Monday, January 22, 2007

Being in the States over the holidays was nice, although a bit overwhelming what with all the running around. We managed to eat an obscene amount of delicious food while in the DC area, such as Five Guys burgers and fish & chips from the new Eamonn's in Old Town. We went with my parents to Layalina for dinner one night and supped on a fine Middle Eastern feast washed down with Syrian wine. We had a fantastic Chinese repast with MA and her family at a restaurant with a table for 15 that had a giant lazy susan upon which we passed secret notes to the aforementioned N, who was celebrating her birthday. All this food got me to the point that I was eating dinner leftovers for breakfast, since all my other eating opportunities were spoken for. My mom also made some noteworthy meals, and my dad whipped up a batch of perfect pancakes one day. What a country!

On Christmas Eve Eve we met up with some pals to catch up, drink beer, and play a game of croquet lit by candles and assorted fireworks. Team Strelsch couldn't manage to beat our host, who had the home field advantage. As a consolation prize we got a couple of books by this fellow. He claims to live the life by only teaching classes two days a week, but this website makes him look like he keeps pretty danged busy.

Sunday was supposed to be our family gift exchange day, but my brother became violently ill earlier that morning, so the remainder of us just ate brunch and Jack and I hit the road for OH to visit his family and friends. It was nice to see A at the gathering, since the last time we met up was in Rome. He had gained some weight since then, but since it was the holidays I didn't mention it.

We arrived at Jack's parents' house in time for Christmas Eve dinner, at which I made the mistake of consuming a half can of jellied cranberry sauce. Turns out that's just a wee bit too much for me.

We received a movie-themed game from Jack's parents for Christmas, and we played it with his mom, and they both beat the pants off me. Jack's parents received their 4th calendar, among other delightful surprises. Lunch was with Jack's brother W and family, and much bustle ensued over a repast of sloppy joes. We finished off the meal with some cookies from the amazing variety that Jack's mom makes every year.

The next day Jack's brother R and his family arrived, usurping our spot in the limelight (they brought some grandchildren, after all) and the guest bedroom. Dinner was Ham in a Blanket, and the annual holiday sentiment of "you ate the blanket?!?" was shared. Ah, tradition! R got some chili-flavored beer from his sister, and being that the entire family (including, apparently, some non-blood-related members) are a bunch of spice wusses, I was the only who could drink the stuff. It was no Belgian beer, but it was drinkable.

We moved over to the B&B for the night, and were greeted by the proprietor at the door, who encouraged us to come back down from our room for a nightcap of sherry and some Christmas music. We did, and to our surprise it was the owners and two of their children and their spouses. Jack and I definitely felt like outsiders as we listened to Dylan Thomas' "A Child’s Christmas in Wales", a first for us but an annual event for them. Verrry civilized, what with the sherry and the chuckling and sighing at all the appropriate points. The next night the family members were all congregated in the common room again, and seemed a little crestfallen that we didn't join them, as if we had been the only thing preventing them from rehashing their annual holiday disagreements. Tradition!

The next day we took a stroll to visit the big park in the town center where many of Jack's most colorful childhood stories took place. For some reason I had never been there, and had imagined it in a totally different location and on a smaller scale. In the lifelessness of winter, it looked pretty tame, so it was difficult to overlay the exciting adventures on the scene at hand. But it was nice to see it, and hopefully I’ll come back during a more temperate time of the year and get a better sense of it.

Jack's sister B arrived with her three kids a bit later, for a total of five youths in his parents' tiny condo for the day. It was quite a scene of mayhem. We managed to beg off for a while for a lunch appointment with J&D, who were driving back to NYC and agreed to meet us for lunch. We ended up at a pizza joint with an extreme draft problem. The pizza, however, was quite tasty. It was nice to see those guys even if it was for such a short time.

We went to the movies with B's family the next afternoon to give the grandparents some time off, and saw "The Pursuit of Happyness". It was pretty good, and although you knew the protagonist was going to come through okay in the end, it was at times difficult to see how he could possibly struggle back up to the top. The kids were all very good during the film, and I don’t know if it was because they were bored or being polite or what, as they didn't seem to enjoy the movie much (although they had picked it out). Later we went out to Belleria for wedding soup and pizza and beers in frosty mugs, all of which were enjoyable.

And then we were on the road again. Having not been able to pass up the fruit and coffee that we had already paid for at the B&B, we stopped off for second breakfasts with Jack's pals A&N in Kent on our way to Columbus. A. was working 12-hour graveyard shifts as a nurse, so by the time we arrived he was running on empty and pretty slap-happy. They took us to a fantastic place with delicious homestyle breakfasts, and I had coffee and biscuits and eggs and mashed potato pancakes and bacon...mmm. A&N had both recently finished their schoolin' and were out in the real world with new jobs and a new house. The house made me a little homesick for ours, as it was a tiny one with warm wood floors and orange paint on the walls and lots of windows. Sniff. They had a lot of cool furniture they’d gotten secondhand that gave it a retro feel, which is more than I can say for our home furnishing style, the polite term for which is "eclectic". (Our current residence is decorated with what could be not-so-euphemistically termed "recovered trash".)

We arrived in Columbus around mid-afternoon to stay with Jack's sister M's family for a couple of days. We were greeted by her and her two daughters, R, 1.5 years, and S, 4 years. S gave us the grand tour of the house and then asked if we wanted to see "the back forty", and led us out the door to check out the yard, compete with a creek running through it and evidence of deer, birds, and other wildlife. Husband D came home and joined in, occasionally calling into question our minimal French skills by speaking fairly fluently. The favorite game of the afternoon was superfast Ring Around the Rosy, in which the two girls would end up flying through the air while holding hands with me and then be delicately stacked on top of one another like cordwood made of spun sugar.

Jack's other sister MK and her family arrived for dinner and we enjoyed a pleasant meal and good conversation. D built a fire early on, so later we digested in front of the warm glow.

We decided to take in Columbus' Franklin Park Conservatory the next day with the women folk. In addition to the wide variety of interesting flora, they were featuring a glass blowing artist who made beautiful swirls of luminescent color and interspersed them with the plants. Superb.

And then we were off again, after starting the day with breakfast at the Waffle House. I got the pecan waffle with a side of grits, and the grits, I'm ashamed to say, had so much butter in them that I couldn’t finish them. I would have never guessed that such a thing was even possible.

Having some time for the drive, we decided to cut a straitish course by taking some back roads. This placed us a short hop from the Prabhupada's Palace of Gold in WV, which is some kind of focal point for Hare Krishna in the US. The guided tour of the palace cost a $6 "donation", and we didn't feel like paying it, so we checked out the grounds. Their website, which has lots of photos, says that the building was crafted by unskilled devotees. Although the building is very nice from a distance, there are large chunks of the exterior plaster that are missing upon closer inspection, giving it a dejected appearance. Plus, there was a large lattice structure covering the stairs to the building with a sign saying "DEER FENCE". Could they have come up with something that, I don’t know, fit in a little better with the overall motif of fanciness? There was a temple, living quarters, and a lake across the street. We entered the temple, removed our shoes, and watched some guys playing mystical music and sweating and dancing, as people stood around and took pictures and generally looked happy to be there. I had never seen so many Indian Hare Krishnas in one place before, and I knew that they took their religion seriously so I felt a bit intrusive. We exited, took in the sight of the two giant statues of dancing ladies by the lake, who looked like they had just executed a high five because their cricket team had won, then hit the road again.

We arrived back in Arlington on New Year's Eve evening, and spent the remaining hours of 2006 in front of the tube with a bottle of bubbly. It was nice to chill out for a while in such a peaceable fashion. I was quite disturbed to discover that Carson Daly is beginning to look a lot like Dick Clark in his younger years. Dick Clark should really just retire. He must have an airtight contract or something.

New Year’s day was Christmas Part II, so we trekked out to C&J's house again and had chili and mac & cheese and presents. A good time was had by all, even though Jerk-ass didn't seem to believe my mom's protestations that the tiny ceramic basket with the words "to a favorite daughter in law" on the side wasn't from her. It's a mystery.

And then, back to Brussels for 2007...

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

They do the St. Nicholas thing here on December 6th, so they start in on the holiday happenings pretty early (but not TOO early—there’s an official start date, and some retailer got in trouble for jumping the gun this past year) and everything emerges fully realized rather than crescendoing up to a frenzy. The lights and decorations and market were installed by the 1st, so the next day we went downtown to check things out. We encountered the following:

- Booths selling everything from churros to handmade jewelry to cell phones
- A section of the market devoted to the 2011 cultural capital of Europe, Tallinn, complete with Estonian mulled wine, Estonian gifts, and an Estonian brass band playing carols
- Ice skating rink, Ferris wheel (a view overlooking the rink at left), two carousels and an inflatable, monster-shaped house of horrors where you entered through the mouth and exited near where you’d expect to find the cloaca
- Nativity scene with live animals and fake people
- Light show on the Grand Place that projected “snow” onto the buildings using mirror balls while simultaneously changing the color of the buildings’ faces
- Mannekin Pis dressed as Pere Noel
- Young Americans wherever we turned

There was also a parade of people in green windbreakers through town, which at first we thought was the Santa Claus parade that had been scheduled for the previous day. The large number of police cars and the armored police vehicle parked nearby told a different story, though, and we figured out that it had something to do with the closure of the local VW plant that had been announced. (Under intense pressure, they backed off the closure later.)

As we ate rather divine Vietnamese food for lunch, we watched a guy across the street painting the long stretch of plate-glass windows of an Irish bar with holiday words and images, and each time I glanced over he had done all his detailed artistry in one color and was on to the next. Before we knew it, he was gone. Man, did he work fast.

Another festive event was the holiday party given by Jack’s Finnish coworker, featuring mulled wine with almonds and raisins steeped in it and a variety of traditional and non-traditional sweets. People were strangely interested in what we had done for Thanksgiving--I have no idea what holidays are celebrated in other countries, so it was odd that they knew about this one. There was an Actual Belgian at this party, so I took the opportunity to ask about the holidays, and he said that December 6th was for kids, so I guess the more general celebration is on Christmas.

Not so enjoyable were the crowds in the stores. We did our best to stay in the small, homegrown shops, but unfortunately that’s where everyone else wanted to be, too. As holiday shopping usually makes me hate everything, I think I did a pretty good job of maintaining a positive attitude. It didn’t hurt that my family changed their gift giving scheme this year to something a bit more manageable. The only item that I regret not snapping up was a set of nesting dolls featuring Vladimir Putin, which I spotted at a Ukrainian and/or Russian general store. When I decided to go back and get it a few days later, it was gone. I got a bottle of vodka shaped like Attilla the Hun (or somebody) instead.

Jack participated in a teambuilding thing for work one night that involved wine tasting and preparing Thai food. The idea was to pit two teams against one another and see which was the best at doing the assigned tasks. Jack felt it was unstructured and chaotic, and he didn’t learn much about either cooking or wine, although he did get to brown some chicken pieces and chop onions. The other team, somewhat arbitrarily, won the competition. This cooking school has a huge storefront on a major thoroughfare in our area, and I think it’s only a matter of time before they go belly up if his experience is at all representative of how they do business.

Monday, January 15, 2007

What does your Domino's Four Cheese pizza have on it? We recently received their flyer in our mailbox, and in addition to the two special pizzas, which were turkey and salmon, they had their regular assortment. In the Classics portion of the menu, they listed the Four Cheese, which consists of Swiss, goat, mozzarella, and blue.

Although they apparently deliver, at €17.50 for a large, I think I'm gonna pass. There's better and cheaper pizza to be had nearby. Plus they probably wouldn't understand my order if I called.

Thursday, January 11, 2007


As previously mentioned, we went to Ikea and bought some furniture, including a desk for my office. The desk is egg-shaped and yolk-colored, an immense and cheerful improvement over the brokeback box. I celebrated its existence by creating this lovely diorama of a kid who throws like a girl playing catch with his sky-frog. As you can see, it is also a desk organizer. Handy!

J came and stayed with us for a few days in mid-November. She’s a world class traveler due to her employment at the State Department, so she knows how to get through security, can get a business class seat at the government’s expense, and has less need for companions than most visitors. This last bit was fortunate, since I got sick AGAIN while she was here, and she took day trips to Ghent and Bruges. We did, however, manage to have some memorable experiences.

J had been in town for a conference and therefore had already perused most of the downtown tourist attractions, a nice break from the routine for me. We took some time to visit the EU quarter, with the immense government buildings, triumphal arch, and parks with autumnal trees. I had earlier spied a Tunisian-Columbian restaurant in the neighborhood, so I convinced her that we should check it out. We peeked in the windows and there was a couple in there at one of the tables, giving us confidence that there might be hope for it. We entered and...the couple was the waitress and the cook. I confirmed (in French) that they were serving lunch, and the waitress handed us menus and took our drink order. After perusing the menu we decided on a South American appetizer and North African entrees. I attempted to order, only to be told that the empanadas “are finished”. All the appetizers were finished. Everything on the menu was finished! There were paper notes taped to the windows indicating the existence of tagines, so we asked about those. After consulting with the cook in the back she returned to inform us that they were available. They were not, however, very good, particularly considering our incredible tagine experience of a few months back. When she brought the check, the price was €4 more than stated in the window. I pointed out the discrepancy, and she said it was some kind of Sunday special that was no longer valid. While we were pulling out money and grumbling, she went over to one of the pieces of paper and cut out the price, leaving the rest taped up. A very unsatisfactory start to J’s visit!

The rest of the week was somewhat hazy due to my ailment, but we did have dinner from the Italian delicatessen down the street one night, which was very tasty. We also went to a Korean/Japanese restaurant and to a Brazilian place for nourishing feijoada (festooned with plastic palm trees!), both of which were delicious. J enjoyed her sojourns into the countryside, taking the transit systems all by her lonesome, and surviving mostly on beer and waffles during the day.

Saturday I was feeling a bit better, and what else can one do when recovering from an illness than go on a bender? I did it for the antioxidants. Actually, it was just an amazing coincidence that our favorite brewery was having their semi-annual open brewing day, in which they’re actually producing the beer, and that a wine shop near our place was having a tasting.

The tour featured a wiseacre guide and an extremely large group of people who spoke something other than French or Dutch, so the default was English. At one point I was standing next to a guy with a Virginia Tech t-shirt. They were boiling the wort when we walked through, so we didn’t get a chance to see the cooling liquid being inoculated by airborne yeasts. We did, however, see them loading large, steaming vats of the used grain into trucks for shipment to farms.

After having lunch with more beer and wandering around some less touristy spots, we made our way back to our neighborhood for the wine tasting. This was no ordinary wine tasting, though: this was like an open bar with as many 1/2-ounce beverages as you could consume, including some potent liqueurs with up to 40% alcohol. The first room we went in had a tasting quiz (Jack won) and some interesting Eastern European wines, but as we moved onward the pourers gave up the charade and didn’t tell us anything about the beverages. There were some young American women, clearly out on a spree, that made me cringe, so we left without ever even getting to the end of the long, long list. For that I donated €5 to Amnesty International? Bah!

The next day J departed and I celebrated my birthday. There’s no denying I’m in my mid-30s at this point. I had to come to terms with the fact that, by pretty much every measure, I am considered a full-fledged non-young adult, more depressing than the actual number. Now I have to start acting all mature and stuff. That’s, like, so not me. Jack gave me some book-related things and concert tickets to see Yo La Tengo the following week. We went and saw “Scoop” at the multiplex out by the Atomium, with a side of Stella Artois and popcorn.

The next day we went out for dinner with N, who was in town briefly in the midst of her tour of the Low Countries and Germany. The restaurant we went to was one that Jack had been to for lunch before, and he swore by their lunch specials. Their dinner options weren’t all that interesting, though, and so we got pizza and pasta. For an appetizer we ordered some kind of chicken in sauce, which bore an uncanny resemblance to chicken wings. How can they eat such an undignified dish in Europe and still think they’re better than us? It’s a mystery. N regaled us with her trip tales, including the scary friend she made at the laundromat, and told us about the new job she was taking in the NC (like the OC, but the other coast). We wish her the best!

Yo La Tengo rocked. What more can I say?

Oh yeah. For some reason the tour was called “Psychedelica Now!” even though there wasn’t much evidence of psychedelic-ness among the 5 bands, particularly not YLT. So what if they like to take uncharted excursions in the land of heavy guitars for several minutes? That doesn’t make them “far out”. During the intermission between bands we saw Georgia and Ira sitting at a booth, unattended, and I wanted to practice my French on them (with hilarious results, naturally) but apparently Jack doesn’t like talking to famous people. There was a Scottish guy in front of us during their performance who seemed extremely eager to identify other English-speakers so he could chat with them about how awesome everything was. He roped some English-speaking Spaniards into discussing the acoustics of the place. Somehow, even though he turned around to glance our way about half a dozen times, he never got up the gumption to talk to us, perhaps because he didn’t hear us actually speaking and decided that we might be Belgian or something.

Two interesting things about the venue: first, there was a 20-cent deposit for the plastic cups, which resulted in just about everyone cleaning up after themselves rather than throwing trash on the floor. The cups were that rigid, breakable type of plastic, and were washed and reused. A genius idea, if you ask me. Second, we learned that the concert hall (Ancienne Belgique) is Flanders’ place for big acts in the capital. The one we had been to before, the Botanique, is Wallonia’s venue. Neither headliner had anything to do with Belgium (NJ and TX, respectively), so I’m not sure how they determine who goes where. Do the artists have to write and essay describing their affinity for the region? I have a suspicion that the opening acts may have hailed from the sponsoring region, but I can’t recall who preceded Jolie Holland so I can’t be sure.

As mentioned in the previous post, we went out to Lake Genval one weekend and hit the Water and Fountain Museum, which had this creepy mannequin of an African woman with a baby on her back standing in the middle of a sand pit, and the woman would swivel her head and the baby would silently slide up her back like a spider. I have no idea what they had to do with the water situation in Africa. There were a variety of experiments relating to water movement designed by professors at the local university, many of which were choked with the crystalline residue of the minerals from the water’s hardness, causing them not to work properly, if at all. The best was a bunch of tennis balls with a hole cut into each one and attached to a rope. If you pulled them through the pipe fast enough they’d make a great thwocking noise and splash water all over.

One of the things I got with the gift certificate Jack gave me was a book of walking tours of Brussels. It’s got a ton of tidbits on Brussels through the ages, so you can determine whether the place where you’re standing was bombed in the 1500s or where Charlotte Bronte’s character was stoned on opium in Villette or where Brueghel the Younger got married under duress. We’ve done a couple of walks so far and made some interesting discoveries, including this statue of a guy who appears to be using a crucifix as a steering mechanism. Definitely a winner.

Jack had to work on Thanksgiving, as we were saving up vacation time for the big December trip home. We briefly considered going to one of the many restaurants that cater to people like us by serving turkey and the trimmings, including the American bar around the corner that was going to be showing NFL games, but in the end we just prepared an enormous salad with all kinds of good stuff in it and called it a night. It was a little sad knowing that everyone was having a four-day weekend and hanging out with loved ones at home, even though the salad was particularly festive.

Festive, though, would be a good way to describe December in Brussels...