Friday, February 16, 2007

We finally met our downstairs neighbors, due to the fact that we had locked ourselves out of our apartment. What began as an idea to go pick up some beer ended with our wallets lightened by €114.

As soon as Jack closed the door to our place, he turned to me and said "Do you have your keys?" Turns out I hadn't thought to grab them. Neither had he. As we hadn't yet exited the building, we woefully made our way downstairs to see if the people below us were home. Thankfully they were, and they were kind enough to let us use their phone and impose on them for a half hour while we waited for the guy to show up. Their place is much nicer than ours, probably due to the fact that they own more than secondhand trash and Ikea furniture. I told them they were welcome to lock themselves out of their place and hang out with us at any time, but they had to give us a half hour's advance notice.

When the locksmith finally showed up, he was, naturally, a burly tattooed guy who looked like a criminal who had been convinced to go straight at some point. He pulled out the tools of his trade, sorted through them for the perfect implement, and came up with...a piece of plastic. Essentially he used a credit card to jimmy our lock open. It was actually a bit more flexible than a credit card, and he sprayed a little WD-40 on it, but the technique was the same as in the movies. We jokingly said that we'd have to try that ourselves next time we locked ourselves out, and he countered defensively that it was a special kind of plastic and we wouldn't be able to do it. Thankfully our main front door is a bit more secure.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

One blustery Sunday in February we made our way over to the Antoine Wiertz museum. This guy did some of the most epic and ghoulish paintings from the 19th century as I've ever seen, many with strongly moralistic themes: a woman who went crazy with hunger and chopped up her infant for the stew pot; people shooting their own or others' heads off; a woman vainly preening in a mirror while the devil leers at her; and a monumental work entitled "Last Thoughts and Visions of a Decapitated Head". Not terribly subtle, but interesting. He was also somewhat of an eccentric, rejecting Paris as the center of artistic thought and re-envisioning it as a suburb to the new artistic capital of Brussels. He also did away with oils in many of his works in favor of a recipe of his own creation that gave his paintings a more matte appearance. While the pieces done in oil are well-preserved, the other works are slowly reverting to darkness, like Polaroids in reverse. He somehow scammed Belgian government into housing and displaying his art in perpetuity, and it's clear from the water stains on the deteriorating paintings and other signs of disrepair that they've resented the imposition ever since.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

It's true what they say about waffles: indoor ones are better than outdoor ones. Why is that? If you buy one from a van or stand with no seating, they're sweet and dense. My teeth practically hum their displeasure at me. If you get one in a restaurant, they're significantly less sweet and airier. Is this because you can't keep eggs fresh in a vehicle? Is there some Guild of the Wafflers that has a code of conduct specifying the exact ingredients to be used by the different purveyors? I'll have to look more closely at the symbols on the guildhalls in the Grand Place to see if any includes the telltale cross hatch of the Wafflers. Maybe I can infiltrate their ranks by flashing their gang sign--three fingers of both hands overlapping each other at right angles--and blow the cover off their whole nefarious operation.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Things we learned in French class last week.

+LOL = MDR (mort de rire, dead of laughing)
+not to be confused with MDF (mort de froid, dead of cold)
+which might be more likely to occur if you are SDF (sans domicile fixe, homeless)

How any of this is relevant to my ability to get by in Brussels is unknown. If I could just learn the phrase "We are collectively paying you over €70 per hour for the privilege of being here so could you please stay on topic" I'd probably be all set. But until that day comes, I'll be learning things such as that a one-legged person is known as a "unijambiste".

On Saturday we went to a party where a cute 5 year old boy was doing the hair of all the women. By "doing the hair" I mean he would drag a comb through it regardless of obstacles, not very enjoyable when one has not really done a thorough job of brushing one's hair that day. At any rate, he came around to me and started combing, and was making some hairstylist's banter, consisting of "do you speak French?" I replied "a little", but it was startling that he addressed me in the familiar form, even though we had never met or spoken before. I was under the impression that that just wasn't done! Maybe for children the rules are different. How bewildering. The exchange was soon over, and after I swept the large mass of hair on the cushion behind the couch, I spent the some time with his 1.5 year old brother, who was terrified of the small dog belonging to the owners. He and I could communicate more equally, and essentially our dialogue consisted of me saying "c'est bon" everytime he started freaking out about the dog. It was very effective.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

January started out full of drear, with illnesses all around. Jack even took the highly unusual step of taking a day off work to recuperate! Practically unheard of. In spite of this, we managed to start our French class and begin readjusting to life in Brussels. It was tough to get back in the groove, though: I forgot to apologize in French to people I nearly impaled with my umbrella on the street, and I got turned around three times on my walk to class on the first day. Apparently being away and speaking English for two solid weeks takes its toll.

Much to my chagrin, I purchased a 5-lb. cookbook while I was at home. I had a gift card I needed to take advantage of before I left, but didn't want to purchase anything that I might otherwise receive for Christmas. Nearly all of my cookbooks were relegated to storage to decrease the weight of the goods being shipped when we moved here, and I was desperate for some fresh ideas. The one I bought is by Bittman and contains his favorite international recipes. The very first recipe I tried in the midst of the winter blahs was for Caribbean plantain soup, which contained a mere 5 ingredients. I had to make a special trip to the African quarter to get the plantains in a small shop that seemed primarily to feature dried, smelly fish, but it was definitely worth it. The soup was hearty and satisfying, thickened by the grated plantains until it was nearly (but not quite) gelatinous, with a kick from limes and cayenne. Truly a revelation.

Weather has generally been gray and damp and in the upper 40s, but one day there was a terrible wind storm (for some reason the German meteorologists felt it was worthy of a name, "Cyril") with gusts locally up to 100 kph (and 160 kph elsewhere) that resulted in a number of deaths across the continent and some downed trees and a toppled statue in Brussels. There was little evidence of damage in our neighborhood, if you don't include my umbrella's loss of another pin (and subsequent gain of another paperclip). Since I acquired the umbrella secondhand in 1991, I try to maintain it in working condition. More recently, the weather has turned colder for the first time and we had flurries!

On a squally Saturday, we finally got around to checking out the Porte de Hal (Jack prefers the Dutch name "Halleport"), the last remaining gate to the city that comprised part of the second ring wall enclosing Brussels. It is being used as a museum, and they had an exhibit of life in rural Morocco. The artifacts were interesting, but the space itself was the real draw. There was an elaborate spiral stone staircase framed by stained glass windows (through which the photo above, showing the Atomium and Basilica in Martian-miniature, was taken) and containing statues in niches in the center . Each floor had a room with a vaulted ceiling, and bits of other demolished buildings were located throughout. The top floor was the most interesting, as it was located under the eaves and held the cafeteria, shrouded from view by curtains set up in the doorway. There were picnic tables set up under the beams and in one corner there was a rustic cabin that housed the snack bar. Most people who came up there probably reacted like we did ("Huh?") and left. Rumor has it that they'll let you up to the overlook on the roof if you ask, but we only discovered that afterwards. We also later learned that the building was renovated in the 19th century in the "Romantic Medieval" style after the city wall was demolished, which explains why, if you entered the city through the exterior door, there is no corresponding exit on the interior side, since the spiral staircase blocks your path.

To complete our Moroccan-themed day we went and saw "Babel". A mistake, naturally, due to the fact that 5 or so languages are spoken and none of them were translated into English. But we managed to get the gist. We ordered a large coke from the concession stand, thinking it would be a refreshing way to quench our thirst after walking all over tarnation, only to be reminded when we saw the girl filling up the cup that They Don't Do Ice Here. Not quite as refreshing as I had hoped. The whole movie experience reminded us once again that we really had forgotten just about everything we had learned about living here.

We've done some more walks from the book I got and located the spot where the Tsar drunkenly fell in a secluded fountain in 1717 and found the scandalous 1894 statue by Lambeau that resides, partially hidden behind shrubbery, in front of the adjoining community's town hall.