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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

From Grits to Frites, Season Deux

  After almost a year of writer's block, travel and just plain laziness, I'm back.  In the meantime, we've had a couple of trips back to the United States, several trips within Europe, gained and lost the same ten pounds, and have a new granddaughter, little Layla.   There has been little (well, almost none) improvement in my French.

  We flew back to Brussels just after New Year's.  After we landed, a bit sleep-deprived and probably a little drunk (from the compulsory First Class wine service), we walked the looonnnggg hall to passport control.  An official Dutch speaking lady checked my passport and asked me in English, of course,"How long are you going to be visiting?"  I replied that we lived here and then she asked for my Belgian identity card.  (The Belgium government keeps a firm grip on the affairs of the "etrangers" by registration at our local commune.)  Since I'd been in the United States for more than three months, my card had expired.  Miss Passport Control immediately noticed this.  I explained  why and she very pleasantly said, "Well, sometimes this can't be help."  Whew, okay, so I can go now?  I promise I'll register on Monday as soon as the office opens, okay?  Well, evidently not.  She calls her colleague who tut-tut  disapprovingly over my expired ID card.  "Please follow my colleague," she tells me.  And she keeps my card!

    Her colleague was a Germanic-looking dude who escorts me to The Room.  The Room was a very large room with two soft drink machines, and rows of black chairs around the periphery.  (They had told Brett to go get our luggage so I was alone in this room with no Euros for the soda machine.)  It was clearly a police station.  They asked me a few questions and left me sitting in The Room.  That's when I notice cots in one corner and was struck by the fear that I would be spending the night on a foldout cot in The Room.   Then, I noticed a box of toys. A nightmare--a night in The Room with kids?  Noooo!

   After about twenty minutes, the police dude brings me a piece of paper outlining the protocol to become a law-abiding registered citizen of Belgium.  Although I was out of there before Brett had received all of our luggage, I have more empathy that ever for the plight of undocumented aliens. 

   The next Monday, we gathered all the paperwork (sort of like a mortgage application) and made it to the Commune Office, took a number and a seat on the same ratty chairs and read the same French magazines that we tried to read six months earlier.  We picked up the card a week or so later but in that week, I kept a very low profile.

Monday, April 16, 2012

What happens in Amsterdam stays in Amsterdam

  We own a book called "1001 Places to See Before You Die" or something like that.  On the subject of The Netherlands, it suggested the seeing the tulips, visiting a coffeeshop and checking out the red light district.  And so last weekend, that's what we did.

   We drove to Amsterdam from Brussels.  It look about 3 hours but much of that was getting out of the Brussels gridlock on a Friday evening.  It was a very pretty drive with little farms with cows and sheep grazing near the highway.  We saw a lot of new windmills and several old windmills on the way.   The Netherlands is called Pays-Bas in French and it is truly flat as a pancake.  (More about pancakes later.)

   On Saturday morning, we drove to Keukenhof Gardens near the city of Lisse.  The gardens are only open from mid-March to mid-May and we arrived early in the morning.   The flowers were amazing.  Acres and acres of tulips, hyacinths (which smell wonderful), daffodils, daisies, and then there were swans, canal boats, windmills, wooden shoes and the whole Dutch scene.  Brett and I spent hours and took hundreds of pictures of these flowers.  By the afternoon, the parking lot was jammed.  It was such a peaceful and beautiful place...and then we went to Amsterdam.

   We got off the train and were immediately greeted by the strong aroma of marijuana and a bazillion people on bikes.  We had a lot to learn about the bikes.  Evidently, in Amsterdam, bikes have priority.  I'm not sure if I mentioned it before but "priority" is a big deal over here.  In Belgium, traffic coming from the right has priority.  This means that people entering the road from the right can pop right in front of you.  Frightening.  Also, pedestrians here have priority.  But the cars don't always seem to care and I don't want my dying words to be "Damn it.  I had priority!"

  Bikes in Amsterdam have their own section of the sidewalk (in red brick) and you do NOT get in their way.  They warn you with a little bicycle bell, ding ding, which is not easy to hear.  Our "Welcome to Amsterdam" scene was a burly male bike rider elbowing a pedestrian who got in his way in her face.   After that, I was very careful to stay off the red brick.

   We saw the tulips so the next things were the coffeeshops and the red light district.  We were warned to visit that district in the day time so Brett and I strolled through in the early afternoon.  It occurred to me that the prostitute seniority system may be similar to that of nurses in the US.  The young cute ones work night shift and the middle-aged ones with more seniority get day shift.  I guess that explains what we saw which were women far past their prime sitting in windows in their underwear.  It was really just sad.

    So in the evening, we visited a real Amsterdam coffeeshop.  They have a menu of different kinds of joints and hashish with bizarre names.  Brett and I chose only coffee in the coffee shop (random drug testing at his job) but we were in a smallish room with about a half-dozen other patrons who were enthusiastically imbibing in the herb.  The place was densely smoky and before we finished our coffee, we were both not quite right. I don't know what this stuff is but it seems very potent.

   The next day, we visited the Heineken Experience which was similar (but better) than the Coca Cola Museum in Atlanta.  We tried to go to the VanGogh Museum but it was so crowded that we only made the gift shop.  We reassured ourselves that we live so close by that we could come back at any time, but I believe the residual effects of the coffee shop just made us lazy. 

     We had some good meals, too, but the cuisine wasn't up to Belgian standards. (Who's a food snob?  I am.)  The best thing was a pancake (like a fat crepe) with melted Gouda and ham inside.  They have great seafood, too, of course.  And there were cats in the restaurants which I thought was very cool.

  So our next trip is back to the USA.  And I can't wait to see all my friends and family.  Two more weeks. Yay.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Wanted: Ruby Slippers

  This week, I had my first serious bout of homesickness.   Sara, Tessa and I all celebrate birthdays this week.   So this time is always like a little Christmas with multiple family celebrations.  Plus it's Easter and, although we are overwhelmed here in Brussels with chocolate bunnies, I miss the real spring weather.  (Actually, I was glad to skip the major pollen season but it's still cool and rainy here.)

  This is how miserable I was:  I wasn't in the mood to go to Paris.  That, I believe, is a sign of depression worthy of a little electroconvulsive therapy.  We had planned on a weekend in Paris and I chose to pull the covers over my head and stay in bed.  

   And instead of seeing the beauty in Europe, I'm zoning in on the graffiti, the trash on the streets, the piles of dog poop, omnipresent cigarette smoke, the difficult traffic and homicidal drivers. 

    So yesterday, I decided to be my own Cognitive Behavioral Therapist and forced myself to take some positive steps.   I went shopping on Avenue Louise and strolled through the fancy stores.  Do you know a Chanel purse costs about 3000 Euros?  Didn't buy one. (Sorry, Tess.)   We went to a more reasonable  shop where I found some shoes.  I thought my feet were big at a size 9, but here I'm a 40.  European dress sizes add 30 to a normal American size so if I were a size 8 (which I haven't been for 25 years), I'd be a 38.  Many items are so much more expensive here.  Levis cost 99 Euros, plain old regular jeans.  I'll save the shopping for the Mall of Georgia.

   We walked down the street and found an Irish pub.  I drank two pints of beer and met some nice people.  The bar maid had a beautiful British accent (she was actually a French-speaking Belgian) but explained she had an English boyfriend.  One regular came in with his cute little Jack Russell who was served a beer in a dog bowl.  I assumed the guy was Irish because he spoke flawless English, but he was actually Dutch.   He explained that his dog drank beer frequently but always knew when to stop.  I should learn from that dog.

   We went to a very nice dinner within walking distance from our house for a wonderful dinner at Le Passage.  Salmon appetizer, lobster for the second course and amazing lamb for the third, plus two desserts and matched wines.  Ahh, feeling better already.

    Happily, we are scheduled to come back in 3 weeks for a too brief trip to the U.S.   I want to see my friends and family so much.  I want Mexican food and to shop at Target.  I want to wear sandals, get a real pedicure and see the sun.   I want to click my Ruby Slippers together because there's no place like home.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

What I learned in Italy

1.  First, I learned that if one is lucky enough to be invited to a site visit to Italy with one's husband and is subsequently invited to a big fancy dinner with 10 of his Italian colleages, one should not go on and on about the books one is reading which portray Christopher Columbus as committing genocide and trashing Native American civilizations.   I forgot, for a minute, that the Italians admire Christopher Columbus.  I should have remembered that big Columbus statue on Columbus Street in Little Italy in San Francisco.

2.  Secondly, if  your husband's colleague at the above dinner orders the cavallo (horse), one should not gasp loudly and make the yucky face.  They find it offensive.  I tried to make up by raving about the meal.  The antipasto was amazing as was the wine and the bread. I don't think anyone who knows us would characterize either of us as "picky eaters."  I just don't want to eat horses or bunnies.  I used to have qualms about eating veal, but our hosts figured it was something Americans like and, so, they ordered for us.  It was really delicious and so was the cheesy polenta.  How come corn meal is disgusting when it's grits, but really wonderful when it's polenta? 

3.  I learned that my husband has a profound admiration for Italian women.  Their style, their bodies and their ability to walk on cobblestones in stillettos are very impressive.  There were as many lingerie shops in Descenzano as there are tattoo parlors in Panama City, Florida.  Sexy stuff for the men, too, though I've never known a man who wants anything but comfy underpants.

4.  I have discovered that I can take pretty good pictures with my Ipad.  The above is one of little little Italian alleys.  Brett liked to belt out the "Theme from the Godfather "when we were walking through these.

5.  Now I know that if you want a snack, this guy will slice off a hunk of this huge sausage.  It really was bigger than it looks.  Then you get some bread, some wine and you're good to go.   Once again, the food was amazing.

6.  I learned Shakespeare picked some pretty fabulous settings for his plays.  Venice, Verona, Padua were all around us.  We missed Juliet's balcony in Verona because we decided to go to Venice instead.  We passed all of these places on our train ride from Descenzano.  I'm going to need some more trips to Italy.

7.  I learned something very important about the Italian train.  First, it was pretty easy and fairly cheap to buy a ticket and the schedule was convenient.  We wouldn't buy the First Class tickets again.  The only perk was a little table, a couple of crackers and a "communion-sized" serving of wine.   It was such a beautiful trip with old stone barns, miles and miles of vineyards, and ancient churches.  The station was right in the middle of the city and was a huge, bustling place.  So we spent the day in Venice.  We drank, we ate, we shopped, we even had a gondola ride.  Our gondolier didn't sing to us but he did whistle. 

Finally, at dusk, we get back on the train to return to Descenzano.  As we arrived at our station, we started to gather up our things and head to the door.  But we couldn't figure out how to open it.  We looked around for help.  We pushed every single button that said "Aperto" and Brett tugged without success on all the handles.  And then... the train starts to roll out of our  station.  Oh crap, Oh merde, Oh Nooo!!! We slunk back to our seats and resigned ourselves to a trip to Brescia, the next stop.  (One of us was trying to see the humor in the situation and it was definitely not Brett.)   At Brescia, we were standing ready at the door, packages in hand and managed to exit the train.  It cost six extra Euros to retrace our steps and we had to  wait in the sketchiest train station we'd seen.  We saw a drunk and bleeding dude and a few other scary-looking folks.   Brett tucked his camera under his jacket and I kept a firm hand on my purse.  But the ride back was uneventful and quick.  A taxi ride home and we were back in our hotel with a bottle of Proseco.  Ahh.

The next day, we flew back to Brussels wiser than when we left.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Getting to know you...

   We're getting more familiar with our neighborhood.  Brett was amazed and profoundly happy (dancing in the street happy) that there is a official Weber dealer about 200 meters south of us.  While we were getting to know the merchants in the square north of our house, we didn't explore the south side of our neighborhood at all.  So when Brett googled "Weber dealers,"  he found one on our street.  They have all the stuff that he "needs" and lots of different models and accessories--wood chips, starter stuff, and staff that speak English.

  We also had a little uptick in our social life last weekend.  Brett's colleague, Monika from Germany, invited us over on Saturday.  She has a little 18-month-old son named Idriss whose dad is from Cote d'Ivoire.  She fed us chicken with African spices, rice and white-wine ice cream for dessert.  Yum. The little guy was the best eater I've EVER seen and it was fun hanging around a toddler for a few hours.

  On Sunday, we hosted Bryan and Sabrina whom we met at our cultural training class.  Sabrina, who is German, works for Brett's company in the Marketing Department and is stunningly beautiful--tall, skinny, young and gorgeous.  "The full catastrophe" to quote from Zorba the Greek.  Her husband, Bryan, is from Ireland.   Also pretty adorable.   And together, they've lived in Houston, Singapore, Ireland and now Belgium.  Sabrina and Bryan are the first people I've met who are dying to live in Houston.  Sabrina lived there as a teen-ager and she loved it.  Maybe it was youth. 

  We found "spare ribs" at our neighborhood charcuterie.  However, they had been soaked in a marinade that was very reminiscent of spaghetti sauce. Brett washed them off and rubbed them with the good old "Smokin' and Drinkin' BBQ Rub."  He also made some of his prize-winning chicken.  He fired up the barbie and then we were able to Skype into a service at our church. 

Thus, the ribs became to be a tiny bit "well done" but they were a big hit anyway.  Here's a "charcuterie-related" request.  I know I have a lot of well-educated wordly friends.  Can any of you tell me why they sell whole, skinned rabbits (with the head and ears) during Lent?  It's so upsetting.  I love bunnies and I have to make an effort to avoid finding the rabbit when we visit our meat guy. 

   Other discoveries include finding a Pilates class. It's an exercise which I like a lot because it seems like you get good results from little effort and you don't have to sweat that much.  I also had my first pedicure in Europe.  I couldn't figure out where to go or how to ask for one.  Today, I found a place on my way to Pilates.  Very different experience than in the US.  I was laying on a massage bed kind of thing (no soaking) when the pedicure dude, a cute guy in his mid-20s, did the pedicure.  They put on some kind of magic stuff  to dry the polish in 5 seconds, but no soaking, no massage or hot towels, no "pick a color."  They only had a few color choices and I chose red.  A good old American, i.e., Vietnamese,  pedicure is on my "To Do" list for our trip back in May.

   Finally, we just met a very friendly Belgian guy in line at the grocery store.  He struck up a conversation in English. I thanked him for English but said I really need to practice French.  He invited us to visit him in his "bureau" (office) around the corner where he spends most of the day and told us his friends would like to practice English and meet Americans.  His office turned out to be the main bar on the square. He's unemployed and just hangs out there all day. Sometime next week, we plan on joining Lucas (our new friend) at the pub to  practice our French.   The place looks pretty lively, but I never thought I'd fit in there. I hope they like us.  We'll see how it goes. 


Friday, March 9, 2012

True or False?

1.  French men pee on the sidewalk. 

Well, I'm not sure about French men, but the Belgians in my neighborhood do.  From my kitchen  window, I can see two streets in front of me and an empty lot across the street.  Of course, only a few dudes  pee on the sidewalk (8 that I've seen) , but they seem to do it when I'm washing dishes or making coffee.  And they look so secretive and sneaky and this is what they must think:  "Oooh, here I am standing in the corner, with my back (more or less) toward the street and my hands at groin level but you'll never guess what I'm doing.  If you see me, you might just think that I'm really interested in that layer of brick or the branch of that tree. You can just ignore the puddle under my feet." 

2.  Europeans smoke a lot.

Another true.   Before entering or exiting any building, one must run the gauntlet of smokers and they all seem to think that the world is their ashtray.   All ages, both sexes, where there are "No Smoking" signs and just in front of the gym.

3.  Belgians are very kissy.

Yet another true.  Well, anyway, the French speakers are.  There is the classic Belgian kiss (3 "air kisses" on alternating cheeks), the informal kiss (just one) and the virtual kiss (puckering up and smacking in the general direction of the kissee).  Thursday, I saw two bus drivers, big burly bus driver-looking guys, go through the whole kiss-kiss-kiss ceremony when these drivers were changing shifts.  I think it's really friendly.  I'm a little uncomfortable, though,  in the gym locker room when the women who are so, so, very much so, more comfortable with nudity perform the kiss stuff when they're nude. 

4.  Europeans are more comfortable with nudity.

Another resounding true. (See number 3)  Mannekin Pis is one of Brussels' most famous monuments.  It's a little chubby boy peeing.  Water actually issues from the kid.  I know that certain groups in the US would put a diaper on the kid.  TV shows frequently show much spicier scenes that we'd see on the other side of the pond.  The advertisements and shop displays prominently feature the female body.  And, of course, the art museums are full of subjects in various stages of undress.  Those Renaissance guys were such rascals.

4.  Europeans love food and wine.

This one is absolutely true... and why shouldn't they?  The wine is great and not too expensive and the food is wonderful even at the less fancy places.  The bread, cheese, fish, fruits and vegetables are available in a huge variety and all very good.   I read that Belgians will not tolerate bad food.  I like that in a person (or a culture).

5.  Europeans don't like Americans.

Mixed results on this one.  Most people are absolutely wonderful.  They are interested in where we're from and some have favorite American Football teams.  Most people are very willing to speak English or to teach us their language.  Many have travelled to America or say they want to.  American movies and TV series are very popular as is American pop culture, especially among the young.  Our first doubts came when the receptionist at our hotel in Antwerp was concerned enough to ask us if we'd experienced any discrimination because we are American.  We hadn't even considered it until then.  "Really?", we thought, "we are very nice people.  Why wouldn't they like us?"   The answer is:  They don't like George Bush.  At all.  Enough said.

Monday, March 5, 2012

500 Channels and Nothing's On

     I'd like to be I am one of those people who says "I never watch TV," but that would be a lie.  I loved Modern Family, The Middle,  The Today Show (even the part with Kathie Lee Gifford), HBO Series, TNT movies, and so on.   So here we are with our Belgacom Cable.  We truly do have somewhere around 500 channels, but approximately 10 per cent are in Italian (no subtitles), 10 per cent are in Arabic (including Al Jazeera), and 10 per cent are in German.  There are several more in English, mostly news, finance and BBC.  The BBC stuff is very well done, but there are lots of repeats.

   Then there are dozens and dozens  of kids shows.  See if these sound familiar:  "Quel d'neuf, Scooby Doo?"; "Dora, l'exploratice"; "Bob l'eponge" and the "Maison de Mickey".   Many more (like about 20), some in French and some in Flemish.

  Then there's a boatload of music shows, mostly pop music videos from the 80's or 90's.  Others are in Flemish, "Vlamsee Hits", or the Belgian version of The Voice.  Since I lost interest in pop music just before disco, there's not much for me.   There are also American soap operas dubbed in French and French soap operas also in French.  On the other hand, there are real operas, ballets and concerts as well.

    Today, I found "Ile Fantastique"-Fantasy Island.  De plane? De avion?  What's the difference?  There are old Perry Mason reruns subtitled in Flemish, too.  I've seen a lot of dead actors in the past two months.

   There are also lots of programs covering athletic events--soccer, rugby, cricket, ski-jumping, and bi-athalon.  A little more interesting that American football, but still not by favorite.

   There's one channel, the Catholic Channel, I guess, who just plays Mass over and over.  In French.

   So I'm practicing my French watching the French version of game shows with the same kind of corny hosts as they have in the USA.  The Family Feud emcee has a little white dog who, when I last watched, was humping the contestant's leg when the camera cut away. 

   So I'm reading a lot and trying to find Blu-Ray versions of movies we like because the format of regular DVDs is different in Europe.  So far we have Boardwalk Empire, Goodfellas  and The Firm.   I Tunes is a big help, too.

   Ooh, wait, I just found Animal English...about Meerkats.  Gotta go.