Saturday, December 30, 2006

Various things not related to visitors.

1. It was a big day for Jack and me. We had finally gotten the letter saying that our ID cards were ready. So that morning, we went over to the commune's office and picked them up. It was very exciting given that we had started the process before we even left the states: getting married, sending fingerprints off to the FBI and birth certificates off to our originating states to get notarized. We submitted the voluminous paperwork in May, and here it was mid-October when the documentation was finally coming through. They didn't even fake us out, either--the guy at the window had our cards (heavyweight paper: Jack's a cream-colored tri-fold and mine a orangesicle-y bi-fold) ready for us to sign. We were glad to finally be done with it, although somewhat disappointed to discover that Jack's was only valid until next May, at which point it would need to be renewed. Argh.

2. Encountering art in this city is no big chore; like music, the hefty taxes we pay go to various demonstrations of stuff, many of which are further subsidized by companies.
a. Art in A Garage.
We assumed it would kind of have that Art-O-Matic rogue art flavor, given the setting, but it was nine artists, one per floor, who had created installation pieces, including this pink dripped latex foam. And the garage was still open, so you had to dodge moving vehicles to get to some of them. The best part, undoubtedly, was the view from the top, which was several stories above the original skyline.
b. Truc-Troc. We encountered this one by accident, when we saw a parade of people walking by with free stuff in their hands. We followed them to the building they were trickling out and were told that the art in the temporary gallery was ours for the taking if we "proposed" something to the artist that he or she was willing to exchange for. They set us loose with a pad of sticky notes. The mood of the crowd was rather gleeful, and people were proposing all kinds of stuff, most of it better than what we had to offer (cases of champagne, weekend use of second homes, etc.). The art was of varying quality, but there were some very nice pieces. Jack suggested I offer up the recently-acquired head of Jesus in exchange for an ethereal street scene. "Je propose le tete du Jesus." Another piece had a magazine that was exploded outward at the viewer: "Je propose une nouveau magazine." We left with free coffee drinks in our bellies and free chocolates in our pockets.
c. Bozar's India Festival. The exhibit on the religious artifacts of India had a different theme every weekend, and we chose to go when they were having a bazaar to scout for possible Christmas presents. I didn't enjoy the exhibit itself much at all, as it was dry as unbuttered toast, but the expo featured puppets, Bollywood dancing, henna tattoos, a cricket workshop, Indian goods and food. It smelled fantastic. We got a wrap with lentils and seasoned rice and a piece of gulab jamun. Mmmm. There was also, inside the museum, a live elephant. The children were ecstatic.
d. Freebie. Jack discovered a lovely impressionistic painting on a board that of a bilious green nude being hovered over by an ominously reptilian character someone put out for the trash. Can you imagine? It's now over the fireplace in the living room.

3. Wanderings can be somewhat limited when you're reliant on public transportation, but we took an outing to visit the sculpture garden at the University on the edge of the metro system some time ago. The pieces were not very numerous or interesting, for the most part, but there was a garden of herbal remedies bordering it on one side and a double-wide old-school Pizza Hut on another. The former was empty and in a state of late fall decline, but the latter was absolutely packed on that Sunday. It looked like they had table service and wine and everything--definitely worth checking out at some point. We decided to head for another section of the transportation system to catch a tram back, and we found a shopping mall, a house with a thatched roof, the store that carries English and American products, an old-school mill converted to a fancy restaurant, natural watercourses, unnatural ponds, birds, trees...pretty much a little of everything, depending primarily on what side of the street you were on. A few weeks later we went out to visit Lake Genval, just a short regional train ride away. This was a former resort community with a variety of grand old houses around the lake, reminding me a bit of a miniature Lake George. We took in the Water and Fountain Museum, which showed us how they moved water through the ages. Thankfully, they had an old pipe made from a bored-out tree trunk--no water-related museum is complete without one. We had lunch in town at the restaurant La Clé where I found the following scrawled in ballpoint pen on the bathroom stall door: "Je t'aime mon lapin" (I love my rabbit).

4. The Balmoral Milk Bar is a "50s-Style diner", and is nearly always packed. We wandered by one day when there were a few free tables and so we stopped in. We each ordered some of the most expensive hamburgers ever (more than €10), but they were enormous. Jack's was so filled with stuff that he gave up handling it after a couple of bites and attacked it with knife and fork (which is probably more European, anyway). They were quite tasty, although I was unable to finish mine due to the size. Jack also got an almond milkshake, which seemed to have been thickened with not only ice cream but also ground almonds and was a delicious treat. I got a Dr. Pepper, because how often do you see Dr. Pepper in Belgium? There was a large mural on one wall with James Dean doing his normal smoldering gaze thing. He was being pursued by a train, for some reason.

5. We took the opportunity of the lull in visitors to take a trip out to Ikea, where we bought some desperately-needed additional storage and a desk to complete my fabulous office-nook (I had previously [for 5 months] been using a corrugated box). Jack took some convincing, but we were really out of places to put stuff, and I had gone earlier in the week to scope things out, so I knew we could keep prices reasonable. What I didn't know was how to get the stuff home. We researched the options before purchasing and learned there was a system called Taxis Verts that would deliver your stuff (and you, if necessary) to your house. A pleasant gentleman who spoke good English explained how it worked. So we bolstered ourselves on €1 hotdogs (terrible, again) and made our purchases. Once we got back to the Taxis Verts stand there were a number of people waiting around for someone to tell them what to do. One of the trucks pulled up and people thronged the guy when he came in. He didn't speak any English. He was writing people's name on a form and I was pretty desperate not to lose my place in line, so I let him know as best I could that I was waiting as well. I got the message across somehow, since he wrote down my destination and my name, "Annette". He left and another guy showed up, and I indicated that I was me, and we loaded the stuff in the truck and headed out down the road. It was the most circuitous route imaginable, during the afternoon rush hour, but he got us home in amazingly short order. Now I have a lovely spot from which I type, complete with a decorative homemade organizer, and all I need is a lamp and a taller chair to make it perfect. But I'm getting there.

Friday, December 08, 2006

I ask you, does this look anything like me? For those who are pondering this question a leeeetle too long, I'll give you a hint: no. After an excessively long but fairly satisfying lunch at a Bruges cafe that was comprised of pieces of like 3 different buildings strung together (you had to go up the back stairs, down a corridor, through a glassed-in passage overlooking the back garden to get to the bathroom) and that had really bad art embedded in all the tables, we walked the major landmarks in town on our way to the B&B. There were many, many gewgaws for sale, including this doll. G said it looked like me, so I responded by calling her a "Jerk-ass". I apologized to her for speaking so hastily; I meant to say "Jerk-wad". But the name stuck, and we called her Jerk-ass for the remainder of the trip.

We checked in at the B&B, Absoluut Verhulst, at which G had booked a 2-storey loft space that slept 5. It was very nice and peaceful; good choice, G! Not having a TV at home, the first thing I did, naturally, was turn it on. We chilled for a bit and had some caffeinated beverages, and then headed out for some more sightseeing. On the way out the door we encountered the proprietor and told him we thought the place was lovely. I employed the one word of Dutch I know and said it was "very gezellig". He asked if I knew Dutch, I told him no, and he then said something in Dutch. Whatever. What appeared to be a pretty standard residential living room was filled with bikes and a wheelchair, and the latter, he told us, was in case any of us got too tired and needed to be pushed around. I put a pin in it, knowing it was going to be a long day of looking at stuff.

You may recall from the last Bruges stay that they have a relic of Jesus' blood in the aptly-named church of the Holy Blood, but Jack and I didn't visit it. G, being into that sort of nasty stuff, was excited so we each got a handful of change and got in line. (They should probably just put up a sign that says "no money, no lookee" because they practically force you to give them some, as J found out on a trip a few weeks later. Churches are a great way to get rid of all the low-value change that accumulates so I have no issue with it.) The relic was contained in a glass cylinder into which a smaller cylinder containing the blood was placed. It looked to me like a piece of porous bone with a reddish-brown splotch on it. Although many people were kissing it or laying on their hands, I found it pretty repulsive and gave it a brief touch so the priest-lady wouldn't scold me for being disrespectful.

After that, it was on to Choco-Story! This museum was somewhat cheesy and overpriced, but I can't say it wasn't informative. I learned that:
- cocoa beans being removed from their pods look very gross and slimy, like intestines or something
- the reason Leopold II's offspring didn't continue the royal line was that he didn't have any male heirs
- Belgian chocolate is ground to a finer powder than in any other country, which is why it is so smooth and delicious
- large chocolate sculptures are a bad idea, no matter what country you're in (cross reference to the trip to the super-stinky Chocolate Kingdom in Sharon, PA)
- chocolate doesn't make people fat; people make people fat (chocolate, however, DOES lower cholesterol and prevent acne, not people)
- and much, much more!

It really was quite interesting, although a bit silly due to its over-serious tone. At the end, a couple of surly teens demonstrated how make filled chocolates. I had to leave due to a coughing fit, but thanks to G's severe nut allergy she gave me her hazelnut-filled praline shaped like that talking starfish on that cartoon all the kids are talking about these days. Score!

More wandering commenced and we ended up at the Jerusalem church, which was built by Italian merchants back in the day and had a wooden sphere on top instead of a steeple. It was a refreshing change of style from most of Bruges, and so we paid the entry fee to check out the interior. There were no signs to show how to get anywhere in the compound, and after getting trapped in a warren of tinier and tinier rooms containing the lace museum, we popped back out into the courtyard and just began trying to open doors into the church. We finally managed to find one that was unlocked and were greeted with an unusual interior that contained a double-wide raised tomb in the middle of the floor where the congregation would normally sit, an altarpiece with skulls, bones, and snakes carved into it, a tiny chapel behind the altar, and an even tinier room behind the chapel that you had to double over to get in which contained a full-sized statue of a dead Jesus in a glass coffin.

Back out in the courtyard, we crossed the path to get into another building that used to be an almshouse for impoverished women. Through another series of doors where it looked like you weren't supposed to go, a lacemaking demonstration was taking place. In reality, it was several women (and one baby) in a room together as if at a quilting bee, going about their business and chatting to each other. They ignored us, but it was nice to see this dying art being carried on by people, young and old, who were doing it because they liked to, not because they were on display in a shop window to attract customers. They all seemed to be doing traditional pieces, but there were some more modern themes in a small gallery in the back: snow on trees, colorful abstractions, naked ladies, etc. Before leaving I made sure to try all the other doors to make sure we weren't missing out on, say, Elvis playing poker or levitating ponies or anything.

Following some recuperation at the B&B we went out to find us some grub. The restaurant we went to was virtually empty at such an early hour, so our waiter took his time with us and was very pleasant. He suggested some beers that really hit the spot. I got the eel sauteed in butter, a simple but delicious preparation. S got the giant head-on shrimp even though I warned him about it, but he seemed to enjoy messing with it, at one point blowing on a shrimp body as if it was the mouthpiece for the trumpet he played in grade school. They gave him one of those narrow meat removal forks, which is more help than I got when I ordered it the previous week. If I had to guess, Jerk-ass probably got mussels and fries, but I could be wrong.

We took an evening stroll around town and took in the sights under cover of darkness: the Beguinage, Minnewater, city gate. Then we went back to our place and found a pretty entertaining current events comedy panel show on the BBC, like "Whose line is it anyway" except funnier and more topical. Then off to bed to rest up for some more intensive touring.

The breakfast the next morning was fantastic. They just kept bringing stuff out in addition to the items on the table that you were to help yourself to: deli meats, cheeses, rolls, nuts, dried fruit, yogurt, fresh fruit, and an egg dish. There was also cereal if you were still hungry. There were two other couples staying there, both from the States, so we chatted with everyone about various stuff. It was all I could do to get up from the table after eating, not even having tried many of the things they'd put out. I could have stayed there until checkout, digesting and watching TV, but there was so much more to be seen! Onward!

We went over to the bell tower and took the long, spiraly climb to the top. It was chilly and windy up there, but the view was excellent and the bells did their thing at like 10 minutes past the appointed time, and although I had been hoping to be down on the level with the giant music box mechanism when it went off (along with a father who had dragged his two bored-looking sons up there), it was still a sound to behold.

Then it was time to visit the chocolate shop and get treats for those who had been left behind. I got some chocolate-covered ginger, chocolate-covered cherries, and a bottle of chocolate advocaat, a beverage I'd seen advertised several times before in restaurants but never ordered because I thought it was some kind of avocado or lawyer milkshake. According to the label it was a type of eggnog. The best thing they had in the shop was a white chocolate goblet of appropriately golden Duvel beer, with a big head of chocolate foam on the top--very realistic. S got a white-chocolate ghost, just in time for the upcoming Halloween holiday (although he doesn't really like chocolate and G doesn't like white chocolate that much, as it turns out, so who knows if it was ever consumed). G spent a good while in there picking out stuff for the peeps back home. S stopped in next door to the skate shop and got G some black wristbands with a pink skull and crossbones motif...awww.

We went back to the B&B to get our luggage, then a quick trip to the Our Lady church to check out the Michelangelo statue, then on to the train station. First, though, we stopped at the old St. John's Hospital to visit the restroom. It was G's first encounter with a Madame Pipi, so she was a little nervous, but it went fine. Parts of the hospital are apparently now used for a conference center, so as I wandered the halls I could have sat in on some biotechnology presentations, but instead I investigated some large styrofoam celtic crosses. Had there been someone else with me I could have gotten some excellent photos. Oh well. Unfortunately we missed our train, but there was another one in a half hour so we sat on the platform and I nibbled on the chocolate-covered waffle they had gotten from the grocery store before we left. It tasted remarkably like an Entenmann's chocolate-covered donut, so it was reasonably tolerable in small quantities. I think I ended up eating the one waffle over a period of 6 days, a little at a time.

Once we got back on the train G had a confrontation with a young boy who was begging her in French for her bottle of water, which she refused to surrender on the grounds that (a) she had already drank out of it and didn't want to pass on contagions and (b) the whole thing was just weird and the kid wouldn't take no for an answer. I tried to explain in French that she was sick, but the kid wouldn't look at me or talk to me, but was fixated on G. After a few minutes of pleading he gave up. It seemed like it was going to be one of those things where the kid is distracting you so another kid could get your wallet, but that would have been difficult as we were all sitting facing each other, unless the other kid happened to be a snake that could slip between the cushions from behind and snag your wallet in his fangs.

When the ticket taker came around we discovered that the tickets I had purchased from the machine were not valid for an overnight stay, just for an up and back journey. Oops! The guy let us use them, though, since it was clear we were just stupid Americans. Kind of annoying that they have an automated system at the train station for in-country travel, but you can't specify your return date. If you buy and print out your tickets on the web, though, you can. I just don't get it.

Once we got back into Brussels and had a delicious gyro repast (and they bought me a much-coveted toaster as an early b-day present [yay toast!]), we did some running around to pick up souvenirs and cram in a very quick visit to the Cantillon brewery, which didn't allow us much time to look at the process before having to head back down for a beer so we could get our money's worth before they closed for the day. The gueuze, as always for those who are trying it for the first time, was a bit of a surprise, but it doesn't take long to cotton to the flavor. When we got back to the house, we discovered that Jack had found a Jesus head on the street the previous day and brought it home, becoming fast friends. Jesus backed him up several times, although no one but Jack could hear what he was saying so we just had to take his word for it.

Later that night, after dinner at a beer restaurant that featured more gueuze and frites, we visited a coffin-themed bar off the Grand Place that had coffins for tables and expensively-priced Jupiler in skull mugs. The atmosphere was lightened by the pop music playing in the background and the jovial bartender. After a couple of skull-skis, we made our way back to the hacienda and G had to pee "really, really bad". There were several conversations like "I'm serious, you guys" and "don't make me laugh!" It WAS pretty funny, though, since those types of evenings tend to occur less and less frequently as one reaches maturity. As all the green spaces were locked up at night there wasn't much a female could do in this situation aside from finding a doorway to squat in and having a Jeanneke moment. Fortunately she made it through the unpopulated stretch back into our neighborhood so we could stop at a bar. We had another beer and everyone took the opportunity to visit the facilities.

The next day we sent S&G off on the train to continue their sojourn in London. Sayonara, suckers!

[Photo #2 courtesy of S. His award-winning work can be found here. The homepage is VERY noisy; you have been warned.]

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

After a day for cleaning and replenishing of goods, S&G got here. Brussels was the first stop on their multi-capital Euro-tour of Brussels and London. They flew through London on their way here, and their plane was cancelled so they had to get on the next one. Not ideal when one is suffering from sleep deprivation, and when S called me from Heathrow to give me the news, I discerned that he had made a credit card call so I quickly got off the line. When you're trapped at an airport for an indefinite period, there's a tendency to want to kill time by whatever means possible. Jack and I learned the wrath of the operator-assisted credit card call before we moved, when I was in the US and he was in Brussels, and I didn't want to inflict the same pain on them.

It was S's first trip to Europe and even through his sleepless haze it was obvious that he was verrry excited. G was a bit more bleary-eyed, more befitting of someone who has been abroad before. We had lunch at the delicious salad place next to the train station, and then got home after an exciting tram ride where the tram in front of us broke down, causing substantial delays and resulting in the tram being towed uphill in front and behind by what looked to be dump trucks.

After napping for them and working for me, it was time to hit the town. We went to the beer-themed restaurant downtown and had the same waiter as last time. The restaurant was a bit fuller this time, so he didn't lay on the charm as thickly, but he did select some enjoyable beers for us. He immediately pegged S as the...uh, "gregarious" one amongst us, giving him the most alcoholic brew. To my surprise, no one objected to an order of escargot to start. G had been talking about the fried cheese practically since I met them at the airport, so we got an order of that as well. For an entree I had the waterzooi, a creamy chicken stew, and everyone else had mussels prepared various ways. Everything was delicious. Later we took in some of the sights under cover of darkness and then headed home.

The next day we...went to the Atomium. Because of the high pricetag and the fact that I had already been, I wasn't interested in going in. Once they saw how cool it looked in real life, though, they insisted and paid my way. A good time was had by all. It wasn't nearly as crowded as last time, and I was able to show them where the secret free bathroom was. There was also a new exhibit of original barbie dolls doing things that barbies did back when the Atomium opened in 1958: holding giant surfboards, wearing cat-eye sunglasses, and generally looking stiff and ill at ease.

We lingered in the cafe at the top for a bit, taking in the scene at Mini Europe far below, and eventually made our way over to the palace and then to a lunch joint for beers, food and frites. After nourishment, I was looking for the tram line home when we came across the Jette cemetery. We spent a bit of time checking out that scene, which wasn't as nice, restful, or large as the Ixelles one, and then made our way home. Dinner that evening was at a place near our house that had been recommended by the guidebook they brought. It had gargoyles on the front and a richly-decorated interior visible from the street, so we figured we couldn't go wrong. They seated us in the cavernous ballroom in the back, which had none of the charm of the front rooms, which we decided were either for those who had made reservations or those who were better-dressed than we were. The food was okay, but thematically all over the map and not really worth the price. I'm pretty sure there were frites involved, though.

Thursday we lit out of town for Bruges, sans Jack...

Monday, December 04, 2006

Funny soccer game incident I forgot to mention.

At the end of the game, when it became clear that the other team was likely to lose, the Liege supporters began to sing:

Heeeeey, Baby!
I wanna know-oh-oh
If you'll be my girl!

Why they thought that was an appropriate tune I don't know. I can only assume that the majority of fans didn't really know what they were singing, or perhaps they were referring to the opposing team as a bunch of women. Naturally we joined in.