Flemings in America: Roel Verrycken gets under the skin of the US


De Tijd journalist Roel Verrycken talks about reporting on the technology boom in Silicon Valley, from where he’s developing an insider’s perspective of his adopted homeland

Notes from a big country

Roel Verrycken from Antwerp is on a quest to better understand his current home: America, a gigantic country that really believes in itself, created by immigrants from all over the world. “Many people don’t have the right image of the country that I’m still trying to figure out every day,” he says.

De Tijd’s US correspondent might claim a certain lack of clarity, but there’s a solid basis for his opinions. He lived and worked in New York City for four years as a journalist until a few months ago when, extended contract in hand, he headed to Oakland, California, with his wife and child to report from the west coast.

With a focus on Silicon Valley, he specialises in technology but writes about broader issues for readers of the Flemish financial daily. “It’s an interesting experience to be in a different place, to pull myself away from that centre of gravity that is New York City and stand out a bit more with a more original base in the US. Our readers’ lives are being influenced by decisions made here in the San Francisco area.”

Verrycken has been repeatedly looking west, flying there a few times a year. “We thought it would be interesting for readers to know how their lives are changed by Silicon Valley decisions rather than by traditional power centres like Washington and New York,” he says. “A few years ago, no one had a smartphone, and now it’s central to how we organise our lives. It’s definitely a tech boom you feel at the moment.”

As for America, he says, “I get the feeling many readers in Belgium identify strongly with many parts of American culture, which results in outspoken feelings either positively or negatively. That’s rewarding when you write about events in the US.

“So when you write about Barack Obama or the Republicans or about the strategy of Apple, you get reactions. It's not surprising given how people are flooded with American culture, products, media. People in Belgium are very familiar with the US. You can’t escape it. We watch the TV series, the movies, listen to the radio. We watch the culture.” 

Not so black and white

As a journalist, he’s had the chance to travel around the country extensively. It’s helped him form an evolving opinion based on experience, as opposed to the media’s portrayal of America.

The US is too vast and amazingly diverse for most of the stereotypes out there

- Roel Verrycken

And it’s often a lot more nuanced than we’re led to believe, he says. “Yes, Americans can have horrible eating habits, but there’s also this tendency to be fit and healthy in many places. Yes, American society is harsh, with barely any kind of social infrastructure and conservative laws and huge issues in terms of race and social inequality, but there’s also a very strong sense of community and a climate that rewards entrepreneurship. 

“I guess I would just say that the US is too vast and amazingly diverse to live up to most stereotypes that are out there.”

Yet some of these stereotypes hold true for him. Americans in general, he believes, seem to have an inherently optimistic attitude, which, combined with their more extrovert nature, leads to more open and friendly communication. “Europeans often find Americans to be ‘fake’ in their friendliness. I think the opposite is true.”

And the food culture is related to that, he finds. “One of my favourite parts of American culture is diners. There’s something about their hospitality, the fact that they’re basically always open, that you’re always welcome, that they’ll always serve you any type of home-cooked food you want. The waitress fills up your coffee and calls you honey... That embodies the best of America’s open and friendly culture for me.”

All and nothing

Americans’ belief in themselves and in their country is also something  Verrycken finds endlessly fascinating. “The way the US came back from a horrible economic crisis compared to Europe has been fascinating to watch,” he says. “The downside of this is that American society can be really brutal for somebody who has bad luck.”

The way the US came back from an economic crisis has been fascinating to watch

- Roel Verrycken

For someone so well versed in American culture and who has visited more than half of the 50 states, it’s interesting to learn which areas of the country hold a strong attraction for Verrycken. He prefers the destinations often overlooked by visitors, and even residents.

“I’ve always found the Midwest a fascinating part of the country – they call it flyover country,” he says. “I don’t know where the boundaries start, but it’s a huge chunk of land with a lot of differences. I was in Ohio for the 2012 general election. Nebraska. North Dakota. That last one made a huge impression on me because it’s so isolated, but a big oil boom is going on there.”

North Dakota – considered one of America’s dullest states – has made one of the biggest impressions on Verrycken. “I have amazing memories from there, speaking to people with this ‘can do’ mentality, moving from all over the country to this faraway state to work in oil and make money. But there’s nothing else there. Despite that, people are so friendly, welcoming and genuinely interested in others.”

Photo courtesy http://roelverrycken.com/