Unchained

May 3, 2011 2 comments

Driving home from a round of golf on Monday, two friends and I were absolutely starving and searching for somewhere to eat along the way. Seeing that it was a nearly two-hour drive home, we figured this would be an easy process.

Time for a hungerbuster, fries and a blizzard.

Two-hour drives in Texas yield at least 3-4 McDonald’s, two “Texas Stop Signs” (that’s Dairy Queen, of course), a few Starbucks and a handful of Whataburgers.

But on our way home, we counted just TWO roadside eateries open for business. And the one we stopped in told us they wouldn’t serve hot food until 5pm, so we were forced to buy some readymade pizzas (and they weren’t quite Dr. Oetker material, in case any of you fellow expats were wondering).

It got me thinking: Belgium really hasn’t bought into the chain mentality. As much as I miss the convenience of pulling off the road, grabbing a half-pound burger and a quarter-gallon of coke — all in less than 10 minutes — I’m a bit thankful Belgium has resisted chain restaurants. Because of a lack of chains (especially of the fast food variety), it’s not only easy to avoid calorie binges, but the “mom and pop stores” have managed to survive.

When I take a walk out of our apartment and take a left, within a 30-second walk is a little corner store owned by a Polish couple, specializing in Polish goods. Next to it is a mini-grocery owned by a man who lives in the apartment above his store. To my knowledge, he’s the store’s only employee. He works there six days a week and offers a friendly smile every time I butcher his native language.

A few minutes farther down the road is mine and Jenna’s go-to to-go restaurant, an Indian place where the wife is the hostess, server, busboy and cashier, while her husband fills the roles of sous chef, head chef and dishwasher. The restaurant cozily seats just 24 people, but we usually just get takeout.

If, instead, I take a right outside our front door, there are two secondhand stores selling this and that; three more corner stores that sell fresh fruit and veggies; a take-out Chinese place owned by a former karate champion; a small family-owned butcher; a one-man barbershop operated by the same guy for the past 17 years (more on him another time); and a couple small pubs.

All these independently-owned stores are within a two-minute walk from our apartment — and our neighborhood is by no means unique. All around Brussels are similar scenes; restaurants, newspaper stands, antique stores and convenient shops, almost 100 percent of them owned by a family, most of which live in the same building as their business.

I don’t hate or avoid chains by any means, but they usually lack the personality and character of stores that often have been owned by a single family for generations. Now if only a few of these “mom and pops” stores would open up along the highway for hungry drivers.

Advertisements
Categories: Uncategorized

Halfway there (plus a post-a-day promise)

May 2, 2011 4 comments

On the eve of my 30th birthday, a good friend in Dallas told me to expect some changes. “You’ll notice that everything hurts a little more after you turn 30, and things take longer to heal.”

I'm smiling, so this was obviously taken before the run.

Maybe it’s a psychological phenomenon, but I think my friend was right. In the last couple years, I’ve noticed creaky knees, a sore back and a longer recovery time after physical exertion. Mentally, I still feel young. Physically, the aging process is moving a little faster.

Nevertheless, I am putting my body to the test.

As you now know, Jenna and I have limited time left in Belgium — 29 days* to be exact. For a while, it looked like we could move sooner, as early as the second week of May. I’m not quite ready to leave, and Jenna knows that. So I made a deal with her: Do what you can to keep us in Brussels through the end of May, and I’ll make your wildest dream come true.

No, I’m not giving up watching sports on TV. That’s her second wildest dream. Her first wildest dream (I’m making this up … mostly) is for me to run a long-distance race with her. Jenna’s a runner; I’m not. But for some reason she loves to run with a non-runner.

Every year at the end of May is the Brussels 20k. Jenna ran it last year, and I knew she’d love to run it this year — if we were still in Brussels, that is. For me, a few more weeks in Brussels was worth 20 kilometers (nearly 13 miles), so I pledged to run that with her if she could hold up her end of the bargain. She did, so now I’m signed up to run just short of a half-marathon.

She’s been trying to get me in shape ever since. Part of the training included warm-up runs, the first of which (a 10k) was yesterday. As hard as the run was for me, I’m 1) Satisfied I finished in an acceptable amount of time and 2) Happy I even ran it.

After waking up on the race morning, I banged my ankle against our bathtub. There was Excuse #1 not to run.

Later in the day, after we arrived at the race (an hour-and-a-half away on the Belgian coast), I realized I had made a tragic mistake. I had left my arm-band that holds my iPod — along with my headphones — at our apartment. Running is hard enough; running without audio is nearly impossible. Excuse #2.

We walked into the registration building, got our race numbers, and asked two volunteers if any nearby stores might sell these products. Both, simultaneously, gave me an incredulous look. One replied simply with “It’s Sunday”, which translates to “This is Belgium — everything’s closed, duh.” The other one simply said “You are out of luck,” but he said it more mockingly than jokingly. Thanks for the help, guys.

Me impersonating a runner.

Despite the warnings, Jenna and I walked around the town, and within 30 minutes, we found a bike shop that sold iPod holders and a record store that sold headphones. Take that, Belgium! Apparently not everything is closed on Sundays.

With music in my ears, Jenna and I set off on the run. Fifteen minutes into the run I felt great. We were nearly 3Ks deep and I was sailing. There was a lovely view of the coast at this particular juncture, there were people cheering us on, and the latest band I’m into (Faust — give ’em a try) had me running with confidence.

Then came a forest, a big hill, and no cheering bystanders, and my pace slowed. This was near the sixth kilometer. The rest of the run wasn’t so pretty, but the race results I received by email showed there were 400+ runners who finished later than me, so there are at least 400 people in Belgium in worse shape than me, which is a relief.

In 27 days, we will run the Brussels 20k — twice the run that wore me out yesterday. In a race with 30,000 entrants, I might be content beating just 400 people again. At the very least, that would mean I finished the race at the finish line and not on a stretcher.

*We leave Brussels for Memphis on May 31. To commemorate this momentous event, I, La Vie Belge, promise to post a blog every single day until we depart. Please, dear reader, help hold me to this undertaking. Email or comment to remind me not to break this promise.


Categories: Uncategorized

Quick trip to Krakow

April 19, 2011 1 comment

The next few blogs will document some recent trips we’ve gone on. Excuse the delay … I’ve been very busy and/or lazy lately.

At one point over our weekend in Krakow I said to Jenna, “Now I know why the English language rarely uses the letter ‘Z’ … Poland stole them all.” Z is their A — it feels like every other Polish word has at least one Z in there somewhere. Fittingly, there is one Z (and two strangely-written Es) in the only Polish word I picked up while in Krakow in mid March.

Jenna and a friend/colleague had some meetings there on a Tuesday, so we (me and Jenna; plus her colleague and his wife, Jon and Raven Moorehead — part of our Dublin contingent) decided to travel there a few days early to see the place.

Whenever we travel, I try to learn a few pleasantries in the local language so that — in the midst of forcing everyone we deal with to speak our language — I show even a slight bit of respect and gratitude. In 3.5 days in Krakow, though, my Polish vocabulary maxed out at one word — Dziękuję — which means thank you.

The word sounds nothing like it looks (at least from an English perspective). Phonetically, it’s pronounced GIN-kwee-yuh. Each time I slipped the word in — perhaps to a waiter as he refilled my glass or took away an empty plate — it would draw a double-take. I think they were both amused and appreciative of my feeble effort. Probably more of the former.

Auschwitz gas chamber

Despite these frequent moments of awkwardness, I’ll remember this trip mostly for a sobering, somber tour of the Auschwitz. A month later, sorting through the photos of this infamous concentration camp — its name synonymous then and now with death — feelings such as sadness, anger and helplessness return.

Take this photo on the right. It’s the entrance to a gassing chamber. The Nazis would march prisoners into this building, but under false pretenses. A guardsman would stand above the door and entice prisoners to enter by promising hot food and applications for jobs. Once through the door, the prisoners would be stripped, then sent to a painful death. Sickening.

Some more photos from our Auschwitz tour …

Bunk beds at the concentration camp. I had seen these reproduced in films like Schindlers List, The Grey Zone and Life is Beautiful, but seeing it in person has such a greater impact.

Through the barbed-wire fence stand dozens and dozens of chimneys, what once were the centerpieces of the barracks at the concentration camps. Most of the barracks were destroyed, but the chimneys somehow remained.

A place like Auschwitz stirs up conflicting emotions. It fills you with sorrow and hate, yet you realize its hate that triggered much of this history. These gallows were used to hang a Nazi officer following the liberation of the camp. Somehow it doesnt feel wrong to find a slight bit of joy or relief knowing a death occurred here.

The walls of one section of the museum were lined with the photos of all the victims who lost their lives at Auschwitz.

Auschwitz memorial

Rather than hide from this despicable snapshot in human history, the Polish — as the sign on a memorial to the left shows — put it on display. It offers a stark warning that forgetting the past makes repeating it in the future all the more possible.

Well, I don’t want to misguide you. Our whole trip wasn’t this sobering (far from it). While the tour of Auschwitz was the highlight — worth the experience despite the overflow of emotions — we saw a fair bit of other sites around Krakow that weekend.

Below are a few more photos from the weekend …

Following Auschwitz, we took a tour of the Wieliczka Salt Mine, hundreds of yards beneath the ground. This is a look down the long, winding staircase to get to the bottom.

The mine has dozens of miles of passageways and rooms, and we took dozens of photos, but this is one of my favorites. This gigantic room was all carved out of the salt. On the walls are reproductions of famous paintings — again, all carved out of the salt.

I cant remember who this statue depicts, but its representative of the amazing carvings throughout the salt mine. No professional artists did the carvings — they were all made by the miners, many of them who lived for months at a time underground. Its a literal underground city, complete with chapels for prayer, cafeterias for eating, and residences for sleeping.

Jenna wouldve been mad at me had this blog not contained at least one photo of us.

Whats a visit to an old European city without at least one castle sighting? This is the Wawel Royal Castle perched on a hill overlooking Krakow.

Categories: Uncategorized

Better head back to Tennessee

April 11, 2011 2 comments

La Vie Belge is on the clock.

In two months, our time living in Brussels will be up. We’ve known that for a little while now and have told family and some friends, but this past week really solidified that we can call Belgium our home for only a short while longer.

I’ve never gotten into too much detail about Jenna’s day-to-day job responsibilities, but essentially she adds, subtracts (and does a few other mathematical procedures) while helping oversee International Paper’s European operations. IP, as it’s known, has a large office in Brussels, but its world headquarters is in Memphis.

Jenna’s employer, Deloitte, is now sending her — us — to Memphis, where she’ll crunch numbers at IP’s home office. We’ll be moving there come May 31, and we got an extended sneak peek of our new home this past week. We even might’ve found our new home, though as any home-buyer knows, there’s several steps along the way before you move in.

I’ll save my nostalgia and reminiscing for a later blog. As much as I enjoyed seeing and exploring Memphis over the past 7-8 days, when we move back to the states, we are leaving our home behind. I’ve grown to love Brussels and Belgium, and it’s not just because of the beer and the fact I’ve been living a semi-retired life.

But more on that later. Over the next couple days, I’ve got some catching up to do about some recent travels and events both in Brussels and some escapades around Europe.

Categories: Uncategorized

Dublin Illustrated

March 3, 2011 1 comment

Monday night Jenna and I ordered a pizza. Wanting to avoid using French — if we can call the mumbling that leaves our mouths French — we paid for the pizza online, hoping to limit the transaction to a simple pizza handoff.

But when the pizza guy arrived, he was unaware we had paid online. Both Jenna and I tried, futilely, to tell the man the pizza was paid for. After a few uncomfortable minutes, Jenna grabbed her computer, typed out “We paid for it online”, ran the sentence through Google translator, and showed the delivery guy. Finally, he understood.

Such is life when you don’t speak the local language, an inconvenience Dublin provided a nice escape for this past weekend — though, truth be told, I think I understand some French speakers better than some of the Irish folk we spoke with.

We headed to Dublin with our Portugal travel mates Charles and Cat (The Cs), as well our latest couple-friends, Jon and Raven (aka JR, or Junior), whom you might remember from our Christmas.

Jenna, Raven and Cat. It took Jenna all of 10 minutes in Dublin to find a candy store and all of three seconds to tear into the bag.

We were fortunate to have unseasonably perfect weather (low 50s with constant sunshine, except at night of course), and because of some thorough group planning, we packed in a lot of activity without the feeling of being rushed.

What is art? What is not?

I think any trip should start the same way: just walk. Don’t head anywhere in particular, just try to get a feel for the city. Getting lost is sometimes the best thing that can happen to you. You often stumble upon some great sites not listed in tourism books, although this thing on the right was unmissable.

We never really found out what it was. I asked a taxi driver, and he said it was supposed to be some piece of art, but nobody in Dublin knew what it meant or why it was there. At least that’s what I think he said. His thick Irish accent sounded like he was speaking with a mouthful of saltines.

Even with all the “look right”  and “look left” warnings written on all the roads in tourist areas, the simple act of crossing a street in Dublin, where like the UK they drive on the left side of the road, can be quite complicated. Even though our mothers always warned us to look both ways, instinct tells us to look left first.

Charles and Raven follow instructions well.

Our first stop in Dublin took us to Porterhouse, a pub deluxe with multiple floors and dozens of brews, including some made on the premises. We ended up returning to this place on Saturday night for a variety of reasons.

Charles works the crowd at Porterhouse, our Dublin hangout.

One, we were craving burgers, and somehow every place we had gone to up to that point didn’t have burgers on the menu. Secondly, Charles wanted to watch a basketball game online (for once it wasn’t me dragging a group to a TV-friendly bar), and Porterhouse had free wifi, so he watched the game on a laptop.

The third reason we didn’t know was a reason going in. But around 8pm, a band of three musicians took a stage and started warming up. They then broke into a two-hour set of traditional folk-Irish music with a hint of modern rock. This might’ve been the highlight of the trip. The guys could really jam, particularly the guy who played some flute-like instrument (looked like a recorder) as well as some sort of bag-pipe. Their lyrics were poetic; you could tell some of the traditional tunes they played had been passed down for generations. Not many popular bands introduce songs with “This is a song my grandfather taught me.”

So moved by their performance, Jenna and I threw down €15 for one of their albums. You might look them up: Sliotar, which I have no idea how to pronounce.

 

We closed our first night in Dublin at the Winding Stair, a solid Irish restaurant recommended by multiple friends.

The ladies in the comfort of the plush Irish rail system.

Saturday we hit the road — rather, the train tracks — and took the rails down to Dalkey, a tiny coastal village south of Dublin. Raven has a friend that once lived near here. This friend must be successful — the town is pristine; the homes dotting the coastline were beautiful estates, built into the cliffs and offering amazing views.

We finished our Dalkey day with lunch at a place called Finnigan’s, where Bono (if you don’t know who that is, shame on you) is reputed to dine or have a pint every once in a while. We never caught a glimpse of the U2 frontman (for those who don’t know who Bono is, now you do), but we caught part of a rugby match on TV. More entertaining than the game, though, were the dozens of old men, all dressed in their Sunday finest, sitting around the TVs with eyes glued to the telly and hands glued to their pints of Guinness. Authentic Ireland, I tell ya.

Some scenes from our walk through Dalkey:

Upon arrival (around 11ish) in Dalkey, I stopped in a bakery for a quick bite. Slowly, each member of the group suddenly realized they were hungry too. First the ladies ran back across the street to the bakery. Then Jon went (he's looking left, not right, too), followed by Charles. The bakery was that good, though.

Scratching my hands was the price I paid for climbing up this wall for a better view of the sea.

Jenna looking lovely outside the front gate of a massive Dalkey estate.

The gents peer off the edge of a pier.

Our ship has come in.

We caught a brief glimpse of a seal swimming in the sea. Even with our high-powered zoom lens this is the closest we could get to the creature.

Jon attempts to tame a wild mountain goat.

I gaze at Jenna while she gazes at the sea.

One of the few times their glasses were full?

We all went to bed early Saturday evening to store up energy for big plans on Sunday morning. The girls had massages, drinks and brunch to get to, as you can see on the right.

The gents? The great tradition of an early morning weekend round of golf. But breaking tradition of playing a cheap municipal course, we played one of the top courses on the island, The K Club, which hosted the 2006 Ryder Cup.

Perhaps inspired by the history of the course, I got off to a blistering start (for my standards), tallying pars on five of the first six holes and scoring a 41 on the front nine. Then reality set in, and I’ll just say the pars were hard to come by.

Jon, who expertly set up the golf outing, came from behind to win the round by four strokes. While he was fist-pumping his dramatic victory, sealed with a birdie on the 18th, Charles and I were throwing our golf balls into the closest pond, lamenting our lousy play. Oh well, this course has probably tamed better golfers than myself.

You won't confuse us with professionals.

After resting a bit, and getting some consoling from Jenna for my hideous back-nine performance on the golf course, we decided to make the most of Sunday, our final night in Dublin.

Recommended by several friends, we signed up for the Writers’ Pub Crawl, a tour that takes you to several pubs where legendary Irish writers would go for liquid inspiration. Along the way, the tour guides — two chaps with sharp wits and amazing memory recall — passed on bits of history to the group, recited passages from famous literary pieces, sang traditional Irish pub ballads, and just simply entertain. They guides were amazing. I’d recommend them to anyone, be it a tourist or a lifelong Dubliner.

 

The Pub Crawl guides performing a scene from ‘Waiting for Godot’, which a critic once described as a play where nothing happens — twice.

Me with one of the tour guides. A colleague of mine in Brussels actually went to the University of Limerick with him.

We warmed up for the pub crawl with "Irish Car Bombs", as you can tell by the look on my face (I won, for the record). Fearing "Irish Car Bombs" might be an American thing and not wanting to offend, I simply asked for a half-Guinness with a side shot of half-Bailey's, half-Jameson, to which the waitress replied, "you mean an Irish Car Bomb?"

Women ... I don't get 'em. One moment they're serious, the next they're all laughs.

Only after a pub crawl can you force me on a dance floor. This is mid-Riverdance.

Fortunately Jenna came to my aid and showed me how dancing is done.

We ended our late last night in Ireland at a Scottish restaurant.

Categories: Uncategorized

Only in Belgium

February 4, 2011 4 comments

Walking down our street today past the nearby high school, I saw a teacher taking a smoke break … with a student. That kind of act would get a teacher fired in the states, but as we say here, Only in Belgium.

We actually have the Belgian government (not the current one of course … but more on that later) to thank for that saying. A few years ago it used Only in Belgium as a marketing slogan to attract tourists to this small, sometimes overlooked country. It has since become the source of satire and humor by outsiders and Belgians alike.

I sometimes wonder if we over-analyze things happening here and assume the Belgian quirks and eccentricities don’t exist on the same scale in other countries. Then I see little reminders in our lives — as well as reminders in the Only In Belgium blog, which I help maintain for my part-time employer — and I realize that yes, Belgium is a bit odd.

Two weeks ago, some friends made a reservation at a restaurant for the following day. They arrived to find the restaurant with locked doors and a sign reading “Closed for good for personal and financial reasons.” Guess the restaurant took their reservation with a bit of optimism, hoping those financial and personal stresses would be relieved in the next 24 hours. Only in Belgium.

The biggest sales event of the year (Part I at least) just ended a few days ago. It happens every January and July — stores display large signs reading “soldes” and “solden”, the respective French and Dutch words for “sales”. The government allows stores to put items on sale, at a loss, only in January and July. It is illegal for a store to put an item on sale (at a potential loss) any other month of the year.

Shopping malls are filled almost no matter the time of day in January with people searching for a good deal. The pants I’m wearing right now? Got them for €6.50 (about $9) on January 31st. Twenty-four hours later, that price would have shot up. Only in Belgium.

And, as alluded to, perhaps the biggest Only in Belgium of it all: Only here — or in Iraq — does it take nearly a year for a government to materialize. Remember the hanging, dimpled and pregnant chads episode in US politics? That has nothing on the current situation here.

Several times since Jenna and I moved to Brussels someone has asked me Do you speak Belgian? I have to stop myself from laughing, because months before we moved to Belgium, I was pretty ignorant about the country, though I was aware there’s no such thing as a Belgian language. Yet at this point, creating a new, unique Belgian language might be the only thing that can unify this country.

On June 13, 2010, the Belgians elected their new prime minister. Since that day, that prime minister has spent all of zero days in office. Instead, for 236 days and counting, he and the other Flemish-speaking parties have negotiated with their Wallonie counterparts in an attempt to form a government. They haven’t even come close to finding a resolution that satisfies all. Just a couple days ago the King appointed a new mediator after the last one gave up after 99 days on the job.

The 230-plus days without a government has established a modern-day European record. Belgium is approaching a world record currently owned by Iraq. That’s not the company you want to keep.

It does make me wonder, when someday in the future I tell our kids about our life in Belgium, will we be calling it Belgium? I hope so, but with the strange daily occurrences here, the country’s split shouldn’t catch anyone off guard.

 

Categories: Uncategorized

Oh, and Thanksgiving, too …

December 29, 2010 1 comment

Though it wasn’t quite like leaving Kevin home alone while the family flew to Paris for Christmas (or when Kevin foiled the burglars at his stepmom’s mansion, for those of you who made it to Home Alone 4), Jenna and I also celebrated an untraditional Thanksgiving — this before our Unconventional Christmas.

Conventional: We had family. Jenna and I flew to Budapest to spend five days with my brother Trey and his family (roll call: wife Denise, son Bryan David, middle son Alexander, daughter Lily), who are missionaries to the region.

Unconventional: We didn’t have electricity; at least not for a few hours. The Hungarian electricity provider scheduled a temporary blackout for their neighborhood from 9 am till noon on Thanksgiving Day. In Hungary, the word for Thanksgiving is Thursday. I’m sure they’re a thankful lot, but this holiday is largely American and Canadian. Life doesn’t stop on the fourth Thursday in November for the rest of the world.

Conventional: We had turkey.

Unconventional: It was barbecued, not roasted in the oven. That’s an instance where unconventional wins. It was good.

Conventional: We had exercise. In the states, Jenna traditionally runs a 5 or 10k on Thanksgiving morning, as do hundreds of thousands across the country.

Unconventional: With the Turkey Trot not possible, my nephew Bryan and I instead rode bikes. We hadn’t planned on it, but when dinnertime rolled around and we realized we were short a few beverages, we hopped on bikes and pedaled to the nearest convenience store. Again, one of the blessings of celebrating Thanksgiving abroad; all the stores are open.

Conventional: We expressed our emotions; many families use Thanksgiving Day to share what they’re thankful for in life.

Unconventional: An old Hungarian man expressed his emotions by sharing why he thought I am an idiot. When Bryan and I pulled up on our bikes after making the run to the convenient store, an old man verbally ripped into me. When, I interrupted him to let him know I was American (which, in Europe, translates to I don’t speak your language), he switched over to English and lectured me about the dangers of nighttime bike riding. This guy must’ve done his thesis on it he had so many facts. Being the day that it was, I told him I was very thankful for his advice.

This was second straight Thanksgiving we spent with Trey and his family. I’ll have to admit, come Thanksgiving next year, wherever we’ll be, part of Jenna and me will be wishing we were in Budapest again.

Categories: Uncategorized