Archive for August, 2009

How to score a free taxi ride

August 30, 2009 3 comments

For those of you who’ve traveled a bit through Europe, you’ve likely come across Ryan Air, Whiz Air, and other budget airlines of that ilk. These airlines make Southwest’s prices look like first class on British Airways. I’ve seen fares for $0 — all you pay for are the taxes.

There are some catches, of course, such as bag-checking fees and exorbitant fines for excess weight of the bags, but if done right, these airlines are the way to travel through Europe.

For a cheap fare, you also don’t pay for customer service. My dad was flying from Budapest back to Brussels yesterday, and not until he was boarding his flight were the passengers told the flight would be delayed.

I didn’t find out about the delay until I arrived at the airport (30 miles south of where we live), where I waited for his 5:05 p.m. arrival, saw no sight of him by 5:45, then finally decided to check arrival/departure info, something I should’ve done before I left for the airport.

I saw his flight was indeed delayed and wouldn’t land until 8, so I had two options. Drive 45 minutes home, sit there for half-an-hour, then drive 45 minutes back to pick him up. We get free gas on Jenna’s company car, so I strongly considered this. Instead, I decided to wait it out in the airport lobby.

I made a couple friends there: a Flemish guy (Flemish people live in the north of Belgium, called Flanders, while Walloons live in the South, called Wallonia) and his high school-aged daughter.

The guy praised my English over and over — he couldn’t believe how good it was. I told him I had 30 years of practice (and an English degree to boot), but he was really meaning he couldn’t discern any kind of accent. So I pulled out the Texas accent, to which the daughter laughed and said I sounded like I was from some MTV show she loves.

That conversation ate up about an hour of wait time. Finally 8 p.m. comes, only to learn the flight was delayed another 30 minutes. I grab a seat and resume the wait when I notice a young girl balling her eyes out. She’s crying so hard I’m surprised a puddle of tears hasn’t piled up at her feet.

I thought that if Jenna were in this situation, I’d want someone trustworthy (which I am, no matter what you’ve been told) to help her out. So I asked this girl if everything was alright — dumb question judging by the tears — and she said she had lost her group of friends and needed to get to Bruges (2-3 hours north of this airport).

I told her that once my dad arrived, I could drop her off at a train station in Brussels. She lit up at that answer. I felt like a hero.

My dad finally arrives, I tell him we picked up an extra passenger, and he concurs that it was a good idea. But as we’re about to leave, the girl says “one minute,” races off and leaves her baggage at my feet. She comes back 30 seconds later with a guy in tow, the couple now in a full embrace. She then introduces us to her boyfriend, who had suddenly — magically — appeared.

My dad and I looked at each other and exchanged an “oh well” look and left for Brussels. For 30 minutes of the 45-minute ride, the couple, as my dad said, were linked in an amorous exchange (i.e. making out). The other 15 minutes, though, we were able to get their attention, finding out that they’re from Hungary, are both 20 years old, were going to Bruges for their holiday, and anything else you can learn about strangers in your backseat in a quarter-hour.

We got to the train station, dropped them off, and they were very thankful. At one point during the trip, however, the guy mumbled something about saving money on a taxi, and that leads me to this perhaps cynical thought.

Was it a setup? Did they just want a free trip to a train station (a savings of, who knows, maybe €10-20 per person, which is a good sum of cash for traveling 20-year olds), and their “crying-helpless-girl-ploy” conned me into their trap?

Jenna and I are going to Barcelona in three weeks, and we land at an airport that’s an hour away from where we’re staying. If I can talk Jenna into trying this crying-girl routine out, I’ll let you know if it works.

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An American Werewolf in Paris

August 25, 2009 5 comments

Or Lumberjack, as our friend Dana said. Or homeless man. Or just wolfeman. Don’t shave for a couple weeks and you earn a few new nicknames. I’ll have to admit, in the words of the great Neil Young, my newfound beard was gettin’ kinda long. But I had Jenna’s endorsement of the beard, so it traveled with us to Paris this past weekend.

Since moving overseas, I’ve heard comments like “you only need a couple days in Paris” or “there’s not much to do after a few days in Rome.” Seriously — what do these people say about visiting Dallas? I guess you only need a lunchbreak there to take it all in?

A second consecutive weekend in Paris did not diminish the city’s beauty and allure. Two weekends ago, with my brother- and sister-in-law, we made a whirlwind tour through Paris, getting a Paris-for-dummies knowledge of the city. Last weekend, however, we had more than a couple days, so we (Jenna and myself, plus our DFW-based friends Jamie and Dana, in town for the weekend) took a slower pace and didn’t have to rush anywhere.

We spent time hanging out in the park surrounding the Louvre, which is 10 times bigger than I had imagined. Kind of like my reaction to the Eiffel Tower: bigger than I believed. Guess Paris and Texas do have something in common … everything is bigger as the saying goes.

We took a ferry cruise down the River Seine, passing underneath the various and vastly different bridges and getting acquainted with the city’s gorgeous architecture. On Sunday, we strolled through the famous flea market at Porte de Clignancourt, which claims to be the largest flea market in Europe, if not the world. Jenna added to her growing scarf collection there, but I came away empty-handed.

As Jenna and I have ventured out of Brussels a few times now, I think I’m learning one thing about travel: If you try to see too much too fast, your experience might not be as impactive as desired. I think I’d prefer soaking up a couple sights rather than taking a dozen samples from a buffet. Now that’s not to discourage any of you from wanting to fit as much in as possible if/when you come visit us. A whirlwind trip through a city severely beats no trip at all.

As mentioned in the previous blog, before heading to Paris on Friday, we hung out with my parents for a day/night in Brussels. Thus, along with the pictures of our time with Jamie and Dana in Paris, you’ll notice some photos (some more bizarre than others) of our visit with them.

And if you’re wondering, the beard is no more. I could tell you that I was feeling forlorn after leaving Paris behind and decided to part ways with it, but the truth is I start a job on Wednesday, and I didn’t want my co-workers scared off on Day 1.

To the photos …

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Cheese, Charley and the change collection

August 24, 2009 6 comments

This blog entry was supposed to chronicle another weekend in Paris (this latest one with our friends Jamie and Dana). But alas, our camera is sitting in Jenna’s purse at her office today, and what’s a travelogue without some accompanying illustrations?

Thus, a recap of another Parisian weekend will have to wait a day. In its place, here are a few random anecdotes of late …

> My parents stopped through Brussels last Thursday for about 24 hours, a brief detour on their way to Budapest to visit my brother Trey and his family (who, as many of you know, are missionaries there). Of course we had a great time with them, and I will post some pictures as evidence soon enough, but the personal highlight is a bit selfish: they left behind three blocks of velveeta and four cans of Rotel. Boo-yah.

I had to wait until Sunday night to make some queso (that little Paris trip got in the way). By Saturday, all I could think about was queso. Floating by the Eiffel Tower on a boat-ride on the Seine River couldn’t distract my mind … I just saw a giant block of cheese in the shape of a famous Paris landmark in its place. And this is after just two months away from Texas.

So when we got home Sunday night, I went full-bore and made a huge pot of queso. Jenna was a little irritated, wondering why I made a huge pot and not just a few servings. I told her I plan to eat it all over the next 24 hours. I had it for dinner last night. I put it on fried eggs this morning. Jenna can expect some form of queso on tonight’s dinner. My plan is to eat so much of it as fast as possible so that I lose this intense craving for Tex-Mex. I’m beginning to think that’s impossible. So when we come home for Christmas and you want to do dinner, sushi, Italian, Chinese, et al. are out of the question.

> My queso dreams on Sunday night were interrupted by a mini-nightmare. Within an hour of getting home, our trouble-prone cat, Charley, ether leapt or fell from our balcony to the ground below, a distance of about 15 feet (or 15 times his height). Good thing we live on the second floor. Compounding the problem is we have no access to the area behind our apartment. You have to rent space in the garage behind us to get there.

Jenna knocked on a few neighbors’ doors, hoping to find somebody around who had access to this area, but everybody must’ve been out for dinner. After a few more minutes (Jenna was getting a bit frantic), I heard some voices in our apartment lobby. It was a couple returning from dinner, and after I explained our plight (entirely in French!), they gave us their key, and I was able to retrieve little Charley, who was more frantic than Jenna. He’s still recovering, as he’s been sleeping more than his usual 18 hours per day.

> I have a stack of the nickel- and penny-equivalents of Euro coins growing by the day. These are about as pointless as a penny in the U.S., but I thought of a good way to spend them.

As the stereotype goes, service, particularly to Americans, can be pretty lousy in Paris. While that’s partly untrue, the coffee shop outside our hotel had a waiter who’s mission is to ensure the veracity of this stereotype. I had a cup of coffee Saturday morning while reading a newspaper. On Sunday morning, I wanted the same seat at this little outdoor cafe, but I didn’t want to pay €3.50 (roughly $5) for about two ounces of espresso (no exaggeration). So I took a seat among the 80 or so unoccupied seats, strategically taking a spot on the perimeter so that I wouldn’t be in the way of paying customers.

The waiter who served me the previous morning approached and asked what I wanted. I said no thanks, just wanted to read the paper. He told me it’s either coffee or no seat. I said give me a small cup; he quickly asked if I wanted a “cafe Americain” instead. I felt like another 2-3 ounces would be nice, so I said yes, give me the American version. He returned with a slightly larger cup than the day before and, naturally, a slightly larger bill, one that would make Starbucks execs cringe (€4.50; nearly $7 for a 6-ounce cup of coffee).

Jenna will be in Paris in three weeks for business, and I plan to accompany her. I also plan to return to this shop, order a cup of coffee from this same waiter, and pay him with the 5-cent, 2-cent and 1-cent Euro coins I’ve accumulated. Hopefully more 1-centers than the 5-centers. This may be of no service to Americans who sip espresso at this cafe in the future, but revenge is more important to me.

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Shawlapalooza rolls on

August 18, 2009 3 comments

When you refer anything to a friend — a movie, a restaurant, or even setting up a friend on a blind date — you inherit a lot of pressure. Your street cred is on the line. If the friend doesn’t like that restaurant or movie (or worse yet, your setup), you fear your friend will wonder about your taste.

That’s kind of how we feel sometimes when hosting friends here in Brussels (which we’ve been lucky to do the past two weekends — and the next two as well!). We want to show everyone a great time and have a similar experience as we’re having on a daily basis.

Getting your Iphone stolen on a train from Amsterdam to Brussels isn’t an ideal welcome. Yet that’s exactly what happened to my sister-in-law, Joli, who came to visit us a couple days ahead of her husband (and my brother), Bryan, who was in Amsterdam for work.

Last Wednesday, Joli was about an hour away from Brussels when I called her to see if everything was dandy. Straight to voicemail. I called again; straight to voicemail. Jenna tried a couple times too, but the result didn’t change. When Joli’s train was scheduled to stop in Brussels, I got a call from a strange number. In the states, I might’ve (would’ve) ignored an unknown number. But here, with about two people knowing my number, I figured if someone is calling, they are likely trying to reach me.

Good thing — it was Joli, borrowing the phone of a Greek couple on the same train and letting me know some odd man seated next to her had abruptly rushed off the train at a previous stop. He had helped himself to Joli’s purse, fortunately only taking her phone and not everything else.

But I’ll say this: everything was perfect from there. The next two days, I got a lot of quality time in with my sister-in-law (Bryan, got a lot of dirt on you … ha). We spent one day touring Brussels, traveled to the very under-rated Gent the next day, and on Friday, Bryan could finally break away from business and meet up with us in Brussels. But we didn’t stay there long.

We booked it for Paris Saturday morning, stopping for a brief layover in Chimay, Belgium, where monks have been brewing their famous beer for decades. We spent less than 24 hours in Paris (you’ll see from the pics below), but there are worse places to spend less than a day. It was my first time to Paris, and no matter how much people have hyped up sites such as the Eiffel Tower, it’s truly incredible to see these famous places for the first time. It’s something I’ll always remember, and the experience was that much better having family with us.

And that’s the theme for the next few weeks. I’m calling it the European leg of Shawlapalooza, where friends/family from the states drop by on their tour of Europe. In the next few weeks, we have my parents stopping by for two visits (separated by their trip to see my brother and his family in Budapest); our friends Jamie and Dana happen to be in Paris this Friday through Sunday, so we’re hanging with them … our second straight weekend in Paris, not to brag or anything.

In September, one of Jenna’s best friends is visiting us for a week, and a couple weeks later we’ll meet up on 2-3 stops with another two friends who are doing a European vacation over 12-14 days.

Needless to say, we’re grateful we can spend this time with all our visitors. And as Bryan and Joli are about to learn, if you come hang out with us, I’ll make you famous. A free place to stay in Brussels and your pictures posted in this blog? What more could you want?

This blog ain’t over …. here’s some brief video from Bryan and Joli’s trip here. None of it was scripted.

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Scenes from La vie Belge

August 6, 2009 4 comments

If you’ve been even a casual newspaper reader over the past 20 or so years, you’ve noticed a change in philosophy with the paper’s appearance: less words, more photos and graphics.

Jenna “hinted” that today’s blog needed the same approach. Less of my babbling, more photos of what we’ve been up to lately.

We got to spend last week with Jenna’s parents. Aside from the obvious benefits from spending time with family, we also got to use Bonnie’s (my mother-in-law) camera, which snapped the following shots … click on the thumbnails for the full-sized versions.

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Normalcy slowly settling in

August 5, 2009 2 comments

A question keeps running through my mind, one I posed to Jenna the other day. At what point will we quit feeling like newcomers? I doubt anytime soon; the feeling of being an outsider is difficult to shake, especially when you don’t know the local languages (they speak French and Dutch here; Jenna and I boldly claim we speak two as well … English and American).

The other day we had dinner with the pastor and his wife of the church we’ve visited a couple times.

(Quick sidestory: shortly before dinner that night, he asked “do you want with chicken red or white.” I thought he was asking if we wanted cooked or raw chicken. With some of the food I’ve seen here — I’ve seen HORSE meat at one market — my mind went wild, in all the bad ways, when thinking about eating red chicken. I discovered my mind was racing for a simple reason … the pastor, naturally, was asking if we’d like red or white wine. That’s just not a question you’d expect to hear from preachers in the US, but once again, I’ll state the obvious: Europe is different).

Back to the main story: we wanted to buy some flowers to give to our dinner hosts. So that afternoon I walked to a local store, found some pretty flowers and made the purchase. As I walked away, I noticed some much better flowers … for half the price.

Like most dudes, I don’t place the same value on flowers as women do, so I attempted to ask, in my broken French (which I call Frenglish) if I could exchange the pricier flowers for the cheaper ones. The savings would’ve been good for at least two fine Belgian brews.

Those few minutes were sheer panic. The line of customers built up by the second, all of them staring down this American holding them up. Stubbornly, I tried to conduct the conversation in French until the cashier finally said “English?” Long story short, you needed everything short of a passport and your parents’ signature to make an exchange at this store, so I settled on the more expensive flowers.

That kind of exchange, though admittedly perhaps not as dramatic, is pretty common. I’ve figured out that I can communicate common requests and questions in French. It’s understanding the replies that give me trouble. Rosetta Stone has taught me how to say “the cat is white,” but that’s not as useful as one would think. There are a lot of multi-colored cats here.

Anyway … there is at least one thing that can help me feel like this is my home: Golf, baby. I get to play my first round next Tuesday. I’m playing with an expat guy I met (like me, he followed his wife to Belgium) and a friend of his at a course that’s only €24 per round (about $30). In the states, a course at that cost would likely have sewage puddles, posing as lakes and water hazards, resting in the middle of the fairway.

But in Belgium, where it rains more than 200 days each year, it’s green wherever you go. If you’re standing somewhere where it’s not green or replete with vegetation, you’re likely standing on pavement. You can’t get away from it, and that’s a good thing. Needless to say, this course should be pretty decent.

What also might help in achieving a bit of normalcy and the sense of assimilation — yesterday I came a step closer to landing a job. I waited until the end to break this news because I don’t want to jinx it (I have another interview a week from today, and there’s a lot of paperwork needed to become “legal”).

I know what you’re thinking: Will Jake still have time to write this blog and fit in playing college football on Playstation 3, web-browsing for a few hours, and wondering aimlessly around Brussels each day?

Fear not: it’s just a part-time job, requiring about 15 hours of my time per week (and I can work from home). The company is entirely English-speaking (though most everyone speaks another language, and not just American), so I think I could fit in nicely.

That’s it for what has become a pretty long blog. Tomorrow we leave for a weekend in London, but before we do, Jenna has requested I post some recent pictures. I’ll get to that tomorrow morning … PS3 is waiting.

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Much-anticipated Tour du O.C. (orange chairs)

August 3, 2009 4 comments

For some of you, this is a preview of your upcoming visit to Brussels. For others, this might be the closest you get to seeing our home for the next two years.

Whatever camp you fall in, it’s high time we finally give you a video tour of “The Orange Chairs,” the name of our Belgian estate (more like a flat). Enjoy the video, and I hope it’s just another enticement that motivates you to travel to Europe (specifically Belgium) sometime in the next two years.

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