Saturday, February 28, 2009

Back home

Just a quick entry to say that I'm back home. Also, it's the last day of February, so I wanted to have one more entry for the month. There's not much to write about today, though. I'm exhausted! Nothing new there. :-)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Mardi gras

Today is Fat Tuesday. Lots of people think of today as a big party. Carnival. Certainly they're having a great time in New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro, but also other places, too. 

Sophie says that back in the old days, people here in Belgium had to clean out their pantries and get rid of all the food in order to prepare for the Lenten season fast. Well, you can't just throw all that food away, right? Or all that good Belgian beer? That's how the whole party thing started. It wasn't all done on Tuesday, though. It could have been on a Monday (Lundi gras), for example.

There are carnivals going on in Belgium, such as the one in Binche. But for me, this is just an ordinary working day. We worked in the Brussels office again and I'm laughing when I come out of the office building and see all the tourists standing there looking at Manneken Pis.  That's an indication that I'm no longer a tourist, but not quite a local. I don't think the locals even notice the tourists anymore. :-)

On the way to the office this morning, we drove past the royal palace. It's HUGE! Belgium is a constitutional monarchy with a King - Albert II. Next in line to the throne is his oldest son Philippe. After Philippe, Belgium could possibly have its first Queen because the rules have changed recently and Philippe's oldest child is a girl, Elisabeth, born in 2001.

This will probably be my last post from Belgium. Although I won't be home for a few more days,  I need to start packing and planning my exit strategy. There are lots of things I'll miss about Belgium: Sophie and her family, waffles, the boulangerie by the river, pain au chocolat, Speculoos, and the beautiful old buildings. There are things I won't miss, like roundabouts, narrow streets, and the rainy weather. I'd like to come back again for a vacation - when the weather is warmer - to revisit some of the places like Brugge/Bruges and also see some new places like Antwerp and Gent.

Let the good times roll!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

In Brugge

Have you ever been someplace and had this strange feeling that you've been there before? But you know you haven't? At least not in this life?

I've felt that way about a couple of places: western Colorado; Bridgetown, Barbados; Antrim, Northern Ireland; London and Vienna. Now I can add a city in Belgium to that list. Today I took a road trip to the Flemish city of Brugge (Bruges if you're a French-speaker). Brugge has been around for nearly one thousand years and had its heyday during the Middle Ages. There's so much history here, I can't even begin to fathom it all, let alone describe it. Let's just say that yesterday's Brugge was on par with Venice (in fact, it's often called the "Venice of the North"). As THE center of industry and culture, Brugge would have been a lot like today's New York, London, or Hong Kong.

A series of rather strange events involving (among other things) a duchess who died from falling off a horse . . . and her government representative husband, Maximilian, who was imprisoned for 100 days in Brugge because the people were angry with him because they felt their taxes were too high . . . led to the city's downfall. Maximilian, who eventually became Emperor Maximilian I of the Habsburgs, basically shut Brugge down as punishment by sending all the industry and finance to the nearby city of Gent. Lesson: never, ever piss off the man who may become your ruler.

Somehow, the city center has pretty much stayed the same all these years. Being a UNESCO site should ensure its preservation. The incredible Grote Markt (big market square - in today's photo) is simply immaculate. Most of these buildings are from the 17th or 18th centuries. But walk a couple of blocks in any direction, and you'll see buildings dating to the 13th and 14th centuries, such as the belfry, which contains a carillon of 47 bells (yes, I heard them! Way cool!) and the Church of Our Lady, which has the second tallest brickwork tower in the world. There's also Sint-Salvatorskathedraal - The Holy Savior Cathedral. I didn't have time to go inside, but would definitely put it on my list for next time. 

Speaking of churches, Brugge was the home of a Beguine Convent, which provided a place for older unmarried or widowed women to live and work during the Middle Ages. They weren't nuns exactly (they didn't have to take all of the vows), but they pretty much lived as nuns. Ladies, that might not sound appealing but consider the alternatives for an older woman living alone back then! - there weren't many. Not far from the convent is a building where, according to a plaque out front, Tudor philosopher and Catholic martyr Sir Thomas More stayed numerous times in the early 16th century. 

Canals flow through the city - I was reminded more of Amsterdam than Venice - there were some brave people taking boat tours (it was way too cold for that, in my opinion!) Meanwhile, the quieter canal areas were visited by beautiful white swans (the symbol of the city), tourists from around the world, and lovers of all ages strolling hand in hand. 

We had a nice lunch. I went local and got the steamed mussels with fried potatoes. I'm not big on mussels but these were nice and dry, and reminded me a little of South Carolina oysters - without the tang. Later, we bought beignets from a street vendor. These aren't exactly like the ones in New Orleans, but the premise is the same: deep fried dough covered with powdered sugar. I will repent from my evil eating ways when I return home later this week. 

We also browsed through a lace store. Belgium has long been known for its lace and I was delighted to see some actual samples of real, handmade Belgian lace. It's also quite expensive, but considering how long it takes to make something of that quality by hand, it should be!

Anyway, I'm so glad I went. Many thanks to Sophie for taking me there on her day off! Yet, like I said, I felt like I'd been there before. Hmm. Maybe I was one of the Beguine nuns? Ya never know.

I really want to see the movie "In Bruges" now.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Market day



Last Saturday I slept really late and when I finally got up and ventured out, it was so late in the day that I didn't get an authentic "Saturday in Namur" experience. So this morning I made myself get up and get dressed, and I went for a really long walk. I walked into the great beyond, past my previous boundaries, well into the old part of the city, where the streets are too narrow for modern cars. I came across an outdoor market where I think you could buy just about anything you might want, from clothing to fruit, from fresh flowers to fabric and wallpaper.

And IT'S NOT RAINING today! Which was a very nice bonus to my walk.

At the market, I met a friendly young Belgian man who sought my advice on which type of lettuce he should buy. Upon hearing my plea of parlez-vous Anglais? he switched to perfect English and we had a pleasant conversation. He planned to make lunch for his girlfriend - a surprise, I think - anyway, he was proud of himself in a sweet kind of way. He asked me where I was from, and when I told him the USA he wanted to know what city. "Indianapolis," I answered, and he grinned: "Cars! . . . car racing!" which, of course, made me smile. The second thing he asked me was what I thought of President Obama, and he said that people here are very happy with our new President. Just so you'll know, these are typically the two questions I'm asked most (where I'm from and my thoughts on President Obama) - regardless of where in the world I go.

I bought some Speculoos at the grocery store . . . not the cookies but the spread (they call it "pasta" here - I suppose pasta is paste). This is something that is unique to northern France and Belgium (and the Netherlands, where it's called speculaas). IT'S REALLY YUMMY!!! It comes in a jar like peanut butter (or Nutella) and you put it on bread or whatever. OMG! I'm going to have to see if I can bring several jars home.

Coffee has been a problem here - there are no coffee shops!!! - and I can't help but think that a cup of coffee (better yet, a toffee nut latte from Starbucks) would go really well with the speculoos. I'll keep dreaming for now. 

Tomorrow I may be taking a road trip! Come back and see . . .  

Friday, February 20, 2009

On the radio

I've been listening to the radio in the car quite a bit on the drive to and from work each day here in Belgium, and some of the songs are starting to get into my head and stay there. My current favorite is "Beggin'" by Madcon. It's a hip-hop take on an old song by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (before my time!) I love Medcon's version.

Other songs and artists I'm hearing quite a bit are:
  • "Womanizer" by Britney Spears (I've heard this more over here than I heard it in the US)
  • "Lollipop" by MIKA
  • "Takin' Back My Love" by Enrique Iglesias & Ciara
  • "Maybe Tomorrow" by Stereophonics
  • "Broken Strings" by James Morrison & Nelly Furtado
  • "Poker Face" by Lady Gaga
  • "Sky and Sand" by Paul Kalkbrenner
  • Various songs by Lily Allen
I totally dig the variety of music on the radio here. You might hear a dance song, then a techno song, then something local like French pop. After that, a great song from the 1970s. Then something totally new. Gotta love it.

Smile everyone, the weekend is here! :-)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

La Citadelle

La Citadelle de Namur . . . the Namur Citadel . . . is an impressive and very old structure that sits at the top of the hill overlooking the point where the Sambre and Meuse rivers converge. This view is from the Sambre riverbank, near my hotel. Le Citadelle was built during Roman times  and held an "authentic, buried military base" (to borrow words from the city guide provided by my hotel) deep inside its bowels from the 14th century all the way to the 20th century. It's been either too cold or wet for me to get a closer look, but hopefully I'll have the opportunity before I leave here.

This is not a big news day, so this entry will be short. Probably the highlight of the day was having some real Belgian fast food for lunch. Sophie took me to a little place along the Meuse river - very small, sort of reminded me of Pauline's BBQ back home (in North Carolina). Here you choose between several types of meats and some pomme frites, which were made to order and wrapped up in paper shaped like a cone. OMG. I really enjoyed my lunch! (I shall return to my semi-vegetarian diet when I get home. But until then, well, what is that saying about when in Rome? I'm not in Rome, but you get the point!)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Spread the love



My first experience with Belgian cuisine wasn't with delicious Belgian waffles or chocolate (or Brussels sprouts or Belgian endive, ha ha), it was with the uniquely Belgian delicacy known as the sandwich spread. I walked into a sandwich shop, and instead of seeing trays of sliced ham, turkey, chicken, roast beef, and cheeses, I saw containers filled with orange, yellow, and pinkish substance that looked a lot like tuna or chicken salad, but gooier.

Fortunately for the reputation of this fine Belgian delicacy, the sandwich spread tastes a lot better than it looks. Apparently, the secret's in the sauce . . . er, mayonnaise.

I'm told that Belgians love mayonnaise. It's their favorite condiment. They eat it with their fried potatoes like Americans do with ketchup (by the way, they're BELGIAN Fries, not French Fries, because they were invented here in Belgium: They call 'em pommes frites here.) Anyway, mayonnaise is the key ingredient in these spreads. Take some mayonnaise, add some other stuff (chicken, fish, spices, used car, whatever), and blend it all together in a food processor, and . . . voila! The famous Belgian sandwich spread.

There are probably a hundred different types of sandwich spreads, but here are the ones I've tried so far:
  • Pita pikant (I have no idea exactly what this is, but it's tasty)
  • Thun pikant (spicy tuna)
  • Mexikanische kip (Mexican chicken, with corn and tomatoes)
  • Curry kip (curry chicken)
  • Kip naturelle (plain chicken - after eating all the spicy spreads, I didn't like this one too much)
You don't have to go to a sandwich shop to get the goods. You can get everything you need from your local market! The photo above shows the variety to be found at the market down the street from my hotel.

To make a sandwich with Belgian spread, just slice a nice piece of baguette and "spread the spread" in the same manner as you would for, say, peanut butter. Or Nutella. Then, if you'd like some vegetables, you may choose from the following: sliced dill pickles, pearl onions, and/or shredded carrots. (Sorry, no lettuce or tomato.) Gently place the veggies on top of the spread, close the bread, and . . . voila!

I'm sure by now you're convinced enough to make your own Belgian spread sandwiches. Bon appetit! :-)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

If it's Tuesday . . .

. . . then it must be Belgium. My short trip to Vienna ended late yesterday afternoon and I flew to Brussels in the dark. Of course, everything's an adventure with me, so even something as simple as locating my rental car in the airport parking garage has a story. Fortunately for you, My Dear Reader, I won't waste blog space on that one. :-)

I did promise a Vienna update, so here it is. It's cold and snowy there. LOTS colder than in Belgium. On Sunday: I took the S-bahn from the airport to Rennweg, then made my way to my hotel after stopping to buy a falafel sandwich from a street vendor. My hotel was only a couple of blocks from Rennweg, and I knew exactly where it was so I just walked in the blowing snow. After I checked in, I ate my yummy Turkish delight of a sandwich, then went back outside and started walking toward the city, past the Salm Brau (one of my favorite restaurants), embassy row, and the Polish church. I knew exactly where I was going.

This is the thing about Vienna: it feels like home to me. I cannot explain it. It just is. Sometimes when I'm not there and I think about it, or when I talk about it with other people, I get tears in my eyes. I'm not the type of girl who cries. Yet it evokes such emotion in me. So going back there - even such a short visit - was like going home. 

But it's winter, and having never experienced winter in Vienna, I was quite surprised just how bloody cold it was. Gone are all the outdoor tables and chairs that are full of happy people in summer. The Russian Monument is covered with some sort of "padding" not just around the fountain but also part of the statue. Unfortunately I didn't have time to go much further than the Ring - I did meet some friends for coffee at Cafe Schwarzenberg, but then headed back into the Third District for my remaining time there. 

Salm Brau . . . I ordered schweinschnitzel (like Wienerschnitzel, but made with pork instead of veal) and apfelsaft gespritze. I found that my German (what little I can speak) came back very easily, and was quite pleased with myself to be able to refuse the English language menu offered by the waiter - LOL. :-)  I really do think that if I ever formally study another language, it will be German, and I don't care what anyone says about the practicality of it.

The hotel was awesome . . . I had that wonderful view of The Belvedere, and it all seemed so luxurious. But I wasn't there all that long. I had an early breakfast meeting at the office, and was in back-to-back meetings all day up until the minute the taxi came to get me to whisk me away to the airport. 

Even my time at the airport was short. Too short. I want to go back. I love Vienna. Ich liebe Wien. Sniff, sniff!

But I'm back in Belgium now, which has its own charms . . . one of them is the rain, which I'm getting used to. Oh, there's also this thing called the sandwich spread . . . very Belgian . . . I will write more about it next time!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Return to Wien



Greetings from Vienna, where I have an unobstructed view of the Belvedere from my hotel room!  I arrived here this afternoon, and already I've done a few of my favorite Wienerthings: had a falafel sandwich from a street vendor; spent time with dear friends "E" and "B"; consumed not one but two Schwarzenberg cappucinos from my favorite coffee house; and enjoyed a fine schnitzel dinner from one of my favorite restaurants. I'm delighted to be here, even if it will be a short visit! :-)

I have to get up early tomorrow so this is shorter than usual. I'll write more and give a "Vienna update" when I get back to Belgium tomorrow night. Tchuss!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Hotel of the leather workers



Not that long ago in the grand scheme of things, nearly every European town of any size had a tannery section. This is where animal skins were put through a process (involving lots of urine and animal waste, among other things) to keep them from rotting and turn them into leather. This part of town was stinky and undesirable, and the people who worked and lived here were among the town's poorest and least healthy.

I'm staying at a hotel whose name loosely translates as "The Tanner's Hotel" - which makes me wonder if this was once that part of town. If so, then the years have been kind to the neighborhood. The hotel - really more like a quaint inn - is actually quite charming. I'm staying in the smallest, cheapest room, but I don't really mind that because the bed is amazingly comfortable (almost as comfortable as home) and I don't need much space, anyway. As long as I have my own bathroom and an internet connection, I'm fine! But I do think the hotel deserves its own blog entry, so I thought I'd write a little about my room and my experience here so far.

I arrived around noon on Tuesday, as you know after quite a long and convoluted trip to get here. But when I arrived, I was told that check-in isn't until 2PM, and my room wasn't ready so I would have to wait. C'est la vie. When I was finally allowed to check in a few hours later, the desk clerk handed me the key and said, nonchalantly: "The room is on the first floor. Just go around the corner and up the stairs, and you will find it."

I set off in the direction she indicated, thinking that there would be only a few stairs since my room was on the first floor. Sure enough, there were three stairs. Piece of cake, I thought. But then I saw a sign indicating that to get to my room (and two others), I'd have to walk through a door. Surely my room would be through the door, right? Um, non. Beyond the door was a set of ankle-twisting, uneven marble stairs. I climbed them, sensing victory ahead. But at the top of these stairs was another sign pointing to another door, and beyond that another set of stairs. In all, you have to climb 28 rather tricky stairs to reach my first floor room.

About the room. When you first walk in, well, the natural response is . . . to giggle. The room is long and narrow and not at all a rectangle, but more like a skinny quadrilateral. The widest part is by the entrance, and the most narrow part is at the other end, by the window. Let me tell you how narrow the narrow end is. If I were to lie down on the floor, I would not be able to lie flat without hitting the walls at my head and feet: the most narrow end is only about five feet across. The widest end? Maybe eight feet.

The walls are exposed brick and mortar, criss-crossed by timber beams. It's not unattractive or anything, but gives me the feeling of being . . . in a stable. The room is designed in a clever way, so all the usual amenities are here. It took me a few days to get used to the layout, but I'm used to it now.

That first night as I lay down to go to sleep, I happened to look up at the very high ceiling (LOL, actually if you turned the room on its side, it would be a lot bigger!) and noticed that a gigantic wooden beam braces the ceiling, just above my head. Meaning: if there's an earthquake in the middle of the night, that thing is going to totally squish me. I considered sleeping with my head at the foot of the bed, so that if by chance the thing fell it would hit my legs and not my head. That's kind of a weird last thought before falling to sleep, isn't it? I don't think Belgium is known for seismic activity, so I'll probably be just fine.

So my room is "different" . . . hey, variety is the spice of life. There's supposed to be an AMAZING restaurant downstairs . . . very fancy, awesome chef, people come from miles around . . . but I haven't been yet. I will eventually, and when I do I'll blog about it.

Oh, guess what? THE SUN IS SHINING IN BELGIUM TODAY!!! At least it is right now. :-) So despite my stuffy head/cold, I might just have to get out there and try to take some pictures or something. We'll see. 

Friday, February 13, 2009

Brussels/Brussel/Bruxelles



Day 4 in Belgium . . . got up way before the crack of dawn in order to avoid the traffic on the drive up to the office in Brussels. Actually, we went to Brussel (Flemish name) or Bruxelles (French name) - sounds like BRUCE-ul, no "s" sound on the end. The office is very close to what might be called the tourist district and is just feet away (literally) from Manneken Pis, one of the city's most famous landmarks. I took some photos of the little fellow, but it was another grey rainy day here, so they didn't turn out that well. He's a lot smaller than I expected, and no, he wasn't dressed for Valentine's Day. I was quite amused at the number of tourists lurking around during the lunch hour. OK, so I was one of them.

Instead, I'm sharing a photo of real Belgian waffles. Don't they look yummy? There's a waffle store just down the street from the office (along with several chocolate stores, including a Neuhaus store in case QT is reading this!) But no, I did not partake of waffles today. We went to lunch at a crệperie on Rue du Midi, a couple of blocks in the other direction, beyond the lovely Grote Markt (sort of like a pedestrian town square, with a serious Medieval look and feel to it.) I had a wonderful vegetarian crệpe with tomatoes, parsley, and cheese filling.

Enough about food. Let's talk about the weather! Could it be any gloomier? I think not! I've only seen the sun for about two hours since I've been here. Everyone is walking around sniffing and sneezing and coughing . . . including me. During lunch break, I went to a pharmacie in search of some relief. You can't just buy over-the-counter medication here like you do back home at any given drug store or supermarket. Here, you go to the pharmacy, talk to the pharmacist, tell them what's ailing you. Then they go in the back and pick out a few items that will meet your needs. I got some sinus tablets, some sort throat spray, and some effervescent vitamins (the latter after showing her my almost-empty tube of Airborne and asking if she had anything like it). My total was about €25 - more expensive than I expected. But I'd pay pretty much anything to avoid another Lisbon incident like I experienced last year!

Good thing it's Friday, and I can rest tomorrow. I'm exhausted! Not sure exactly what I'm doing, but it will certainly be low-key. Come back tomorrow, and read all about the Hotel of the Leather Workers. Is that a teaser or what?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Namur and new friends



Day 3 in Belgium, and highlights of today included driving to Sophie's house all by myself, uphill, in the snow; successfully navigating my way through eight (count 'em, eight) roundabouts; and experiencing my first authentic Belgian waffle. I've also discovered Cote d'Or praline blanc, and I will never be the same again!

As you can see, I also managed to snap some photos before it got too dark . . . this is Vieux Namur or "old city" Namur, not far from my hotel. Yes, the sidewalks really are made of cobblestones, and you have to really pay attention to where you step unless you want to twist something. 

Namur, known as the Gateway to the Belgian Ardennes, is a city of about 100,000 people that is situated on the confluence of two rivers, the Meuse and the Sambre. It started as a Celtic trading settlement, was conquered by the Romans, and ruled by the Merovingians. (A Merovingian castle sits high up on the hill overlooking the point where the two rivers meet.) It's been part of the Spanish Netherlands, France, and the Habsburg empire, and was on the front in the two World Wars. So this is a hardy place, with battle scars, yet there is something very vibrant about it. I'm looking forward to learning more about the city's history over the next couple of weeks. 

Now I want to write about some of my new friends. After work yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting Sophie's kids, and they are adorable!  The children don't speak English, and I don't speak much French or Flemish, but we managed to communicate just fine. Her son (age 6) was especially excited about meeting an American woman, so hopefully I represented my country well. We liked each other immediately. I had only known him for about 20 minutes when he took me by the hand and led me to the children's playroom, where he got out a chalkboard easel and some chalk, and proceeded to teach me some French. It was so cute. First, he taught me the French alphabet. Then we got into some vocabulary. He even had me sound out the words: puh-oh-um-um-uh = pomme (apple). Thankfully, we didn't get into verb conjugation, although he could probably teach me that as well as anyone else could.

His four-year-old sister is quite the charmer, as well. I have two new friends now, and it didn't seem to matter at all that we couldn't understand each other. In a way, it made me think that us grown-ups talk way too much. Maybe if we'd all just shut up and listen, smile a lot, and pay attention to each other with our eyes and gestures, we'd all get along a lot better. And fix the economy, too. 

It's evening now, and I'm sitting here drinking Fanta Orange (which tastes way better in Europe than it does in North America, for some reason) and watching CNN International. I need to get some rest because we're getting up early tomorrow (5:30AM!!!) in order to drive to the office in Brussels. Tomorrow will be my first time in the city of Brussels. So come back again and read all about it!


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Roundabouts and one way streets

Day 2 in Belgium and I have yet to take any photos. Sorry. There's lots to take pictures of, but the weather + my work schedule are not being cooperative. Maybe this weekend I'll get out and be a tourist for a few hours.

OK, in yesterday's entry, I promised to write about my experience driving here. Those of you who have flown across continents are aware of this little thing called jet lag. I'm fortunate that I don't get it nearly as bad as some people. But picture this: upon my arrival in Brussels yesterday, I had to rent a car, navigate myself to the city of Namur (about an hour from the airport), and find my hotel, which happens to be in the Namur city center. I'm happy to report that I did two of these three things all on my own with no assistance whatsoever . . . and in a country where, depending on where you are, the language is either Flemish (Dutch) or French, neither of which I have any sort of grasp. And no, I did not have a GPS. [Editorial comment: GPS is for wussies! With one exception, noted below.]

The one thing I was unable to do was find my friggin hotel. It should have been easy enough: there were signs everywhere pointing to it. I'd follow the signs, but instead of finding my hotel, I'd find myself driving down a one-way cobblestone street so narrow, I felt like I needed to coat the car in petroleum jelly. Once, I went the wrong way, and had to back out. (Thankfully that was after I figured out the Reverse gear. See below.) Suddenly the street would end on a boulevard, which would feed into a roundabout. Those of you who live in Indianapolis are keenly aware of the roundabout controversy in Carmel? Well, in theory, a roundabout actually works quite well, as it doesn't slow down traffic the way a four-way stop does. I said in theory. I should have put a bumper sticker on my car that said STUPID AMERICAN DRIVER WHO IS NOT USED TO ROUNDABOUTS, PLEASE DON'T BLOW YOUR HORN AT ME. But, I don't know how to write that in Flemish or French.

Oh. About the Reverse gear. So I pulled the car over in order to check the directions to the hotel. My car, a really cool Volkswagen Golf, has a manual transmission (which is what I drive at home) - no big deal, right? Only when I was ready to drive away, I needed to back up a bit to gain some clearance between my car and the car parked in the space ahead of me, and I couldn't figure out how to get the Reverse gear to work. I studied the diagram on the gear stick, and the only thing different from my Toyota back home was that Reverse was on the left instead of the right. But it would not work! So I had to call Sophie (my coworker who lives here) to tell her that I was in trouble. Fortunately, she asked what type of car I was driving, and suggested that I give the gear stick a little push when trying to shift. Of course, when I did this (clutch, push, shift), Reverse kicked in and all was well . . . except maybe my pride. :-)

Thank God for Sophie, because when I called her the next time (some 10 minutes later) to report that I could not find the hotel, she came to my rescue and led me through those narrow cobblestone streets to my destination. [Editorial comment: OK, in this case GPS was not for wussies, because it's how she found the hotel. So, perhaps I am somewhat vindicated. This place is hidden.]

By the time I checked into the hotel, had lunch, and got my internet connection going, the jet lag had set in. I slept just over 12 hours last night, but when I woke up this morning I was on Belgium time and feeling pretty good. 

I've got a city map now, and I know how to get to the places I need to go. By the way, "map" in French is "plan." Therefore, you could say that I now have a plan. Look out, Belgian roundabouts! Here I come! 

Next entry--> My encounter with some really cool Belgian kids. Come back again tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Channel 9

Greetings from my small but practical hotel room in Namur, Belgium, which will be my camp for the next couple of weeks. I arrived this morning. but have already had enough noteworthy adventures to provide material for several blog entries. Today, I will write about the flight over, and my newfound fascination with Airline Pilots and Air Traffic Controllers. I will start with a disclaimer that I'm not an expert on either, and it's quite possible that some of the conversations I transcribe below did not actually happen, since for at least part of the time, I was trying to sleep.

I flew United over here, so I was able to eavesdrop on their conversations on Channel 9 (not all United flights do this - it's at the discretion of the Captain). I'm not sure how they understand each other. Do they take listening classes in school? Understanding Accents 101? Some Air Traffic Controllers sound like auctioneers. And some Pilots sound like they're not quite awake. (This can also be vice-versa.) BTW, I love how some Pilots overuse "Uuuhhhh" - even when they're talking to the passengers and crew (as in: Uuuhhhh, flight attendants, uuuhhhh, please prepare for, uuuhhhh, takeoff.)

Air Traffic Controller: (something undecipherable) Boston, United 950, contact Moncton on 202.25. 

Airline Pilot: Uuuhhhh, United 950 contacting Moncton on, uuuhhhh, 202.25. Uuuhhhh, see ya Boston. [Insert radio frequency static sounds here.] Uuuhhhh, United 950, heavy, 330, contacting Moncton. 

Listening to Channel 9 comforts me. I hear the ATC say something like: United 950, bear left six-decimal-fourteen degrees, and reduce speed to 7.5 mach. Suddenly, the plane turns and slows down. Wow! Now I know why! Because someone on the ground told us to! Someone down there is watching us up here and everything is going to be just fine!

The ATCs are monitoring several flights at once, so you often hear similar talk with other Pilots up there. It was like listening to a panel of international voices, some with pretty cool nicknames like "Shamrock" (Aer Lingus) and "Speedbird" (British Airways). There was even a "Virgin" - which I thought was kind of funny. 

Sometimes a plane would be just out of the ATC's radio range, so he or she would ask one of the Pilots to deliver the message, which was also cool to hear: ATC: Moncton to United 950, can you talk to Shamrock up ahead and ask about the chop? The further we flew from the mainland, the quieter it got. After Moncton was Gander. Then I fell asleep and didn't hear anything else until we were flying over the Isle of Man and talking to London. 

I'm so easily entertained. 

My next entry will discuss my adventures driving in Belgium. Notes to self: remember comparison to the roundabout scene in the European Vacation movie. And don't forget the Reverse gear incident. Also a comment or two on the sadness of being on a diet in a country where excellent chocolate is everywhere: they don't call it Belg-yum for nothin'.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Blue toothpaste

I have had it with blue toothpaste. Toothpaste should not be blue, or any other color that stains your white marble sink! Why would anyone want to use blue toothpaste, anyway? Seems logical to me that if it would stain your sink, it would stain your teeth! 

I've tried all kinds of toothpaste in my lifetime:
  • Plain old generic white "paste" toothpaste
  • Light blue and light green "paste" 
  • Plain old baking soda
  • A weird liquid toothpaste - not paste and not gel - that came from a squirt bottle
  • A certain brand of toothpaste that is very popular overseas, but hasn't really been popular in the States since maybe 1971
  • A red gel toothpaste that tastes cinnamony
  • Striped toothpaste
  • A really nasty sparkly toothpaste that my nephew used when he was, like, five years old
  • Orange-flavored toothpaste
  • Natural herbal toothpaste
  • A clear gel toothpaste with tea tree oil 
  • And of course, the infamous blue gel.
I have not yet tried (nor do I plan to try) my dogs' chicken flavored toothpaste, but honestly, I think that would be better than the blue gel.

I've decided that the best toothpaste for me is plain old Tom's of Maine white toothpaste. It tastes good enough and it does the job, without requiring me to use other chemicals or other hazardous materials to clean up after brushing my teeth. I prefer the spearmint flavor. 

Yes, it is kind of a slow week. :-)

Monday, February 2, 2009

The weather prophets

Every morning of February 2 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania and a few other places in the United States and Canada, a groundhog emerges from its underground burrow and takes a look around. What happens next is the subject of much North American folklore but is based on old European traditions: If the weather is cloudy, the groundhog "doesn't see his shadow." This supposedly means that winter will soon be over. But if the weather is sunny and the groundhog is able to see its shadow, it goes back underground. This is an indication that there will be six more weeks of winter. 

It was sunny this morning in Punxsutawney, so "Punxsutawney Phil" - perhaps the most famous of the groundhogs - didn't see his shadow. It was also sunny in the Indianapolis area. We don't have our own groundhog, so we look to "Woodstock Willie" (from Woodstock, Illinois).  He didn't see his shadow, either. Even my home state, North Carolina, will also have six more weeks of winter according to Raleigh-based "Sir Walter Wally."

But the odds may be against the little marmots. According to Wikipedia, a study by the National Climatic Data Center (USA) found that the little weather prophets were only correct 39% of the time. 

So even though the news was disappointing for those of us who are pretty much sick of the cold by now, at least we know the predictions aren't science. We'll just have to wait and see what happens!