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 I pointed out the discrepancy, and she said it was some kind of Sunday special that was no longer valid.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...

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