Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Springtime in Belgium...last week it hovered near 80 degrees for 4 days. It hasn't rained at all in weeks and weeks. This isn't at all what it was like last year, but I'm not complaining. Well, not about the weather at any rate.

While Appalachia has ramps, garlicky greens that sprout in spring and are consumed by the local community, Western Europe has ramsons, essentially the same thing. First we noticed the aroma as we crushed it underfoot in a park in one of the communes to the NW of the city, and shortly thereafter (in the park across the street) we saw an interpretive sign indicating that it was "l'ail des ours", or bear's garlic. It was blanketing the ground and crowding out any other life forms in this second park, and putting up a pleasantly biting aroma when disturbed. I didn't find out it was edible until we arrived home and I did some research. The next time we tramped around in the woods, this time to the south of the city, I made sure to bring my pocket knife for collecting purposes, because who's going to notice that the amount sufficient for pesto has gone missing, and sure enough there was none in this park.

Here's a photo of Jesus on a hilltop in the garlicky park. Jesus has taken the gold, while a towel draped on a chair receives the silver. Congrats, Son of God!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Sunday by all accounts started simple enough: walk to the park for a drink at the cafe there. So we made our way out into the world.

The first stop was by a row of carriage houses that fronted the street--fairly unusual for this area, where most garages are built into the ground floor in the front of the residence. There was one that had brown vines growing down the front of it, not yet leafed out, and cropped straight across above the entrance. The place looked for all the world like Moe from the Three Stooges. Nice.

Arriving at a side entrance to the park, I noticed that a building next door was having an open house. I thought the company might have something to do with our water service, so I convinced Jack to take a look. Sure enough, it was the company that provides water to the Brussels region.

We went in and they immediately started chattering at us and handing us folders of information. We indicated that we couldn't understand, and they got someone who spoke a healthy amount of English. They said that they were having tours of the laboratory facilities, something they did only once every five years, for their clients. Since we just pay a certain portion of the bill that our landlord receives, we never heard anything about it. We got a personalized tour by a woman who runs one of the lab stations.

It was an interesting tour, much of which was familiar to me. They seem to do testing of all the normal and some unusual constituents, such as radioactive fallout. They alternately treated us like water quality professionals, answering my detailed questions about the analyses, and like consumers, telling us that water hardness wasn't dangerous to our health. By the end, we were pretty sure that they believed that we were spies of some sort, as they were much more defensive than they should have been. We kept insisting that we just happened upon it on our way to the park, but even to me that sounds fishy. But it was nice that they were so open about what they were doing--with all the fears of terrorism and theft, I don't see any of the labs in the DC area letting the general public in. It probably helped that the lab was off-site rather than at a treatment facility.

At the end of the tour, we saw that they had converted the break room to a reception area, where tap water and coffee were available. Since we really were on our way to the park, we declined the invitation from our tour guide to sit and drink. However, the woman monitoring the reception area caught up with us on our way out and again asked if we wanted a beverage. We again said no, and she insisted that we each take a to-go bottle of delicious tap water. Our water at home is pretty gross and extremely hard, but if you go a couple streets away in either direction they get it from a different source (presumably because each of the communes originally produced their own water before it was consolidated under one roof), and so the bottled tap water was much tastier than what arrives at our faucets. Thankfully.

Then over to the park, where the groundcovers are taking advantage of the fact that the trees are still mostly dormant, producing a riot of tiny blooms. The cafe, alas, hadn't yet opened for the season, but I considered it a victory that I even found it, since the winding paths mostly circumvent the area and I visited the park several times before coming upon it. So we'll have to go back.

Exiting the park in a different location, we encountered two brick water towers. The doors at the base were open so we went in. The structures had been put out of service and repurposed as art galleries. They didn't seem to be making effective use of the space, although they could have if there had been more vertically-oriented art, but it was nice that the towers weren't torn down.

Using a hand-me-down map from 1989, I pointed us in the direction of some other green spots on the map. Observatory: closed to the public. Chateau Zeecrabbe: closed to the public, occupied by Russians. One day I'm going to find a more recent version of the same map (which is a good one because it covers more territory than most), and hopefully they'll have straightened all this out. [Update! They have not distinguished between public and private green space on the newer map!]

Verdict: Sunday was probably not stranger than Saturday, but it had its own charms.