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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.


Friday, March 2, 2012

Now I KNOW I'm in Europe

   Last Wednesday, Brett and I returned from Berlin where I was visiting/Brett was working.  We did a whole bunch of sightseeing.  Berlin is a very interesting and beautiful city. Because most of the city was destroyed during WWII, there is a great deal of stunning modern architecture as well as some beautiful old buildings.  We visited Checkpoint Charlie, saw portions of the wall, and visited beautiful churches.  I also visited several museums by myself.  The Jewish Museum was incredibly touching.  The architure was amazing.


  Monday, I went to the Berlin Zoo.   It's a great zoo.  I saw animals there that I have never seen in other zoos. Dozens of different warthog and wild pig species live there; they were my favorite.  They had all the usual critters, big and small, and maybe because it was pretty cold, the animals were really active and frisky.  The zoo is very very big and then I visited the large attached aquarium and reptile exhibit. Then I walked back. the time I got back to the hotel, my dogs were barking.  There was supposed to be a spa, pool and sauna in the hotel so when Brett was through with his meetings, we went down to the pool. There was a jetted swimming pool but no hot tub which was what I really needed.  I told Brett that I'd be in the sauna while he was swimming.  Now, here's the European part.  There was a naked man sitting happily on his towel in the small sauna.  I turned around, rechecked the sign and hightailed it back to the pool where the following conversation took place.
Brett:  "Why didn't you go to the sauna?"
 Me:  "I did, but there was a naked man sitting there AND it was really small." 
Brett:  "You looked?!"  
Me:   "No!! The sauna was really small."

   About ten minutes later, the gentlemen walked passed us (no eye contact made) and Brett and I claimed the sauna wearing bathing suits.   I asked the attendant if there were separate saunas for each gender and then she said (in not so friendly a way), "You're American, aren't you?"  What?? Is it my supposed prudishness?  Is it the fact that I speak English with an American accent?  Maybe I'm a little paranoid, but what I heard is "This spoiled lady is pissed that there's no hot tub, the pool is cold and there's a naked man in the sauna."  So I tried to make friends by booking a massage for the next morning...and that was very nice. 

    The shopping was amazing as well.  Europe's largest gourmet market is on the top floor of the KaDeWa department store and, of course, we had to explore it.  Just amazing varieties of bread, cheese, caviar, exotic fruits, and on and on and on.  We spent a few Euros there. 

   Sunday, we explored the city on one of those hop-on-hop-off buses.  Brett was freezing because he didn't bring a proper winter coat even thought his wife told him to (another story).  He  found a street vendor selling fur hats and Communist memorabilia and bought a big furry hat made out of genuine some-kind-of-mammal.  I walked down the street because a) I've always been uncomfortable with bargaining for goods and b) I was afraid Brett would really buy a dead animal hat.  He did (and for a good price, he said).

On the bus, we found the most amazing flea market with old jewelry, silver, china and paintings.  They also had a bunch of furs for sale.  Tons of them---minks, fox, sable, etc.  And I found this one.  I love it so much and really regret that I didn't buy it because it was really reasonable, but it's so politcally incorrect.  And I'm always looking for another pet.  Plus this could be best friends to "Gregor" (Brett's hat) and my grandmother had a furry fox in our toy box when we were little.

All together, Berlin was amazing. I never thought I'd be able to visit this city or that it is now a united place.  Next trip is Cologne (Koln) for just a few days.  Then Lake Garda then Rome with some of our best friends and then back to the USA.  Did I ever think I would be living this life?  Mais non!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Assorted Adventures

Last weekend, we went to eat Turkish pizza with Brett's friend, Ilker, and his lovely wife.  Of course, they speak Turkish, Flemish, French and English.   There is a vibrant and busy Turkish neighborhood in Brussels. Ilker's extended family live in this neighborhood and they seem to know everyone.   I've always loved ethnic neighborhoods because it's like a vacation without taking a vacation and this neighborhood is an especially good example of that. 

Because Brussels is an officially bilingual city, street signs, most menus, and almost all store signs are in Flemish and French.  By the way, we found out from our cultural training teacher that Flemish and Dutch are the same language but are called by different names depending on where it is used.  There are some minor difference; the same as English in Georgia and English in California.  I always had my picture "taken" until I moved to Georgia where I had my picture "made."  Anyway, minor differences but essentially the same language.  But I digress.

In this neighborhood, stores signs, menus and everything else are only in Turkish and while stores close on Sunday in most of Brussels, stores are open on Sunday here because the population is largely Muslim.  The traffic which is always a little dodgy in Brussels is just plain crazy in these streets.  The medieval-built streets have parking on both sides and two-way traffic plus a tram and bus traffic.   We parked in an underground lot about half the size of our backyard in Lawrenceville with an incredibly narrow driveway.  I caught myself "sucking in" so the car would fit. 

  Turkish pizza is a long thin oval of very thin crust and different toppings (no pork, of course).  Mine was spinach and cheese.  It's served with shredded lettuce, onions and carrots and you top the pizza with the salad, fold it over and munch away.  There's also a hot sauce, a very hot sauce which Brett used and I didn't.  Then we went to a beautiful Turkish bakery for strong tea in beautiful little crystal glasses and assorted desserts--pistachio baklava and this amazing thing with sweet cheese, honey and shredded phylo all baked together.   Weight Watchers would not approve.

The French lessons are going pretty well.  It's tough to pull a language from the back of your brain  that you haven't used in 4 decades.  Brett seems to be picking it up effortlessly and everyone tells him what a beautiful French accent he has.  Nobody tells me that. 

But English is almost omnipresent.  We had to buy light fixtures for our house because they are not included.  After choosing some lights, we went to a counter to order them.  I said in French that I only spoke a little French when the cute and friendly salesman said "Any language you want." And then spoke to us in  very good English.  Polyglots everywhere.

It's so interesting to live someplace where everything is new.  We just found out that some beer and wine bottles should be returned for a refund instead of dropped into the "bottle silo".   Once we cracked the code, we found our local recycling place and took our returnable bottles, quite a number of them.  The bottle goes into a little port where it is spun around until the machine reads the codes and then whisks the bottle away.  The machine adds up the total and gives you a ticket to cash in for the refund.  Our garbage production is so minimal here--maybe half a bag per week--because the recycling system is so awesome.  Hey, USA, you listening??

This weekend, we are going to Berlin for 5 days.  Brett has meetings for 3 days so I get to stalk the many museums.  I've decided to put off any effort to diet until we return.  We have our tickets for our May trip to the United States. We'll be there the first two weeks in May.  We'll be in Scottsdale, Dallas and Lawrenceville and I can't wait to see everyone again.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

There's a petting zoo in my grocery store.

   The other day, Brett and I did a whole bunch of shopping.  Nothing glamorous, but usual, essential stuff to take care of the house and stock the fridge.  We've visited the big, the small and the really small grocery stores here but ,yesterday, we went to the good store--the Super Target of Brussels.  It's called Carrefours Planet.  The dry goods (clothes, household stuff, etc.) are on par with a Dollar Store or, maybe, WalMart.  Cheap Chinese crap.  However, the grocery store is better than any Whole Foods that I've ever visited with a few exotic exceptions.  We have tried to get the photos to come out right, but we just failed so turn your head or your computer to the left.

    First, there's a petting zoo in the store.  There's a pony, a little lamb, a baby goat, little baby duckies and a whole bunch of bunnies...BUT THEY ARE ALL DEAD.  The Belgians evidently like to eat a petting zoo.

Here are some of  examples.

The Filet de Cheval...little bit of Flicka, Mr. Ed, Black Beauty.  Nooooo!!!! This did not go in our grocery cart.  (It was a buggy in Georgia, but it's a chariot in Brussels.)  

Here we have a demi-chevre or half a  baby goat.  What's for dinner, Mom?  Oh, boy, half a baby goat.  The issue is that the Europeans are must more familar with their meat as meat.  Not like Micky D's or Chick-fil-A but here one sees the whole animal, looking very much like an animal, and, lately, the vegetarian stuff is pretty appealing.

The lapin is a bunny.  People here eat bunnies.  I do not eat bunnies.  One of my first sentences in French is "Je ne mange pas le lapin.  Je l'aime le lapin."  or "I don't eat the bunny.  I love the bunny."  I find it really upsetting that  my favorite furry forest friend is in the meat market at my grocery store.

 However, there are some good qualities as well.
The Fromagerie.....hundreds of different and beautiful cheeses.  Cheap and tasty and exotic and wonderful and a huge variety of cheeses.  Brett and I have been trying a lot of the cheese that isn't sold in the United States  because it isn't pasteurized.  We have suffered absolutely no ill effects from this cheese unless you count the excess calories and becoming a little "bound up."

Then, there's the BREAD.   This is Brett on one side of the Brett aisle and the next picture is part of the other side of the bread aisle.  You go to the store and buy FRESH hot bread.  All kinds.  We have a favorite--a big square loaf of crusty country bread.  And with the cheese...incroyable!!

Le poisson, le poisson, how I love the poisson!  Such a sweet little delicate crab!  We have a full-on fishmarket in our market.  I have (nor does Brett) no idea how to cook these fish with their heads and tails on.  But we will learn.  The North Sea is only an hour away (north, of course) so we will have the best sea food ever.
Finally, there is a beer-tasting and cheese-tasting at the grocery store.  With all due respect to Costco samples (which were pretty wonderful), this store has beer and cheese.  Of course, it took Brett three or four glasses (full glasses) of beer and a bunch of cheese to decide which beer he liked.  We bought all three.  The beer here is about 10% alcohol so that may have had some influence on his decision.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Fatty on the Tram

   And I'm not talking about me.  (Though I can't say that the seats are very generous, if my posterior is on its best behavior, I can ride fairly comfortably).
    The fatty was in the hand of a somewhat disreputable young man who boarded the train with his friend.   He was standing directly in front of where I was sitting with a still-smoldering joint that would make a Rastafarian proud.  Just waving it around, no discretion at all.  And I happen to know that smoking on the tram is not allowed. Nor is eating and drinking, but I won't mention that to some other guy whose snarfing a baquette and washing it down with a Coca-Cola.   And I certainly will not say anything to Monsieur Doobie or his pal.
    By the way, if anyone wants to know about the bird I described on Facebook, I found out it's a Common Wood pigeon or Culver.  The bird is common in Britain and the continent.   
    I also found out that the people of Brussels don't handle driving in the snow much better than our friends in Georgia.  It took Brett two hours for a 30-minute commute.  Needless to say, he's enjoying a cocktail right now.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood!

      It's tough to learn a new language.  I had my first French lesson on Monday with a lovely young man named Betrand.  He's awesome and friendly and I get to spend 90 minutes with him twice a week.  My first placement interview placed me at "survivor French" but Betrand said I was more advanced so we played this board game in which I had to read and answer a question in French and when it was Betrand's turn, he answered.  Questions like "what would you do with a million Euros"  or "what do plan on doing for your vacation"(only in French, of course).  Simple enough.  Mais non!   I felt like I'd run a marathon at the end of the session.  It was exhausting. 
    This school's philosophy is that we learn languages best as a child so they don't stress a lot of grammar, vocab lists, conjugation or writing at first.  You just pick it up.  I think it's a good method because it forces you to speak and it's great in the class where Betrand knows I'm a beginner, but I'm still at a loss when it comes to chatting with people on the street.
    A very nicely-dressed lady asked me if I knew which tram went where (and I do, yay!), but I couldn't answer her in French.  Of course, she spoke English.  That's going to be a problem because when I try to belch out my French words, I immediately get answered in English. 
    Plus there are two other official languages, Flemish (Dutch) and German.  And I hear every European language spoken around me. 
     Even worse is the confusion I had with English speakers...a British couple I met at a business dinner with Brett.  Besides the linguistic differences, the couple (Gwynne and Una) took their golden retriever, Tess, with them to dinner.  Tess is lovely (nice name, huh?), but she is clearly a very pampered doggie.  She has her own place in the back of the car, her special diet and a ramp to get out of the car because she has a bad back.  She was perfect in the restaurant--no barking, whining, peeing, etc., though she did steal a few spilled frites that came her way.   (Martha and Kevin, next time we go out, we should take Lola and Stella.)   But back to the language issues.  I commented that the weather was really wet and gloomy.  Una said, "I know, it's terrible.  It's usually much colder."  Say what?  Next, we asked about a restaurant in Leuven.  "Is it good?" I asked.  "It's meant to be." she said.  "Oh, so it has a good reputation but isn't really good."  "No," said Una. "It's meant to be good."  Ummm, okay, I guess.
 We finally got around to uploading some pictures that go with last month's blog entries. I'll see if I can post them, but the blog instructions are in freaking Flemish because of our IP address, I guess? So wish me luck.

Leaving Lawrenceville...note the smoker all wrapped up for it's trip across the ocean.

Our house house...I miss it.  Miss my friends and family more.
Moving in!! Note Ikea boxes, tools and general chaos. 
The VERY tight spaces our movers squished into.  Big truck--teeny driveway, but apparently, it's okay to park and drive on the sidewalk.  I know I'm going to get PTSD from riding around here.  We've seen several accidents and one pedestrian run over!!!

Our wonderful, intrepid and very strong movers!!  Robin and Jean-Francois (Jeff, for short) were very impressive.  The two of them ran our furniture up four flights of stairs.  We treated them to breakfast, lunch and beer.  Plus a decent tip.

    Ready to go out.  Note the Church of St. Job (and not the porta-potty) in the background.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Some New Sounds

  I've always wanted to live in an urban neighborhood...San Francisco, New York, etc.  And when Brett and I "negotiated" moving to Brussels, I got my wish.   I love it, but it's noisy.

  There's a bus stop 200 feet in front of our house, convenient, but noisy buses.  There's a tram stop just a bit farther.  There's a grocery store right in front of our house.  There's a crowded street with honking drivers.  There's a big church around the corner.  The bells ring everyday at 745 and 1045 not just once, but for five or ten minutes. (Come on, you guys, it's time for Mass.)  There's road work all around us.  The folks in back seem to be doing some major "chain saw requiring" work.  There's a school through the block.  Recess and dismissal times mean an least 30 minutes of little girls screaming and playing .... amazingly the same sound as in the US.

  Then, there are the Angry Birds who live near our backyard.  I think they're crows.  But they have very assertive CAW-CAW-CAWS. 

    Then, the sirens.  There are a lot of them and some of them sound just like when the Nazi's come to get Anne Frank in the movie. 

    And the sounds in our house.  Our door bell sounds like someone stomped on a cat, but the washer and dryer play a little tune from Vivaldi.   We're still getting used to various beeps and bells.   What's that?  Oh, I think that means the dishwasher is done. 

   Last, there are so many different languages.  Since Brussels is officially bilingual and Belgium is offically trilingual, plus so many people speak English, we're getting used to lots of different languages.  Our cable TV has channels in French, English (stuff like Ice Road Truckers, What?!), Flemish, Italian, Arabic, and German.

  Still, it's an adventure. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

I can DO that!!

  I  can mail a letter!  I can ride the bus!  I can read!   Very excited because this weekend, we visited the main post office where we learned what one has to do to mail a letter to the USA.  You need a "Priority" sticker and a one euro stamp.  We learned where to find mail boxes which are a little bit harder to find that the big blue ones in the US.  (Because of this progress, Jackson will get a birthday card.  Yay!)

   Next we found out how to buy bus passes and got a map of the bus/tram/train routes.  Therefore, I know how to go to my gym and how to go to my French lessons.  The ticket agent was awesome and helpful and fluent in English.    I took my first French placement exam.  Sorry, Madame Morck from Skyline High School Class of 1967, but four years of your wonderful tutelage in high school have been largely forgotten.  I think I may have passed the "barely beginner exam"   but will start real lessons on Tuesday.

   Finally, our next door neighbors, Valery and Emilie, invited us for drinks last night.  Emilie made many wonderful hors d'oevres, THEN Champage, then white wine, then red wine, then dessert wine, then more Champage.  They speak very good English and it was nice to meet some new people.  And they have some excellent wine.

  So far, we have a couple of folks who say they plan to visit.  We so so so hope that happens.  And it's garbage day tomorrow and I'm totally confident that our garbage will not be rejected again.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Reality shock!

Oh, living in Europe.  What a treat, right? Beer, chocolate, history, architecture, not Gwinnett County, food, wine and so on.  All true. However, this week I'm really missing home.  The people, of course, of course, my wonderful friends and family.  But there are some things that are just easier in the USA.

 For one, the language.  I speak English fairly well.  I speak French a tiny little bit.  I speak no Dutch at all. A couple of nice-looking people have tried to converse with me.  Just stuff like "Wow, what a lot of rain."  But I just stand there saying "Je parle seulement Anglais" with each syllable quieter and sadder than the one before.

 My Facebook friends heard about my aborted trip to the gym.  Going to the gym isn't all that natural for me anyway, but I used to hop in the warm car from the warm house, drive 10 minutes, and, voila!, I'm there.  And there are a lot of women who kinda look like me.  But not here.  It's a bus ride, then a walk, then a locker room with the most beautiful bodies in the world.  What the hell are they doing at the gym?  Some of these girls are goddesses. And, of course, Brett noticed.  Hell, so did I.

Then there's the garbage. And I know this is the right thing to do.  But the recycling takes some effort.  First, clean dry paper goes in the yellow bag.  These are collected on Monday.  Then, plastic bottles, drink cartons, yogurt containers, etc., must be rinsed first and then they go in the blue bag.  Also collected on Monday.  Glass must be taken to the recycling silos (after rinsing, of course) and sorted into colored glass or clear glass.  There's one right across the street, but at the rate I'm going through bottles, this has turned into somewhat of a chore.   Then, the regular garbage goes in the white bag and is supposed to be collected on Monday and Thursday, but there are rules about what they'll take and yesterday our garbage was rejected!!!  Was it the kitty litter?   Did I accidentally put a plastic bottle in the white bag??   So we have to reclaim our rejected bags, figure out what we did wrong and try again.

  Finally, the weather.  In three little words, the weather sucks.

But, like I tell myself (over and over)it's an adventure.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Faire le Shopping

   Today, we "faire le magasins or faire the shopping."  something that I always enjoy.  We went to the Home Depot of Europe, Brico, to buy some scratch cover the floor. We had a little teeny tiny scratch on the hardwords while we were moving. (Please don't tell our landlord).  Then we went to the pet store (Tom & Co.) where we got Science Diet for the cats because they don't have our sophisticated international palates and wanted their old food.  They had the cutest baby bunny there and now I'm trying to convince Brett we need a petit lapin for a pet.  They also have bird food so we have our bird feeder all set up and are anxious to see from Belgian birds.
   After that, the mall in Woluwe St. Pierre which is the same and different from American shopping malls.  I learned how "to compare and contrast" in high school so it it goes.

The Same as American Malls

Crying babies, kids running around, wide variety of shops, very crowded (see below why), department stores, upselling the damn extended warranty and a food court (only sort of the same, see below why)

Different from American Malls

Paid parking (one euro/hour); a fee to use the restrooms (thankfully, we didn't have to go): dogs shopping with their owners or maybe just the owners are shopping but the dogs are there, too; bi or trilingual retail workers who seem like speaking English is absolutely no problem and not that we shouldn't be in their country if we can't speak the language; very crowded because the government limits the time for sales  to twice a year (January and July); wine bars; and the fanciest damn food court ever--wine, cheese, bread, chocolate, and a store that sells oil and vinegar so you can mix your own custom vinaigrette (pictures to follow).  We went to a fromagerie (cheese store) and when we told the worker that we couldn't get Cantal in America (because it's unpasteurized), the patrons all gasped. 

And the other good news is our neighbor, a lovely man from France whose name I can't remember, invited us to his home for dinner next Saturday.  Still I miss all of you so much.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The first week, the premiere semaine, the eerste week

Today marks our first week in Brussels.  We traveled to the airport with five big suitcases, 3 carry ons and 2 cats (very nervous cats).  Just in case you plan on taking your cat on vacation, it costs $200.00 each for the little critters and they weren't even offered a cocktail.  Brett and I had a nice first-class seat with tons of food and wine, took a little nap, were awakened by a yowling kitty and, voila! (as they say here), we arrived at the Brussels airport where a driver picked us up and deposited all of us at our house. 

I've spent the last 7 days in three different beds (2 hotels and our lovely blow-up mattress when Brett was in Israel).  I feel like Yassur Arafat--never a night in the same place.  The first hotel is a converted 18th C. monastery and was just beautiful with the best breakfast ever, but it was too far away so we moved to a Best Western (funny, huh?) with a bathroom so small I could relieve myself and brush my teeth simultaneously if I wanted to.

We spent last Saturday at Ikea with 100% of the rest of Belgium population.  We bought a bunch of furniture with funny names, carted it  back in Brett's station wagon and spent Sunday assembling.  The day before Brett visited the MediaMarkt and got us a TV, Blu-ray player and picked up our itsy-bitsy dryer.  All which fit in the back of Brett's BMW. 

Our furniture is scheduled to arrive tomorrow and it will feel a lot more like home. I think I'm suffering a little post-"parting" depression.  I know it'll get better, but meanwhile, they have a very nice Sauvignon Blanc for 3 Euro at the grocery store around the corner. 

Right now, there is a massive orange truck in front of my house that says "Schneckenentleering in Container" on the side and has a huge pipe either sucking stuff out or putting stuff in a hole.  It sounds like a jet plane and has been there at 3 hours.  I said I wanted urban and I got urban, but does it have to be so damn noisy?

 I'll write later about my adventures in the grocery store, the best spaghetti I have EVER had and adjusting to living in a little tiny playhouse.     We miss you all.