Friday, January 29, 2010

Quilts of Valor

Anyone reading this may remember that back in November Leo and I attended a Returning Warrior Workshop, which was basically a free weekend seminar designed to re-aclimate soldiers who had served overseas and their spouses. I'm not sure but I think it's mainly for reservists, which is nice since they are bearing a large brunt of the deployments.

While I admire the sacrifice, I get tired of the people who say, "Oh this person shouldn't go to war because they only signed up for the Reserves to get their college paid for".

Everyone who signs up for the military knows what they could be getting into and if they don't realize it, that's hard knocks on their part.

Contrary to some beliefs (and my own thinking before I married my husband) some people like to go to war. Some people want to go because in the military that's how you get promoted. My husband is considering going for a year in Afghanistan because he knows he will make his next rank if he does.

Some people want to go because they feel it's their patriotic duty, whatever the cause.
Some people want to go to war because it's what they've trained for their whole military career. Imagine if you trained for years to run a marathon and then the race was cancelled or if you studied for years to learn a language and was told you could never speak it. Training in vain isn't a reason to go to war, but a lot of people feel frustrated not being able to put their skills to use.

Some people want to go to escape the tiny, podunk towns they come from and the military is the only employer in town. People can actually make a really decent living from a career in the military, especially if you don't want to go (or go far) in college. You can't say that about most jobs.

Some people want to go because they are nut-jobs and want to kill people.
Some people want to go because they feel guilty that other soldiers are having to bear the burden and they want to do their part to take some of that burden off their friends. It's very common among returning soldiers to feel a sense of guilt that they're going home, while others are staying behind in a war zone.

Some people want to go because they have a family to feed back home and going to war means a ton of extra pay, including hazardous duty pay.

There are as many reasons to go to war as there are not to go to war.

But that's not what this post is intended to be about. I wanted to thank a group of people in Columbus, Indiana who are taking time out of their busy lives to make quilts for the Quilts of Valor project.

This is a project begun in Delaware by a military mom who wanted to make quilts for every American soldier who has been deployed. The idea is to cover them with love.

Here's a part of the letter that we received, along with our quilt.

"We wanted you to know that this quilt was created by the members of the CCC Quilts of Valor Project to thank you for your service and sacrifice for the United States of America....To tell you just a little about us, we are a group of folks from "thirty-something" to age 93 who meet to work at the Community Church of Columbus. Some of us have made quilts for years and some of us are just learning but all of us are thinking of you. Columbus, Indiana is located about 45 miles south of Indianapolis so you can imagine both basketball and Indy Racing are popular topics in our town. We are known as the home of the headquarters of Cummins Engine Company as well as many buildings designed by famous architects."

If your heart isn't moved by that, I think you must have a heart of stone. It makes me want to join the Columbus, Indiana quilting circle................although, I could do without the basketball and the Indy Racing.

However, they aren't kidding about the famous architects, one of their library's was designed by I.M Pei (who designed, among other things, the famous glass pyramid of the Louvre museum in Paris) and they have a Jean Tinguely sculpture. It's amazing how things turn full circle since I was just at the Tinguely museum in Basel, Switzerland.

Columbus was also the hometown of Chuck Taylor, aka basketball star and shoe genius. Who knew?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Cuckoo Clocks and the Black Forest

I've only a few more posts about my trip to Europe (and as Leo puts it, "I'm seriously milking it") but on the Monday following Christmas, both the Lauras and I drove from Basel to Freiburg, Germany.

I was excited because we were going into the Black Forest which I've been intrigued by since I read The Happy Hollisters as a child. This isn't a famous or popular series, although the author did write many of the
Hardy Boys series, but apparently someone on the Smith side of my family liked the books, and one lonely summer afternoon at my grandparent's house in Milford, MI I found almost a complete set of The Happy Hollisters books,
including one about a "Cuckoo Clock Mystery".

Always a lover of a good detective story, I was hooked, although I had more or less forgotten about the Black Forest until a seemingly innocuous conversation over Christmas Eve. Learning I was so close to the forest brought back a flood of childhood memories about the series and I was determined to see the forest for myself.

As it turns out, although I was assured I was in the actual forest several times, the experience once again proved the old adage that things are much better left to the imagination. More or less what I saw seemed to be reminiscent of a North Carolina scrub pine forest.

But I digress. Freiburg is a lovely town, complete with tiny little "mini canals" running alongside many of the sidewalks. I haven't seen these since I was in Wells, England. While picturesque, it's a little less cute once you know they were used as rubbish chutes to flush trash, including chamber pots, downstream.

However, in the downtown area of Freiburg, there is a beautiful little river running through the town, which in and of itself makes the town worth a visit.

The cathedral was be
autiful and I've never seen so many candles lit to the Virgin Mary at once.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Blind Date

I had my first blind date today and what’s more, it was with a woman.

Now before anyone goes getting all excited it was a blind language exchange date.

I had completely forgotten that I had signed up on a language exchange website until this lady, Isabel contacted me. For anyone who may not know what a language exchange is, it’s where 2 or more people meet and speak for half the time in one language and the other half of the time in another language (in our case, it was Spanish and English).

She’s Mexican and moved to the San Diego area 5years ago but she lives near the border where almost everyone speaks Spanish. It’s called Chula Vista (cool view) but most people call it Chula Juana (because of it’s proximity to lovely Tijuana).

We agreed to meet at a local Starbuck’s at 10:30 this morning. I got there at 10:15 to scope it out. I went in about 10:20 or so and cased the joint. At first, I saw this woman through the window that I thought could be Isabel but when I got to the door, her husband who had been waiting in line, sat down next to her.

Strike One.

Then I saw this girl near the window, who was studying but answered her phone in Spanish. She looked far too young to be the 31 years old that Isabel said she was, so I figured it wasn’t her.

Strike Two.

As the clock ticked, I would look up towards the door alternatively hoping and fearing that the woman entering would be Isabel. At one point, I even considered the idea that Isabel would turn out to be a man and maybe one of those creepy perverts you see on the Dateline NBC specials, “To Catch a Predator”.

As the minutes kept creeping by, I started to get paranoid and wondered if the girl that was studying really was Isabel and maybe took one look at me, didn’t like the cut of my jib, and was ignoring me.

Realizing this was ridiculous, I settled in to wait a few more minutes.

By 10:35 I was beginning to suspect I was stood up!

I mean, I know we’ve been having some seriously stormy weather here, but c’mon. Then maybe I thought she backed out. Then I thought, maybe she saw me through the glass window (I was wearing the bright red coat I had promised to) and got cold feet and left. I mean I know I'm not as young as I once was but I still have a lot to offer. I promise!

Again realizing this was ridiculous, I did mantras of, “You are a wonderful and intelligent person, you are ok” (all right, maybe I really just cursed her out in my head).

Just as I was about to succumb to despair, this woman walked in and in perfect English said, “Are you Kristin?”

Ok, a new panic attack as I realized her English is A LOT better than my Spanish.

Well, we stumbled thought the language exchange and an hour later, promised to keep in touch and do it again.

We’ll see if she calls…….I mean, I’m not waiting by the phone or anything :D

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Zurich-the 3rd Most Expensive City in Europe

Which kind of makes you wonder what the other 2 are? I can't believe there are 2 cities that charge more than $12 for a grilled cheese, $5 for a Coke and $34 for a burrito plate (which in California could be less than $5).

Welcome to beautiful Zurich. And it is beautiful so I can't complain too much about the prices. Although I seriously can't figure out how people live there. All my Swiss friends say, "Oh people here make more money" but still.....

I also went to Zurich to meet up with a couple of my old students. We met in the train station, which apparently has the most amazing Swarovski crystal Christmas tree. I wouldn't know, because those dang uber efficient Swiss had already dismantled it by the morning of December 27. We nicknamed it, "the letdown tree".
While walking along the side of the Limmat River and down the Bahnhofstrasse (literally train station street and the upscale shopping area) are beautiful, however....

....if you only do one thing
in Zurich, climb to the top of the Grossmunster, Zurich's great cathedral. According to legend, the Grossmunster was founded by Charlemagne, when his horse fell to his knees there over the tombs of 2 of Zurich's patron saints. The cathedral also played a prominent part in the Protestant Revolution.

All very nice and well, but not the primary reason I recom
mend it. This is why:

Be forewarned: the climb is not for the faint of heart or the out of shape. It's steep and very narrow. There was a lot of squishing
yourself into niches in order to let others pass by. But the 360 degree views were so worth it.

And this picture is priceless.

I also saw the largest clock face in all of Europe at St Peter's, woo hoo!

We walked around quite a bit,which naturally made everyone thirsty, so my local friend Ana recommended we head over to the Jules Verne Bar.

It was probably one of the coolest bars I've been in. You have to enter at the Brasserie Lipp Restaurant and take an elevator up 11 stories into the round building, whereby you are greeted with more panoramic views of the city!

It's very cute and very intimate (read no seating) so when someone does actually leave a table, move fast! You need to jump on it or else someone else will elbow their way in. We finally got a table by the window by gradually encroaching on the couple sitting at it. I think they were trying to have a romantic date too. So sad.

After, we went to dinner to wait for some other friends. Our first choice was a fondue place called Swiss Kuche (Swiss Kitchen), a typical fondue place downtown. We didn't end up eating there since apparently you have to make a reservation first. Which is just as well because as we were leaving, Belgian Laura declared loudly, "that place smells like farts."

We ended up at a Mexican place instead. Word to the wise, Mexican food is apparently considered "exotic" in Switzerland. Hence the $34 burrito plate. Not able to stomach the price, I stuck with my $12 chips and guac.

However, I did get to see 2 more of my former students, Andre and Guido. So all in all, it was a good day. Oh and I also saw my first Swiss cow.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

French Wine Country and Randy from Michigan, Part Deux

So continuing on my European adventure, after we left Colmar, France we headed 7 miles down the road for nearby Riquewihr. A popular tourist town, this area is known for its wines (apparently most notably the Riesling--thanks Wikipedia). Because it was largely spared the destruction of WWII, it looks more or less as it did in the 16th century.

Since we were in French wine country, we had decided we wanted to do a wine tasting. Doing our due diligence, we had looked on the Internet before and come across this little recommendation, written by one Randy from Michigan. Randy was responding to a question someone had asked about good restaurants in town.

"Sorry I can not help with the restaurant problem, but if by some chance you wanted to do some wine tasting you might go see Franck Mittnacht. I was there about a year and a half ago with my French vineyard owner friend and he introduced me to Frank, we had a nice wine tasting and purchased a couple bottles of his great wine.

Franck Mittnacht
Domaine Mittnacht-Klack
Vins d'Alsace
8, rue des Tuileries
68340 Riquewihr

If you do go, tell him that Randy from Michigan suggested that you stop to see him. I think he might remember me."

We were so excited to find a personal recommendation of a vineyard! So, duly armed, we set out that afternoon to track down the Mittnacht Vineyard. No one in town seemed to know where it was or the road it was on, which should have set off a few warning bells, but determined, we pushed on.

We left the town center and kept walking along a residential road. Each time we were about to give up, we kept remembering those golden words of Randy's, "We had a nice wine tasting and purchased a couple bottles of his great wine." Fortified, we finally stumbled across something that looked like an old barn with a house attached to it.

We determined that it was the right place, but it didn't look open for business. We figured we had come all that way, so we went up to the front door of the house and rang the bell. Planning to shout out that Randy had sent us, I froze at the last minute when the person answered the intercom in French.
Laura from Belgium had to do all the talking and finally someone came down. A long conversation in French ensued and...

All we have to say to Randy from Michigan is, "Thanks alot. For nothing!!!"

The woman had NO CLUE who Randy was, didn't speak English (which is fine but she wasn't that nice either) and the place smelled a little like old cheese. Not to mention it was freezing in there and we were scared to even ask if we could use the bathroom.

About the only nice thing she did was take a photo of us pretending to do a wine tasting, since she insisted we could only taste if we bought the bottle.

We were thinking about telling her to forget it, but she had gotten out of bed or something to answer the door (she was wearing an outfit that looked suspiciously like French pajamas), so we bought a bottle to go.

The whole walk back to town, we were cursing ol' Randy from Michigan and his lame recommendations.

We really were, but we were also cracking up about the whole thing. If I ever do one day meet Randy from Michigan, I think I would give him a hug.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Blogger Award!~

What a nice surprise! Jess over at Brad-N-Jess nominated me for a Beautiful Blogger Award!~ Being a novice to blogging, I'm not 100% sure what that is, but I love it nonetheless and what a great way to start the day!!!! The rules to this award are as follows

1. Thank the person who gave you the award
2. Paste the award on your blog
3. Link the person who nominated you for the award
4. Tell 7 interesting things about yourself
5. Nominate 7 bloggers or less

So now I have to think of 7 interesting things about myself.

  • I've been learning Spanish for the past couple of years so I can speak to my husband in his first language. He's Puerto Rican and Cuban
  • The next state I want to live in is Texas. But I'd prefer Spain or Italy.
  • I can't stand it when people put stuffed animals in the back of their car windows (or when they have those creepy dream catchers hanging from their rear-view mirror)
  • I don't think boxed wine is that bad :D
  • I've learned not to judge people based on superficial things (well, I try anyway) like what type of music they listen to. Otherwise, I would never have ended up with my wonderful husband who is, old disco and R and B fan.
  • I went to the Trans Am National Convention in Dayton, Ohio four years ago. Not by choice, although there weren't as many mullets as I was expecting.
  • I successfully passed "The Bomb Threat" test at my job. Now I know, that if someone calls in a bomb threat, I don't just throw the phone down and run out of the building screaming. I have to ask questions about the location of the alleged bomb and find out particulars, then warn the others in the office (before I run out screaming)
Now to nominate some bloggers.

How about Danielle over at Danielle in Brazil

Heather over at Heather in Europe

Chantal over at One Big Yodel

Isabella over at A Touch of Dutch

Gracey over at A Dash of Life

Kanadisches over at Kanadisches Madchen

Friday, January 15, 2010

Living in Military Housing

People often ask what it's like living in military housing. Since this is my first time, I can't really compare it to anything but I'd like to share my observations. First of all, if you drove through our neighborhood, you'd never know it wasn't anything except a normal-looking subdivision.

About the only clue would be the fact that almost every driveway has a different state's license plates. In our house, we have California, Virginia and Florida. Next-door is another Virginia and then next to that is Georgia. Three houses down is Texas, while across the street we have Utah and Montana. Down the other direction is Oklahoma and Hawaii.

So what's different about military housing?

  • The abundance of moving trucks. Someone is always moving in or moving out so there is usually a different truck here weekly, which leads me to...
  • Getting free stuff from your neighbors who are moving away. The movers won't let you take plants, liquids or food. Out neighbor across the street is moving to Japan on Sunday and so far we've "inherited" all his plants, half-empty bottles of human and dog shampoo, all his cleaning products, an American flag, kitchen curtains, tons of Japanese condiments (his wife is Japanese), half-empty boxes of dog treats, a picture frame, a steak, a 6-pack of Sunny Delight and 2 boxes of Suddenly Salad.
  • The proliference of "Welcome Home Daddy" banners plastered to people's garages.
  • The inordinate (and varied) amount of gossip that goes around. I'm sure this happens in all neighborhoods but when you couple 6 month to a year separations with people being in a strange town away from friends and family, you have a perfect storm for marital hijinks and infidelities. Within the past week, I've learned that our neighbor's husband returned from a 6-month deployment to the Philippines only to tell her he wants a divorce because he met a Filipino girl over there and wants to be with her. Apparently, he's now trying to bring the Filipino girl to the States. Never mind the fact that he has 2 babies and a wife at home who waited for him for half a year. Nice. Then there was the woman who moved her boyfriend into military housing when her husband was deployed for a year. Always classy. She got kicked out though because someone told the housing office that the guy that was always there wasn't her husband.
  • The fact that you're not allowed to do any kind of repair to your house. I mean not even change a light bulb. If one burns out, you have to call the housing office to send a guy to fix it.
  • The fact that some people try to scam the system. To live here, the government just deducts your BAH (Basic Allowance Housing) from your paycheck. This amount is determined by rank. For example, Leo gets a little over $2,000 for housing each month. (Which wouldn't go far out in town in San Diego. This place is hella expensive). This automatically gets paid directly to the housing people. What some people do is to "rent" out parts of their house to single military guys or allow their family members to move in. There is a cap on the number of people who are supposed to live in each house. From what we heard, in our house (which is a 3-bedroom ranch) there were 8-9 Mexican people living here--an extended family with tons of kids and a grandpa living in the garage.
  • Diversity. I think in many ways military neighborhoods are more diverse than the people in a "regular" neighborhood since they are all segregated by income, education and style/location preference. For example, in our neighborhood you have myself--a working wife with 2 Master's degrees who is a vegetarian animal lover who loves to travel, and across the street you have a bow-hunter from Michigan. While some military spouses get up and go to work everyday, others get up and take care of their children all day. Down the block you have people who have McCain/Palin stickers on their cars living next to people with "Make love not war" and "Coexist" bumper stickers. About 1/4 of the marriages are inter-racial. Since it's the Navy, it's usually Asian women marrying American men, but we have Mexicans, Japanese, Filipino, blacks, whites and everything in between living in our neighborhood. I don't think you could say the same about most American neighborhoods.
I'm sure there are more things but that's all I can think of right now. Any thoughts?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

French Wine Country and Randy from Michigan

The day after Christmas, myself and the two Lauras drove from Basel to Colmar, France because the word on the streets was that this was the only Christmas market still open.

What a cute town! I've never seen housing facades like that. They looked like they could almost be candy or gingerbread houses.
The town is called "The Little Venice" because there are canals that run through the downtown area.

Although the town has fallen under both French and German control throughout the decades, it was spared the horrors of not only the French Revolution but also both World Wars, so the center looks how it did back in the day.

Here is us goofing around outside the Christmas Market. If you go, a word to the wise, avoid the main parking lot where everyone and their mother is going, if you circle around there is a, apparently unknown and perfectly legit, Christmas Market parking lot directly opposite and just down the street from the main one.

A typical Christmas Market Stall.
We hung around Colmar for awhile and then decided to press on. (BTW, interesting fact about Colmar which barely rates a mention in town, is that the village is the birthplace of Frederic Bartholdi, sculptor of the Statue of Liberty.)

I only know this because we passed a little sign on the edge of town announcing the fact. I wouldn't even 100% believe it, except Wikipedia confirms it. I am a little surprised the town didn't play up this fact a little more, but they seemed to be doing ok on tourism so maybe they figured why mess with a good thing?

More on Randy from Michigan tomorrow......

I love a good cliffhanger :D

Monday, January 11, 2010

Christmas Eve in Basel, Switzerland!!

First off, I have a correction to make. My Swiss friend Laura pointed out that in Switzerland, Schmutzli, aka scariest guy ever, doesn't come on Christmas Eve as I wrote in an earlier post. He comes on December 6. Christmas Eve is when the Christ Child comes and children get gifts.

Mea culpa.

On Christmas Eve, we walked some more around Basel and I got a great view of Lesser Basel from the overlook of the Basel Munster (cathedral) which sits on the banks of the Rhine River.

Next, I have to admit to some serious childishness.

There are some German words which aren't so nice sounding in English, including the infamous (at least in my mind) Ausfahrt.

In German, this simply means Exit, but in English it sounds like a none too pleasant bodily function.

You can thank a particular episode ("German Week") of the Britcom, "Are You Being Served?" for my particular obsession with Ausfarht and it's elusive cousin, Einfarht.

I'm sorry to say that I spent my entire time in Switzerland and Germany trying to find and photograph as many Ausfarht signs as I could. Here are two of my first.

Then we went to the train station to pick up Belgian Laura and walked over to Lesser Basel to visit the tallest skyscraper in the whole of Switzerland, the Masseturm. On the top floor of its 32 stories is a bar/club called, Bar Rouge. I'm not a big fan of heights, in fact, I'm a total baby but it was so nice to see the city from such a height.

This is the best photo we could manage from Bar Rouge. However, I highly recommend checking out their bathrooms.
Spoiler Alert!

The toilets face out onto the city and there is no protective window covering between you in all your glory and the entire city of Basel, Switzerland.

However, if truth be told, the only way anyone could see you would be if they had a helicopter and were perv enough to hang about outside the bathrooms on the 31st floor!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Schmutzli, the anti-Klaus

Christmas Eve Day in Basel saw us walking around the town center--unfortunately the Christmas Markets had already been dismantled. But there were still plenty of things to see, including the Lällekönig (tongue king), who literally sticks his tongue out at resident of "Lesser Basel" which is on the other side of the Rhine.
The river divides the city into 2 parts, Lesser and Greater Basel.

Be forewarned, this guy is hard to find as he's kind of jammed in an outside
corner of a restaurant along the river.

I also saw the symbol of Basel, the basilisk.

We had hot chocolate at one of the cutest tea shops in the world--
I don't remember the name but it's right in the main square with the Rathaus.

It's above a
chocolate shop and it's exactly how you would think a Swiss coffee shop would be.

It had little old lady waitresses wearing black uniforms and white aprons and the whole place was panelled with really dark wood. Each little individual table is wrought-iron with marble tops. The only thing missing were the cuckoo-clocks.

Everyone says Switzerland is expensive and they aren't kidding. For a hot chocolate and a tea, the bill was 12 Swiss Francs (which is almost a 1 to 1 ratio to US dollars).

However, the waitress did give us two of these free chocolates for Christmas, so I can't complain too much.

I learned how to say Merry Christmas is Swiss German, "Frohi Wiehnacht". I have to admit, I'm still a little confused on Swiss German.

As far as I understand, there is no official written Swiss German but all Swiss people can speak German, although this is a foreign language to them. Also, apparently German people have a hard time understanding Swiss German. And not all Swiss German is the same. In Basel, since it's so close to France you say "Merci" while in Zurich (which is about 1 hour away), you say "Danke" like in Germany. From what I was told, there is a big rivalry between the two cities because of this. Who would have thought?

And they say British and American English is different :D

One really neat thing we did was to visit the monument Dreilandereck which is where the 3 countries converge (Germany, France and Switzerland).

We also drove into Lorrach, Germany, but it was Christmas Eve and nothing was open so I can't say too much about it.

One thing I found so strange about Europe was the proliference of Roasted Chestnut stalls. I've never heard of this (outside of the Christmas carol).

A Spanish guy selling them in downtown Basel let us have a couple to try (again with the free samples--I love it!). I have to admit, they weren't my favorites. I think they're called marones in French and German, but the idea of chestnuts roasting on an open fire is much better in theory than in actual fact. They were huge and kind of chalky with very little real taste.

At the end of the day, we went to my friend Laura's parent's house for dinner. It was so great to see how a real Swiss family celebrates Christmas. First of all, they have the big celebration on Christmas Eve, not on Christmas Day like Americans.

We had a wonderful dinner including this mushroom pastry they made because I'm vegetarian. How nice!

After dinner, everyone opened their
gifts, but unfortunately Schmutzli didn't come by the house. He is Santa's little evil helper, aka the Scariest Thing Ever!

The Swiss Santa Claus is called Samichlaus and he, along with Schmutzli, will come to children's houses on Christmas Eve. They consult a book and if you've been good, Samichlaus will give you an orange or candy.

However, if you've been bad, Schmutzli will stuff you in his sack and take you away to the Black Forest, the whole time beating you with birch twigs!

This actually happened to my friend's 40-year old coworker! Well, he didn't get taken all the way to the Black Forest--the Schmutzli let him out of the sack at the end of his driveway. But still, I can only imagine you'd be scarred for life.

I don't think today's PC world lets Schmutzli get away with those sort of things nowadays.

It makes the American Santa Claus look pretty tame by comparison.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Switzerland Ho!

My final morning in Belgium was spent last-minute packing and then dragging my suitcase through the extremely snowy and icy streets of Brussels, all the while praying the wheels wouldn't fall off my luggage.

Before catching my train to Basel, however, we did manage to squeeze in a few things, including eating a Belgian waffle! The best thing ever!

Unfortunately is wasn't from the guy on the left. He normally parks outside the art museum, but the day we went the buzzard wasn't there!

I had to get my waffle from this place.
It was still delicious, but not so great as getting it from a guy on the side of the road, Philly style.

We also hit some last minute shopping and a quick, but fabulous, trip to the Royal Museum of Fine Art to see the Reubens.

Immediately afterwards, we ran to the train station where I was promptly put on a 6-hour train ride to Basel. I was hoping and praying to get my little nook to myself, but unfortunately a rather unattractive and loud Belgian/French? couple sat in the seats opposite. They kept running out for cigarette breaks at all the stops, swilling beer and basically conversing really, really loudly in French.

Personally, I was most mad because nobody told me you could drink beer on the train! lol. I haven't seen that since the Long Island Railroad. I have to admit I always liked the idea of being able to drink a beer on the train home after a stressful day at work in Manhattan.

Before we leave Brussels, I have to post one more shot. Ok, wait I just realized I fibbed because I found one more. This one is of the King's Palace and if anyone out there can settle a long-standing dispute of whether when they fly the flag it means the King is at home and working or merely just in Belgium, it would be greatly appreciated.

I arrived in Basel about 8 p.m. and my friend Laura and her sister were waiting for me. We dropped my stuff off at Laura's place in Basel Country (which sounds extremely far away but is really just the next "village" over from Basel and took 5 minutes to reach from the downtown train station) and then we went to another Irish bar, Paddy Reilly's for Laura's birthday. It was great, but super packed and, living in California, I had forgotten how many people smoke in bars.

Here is her looking all pretty and me looking all sad sack after a long journey.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Beer, Blizzards and Frites, Part Quatre

On my (almost) last day in Belgium, we decided to take a day-trip to Ghent and Brugges. I specifically wanted to see Ghent for two reasons. The first is that I used to waitress at an Irish bar in a neighborhood of Norfolk, Virginia called Ghent. But more importantly to see this:

This is called (quite unimaginatively, but the name we learned in Art History class, The Ghent Altarpiece) or the older name of The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.

I love art, especially Flemish and Dutch art. In a previous life I applied to grad school to get my Master's Degree in Art History. Luckily for me, Bryn Mawr turned me down since that would have meant I probably would have spent my life locked in a museum and not met my wonderful husband.

But I digress. This altarpiece, by Jan Van Eyck, is one of the world's masterpieces. And let me tell you, it is huge! The amount of detail and realism the early Flemish painters can convey with simple brush strokes is nothing short of amazing. You really see the swirls and the embroidery on the textiles come to life. You can see the sheen on the dewy pearls and feel the breath of life in the shadows of the robes.

Ghent is a beautiful city bisected by two rivers and many canals. Primarily a student city, it didn't feel nearly as touristy as Brugges. I really enjoyed myself here and also got my first (European) taste of frites, which were the most amazing thing ever!

There was a frites shop in Philadelphia when I lived there, but I don't remember it being all that. And as consequently it went out of business, I guess I wasn't the only one.

During the Christmas season, there is a special "shopper's train ticket" to Ghent from Brussels that was, I believe, 9 Euros.

The downtown tourist area is quite a ways from the train station and I'm not sure how I would have done it if I hadn't been with people who knew how and where to take the tram. If you plan a trip to Ghent, be forewarned it's a good 10 minute tram ride at least to downtown.

My friends didn't want to accompany me to Brugges as they said they had been there a million times on school trips and they had things to do, so I carried on alone. In preparation and in the spirit of research for my trip, I had rented the Colin Farrell movie, In Brugges.
I have to admit, I couldn't understand his whining about how much he hated Brugges until I actually got there. What a shame. It seemed to me like a Disney version of what a medieval city is supposed to be like. It is definitely not one of my top pics.

While the architecture is beautiful, it's almost ruined by the blase attitude of the people who work there. I mean, c'mon, I know you work in a tourist city but that doesn't mean you don't have to give a damn.

No one was rude, but it was definitely an assembly-line feel. Kind of like, keep it moving. No matter where you're from--Zimbabwe, Iran, Malawai--it was like "We've seen a million like you and we'll see a million more, so on your bike and good day to you all!"

That didn't stop me from get

ting some great pics though.
There was one thing that saved Brugges in my opinion. I encountered it as I was stumbling back along the cobblestones, trying to find my way back to the train station (BTW, everyone tells you the train lets you off downtown near all the tourist stuff. It doesn't. Rather, prepare to walk a good half-mile as the crow flies or a good mile or two fumbling your way along ancient alleys and churchyards until you randomly come upon the main tourist area. Or conversely, you can try to find your way back to the train station by following a family, loaded with Christmas purchases, for over a mile along the river only to discover they were going to the car park. As I unfortunately did).

The one thing that saved my trip was the Groeningemusem, where I encountered another of the world's great treasures, hidden in this little museum in a back alley. What gives Belgium? Anyway, it was another van Eyck and I won't bore you with the details.

After a rather uneventful train ride back to Brussels, we met up with another former student and friend of mine, Julie. We went to an apparently up and coming neighborhood of Brussels called Place Flagey. We went to an Irish pub with the unlikely named of de Valera's. We originally wanted to go to Michael Collins (which is referenced in the link to de Valera's) but due to scheduling conflicts we couldn't make it). If you go to Place Flagey, just know that there is seriously NO parking in the area.

But it was nice to see another of my students (poor girl, she came to the language school in early June when apparently Spain has its school holidays, so it was her, the 1 Belgium and a class of 7 Spanish people).

This picture was taken by a really drunk guy who fell off the stoop as he was taking our picture and I have no idea who the guy in the background is, but I do know he's friends with the drunk guy.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Beer, Blizzards and Frites, Part Trois

There are 2 tips I wanted to share before I begin: the first is that many places in Belgium don't accept credit cards. This came as quite a shock to me as I had planned to finance my trip that way and I come from the land where you can put a $1.69 coffee from 7-11 on plastic. Who would have thought? Definitely check first at a restaurant before you order.

The second is that (at least for the next month or so) the Brussels subway is free. Technically, it's on the honor system, but almost no one pays. The first time this happened to me was entirely not my fault. I was looking for the ticket taker or a guard, but there was no one anywhere. So I went to the platform figuring you must pay down there. But no. Apparently, whoever was in charge of constructing the subway figured people don't need to be policed and forced into paying. They would just do it of their own free volition. Obviously, this didn't happen. So they are in the process of installing turnstiles, ala NYC, but as of now, it's a free-for-all.

On my 3rd day in Brussels, we went to CarreFour to buy boots (my Belgian friends were surprised to learn they have CarreFours in Brazil. I know this because I bought some chocolate in one and my friend Danielle and I found spiders in one of the chocolate bars. Eww).

My not so sexy, but oh so dry and warm boots.
My friend Delphine and I walked around quite a bit since it wasn't so snowy and we went everywhere. Including the European
Parliament, which truth be told, wasn't all that interesting. Even Delphine, who is majoring in European politics, kept muttering
about how lame it was. There weren't any Parlimentian (is this a word?) members there, and the audio tour spent such an inordinate amount of time waxing poetic about this abstract sculpture in the middle of the foyer, that it made me think they didn't have much else to say about the European Parliament.
Oh, they talked at great length about the architecture of the building too.

One nice thing I noticed about Brussels is that they give you a lot of free samples in an attempt to get you to buy something. But no one is pushy at all if you just want to try the free sample. Here is Delphine as we sampled free, and wonderful, hot chocolate and chocolate samples at a store downtown. I wish I could remember the name of the shop, as they had cool flavors like Japanese Citrus Chocolate, Black Pepper Chocolate and Chili Chocolate, but the store was all done up in pinks and it's down the street from the Royal Art Museum.

We also walked around the main touristy area. But as my local friends told me, don't eat on Butcher Street. This street is almost too cute to be believed, but I have it on good advice that it's completely nasty inside the kitchens of the restaurants (apparently they all connect in one big un-hygenic cellar underneath). The word on the streets is that all the seafood on display is rotten and will give you a nasty case of Montezuma's Revenge (or whatever the Belgian version is!). Also the waiters stand outside and harass you to come in and eat. Which is pretty much what they do in the Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego, so I almost felt at home.

I forgot to mention that the night before we had dinner at Second Element, a Thai restaurant, in the area called Place St. Boniface. This is a non-touristy but "hip" multi-cultural area, however, the thing I liked best was that you could ask for a to-go box/doggie bag and they knew what you were talking about! Apparently this staple of American life is not well
-known in Europe. All I can say is that they are seriously missing out! The doggie bag has been a godsend of breakfast for me for as
long as I can remember (I'm not a huge breakfast food fan). Plus, you end up getting 2 meals for the price of 1!

There is a "Lower Brussels" (which apparently doesn't rate very highly on Trip Advisor as it's number 59 and nobody could even be assed to write a review about it) but I'm not sure why. It's more of a residential and shopping neighborhood but still quite a good place for visitors. I actually prefer this type of neighborhood and it has plenty of great shops, including very nice home design shops and similar mixed in with local corner markets.

As we kept walking around, there were some spectacular views of Brussels from the downtown area, including this look-out point.