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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!