horse, I meant it. Balkon was a huge, 18 hand, Belgian jumper, blinded in one eye (no physical evidence) by a thorn in a steeple chase hedgerow. I shared my lease with a friend of Balkon's owner. When I found she'd been mistreating him, I convinced Theirry to sell me the horse outright.

When our European tour ended, I couldn't imagine leaving Balkon behind, so we flew him home to the States with us. Balkon taught Rick to ride in the forest in Belgium, dodged alligators in Florida and learned to ride the western trials of southern California. He spent his final days in our backyard pasture. I will carry this gentle giant in my heart forever.

Sadly, I don't have any photos of my European friends.


  1. Thank you for bringing tears to my eyes. Ohhhh Balkon... Thank you for sharing about YOUR life in Belgium. Goodness I was such a self absorbed teenager! Shame on me! I had no idea what it was like for you.

    Americans have no idea how good they do have it. It is disgusting. And heavens knows I am guilty as well.

    ps: that picture of Britt with the pony is labeled wrong. That is Bridget, Nikita and myself posed with her.

  2. I was self-absorbed too. I have no recollection of that time of your life except that you all lived far across the pond from us and we didn't get to spend summers there!

    I do have a beautiful little "smoker" from Germany to show for your travels though!

    Such beautiful lessons captured and learned. Balkon was a gorgeous, gorgeous horse.