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The blog to end all blogs (or at least this one)

May 31, 2011 1 comment

Well, the post-a-day promise didn’t exactly work out. But in my defense, I did ask for you readers to keep me in check, and I received nary an email or phone call urging me to keep the posting going. I am, however, relieved to know you all have had better things to do (not that it was ever in doubt).

This blog, my last one as a resident of Belgium, hurts to write. Life has been great in Brussels — and I have faith that life will stay great, if not improve, in Memphis and beyond — but closing this blog means closing this chapter of our lives. We’ll remain in touch with the incredible friends we have made here; we’ll definitely return for a visit from time to time; and a good Belgian beer, to remind me of our time spent here, will never be too far out of reach in Memphis.

But as everyone who has packed up and moved far away from their home knows, memories aren’t exactly the same thing. The treasured friends we have made are no longer a metro ride away. I won’t be able to walk outside my front door and have this beautiful architecture surrounding me, staring me down. We can no longer pop off to Germany or France or a quaint Belgian village at a moment’s notice. Life — like it did two years ago when we boarded a flight in Dallas, having seen no more of Belgium than what’s available in a tourism book — is about to change.

We’re ready to take on the challenges life in Memphis will offer. After moving to a foreign country — where the local languages are just the beginning of the differences — we’ve never been more ready to confront change.

My greatest fear when moving to Belgium was how (and if, really) we would meet friends. Yet a few days after moving here, Jenna and I were standing in line at the Brussels city hall — a gathering place of dozens, if not a hundred-plus, of different nationalities — registering as residents of Belgium. Out of this mob, we happened to get in line behind a couple from Tucson, Arizona, who were making the same move as us.

I heard their American-accented English, but I didn’t want to disrupt them. Perhaps they’re settled here and don’t want to be bothered, I thought. But once the wife in this couple heard us talking, she turned around and greeted us like we were old friends. A few nights later — on the 4th of July of all dates — the four of us went to dinner. It started at 7 p.m. We left dinner at nearly 2 a.m. Needless to say, we were all happy we found each other.

That was two years ago. Four nights ago, at our farewell party, I said goodbye to these dear friends, Chuck and Angie, who we’ve seen and done a lot with over these two years. There’s now three of them, as C&A (as we call them collectively) brought a beautiful girl, Elia, into the world earlier this year.

On Chuck’s birthday in early 2010, he happened to invite a guy, Charles, he had just met the night before to join himself, Angie and me on a brewery tour. Four nights ago, I also said goodbye to Charles. In the time between our first meeting and our goodbyes last week, I’ve forged a strong friendship with Charles that I honestly didn’t think was capable over a span of 14-15 months. We’ve played a lot of basketball together, not enough golf together, and had way too many beers together, as Jenna and Charles’ wife, Cat, will attest. In short, Charles is as good a friend as I’ve ever made.

And, in short, that’s what we’ll remember most about our time spent here: the memories of the friendships and relationships we created in a whirlwind two years in Belgium. I’m truly amazed at how many people we’ve met and befriended here. It didn’t really dawn on me until these last few weeks.

Last Wednesday night, the colleagues from my part-time job bid us farewell with goodbye drinks at a stuffy, cramped bar in the city center. Having some laughs with people I was usually working for made me realize the attachment I had to the web site I managed (and the publication I occasionally wrote for), but more importantly, how much I enjoyed the people I worked with.

The following night, Chuck and Angie, Charles and Cat, and Jon and Raven (who’ve been mentioned in this blog several times) threw us an incredible going-away party, bringing together the great friends we’ve met while living here. We were honored and humbled to have each and everyone of them there for some (hopefully temporary) au revoirs. I’ll miss everyone of them and hope to see each again, be it in Memphis (you’re all invited) or back in Brussels (find reserve a spot for me on your couch when I come for an unannounced visit).

Even in our final weeks and months here, Jenna and I were still making new friends. In the past three weeks, I played a few rounds of golf with an affable Aussie named Grant, a guy I barely knew at all back in March. We’ve recently met and befriended two other great couples (the Gibsons and the Williamses) who have made the reverse trip as us — moving from Memphis to Belgium.

I hate to wear out the word amazed, but it really does capture how I feel when this morning, my last as a resident of Belgium, I think back about the past two years living here.

Fittingly, as I look out the window right now, I see it’s raining. Belgium has enjoyed an uncharacteristically warm and sunny spring, but as they tired saying goes, all good things must come to an end. Our lives as expats in Belgium are at their end, but I feel Jenna and I are at the very beginning of some lasting relationships we can’t wait to continue over the years.

See you in Memphis.

Oh, and till then, enjoy some of these photos from our last couple nights living La Vie Belge.

Categories: Uncategorized

Go cart

May 11, 2011 Leave a comment

Our first couple days in Brussels were quite literally a daze. Aside from the jetlag, we were placed in a temporary apartment in the middle of central Brussels, never having set foot in this city before. We barely knew which way was up.

On one of our first days here, we tried to find a grocery store, but the closest thing to us was a little Asian market. I went in there one afternoon — in search of soy sauce — and noticed this scantily-clad woman staring me up and down.

As I walked down the aisles, I saw her following me. I took a few turns and sped up my pace, trying to shake her, but she was persistent. Just when I thought I was home free, I rounded a corner, and there she was standing, staring at me with a creepy smile.

She approached me, said “ça va” (translates to “what’s up”), and then — catching me unawares — she reached toward an area that’s off-limits to all but one woman on this earth. I slapped her hand out of the way and got out of the store as quickly as I could.

But that’s not the point of the story (I just figured the blog needed a little spice). And not to worry, I’ve purchased soy sauce several times since then without incident.

Back when we were living in that first apartment, aside from the Asian market that I was forced to blacklist, the closest grocery store was more than a half-mile away. A long walk for sure, but a man’s gotta eat (as does his wife), so Jenna and I walked to the store, bought quite a bit of food and other necessary items, then made the long walk home.

By the time we got back to our apartment, my arms had very little feeling left in them. I knew something would have to change — I wouldn’t have regular access to a car, so I’d have to figure out a way to get groceries home, or else I was limited to how much I could purchase on each trip to the store.

The granny cart: Don't leave home (for the grocery store) without it.

Enter the granny cart.

I’m not exactly a confident male walking down the street with this thing in tow, but it does the trick. Purchased — like 90 percent of items in Europe — at Ikea, my granny cart has revolutionized my shopping experience. I simply place my granny cart on the bottom rack of a grocery cart while I do all my shopping. After checking out at the register, I load my granny cart with the groceries and wheel it home.

Yesterday I literally packed about 45 pounds worth of food and cleaning products into my granny cart.

So, when I return to the states and you notice my skinny arms have gotten even skinnier, you’ll know why. All the exercise I used to get from holding pounds and pounds of grocery bags has gone to waste, thanks to my granny cart. The tradeoff was worth it.

Oh, as for the origins of the name “granny cart” (as if it weren’t obvious) … One of the first times I used it, I arrived at a grocery store just before it opened. Waiting outside were me — and 7-8 elderly (to put it kindly) ladies waiting for access to the grocery store.

But before you make any jokes at my expense, believe me, I’ve heard them all from friends here. But like most things, don’t knock the granny cart till you’ve tried it.

Categories: Uncategorized

(Spray)paint it black

May 9, 2011 3 comments

Jenna and I returned from a weekend away earlier this year and found a note on our wall. A very large note, actually:

What is art? What is not.

Yes, someone “tagged” the shades that cover our bedroom window. I told Jenna I think the spray-painted message means “welcome home,” but who knows. I can’t figure out what the letters are, much less the language.

We called our landlord months ago and asked him to address the situation. A week later, he replied — but instead of emailing his business partner, he accidentally emailed Jenna instead. “That chick has emailed us with a problem,” our landlord wrote in French (I translated his email and was shocked that Google’s translator knows the English equivalent for what chick is in French). “Some *$%^&^# spray-painted something on their wall and we need to clean it up.”

Only he never cleaned it up. The message is still on our apartment building, months later. Oh, and the “*$%^&^#” from our landlord’s email also translated into English, but since this is a family-friendly blog, I decided to censor that word.

I really don’t mind the graffiti. It’s not often you get free art. And at least the cost of repairing this one blemish on our apartment won’t come out of our wallets, though I imagine we’ll pay for others.

Not part of rental agreements in Belgium is a “wear and tear” condition. When you rent in the states, the landlord assumes some wear and tear will take place while you’re renting their property. Not so in Belgium. They literally demand you leave the property in as good of shape (or better) as it was when you entered it. It’s not like we tore up our place, but scratches here and there are inevitable.

I guess we’ll find out in a few weeks what the damage will cost us.

Categories: Uncategorized

Another run bites the dust

May 8, 2011 1 comment

Rarely do I order dessert. So it should have been some kind of omen when last night I ordered dessert at dinner and nobody (not even “sweet-tooth” Jenna) else did.

“Be careful handling this plate,” the server said as she handed me a glass of ice cream, balanced delicately on a tea saucer. “Oh, I’m always careful,” I sarcastically replied. Famous last words.

Within three seconds of taking the dessert, it was falling off the saucer and into my lap. The glass hit the ground with a loud enough THUD! that all the diners in this small restaurant turned and looked in my direction. Trying to salvage the situation, I took the scoop of ice cream that had miraculously fallen on my napkin (and then fallen onto the floor) and gave it a taste. It was good. The rest of our weekend in Brugge was great.

Jenna and I headed to Brugge* Saturday around noon. Our original plan was to ride with our friends Jon and Raven, stay the night, run the 5K (Jenna did the 15K — more on that later) on Sunday, then head back home.

But somewhere between making these plans and leaving, we picked up two more for the ride — my good mates Charles and Chuck. Charles’ wife, Cat, is pregnant and decided (wisely) to stick around in Brussels and take it easy, while Chuck’s better half is visiting family in the states.

The dudes ready to attack Brugge (from left): Me, Charles, Jon and Chuck.

Before heading there, both Charles and Chuck had jokingly said they were “over Bruges.” I understand where they were coming from. Brugge attracts throngs of tourists — particularly Brits who make a quick train ride south — especially when the weather is on its best behavior, as it was this weekend.

It can get annoying bumping elbows with (fellow) tourists, but oh, the beauty of this city. The architecture is pristine; the canals cutting through the streets are romantic; the narrow streets and cobblestoned roads make for — to steal a line from the film In Bruges — a fairytale setting.

Make your way to this place next time you're 'In Bruges'.

I think Charles and Chuck are back on the Brugge bandwagon now. Aside from the aesthetic beauty, we found two amazing pubs, and the four dudes spent a fair amount confirming that these watering holes were indeed legitimate. Anyone visiting the city who has even a minor appreciation for the art of craft beer must make time for stops at ‘t Brugs Beertje and Poatersgat.

Around 7pm, Charles and Chuck left to catch a train to Brussels while the remaining four of us went to dinner (and I subsequently caused a scene).

As great as our effort was, the beverage intake on Saturday did not impede our performances on Sunday. Jon, Raven and I all ran the 5K. I did not get revenge as promised, but I have to confess I have never run better than I did today. By the time I crossed the finish line (a couple minutes behind Jon and Raven) I felt as if I could keep going, as if I was just getting warmed up. I guess I’m making the transition to becoming a runner better than I thought.

Run, Jenna, run!

There are still a lot of kilometers between my running ability and Jenna’s. As nice as I felt after finishing the 5K, Jenna felt just as good after dominating the 15K. She’s pretty amazing. This morning she had a terrible headache and overall didn’t feel very well, yet she completed the run like she had been training months for it. In fact, the picture to the left was taken 10 seconds before she crossed the finish line. Look at those long strides! She looks like she’s just getting started.

That’s not the only photo captured in our 24-plus hours in Brugge. Here are a few more for your entertainment.

Oh, and Happy Moeder Dag to all the mothers out there!

*(Flemish speakers) who live in the town call it Brugge. The French say Bruges. For some reason, the town goes by the French spelling and pronunciation in English, but I’ve stubbornly decided to call it what the inhabitants call it.

The ladies lookin' good while I'm lookin' lost.

In front of Brugge's famous Belfry.

The below-ground entrance to Poetersgat pub.

The gents fully warmed up.

Think this is the only photo with all six of us in it.

Jon was nice enough to buy me the shirt I'm wearing in this pic (bought it at the first stop we made in Brugge on Saturday). The hand is the logo for a brewery in Antwerp. I liked the shirt so much I ran in it on Sunday.

Another shot of the Belfry in Brugge.

A crescent moon hanging out above Brugge.

Raven's trying to get her point across.

Had to get at least one "artsy" shot in.

Mimicking my shirt became one of the recurring jokes of the weekend.

Jenna just seconds before crossing the finish line.


Categories: Uncategorized

Feeling nostalgic

May 6, 2011 1 comment

A friend recently posted on her Facebook page that she can’t believe she and her husband have been living in Brussels for one year now.

Perhaps that’s what triggered my sudden case of nostalgia. It’s Friday night, there’s nothing on TV (in English at least) other than news programs cycling through the same eight or nine stories, and Jenna and I, shockingly, couldn’t agree on a movie to watch. So I went back and read through some previous blog entries — I wanted to remind myself of what life was like for us during our formative months of Belgian life.

It’s likely I’m the only one intrigued by the remarks from these past entries, but I thought I’d review them nonetheless. Hopefully your Friday night is not so boring that you’re reading this blog.

From August 5, 2009: “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).”

I don’t know when it happened, but we sure don’t feel like newcomers anymore. And I don’t even feel like an outsider. Don’t get me wrong — I also don’t feel like a Belgian … not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But we do feel like we are as much Bruxellois now as we were Dallasites two years ago. We know which restaurants the tourists go to and which ones the locals frequent; what markets are active on what days; how to get from Point A to Point B by public transportation; and, basically, how to just shrug off European customs/idiosyncrasies that once boggled our minds.

It’s a bit of a shame that now that we’re so settled in, we have less than four weeks here. But we have to remind ourselves to be grateful we even had this chance and, if anything, it will help us with our move to Memphis. In Dallas, we kind of stuck to a routine. Conversely, in Belgium, we’ve been very active, be it traveling around Europe or around Brussels and Belgium. We are always trying to find something new. We need to be as explorative in Memphis as we are here.

From October 12, 2009: “A friend I made while working at the newspaper in Corsicana once told me his goal was to retire early enough (or make enough money) that he could afford to play golf every day of the week. He made that happen by his late 30s, but I never thought I’d live this dream so soon in my life. However, I’ve since made a friend who achieved this dream years ago, and so now I’m living it too. My friend goes by “Easy Ed,” and even though he has about four decades of life experience on me, he still beats me by 2-5 strokes every time out. And because of Easy Ed (really, he goes by this nickname; when he calls, he’ll say “Hey Jake, Easy Ed here”), I’ve started playing golf much more frequently. Since he has a membership to a local course, I can get on at a much cheaper rate than what I’d normally have to pay.”

My good friend Ed hasn’t received as much type as he deserves. Ed is much closer to his 80th birthday than I am to my 40th (or even my 35th), but if someone were to compare us on lifestyle and attitude alone, they might conclude Ed is younger.

Ed gets as much (probably more) out of life in his late 70s as he did at my age. He stays current with news, movies, literature, where to dine out, etc. There’s hardly been a destination I’ve traveled to that Ed didn’t have some kind of recommendation of where to eat or what to see.

And most of all, Ed forces his body to keep up with his mind and spirits by playing a couple hundred rounds of golf every year (he says he’d love to continue jogging and playing tennis if only his knees would allow). And so when the Belgian weather doesn’t cooperate, Ed — a retiree who spent most of his career in diplomacy — high-tails it to the states, annually spending November-April there ostensibly to see family, but I believe it’s really to move to a golf-friendly climate.

This coming Tuesday, Ed gets back to Brussels from his annual trip to the states (I’m picking him up from the airport). I’ll give him 48 hours — enough time to recover from jetlag — before he sets up a tee time for us.

From April 26, 2010: “When she finished, she looked like she had simply walked from the couch in our living room to grab a bottled water out of the fridge in the kitchen. She had barely broken a sweat. Had I run that distance, my face would’ve been tomato-red and I would’ve been depositing my breakfast into the closest trash receptacle. I say that from experience — that happened to me the first time I ever ran a 5K, as Jenna can attest.”

Fittingly, I came across this entry today. A year after Jenna completed a tour of Belgian runs, she’s roped me into the running world. We ran a 10K last weekend on the coast. Sunday, I’ll slow the pace and run a 5K, while she accelerates up to a 15 K. This weekend’s runs are in Bruges, and we’ll run alongside our good friends Jon and Raven, who ran the 10K with us last weekend. Like Jenna, Jon and Raven (aka JR) clocked better times than I did in the 10K. I’ll try to pay them back at the 5K this weekend.

Categories: Uncategorized

Bye bye birdie

May 5, 2011 Leave a comment

Sometimes I pick the blog subject. Sometimes — like today — it picks me.

I had an easy-going morning today, which doesn’t separate it from most mornings really. Woke up, did some work for my part-time job, checked the sports headlines (keep it up, Mavs). By the time I made it into the bathroom for all the morning rituals, it was a bit past 10.

But I wasn’t awake enough that this didn’t startle me:

He's not just taking a nap.

I’d like to think our cat, Charley, was responsible for this bird’s end. I’d like to think Charley is a competent cat and if, God forbid, he got lost, he could fend for himself out in the wilds of Brussels.

But I doubt it. Prior to moving here, Charley’s front claws were removed, something normal in the states but viewed as inhumane here (and I’m starting to agree). So Charley is at a distinct disadvantage as a hunter. I think that’s why we have more birds than usual in our little garden and why they’re so chirpy. They’ve probably noticed he’s clawless and fly about our garden mocking him.

This was, I hoped, his revenge — but sadly, as I removed the bird from underneath our bathtub and performed CSI: Pigeon, I could tell this bird’s soul left the earth days ago. Charley just must’ve found him this morning and brought him in. It’s not the first time Charley has tried to impress us. At least four or five times he’s brought in a single feather — like that will do it.

When we move to Memphis, one of my first priorities is to get a dog. I do like cats more than the average guy, but a man needs a dog. And I think Charley needs a friend. If Charley can’t teach the dog to hunt, at least he’ll be able to lead him to water:

The sound of a flush is Pavlovian for Charley.

Categories: Uncategorized

God bless the UK

May 4, 2011 Leave a comment

Before leaving our apartment to meet a friend for lunch one day, I couldn’t decide what shoes to wear — comfortable but not waterproof; or uncomfortable but waterproof (this is Belgium — rain can spoil sunshine without any notice).

I tried one shoe from a pair on one foot and another shoe from another pair on the other foot. Then I continued getting ready, and forgetting about my shoes, I walked out of our apartment with two different shoes on. Not until shutting our front door did I look down and realize my near faux pas.

Those kind of moments of forgetfulness happen to me quite frequently. Those kind of moments almost cost me a trip to London.

One of the beauties of the EU is the open borders. We can drive from Brussels to France and on down to Spain and not once stop at a border check, just as if you were driving from Dallas to Louisiana to Arkansas (well, not just like it). I’ve grown so accustomed to this freedom that I never think to bring my passport along. It has no use.

Last October, the NFL staged its annual regular-season game in London. Some friends and I had secured tickets months in advance. But rather than take the Brussels-to-London train (or fly), we decided to drive to London, go to the game, spend the night and head back to Belgium the next day.

For those who failed geography, a large body of water separates Belgium from England. You can either take your car across the English Channel by ferry, or, as we chose, drive your car to a port, park inside of a train, and that train runs your car (and hundreds of others) underground across the English channel. Brilliant technology, I do say.

Everything was set up perfectly for this trip. Overnight bag; check. Mobile phone; check. Cowboys jersey and hat, check (FYI: At the London NFL game, fans wear the gear of their favorite team, not just of the two teams playing).

Passport; uncheck. Don’t need it, not with the open borders and all.

On gameday I met up with my friends — Joeri, who I’ve mentioned here; Jan, who you met here; and Koen — all three of them Belgians who happen to share my love of American football. Joeri’s a Cowboys fan and thus the smartest of the group. Jan is a Packers fan and thus is currently the happiest of the group. Koen is a Denver fan and was the luckiest of the group; his beloved Broncos were playing in the London game against the 49ers.

The four of us left Brussels before sunrise and in a few hours had arrived at the port, in northern France, where we’d catch the underground train to England. As we approached the port’s entry, I saw customs agents and other people who looked like they mean business.

At that point my heart sunk. I remembered that not all borders in the EU are open. There’s this here thing called the Schengen agreement — countries belonging to this agreement open their borders so that anyone can drive in or out without being stopped. But the UK had to be difficult. They’re not part of Schengen, so anyone entering the UK must show a passport. And mine was two and a half hours away sitting on my desk in my apartment.

Imagine trying to enter Texas through the Mexican border without proper ID. Not gonna happen. I assumed I had no chance and started thinking of ways I could get back to Brussels so that my friends could park their car on the train and get to London. I figured I’d be out at least €200 between taking a cab from the port to a train station, and then taking a train back to Brussels.

As we pulled up to the customs booth, my friends all showed their valid passports. I showed by Belgian residence permit, trying to act cool as if nothing was awry. It didn’t take more than a minute for them to call me out. They needed to see a passport.

So I told them my saga; how I’m a dumb American used to driving all around Europe without a passport (they told me countless times “that doesn’t apply to the UK”) and that I simply forgot it. I begged for entry into the UK, telling them I’m only here to watch a silly American football game at Wembley Stadium. Give me 24 hours and I’ll leave the UK as I found it — you can trust me.

After some negotiating, a customs agent told us to pull our car to the side and wait. So we waited for a bit, getting out of the car to throw the football to burn off the tension. Ten or 15 minutes later, an agent summoned me indoors.

“We don’t normally do this,” he said, “but we’re going to give you a 48-hour temporary passport. Keep this piece of paper with you at all times and don’t lose it. And if you stay in the UK longer than 48 hours, you’ll wish you never came.” Yes sir.

Just like that, I was granted permission to enter the UK even though I had no passport. Gotta love them Brits.

With a sudden feeling of relief, the four of us piled back into the car, boarded the train, and though it was only 11am, we popped the cork off a bottle of champagne (nice planning, Jan) and toasted to our trip. And just as we planned, the four of us were on our way to watch the Broncos vs. the 49ers, live from Wembley Stadium in London.

The preceding story covered just the first 3-4 hours of our trip to London, but I can safely say the remaining 21-plus hours of our trip were even more eventful. It was one of the most memorable times I’ve had in our two years here. And thanks to some merciful UK customs agents, I was able to experience it.

I hope someday I can return to Europe and go back to this annual game. Joeri, Jan and Koen: I promise when I return, I’ll make sure to bring my passport. Speaking of, aside from form forgetting that, I also forgot a camera on this trip. Thankfully Joeri supplied me with some of his shots, so enjoy:

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