Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Week 1 in the new place has come and gone without any major incidents, aside from a few items that were damaged in the move (which we will hopefully be reimbursed for, since some are essentially vital to our existence: pie dish and popcorn maker) . We've spent a lot of time unpacking and turning boxes into furniture items that we suddenly discovered that we need with the arrival of all our stuff. With any luck these will be replaced by real furniture in the future. The rest of the boxes are stacked to the ceiling so that they effectively block out the majority of the light to the living room. Trash day is Wednesday, though, so we should be rid of them shortly. Unfortunately, this means that I will have to give up my nest. It heats up in there pretty quickly, and all you can hear is the rustle of paper resulting from your breathing. It's very soothing, and it makes me understand why homeless people seem to sleep so much--I mean, how could you NOT sleep under those conditions?

Friday Jack had the day off because Thursday was a holiday (the Ascension) and he switched it. We went to a matinee of "Da Vinci Code". Here's a tip for you: if you're living in a foreign country where you don't speak the language, don't go see an American movie where some of the dialogue takes place in another language, since they will translate it into the language you don't speak, not into English, if they translate it at all. The movie has Latin, Spanish, and a good deal of French, so the only reason we were able to follow it was that we had both read the book. Otherwise it might have been very confusing. My expectations were pretty low so I thought it was not bad.

That evening we went to see Jolie Holland at the old botanical garden. It was an interesting venue, in what would have been the central round section of the glass building usually reserved for the tallest plants (the "rotunda"). A room had been constructed inside so that you couldn't see the sky. Half of the semi-circular space was taken by the stage and the other half by the seating. It was designed for 125 sitting or 250 standing, but that would have made it pretty danged crowded, and since most people were sitting on the risers it was a good thing a huge crowd didn't come. They had beer available next door to the rotunda at a bar, and due to the size of the room it was difficult for someone to slip out, get beers and return without being a distraction to those of us who were trying to watch the show since you had to walk in front of the audience to exit. Would it have been difficult to carve a little nook out of the overly-large stage to facilitate easy beer purchasing? Sadly, we will never know. Jolie sings in a thick, warbling southern accent, but she talks just like the rest of us. It was a strange split-personality thing; I wasn't sure if that was how she learned to sing or if it was an affectation or what.

Saturday we bought some necessaries, such as a free-standing rack for hanging garments and a vacuum, both of which we promptly made use of. The vacuum is made by Daewoo and puts out a nice hot-plastic aroma, which almost makes me believe that we've got a toxic fire going in one of the two non-working fireplaces. It's so homey. I made couscous on for dinner with onions and peppers and pine nuts and it was good to have a home-cooked meal without a lot of pre-processing (I did not, however, make the couscous from scratch). Sunday, the first sunny day in the 60s in like a week, Jack and I went to watch some of his coworkers race in a 20k. There was something like 50,000 people participating, and from our vantage point about 3 km from the start, where we could see the runners milling about and heard the starter pistol go off, a sea of people came surging towards us. It was a little alarming, actually. I kept cheering people on in English, and then realizing the futility of it. Most people were dressed like runners, but there was a waiter in a bow tie carrying 3 bottles of water on a tray, some cavemen, two giant pink babies, etc. All of the people we were supporting managed to make it, in spite of supposedly lackluster training efforts on some of their parts. I got to feel like I was really part of the action when one of the women running passed me her sunglasses to hold. Unfortunately it was already at the 15k point, but I'm sure the reduced weight helped her finish.

Tarragon is "estragon" in French and "dragon" in Dutch, so I kept encountering these bottles of what appeared to be vinegar with "dragon estrogen" in the store. Thankfully I finally remembered to look it up. Crazy languages.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Sunday: move day #2 + 1.

9:00 a.m. We slept surprisingly well, given the curtain fiasco of the previous day and the fact that the mattress was about 4" thick. I woke up with one leg asleep but was otherwise fine. That combined with the chilliness and the fact that there was only one pillow between the two of us (I usually have four and Jack has two), it was almost like camping. After hearing how difficult it was to get things through customs, we went on an extensive search for a grocery store of some size that would be open on Sunday and would carry things we might need, such as paper plates, forks, spoons, etc. It was also time to start building up the food collection. Our survey of the tri-Delhaize area yielded nothing. We ended up getting pastries from Croissant d'Or (surely a play on the nearby area of Toisson d'Or--how droll) and heading back to the homestead for some tea drinking. So we heated up some water in the frying pan and drank out of the tumblers. We haven't come across anyplace that has takeout coffee yet (perhaps the McDonald's is open Sunday morning...).

11:30 a.m. Jack tried to find out how to work the manual-less washer/dryer in our bathroom (a photo of the neighbor's yard from the bathroom window at left). The mop immediately came in handy, as the water supply to the washer was dripping all over the floor and had left a big puddle which was discovered upon stepping in it. We felt great satisfaction in having anticipated such an eventuality by buying the mop. This was quickly dampened when we figured out that the W/D is a W (I don't think this was disingenuousness on anyone's part, but rather miscommunication and lack of familiarity with front-end washers). As the woman who had transported our goods on Saturday had confirmed that I had, indeed, purchased detergent and not fabric softener, we eventually just put some detergent in and set it on "coton - 60" degrees C. There is a digital readout on the washer, and once we turned it on it read 2:30. After one minute we realized that this was the countdown timer. Two hours and thirty minutes to wash a small load of clothes? Sheesh. These front-loading washers may be water-efficient, but they don't skimp on power usage, apparently. The other setting was the spin cycle speed, from 0-1200. Given that we wanted the clothes to be as dry as possible, we set this for 1200. K. had mentioned that the open-top pipe that the flexible drain hose was put into would sometimes overflow, so it was best to leave it in the bathroom sink. Once the rinsing cycle began it pulled the hose out of the sink and onto the floor, necessitating the use of the mop again. Fortunately there is very little water involved so not much spilled. We put it back in its original spot and it was fine.

3:00 p.m. Inaugural showers commence. Given that the kitchen sink hot water stays hot for maybe about 2-3 minutes before going cold again I worried that the shower would do the same. It is actually okay, though, because the heater turns back on once it realizes that you are serious about wanting hot water. Not sure how to deal with this, as it makes things like hand and dish washing less sanitary, but hopefully we can figure it out how to adjust it at some point. It really defeats the point of buying high efficiency appliances when you have to let the water run for such a long time to get the hot to stay on. So there's that for me to be sullen about in case I ever run out of other things.

p.s. The movers called yesterday (Tuesday) and are supposed to deliver our goods today. Because our staircase is narrow and paying for a lift to transport things to our 2nd floor window would be prohibitively expensive for them (we've already settled our bill on the shipment), they are going to bring the boxes onto the ground floor landing, open them, and then walk our goods upstairs. It's kind of like being evicted in reverse: the whole world has the opportunity to see what kind of junk you paid obscene quantities of money to transport. Fortunately, most items should be safely wrapped in paper, although people might wonder why I chose to bring over the purple bridesmaid dress. Hey, you never can tell. (Real answer: I didn't get a chance to go through my closet before the movers showed up).


Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Saturday: moving day #2.

10:30 a.m. Made some of the Fauchon coffee I had purchased, which was a good way to start what was certain to be a long day. Walked over to the house with a couple of smaller bags with some linens and other random things, thinking we could start organizing before moving in the afternoon (Jack had agreed to purchase the K.'s furniture, as she was moving to the US and it wasn't worth storing or shipping, and most of our large items are being stored). Entered the house and...it was still full of junk everywhere. All we could do was stare. Was this garbage they had left for us to dispose of? Were these the items that they meant for us to keep? We sat for a while in somewhat stunned silence and then headed back to the apartment, leaving our 2 bags behind. Got caught in a downpour on the way, which my umbrella was unable to handle completely successfully. Back at the apartment, I called K.; she indicated that her parents would be back to retrieve the remaining items. I told her we were planning on moving at 2, and she was confident they'd be done by then. I was skeptical, given their prior progress. Drying out and naps ensued.

2:30 p.m. Between the intermittent rainstorms, we managed to cram all our remaining stuff in a tiny car and head over. The house was empty, much to my surprise. Not clean, but at least all the trash and remaining items were gone and we could start making the place our own. K.'s parents had left us: 5 tumblers, 1 tiny coffee spoon, a colander, and a badly scarred frying pan. We went to the grocery store to load up on cleaning supplies and then to the hardware store to see if they had any vacuums. They were out of the cheap one so we got a mop and bucket (came with free nail polish!) and a whisk brush and dust pan. I started cleaning the kitchen while Jack tried to access the internet using the cable modem.

4:00 p.m. It's been chilly here recently, with highs in the low 60s and wind and rain. The apartment was consistently above 80, the one window that opened providing little in the way of ventilation. Here, where the rooms are taller than they are wide, all the heat that we generate must be riding in a thin cloud around the (12 foot? higher?) ceiling. The thermostat says it's 70, but that seems somewhat optimistic. I tried to open the bedroom curtains using the pull cord to get some more light in and they fell out of the ceiling. Sigh. Managed to rig them up so they give us a little privacy from the apartment building on the other side of the block, the back of which faces the back of ours. Jack had the foresight to think that some of our tools would come in handy, so eventually we should be able to re-hang them. They are a strange fabric, kind of a midnight blue of the stuff you might use for the outer layer of a winter jacket. In fact, they remind me of the one I was issued at my last job.

7:30 p.m. Our ride to the party (coincidentally the same woman who helped us only hours ago) arrives. On the drive, our first time out of Brussels proper, we chat about various things and it comes to light that a laptop computer and a book, both mailed from other European countries, took significant amounts of time to arrive: 2 months and 6 weeks, respectively, for having to go through customs. Two months! That's almost unthinkable. I have already begun to think of the movers as some type of uber-professionals, as they will have to deal with the municipality to get the temporary no parking permits, and will probably have to deliver the large boxes through the 2nd storey windows rather than the narrow staircase. "They do this all the time; they know how to handle it," I find myself frequently muttering. Hopefully they can usher our items through customs quickly. Hopefully. Yes.

1:45 a.m. The Eurovision party was great, Jack's colleagues were nice (our hostess let me borrow 4 books!), and the Pizza Hut pizza with white wine really hit the spot. Although I had favored the Maltese to win prior to the start of the program, they really were quite terrible and ended up receiving only a single vote. I would like to think this is because they have no neighbors (other terrible entries got a lot of points), but Israel, inexplicable participants in the contest, received four if I recall correctly. The winners were the Finns. They were the only one who did a straight-up rock song (appropriately entitled "Hard Rock Hallelujah"), and they dressed in wacky GWAR-like outfits that also might have received some inspiration from satan and the Lord of the Rings' orcs. The Lithuanian entry, a catchy ditty with the primary lyrics of "We are the winners...of Eurovision" failed to sway even though they did pretty well. Back at home, I discovered that someone had miraculously thought to pack a blanket, just what was needed for these cool spring nights.


The Eurovision song contest is some kind of cultural phenomenon over here. Everyone seems to have grown up watching it. It's kind of like American Idol only much, much cheesier. The BBC announcer (its broadcast in every nation) appeared to be drunk and made sarcastic remarks about all of the groups. They were all pretty aweful. Then the voting started and it took as long as the singing as they went through each country's votes. I think we perhaps lucked into the first year where groups that didn't take it so seriously actually did well.

It was nice to see that European culture isn't all opera and symphonies.


Monday, May 22, 2006

Friday: moving day.

4 p.m. Received an email from the shipper saying our items would arrive at customs on Sunday. No estimate on when they'd be delivered.

8 p.m. We called K., the former renter, to ask her when she'd be able to turn over the keys to us. She had previously mentioned she'd be working late and would not be likely to be available before 9. So we touched base to confirm, and she told us she wasn't going to be out until 10. We could meet her at her office, which was near where we were staying, to sign the remaining paperwork, or meet at her place at 10:30. She wouldn't be ready to leave the house until much later, so she'd come by in the wee hours to drop off the keys. Jack then spoke to his colleague, who had graciously offered to drive us over with our many bags, to tell her we weren't ready. She wasn't feeling well anyway so we arranged to meet her at 2 p.m. Saturday for the move.

10:30 p.m. We went to the house to sign the papers, which would transfer the utilities to us. There was not a lot of evidence of progress. K.'s parents were there as well as a friend, and we stayed for about 1/2 hour so K. could show us how some things worked, but while we were there everybody mostly stood around. I thought they wouldn't be done till 4 a.m. at the earliest. It also looked like they wouldn't be able to fit everything in their van--from experience I know that people always have more stuff than they think they do. K. asked if there were any housewares they could leave with us, and I responded "whatever you can't take with you". I figured that the items she left would be enough to get us through until our shipment arrived. Managed to convince K. to let us take a set of keys with us rather than dropping them off.

11:00 p.m. Arrived back at the apartment, somewhat disheartened by the evening's progress. Had a couple of Marcolini chocolates, which were a present for Jack (thankfully he has shared), and which have flavors like "patchouli and tonka bean" and "pear and oak shavings". Although the former is a little strange on the palate, in general they're very tasty and a bit more distinctive than their more traditional rivals.


Thursday, May 18, 2006

Yesterday I failed to go to the sewer museum (Le Musee des Egouts). Sadly, it's been closed since January for renovations. No expected date of completion was given, but having wandered inside I suspect they have a ways to go. Yes, there was no one to prevent me from going into this active construction site; the one guy who was there was leaving as I entered, probably for his lunch break, and he had left the door open. I could've taken all the drywall I could carry! Being the honest person I am, however, I just went back down and sulked.

The route there is a pretty good cross section of the city as a whole, and it is a direct shot from our neighborhood to the museum. Starting at fashionable upper Avenue Louise, you proceed past the very intimidating Palace of Justice (located on 4 Bras Street), take the elevator down to gentrifying Marolles, and then through the quarter where much of the immigrant population shops and lives. All this while essentially staying on a straight path, although the street has 6 names over the course of about a mile. This particular stretch didn't include any peeing statues, though, and no tour of Brussels can be complete without at least one of those.

I then headed over to the Botanical Garden on the north side of the downtown area. It has some nice outdoor gardens but the greenhouses have been turned into a performing arts venue. It was a decent respite from the business end of the city, although it was surrounded by large buildings on all sides and one of the city's major arteries runs next to it, so you really couldn't lose yourself in it like some of the other larger parks.

Today I continued on my quest to find Afternoon in Paris tea. No place I've been to that's carried Fauchon has had it, for some reason, outside of their only US store in New York. There was a place not too far away that carried Fauchon goods so I went to check it out. The new loose-tea tins are super cool and do a totally radical job of keeping your tea fresh (as the proprieter explained to me in French--or at least that's what I presume he was saying). Alas, no Afternoon in Paris. So I bought something else and told him I'd be back, and he gave me a frequent buyer card! That was after we had switched to English, though; no way would I have been able to figure that out in French. They had some fantastic-looking jarred homemade soups that I need to check out once I get situated. Maybe once we are bosom buddies I can suggest that he get some of my tea.

Tomorrow we move. Jack has secured the car of a woman he works with, which was very generous of her. And then everything's going to be different from the vantage point of 4 blocks SSE of here. I'm sure of it.


Today at work my boss showed up with a new haircut. It made him seem like a little boy.


Sunday, May 14, 2006

On Saturday went to the old Brussels city slaughterhouses which S. had discovered in her wanderings. It had been abandoned when S. saw it before, but on Saturdays it is teeming with people. It was by far the largest market either of us had ever seen. It was acres of people selling everything from produce to underpants. The best part about it was that a lot of the vendors were trying to lure you by calling out there wares and prices in sing-songy voices.

After that we toured the Cantillon Brewery which is the last operating brewery within the Brussels city limits. The building was ancient and they still make their beer the old-fashioned way. They beer is fermented only with natural air-borne yeasts that filter in through holes in the attic. Unfortunately for us they weren't brewing when we were there because they have to stop from May to September because there are too many bad microorganisms in the air. It was a self-guided tour, so we were pretty much left on our own to wander around the old (possibly haunted) brewery. Then we got to have a couple of glasses (a gueuze and a kriek) on the way out.

Then we checked out the Zinneke Parade--which is possibly the most incomprehensible and insane parade of all time. The theme of the parade was Brussels in the future--or something like that. People marched in all kinds of crazy costumes, for instance from a time when bugs will rule the earth. Another group envisioned a time when tango-dancing kitchen implements will rule the earth. Also it seems there will be a lot of face-painting and drumming in the future. And it's just possible that strange characters riding pink fur bicycles will rule the earth.


Also we had a fantastic gyro with Andalusian sauce at the slaughterhouse market. Jack was worried I'd get the meat in the standard unleavened "pitta", which is actually more of a tortilla, but I resisted his efforts to get me to order it with bread, since I have enough trouble ordering off the regular menu and I hadn't actually had the tortilla yet and thought it might be interesting. However, it arrived tucked inside a large circle of fluffy and delicious bread with the top cut off. With a side of fries. Heavenly.

The gueuze beer style is something one must become accustomed to, because it really doesn't resemble other beers much at all and can be quite a shock. Jack had gotten one prior to my arrival that we drank shortly after. The Mannekin Pis is featured on the label of the Cantillon beer, joyfully peeing out what one can only imagine is the gueuze (or perhaps lambic). Initially neither of us liked the flavor, which can only be described as sour, but we managed to finish the entire wine-sized bottle that first evening. So we knew what we were getting into. The kriek, on the other hand, is a different story. We had purchased one of those (perhaps St. Louis brand) during the EU open house, and it tasted kind of like a light beer mixed with cherry kool aid--sweet, but not wine-cooler sweet, and not entirely as refreshing as I would have hoped. The one at Cantillon was very different: the gueuze was dialed up and the fruit dialed down. Another surprise, but not altogether unpleasant.

The best thing about the parade, in my opinion, was that it was composed of the citizens of Brussels, divided into 5 neighborhood groups. Each group had a separate sub-theme and materials they were supposed to focus on (electronics, plastics, natural materials, etc.). Lots of community organizations participated, and there were a lot of kids of all ages. It looked like some of the costumes and other items broke right off the bat, and some of the kids were pooped by the time they got around to us, so you definitely got the sense that it was an amateur production (Jack's photo notwithstanding). One of my favorites was one that my neighborhood participated in, with a gigantic papier mache man sitting on top of the float, drinking water, and, well, creating new water out the other end. It's a cycle that most people don't seem to appreciate as well as they should. Didn't get a photo of it, unfortunately, but did get one of the tangoing toothbrush and whisk.


Friday, May 12, 2006

Tuesday was get-out-and-wander-around day. Actually, most days are get-out-and-wander-around days for me, but the specific intent was to go to a small art museum that the guidebook said was free, and to revisit a park I went to in March to see if it had changed at all in the interim.

First I went to a small park that took up about half a city block that Jack had recommended to me. It had a lot going on for such a small area--lots of plants in bloom, a basketball court, two ponds, a grassy area for picnicking, various secluded nooks with benches. It was very pleasant, especially given that you couldn't hear the traffic from nearby streets in certain spots, just the birds and the shouts of children (who were surely excited about the fact that somehow their truancy from school had gone unnoticed).

Then I crossed over to the Abbaye de la Cambre, which had been a monastery from the 13th century until the French Revolution. Now it houses the National Geographic Institute and the Decorative Arts College, but still maintains the buildings and grounds as if for the former contemplative purpose. There were snow flurries and almost no people last time I was there. Now everything was starting to come to life, although most of the plants are greenery or roses, so there wasn't a lot of flowering. Still not many visitors, however. I took a picture of the same (or perhaps just very similar) amputated tree with and without leaves, and I still don't get the appeal.

From there I headed to the Constantin Meunier Museum, which is housed in the artist's home and is still free, I am pleased to note. He created paintings and sculptures depicting the plight and heroism of the worker prior to the turn of the 20th century, so there's a lot of dark and moody paintings of threshers and miners and the like. The books call him "under-appreciated", and I thought that perhaps this was because he apparently had a singularly unremarkable life, with a wife and four children, building a respectable yet non-descript house once his art began to sell where he lived out his days. It seems that most artists who are popular today have a more interesting life story. My favorite painting was of a factory full of women in Seville making cigarettes; they look like they're making the best of it, smoking and chatting with their neighbors and such. It appeared to be "Bring Your Offspring to Work Day", given the number of children around, but I question whether the infants could really appreciate what their moms were doing. There was another painting that depicted a Good Friday procession where the participants were dressed like members of the KKK, which is the third or fourth time I've seen such an image.

Last on my list was the Bois de la Cambre, a large, woodsy park formerly owned by the Abbey until purchased by the city. I enjoyed the lush greenness that contrasted well with the muddy, dispirited look of early March. There's numerous paths through the park and I took one that lead to a pleasant-looking cafe in a clearing (a theater and roller-skating rink are nearby). I headed towards an open, grassy area thinking I would spend some further time reading the biography of Meunier that had been provided. I found a spot on a protruding root under a large tree. Shortly after my arrival, I was approached by a gentleman in his 50s who asked me what I was reading (after the usual discussion about how I didn't speak French). He then asked me what I was doing in Belgium and I replied, although perhaps not slowly enough for him to catch all the words, that my husband got a job here and so we had moved and I was trying to better acquaint myself with the area and learn French. He then told me he had a French-English phrasebook I could have. I thanked him for his generosity but told him I already had one, and then deciding that my quiet respite was probably over, I started to pack up my things and walk away, telling the man to enjoy the rest of his day. To this he responded, "So do you want to make love?" I said no thanks and continued on my way. Upon further reading I learned that the park has a designated "conversation bench", where a person who wants to chat can sit down and await a second person, and they can discuss whatever. Now I wonder if I had accidentally stumbled upon the "making love tree", in which willing parties link up. Really there should be more signs about this sort of thing.

On the way back I saw an elderly gentleman steal what I hope was a free newspaper that was stuffed halfway into a mail slot. He perused the headlines and then slyly waited for me to pass him on the sidewalk, but it was pretty obvious what he was doing, especially considering that I was only a couple paces away when I heard it being removed. I also saw a crowd of about a dozen people waiting resignedly outside the Indian Embassy's Consulate Services door. I wondered then if India's government, which is notoriously slow and corrupt, had been designed to mimic that of the inefficient government of its European occupiers. But I'll save that story for another day.


Thursday, May 11, 2006

Things I've learned thus far from living in a furnished efficiency that I might not have appreciated otherwise (somewhat dark photo showing kitchen on left with toilet room behind the dividing wall, tub and sink through door on right):

1) it is nice when the toilet is not separated from the rest of the bathroom, forcing you to walk all the way around the room to go from the pot to the sink.

2) butter is not a seasoning. While one of my favorite things in life is a grilled cheese on rye, it turns out that butter (particularly the unsalted variety) is just a carrier for the other flavors and allows the bread to crisp properly on the outside. Even a grilled cheese can be improved by the addition of dried garlic chips, which would count as a proper seasoning. But potatoes sauteed in butter, for example, just isn't all that. I've been avoiding buying a lot of foodstuffs so that I don't have to haul it to the new place, but when you think about it a head of garlic, some salt and some olive oil don't really constitute a huge investment in terms of weight. Plus we could probably finish the garlic before moving. And maybe the salt, too. (Full disclosure: I impulse-bought a basil plant the first time I went to the store--an extremely wise investment it turns out.)

3) there's not a lot you can do with 1.5 working burners and a microwave, yet some of our neighbors seem to be here for the long haul. The people next to us have a clothes line, some pot hangers with geraniums in them, and a very large satellite dish on their balcony. How can they stand it?? First, judging by their conversation they're probably Russian spies (cuisine not that great, so they probably microwave a lot and don't care). Second, as with many urban areas, eating out seems to be much more prevalent than it is elsewhere. Third, if in addition to sending secret messages they can pick up better TV on their dish than is available on the cable provided by the hotel then they probably aren't forced to find other things to do, such as attempting to cook good food.

4) I'm probably that greedy American capitalist pig everyone's always talking about. While generally speaking I try to only buy things that I know I can use, try to eat in season and locally, and be responsible about my purchases, the lack of beverage options is hurting. Whereas usually I have a couple bottles of wine, beer, various liquors and liqueurs, filtered water, carbonated water, tap water, orange juice, coffee, and perhaps some soda or kool aid or whatnot available to me at any given time, in addition to an almost infinite variety of tea, here I have tap water, refrigerated tap water, OJ, one wine and/or beer, coffee, orange pekoe tea, and scotch. Somehow this is seriously inadequate, verging on criminal. I look forward to the arrival of my tea collection so I can have a tall glass of mango iced tea, slightly sweetened, using the kind C. & M. brought me back from the islands. Or a gigantic pot of colonille vanilla, with a second steep available upon request.

It will be obvious to the casual reader that most of these observations are food-related.


A lot of the apartments here advertise that they have American kitchens ("cuisine americaine equipee"). I never knew what it meant other than that the kitchen actually came with appliances, which isn't always the case here. I asked a guy at work about it the other day. He said he didn't know what it meant, but I should know since I'm an American. I said, "Where I come from we just call the kitchens." He then suggested that maybe it meant "American sitcom kitchen"--one that's open to the other room so there can be banter between the mother cooking away while he father sits and reads the paper.

We're moving on May 20, so all will be set right then.


Monday, May 08, 2006

On Sunday we went to Fete de l'Iris which was half psychedelic carnival for the kids and half jazz festival. We started off by attending a concert of a guy who was billed as the Belgian Django Reinhardt. It was actually a couple of guys playing acoustic guitar in a small theater. We walked in late and had to lean up against the wall. After a couple of songs we shifted position slightly. In the process I managed to hit a lightswitch with my elbow and bring up all of the house lights. I then pushed another button to try to turn them back out, which worked but only for a second and then they cam back on again. Eventually after a bit of frantic random button pushing I was able to restore the theater to darkness. One of the guitarists made some kind of comment about it--but we have no idea what he said. After the next song we made a discreet exit. My embarrassment was eased by the free glass of wine they were offering downstairs.

We took a break from the festival for a while and S. showed me some of the sights she had discovered during the week. Later in the afternoon we caught a few excellent groups playing in this really cool tent that was impressively set up like a jazz club in the middle of one of the city squares. Complete with table service of delicious Belgian beers.


There was a young girl, perhaps 6, at the acoustic guitar concert who was obviously the daughter of one of the performers. She sat on the stage with them on a small stool most of the time. At various points she got up and looked out the windows behind the stage that looked down onto a courtyard below, wandered around aimlessly, and whispered to her father between songs. He was very patient with her, and on the one hand I thought it was cool that he would bring her with him to "work", but on the other it was somewhat distracting. Probably the most exciting thing for her was when the house lights came up unexpectedly thanks to Jack.

Following that was kind of a hippie big band/marching band featuring dreadlocks and a banjo, neither of which are common for either genre as far as I know. I love a good marching band, but as I was just getting into it, following the bass drum down the street and waving at the people on the sidewalks (there was not a huge crowd yet, not that that would've stopped me), they finished their set.

After wandering around to see my previously-visited sites, we stopped at the Grand Cafe, which is one of those places that is done up elaborately in the old-school style inside but is also somewhat of a tourist trap. It was across the street from the only McDonald's I've seen so far, if you know what I mean. After a somewhat unremarkable meal, I headed down to the basement to use the bathroom. At the bottom was a T intersection, with the men's room on the left and the women's on the right. Also at the bottom was the elderly "bathroom attendant", who insisted that I give her 30 cents before entering the bathroom. Having explained to her using the international sign that I didn't have any change (patting the pockets), she shrugged as if to say what's it to me, and when I went to pass her she repeated her demand in a sharper tone. So I went back up and got it from Jack. As I think tips are based on a job that's been done, and she didn't do anything for me (aside from yanking on the locked door when I didn't come out of the stall quickly enough and there were people waiting), I was quite miffed. I theorized that she had installed herself down there by sheer force of will and was not actually a member of the restaurant staff, but they couldn't make her leave for some reason--maybe squatter's rights. It was a very charming Old World scene of perseverance.

Saturday was the EU Parliament open house, in which you could go in all the EU buildings and view the cubicle of your local representative and get a bunch of informative handouts on just about any topic. This year's theme was "mobility" and the featured countries that were battling full-out for the right to join the EU were Romania and Bulgaria (mostly using hand-to-hand combat, but also free wine tastings, beauty pageants and bribery (all culturally correct means of garnering votes in those countries, mind you)). There were also people sauntering around in traditional garb of various nationalities, booths for regional foods, music, art, tourism, kids' activities, etc. The whole thing was huge and spread out over many parks and city streets. Most of it was unintelligible, although I did get a sticker protesting GMOs (which is OGM in French, but I was cleverly able to figure out what it meant). I had been making jokes about why the US hasn't yet joined the EU, and then we passed a booth for the special delegation from the province of Quebec, so maybe those guys are angling to be the first Western Hemispherians to be admitted. I think we Americans need to consider giving them a run for their money--we are, after all, number one.

We got a sausage sandwich from one vendor of Italian goods, and then went back for some churros, which are apparently a regional specialty of Catalonia. Thank god for the Catalonians and their deep fried delicacies! I thought Taco Bell had invented those things. There was a coot in a nest in the middle of the pond in Leopold Park (in case you were wondering, about 1/2 of the places here have some Leopold association) where we ate lunch. It was like a mini beaver dam that didn't hold any water back. While we were eating, the male came to relieve the female on the nest, and she went off to find some food or stretch her legs or something. It was a very touching scene of the division of domestic labor, although the male could be heard muttering under his breath about maybe not coming back AT ALL the next time he went out for a pack of smokes.

After lunch there was more fair to visit. There was one section that was devoted to the handicrafts of the Belgians. Many were similar to vendors everywhere at these types of events, with chunky jewelry, scarves, etched glass, turned wood shaped like toadstools, etc., etc. However, one booth featured taxidermy, and I was morally obligated to get a photo of this lovely naturalistic scene. In case you were wondering, the bunny is NOT riding the deer. Who's ever heard of such a thing occurring in the wild?


Friday, May 05, 2006

Yesterday was my first experience with the public transit system. Brussels has subway, tram and bus systems, which all accept the same card that you must purchase and validate before riding. I wanted to ride out to an area of town (conveniently referred to as "Brussels II--The Comeback" on my map) where there is a giant swath of green in the middle of which lives the royal family. The farecard machine was a little confusing at first, until I realized how similar it is to the voting machines in Alexandria. So I got a card good for 5 rides and was on my way (I think I might have also voted to separate Flanders into Wallonia into autonomous European states--wasn't too sure about that bit).

The Metro system wasn't difficult to navigate once I was in it. With my multitude of maps I was able to assist a young man from Antwerp in finding the location of his dermatologist's office and getting him on his way. The royal gardens were a bit of a disappointment given that they were largely hidden behind a high brick wall topped by barbed wire, which for some reason they fail to mention in the guidebook. However, it was in a park-y district, so I just went to another, less fortress-like area directly across the street. I saw the Atomium, one of those crazy buildings you find scattered about the planet which were put up for some World's Fair or Expo or something and which are frequently rounder or more spherical than normal buildings, which is currently being restored to its former shiny glory (here's a self portrait--I'm the bright dot in the center). Had lunch near these musical sculptures, one of which was very lulling as the water dripped on various lengths of closed pipes, creating muted tones. Visited the monument to King Leopold I, which had a pretty boss stone spiral staircase up the back. People were probably wondering why I was photographing the wrong side of the monument, as the statue was obscured from my perspective.

Down the hill from here was the Royal Homestead. I saw that they were letting people onto the grounds so I figured I might wander around a bit and maybe I'd bump into His Royal Highness and could ask him to intercede on behalf of the Americans unhappy with the current administration. Maybe he'd agree to stage an intervention or something. But no, they get you all the way in there (like a 1/4 mile walk) an THEN they hit you with the 2 Euro charge. I decided, partly out of laziness and partly out of a herd mentality, to go ahead and pay the fee since it wasn't too outrageous. Where did I end up? The spectacular royal greenhouses, which are open a short time each year when everything is in bloom. It was pretty awesome. There were acres and acres of indoor plantings of palms, ferns, begonias, fuchsias, geraniums, hydrangeas, and on and on. Part of the tour was outside, so you could see the beautiful yet inaccessible lakes shown on the map. There was a ton of extremely elderly people, forcing me to walk at a pleasantly contemplative pace. Probably for the best. There was a bathroom with an attendant in a black and white uniform...probably the King in disguise out to hear what the commoners were saying about him these days. Also, at the gift shop, among the various items featuring plants, were some postcards of family portaits of the royals. One appeared to have been taken circa 1989 at a JC Penny's in a mall somewhere--it just had that vibe.

I took the tram back, which was noteworthy both for its extreme slowness and stifling lack of ventilation. It was recommended as a way to get around town while getting a chance to see the sites, but good viewing can only occur if you get a seat (since the windows stop at approximately eye level when standing), and since the cars are so narrow there aren't a lot of seats to go around. Part of the ride was underground, and the tram stopped in the tunnel for prolonged periods and the airlessness became more airless when there wasn't even a breeze from outside to get in. This in spite of the fact that all the windows were open, but I think since they're all on one side no cross-ventilation could occur. Perhaps I'll give it another chance when (a) it isn't in the 70s and sunny, and (b) it's not during the afternoon rush.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Oh, and "boulevard" means "avenue" and vice versa. Crazy!

I went north and west of the city center on Tuesday, an area seemingly indifferent to the tourism trade. There were some great-looking shops and other sites, including a large variety store that appeared to sell everything from clothes to housewares to industrial meat slicers as well as hoagies and a building labeled something like "Pest Elimination School". I went by the slaughterhouse, which to my surprise is actually still a slaughterhouse. I had no idea, given the complete lack of offensive odors. From a quick web perusal, it looks like they had to go modern to get approval of the European Commission to export, and this was followed by a fire 9 years ago which resulted in more modernization. I visited the canal, Brussels' only waterway since they enclosed their river for the purposes of sewage conveyance. It was tiny, with space for just two boats to pass with only inches between them. Two abreast (one named "I Love You" in English) were passing through a lock as I went by, and the one kept bumping the other and the wall of the canal as it exited.

There's tons of places around that bear further exploration, including the building across the street from the John the Baptist Church that had not coats of arms on it but coats of hairstyles throughout history. They started with the hairstyles of the ancient Greek goddesses and went right up through the 1920s, with dates included where appropriate (no dates were given for the goddesses' hairstyles, because, let's face it, they're timeless). (There were no hairstyles given for the first 1600 years of the Common Era--this was known as the Dark Ages for hair salons everywhere.) Not sure what happened after the Roaring '20s, whether hair styling became so uncomplicated that it wasn't worth discussing ("Le Bob - 1930" just doesn't have the same cachet) or they ran out of space on the wall. The building looked like it was gutted inside, so hopefully they're remodeling it rather than tearing it down. Across the street was a piece of the city wall and turret that had been uncovered in the 1950s, which is surrounded on 3 sides by a much taller building. I can just see Rapunzel leaning out her window to see if she can spot Prince Charming's imminent rescue, when he calls out to her from 10 stories above in his bachelor pad with a hottie on each arm: "Up here, baby! Bring some Courvoisier when you get out!"


I went to work all day and sat at a desk.


Monday, May 01, 2006

Entree, pates, legumes.

All words you think you know the definitions of, since they were imported as-is from the French. But no, they really mean appetizer, pastas, and vegetables, respectively. As if there aren't enough ways to confuse us non-French speakers, there seems to be this sub-set of words that we picked up a little bit wrong, as if we just didn't hear correctly when we were told what they meant. A nation-wide game of telephone was involved, perhaps, leading to great miscommunications. Probably the French and Indian War resulted from something like this. I'm sure there are others that I'll encounter as time goes on.

It rained and hailed yesterday, and sprinkled today. Didn't do much today besides go to the movies and research utilities that needed to be cancelled. Yesterday we went to the big flea market in town (in the gentrifying Marolles district) and looked at all the junk people were trying to pass off as treasure. I could have really enhanced my record collection. I'm trying to hold off buying anything until we get established in our new digs so I don't end up having to move more stuff than I arrived with, but it's tough. There was a trio on one side of the market playing saxaphone, accordion and upright bass (amplified via megaphone), doing that kind of french-infused jazz reminiscient of the soundtrack from "Triplets of Bellville". It was pretty awesome. We had some so-so lasagne in a art nouveau bar on the Sablon, but it was a neat setting.


Regular adults probably don't find this sort of thing as funny as I do.