Saturday, April 16, 2016

Brussels: it's not so bad

Obviously, the terror attacks were awful, and I don't want to minimise the pain and suffering of anyone who went through them, particularly those directly affected. They have certainly disrupted everyday life even for those of us lucky enough not to be personally involved - the metro and bus/tram network has only just opened fully up again this last week (other than Maelbeek station), and it has become not all that unusual to hear of roads blocked off and areas "locked down" due to police activity. One night a couple of weeks ago, there were three or four police cars parked outside our apartment, doing some sort of search of the houses opposite us. There seemed to be far too much chatting and eating of chips for it to be a terror raid, but it came just a few days after they shot a guy where I often take the tram (I've never heard what came of that?) so we were a bit on edge seeing so many cops right outside.

But life goes on, and as far as I can tell, other than for those whose lives were tragically cut short or forever changed by the attacks, it's back to normal for most people. It's really not possible to go on every day worrying about something which, in reality, is very unlikely to affect you anyway. No offence to anyone, but the sentiment that we've got to keep on as usual "or the terrorists win" makes me roll my eyes a little. I take a more pragmatic view of the situation: there's really not much of an alternative to carrying on as usual, because what else are you going to do?

It helps that spring is busy springing, the birds are singing in annoying fashion outside my window early in the morning, the sun has been shining most days, except today since it's a Saturday and that would be too convenient, and life in Brussels is really not as bad as sensationalist headlines would have you believe. Last weekend, we discovered a whole new (to us) area of Brussels, which I'm kicking myself at never having visited before. The Marolles district is surrounded by areas we have visited plenty of times, like Sablon, Louise, and the Mont des Arts, yet for some reason we had never strayed in to it before. But, googling good places in Brussels to go antiquing, we came across it. It was described as full of antique shops, in the process of gentrification, and less chichi (and expensive) than the neighbouring Sablon area. This pretty much nails it, and it turns out to be a really cool place to browse through antique and design shops, visit a huge flea market on the Place de Jeu de Balle, and visit a café or two.
The creatively named Chapel Church, on the edge of the Marolles

Inside one of the area's huge antiques shops

A beautiful shopfront 


One of the more interesting items for sale

Me and a sculpture of Brueghel, who apparently lived/worked around here in the Middle Ages

Sadly, our budget didn't stretch to any new acquisitions (half the time was spent going, *how* much?!?, half reflecting that you can actually pick up a lot of chunky old antique furniture for about the same price as something from IKEA, but that's because it's dated and impractical), other than a new handbag for me. But I think we will definitely be back. It's a fun part of town with a great vibe, and when the weather gets warmer there are plenty of nice cafés on the main square where you could sit quite happily and watch the world go by. We felt kind of dumb not having been there before, but that means we had the fun of discovery, so it evens out.

Our other "discovery" was actually somewhere we'd known about for a long time, but never been to. There's a Friday night food market in the neighbourhood that we've talked about going to for ages, but when Jules was living in Luxembourg, he wouldn't get here until around 9pm, and then he moved here right at the start of winter last year, so we were not so motivated to be out hitting the open-air market. But last night, we finally went, on a sunny spring evening, and found a place with a really nice atmosphere: a mix of young families using the playground facilities and young professionals unwinding after work. There's a great selection of food from around the world (we shared a Cornish pasty and dim sum), and you can grab a wine or beer and stand around drinking it, which would probably be banned back home. 


Other than that, I am in an organisado (organisation tornado) because we will be moving house next month. We gave our notice before going to New Zealand, which was a bit scary, but we were pretty confident of finding something new. In the end, we're moving only one street away, into a duplex apartment which is more than three times the size of the present place. Particularly looking forward to not having a freakishly clodhopping toddler running around on our ceiling (we will have the top two floors), having a full-sized refrigerator instead of the tiny one we have now, and having a south-facing terrace. Exciting! It's maybe not quite as elegant as my current place, but the rent is not so much more expensive (and less between two than I used to pay by myself, of course), that we can sacrifice a wee bit of style for much more space. Farewell, old flat!

One last (?) photo from here. A souvenir from NZ - vase with stylised pohutakawa flowers

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Haere ra, Aotearoa

Greetings! At time of writing, I've been back in Belgium for a few days, not back at work yet. It was my aim to finish my NZ blogs before going back to work, because I know myself and my lack of motivation that will kick in the longer I leave it.

EDIT: Since time of writing, I went back to work, then the bastards blew things up, then a jittery few days of arrests and searches in various familiar and not-so-familiar parts of Brussels, then Easter.

We arrived back in Brussels on a Thursday at around 7 am, which is a pretty tough time when you're trying to deal with jet lag. This time round, we only stopped for a few hours in Bangkok, a 28 hour 10 minute trip (not counting airport transfers, waiting around etc.) I found the trip to NZ fairly hard, even with the stopover, so I wasn't looking forward to this one. In the end, it wasn't so bad.

From Auckland to Bangkok, the plane was fairy full, and I had a window seat, with Jules in the middle and some dude on the aisle. I was sending probably fairly unsubtle "move" vibes to the guy shortly before and after take-off, to no effect. In the immediate vicinity, I could see at least five rows with only one person in them, so it seemed pretty unfair that we were three in our row.

Shortly after the meal service, the guy on the aisle fell asleep and I needed water and was panicking that we would be trapped in the row like that for the whole flight. After quite a long period of whispered argument as to who was going to wake the guy up, he briefly stirred awake to the sight of us both staring at him and we asked to get out. When I came back from the loo, I asked him if he would prefer taking the window seat. He said it was up to me, so I told him I wasn't going to sleep and didn't want to keep disturbing him if he was going to sleep the whole way. He graciously took the window seat, and then spent the vast majority of the flight awake, so I felt pretty guilty for making him swap (he only got up once one time when we got up as well, whereas I got up like half a dozen times, so it probably was the best arrangement). Much as I like looking out the window and leaning on the window frame (even more crucial on long flights), I think I'll always go aisle from now on. I was seriously feeling panicked by the prospect of being stuck in my seat.

In Bangkok, we were quickly through a bag check and into the airside shopping, where I got an hour-long foot and neck massage (more of a leg and back massage really, not that that's a bad thing). We had already been awake for nearly 24 hours at this stage, so I managed to drift off at one point during the massage, even though most of it was quite painful. Definitely a good way to spend the stopover though, I had started getting some neck and back pain already on the first flight, so I came out of the massage feeling pretty refreshed.

On the second leg, the plane was even more full and we were three in a row again. Thankfully though, the guy next to us spotted a free exit row seat and disappeared, so we got to stretch out a bit. I took a sleeping pill which enabled me to doze on and off for a lot of the flight, so it wasn't too bad. Time just seems to crawl on these long flights, though. I'd look at the time - 5.27 am, look again what felt like 10 minutes later and it would only be 5.30, and you'd just feel like time was standing still.

Here in Brussels, it was cold but sunny. I was very grateful that the apartment was clean and tidy and there were fresh sheets on the bed and the house sitter apparently didn't steal any of our stuff. We had to take the poor cat to the vet for a urinary tract infection, possibly caused by stress :( but at least we had the time to take care of that and he's hopefully fine now (waiting for lab results).

After five weeks off, it's going to be an adjustment going back to work on Monday! We're currently waking up very early (4.30 am yesterday, 5.30 today), so that part at least shouldn't be a problem, but that's obviously balanced out by being tired in the afternoon. At least this first week is a short one followed by a four-day weekend for Easter.

Anyway, back to the last little part of our NZ trip. We drove from Napier to Otorohanga via Taupo for lunch and a stop at the Huka Falls. I didn't remember how impressive they are. They're not a big, high waterfall, but the sheer volume of water passing through is pretty awesome - 220,000 litres per second.

Baby trees!

Turbulent river leading to the falls (The Waikato)

The Huka Falls




video
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We then visited the Otorohanga kiwi house. This was a bit more in line with timid kiwis hiding in the darkness. One actually was down by the front of the glass, but spend most of the time just sitting there sleeping. This is, until the keeper came in to feed it. She explained that she would have to put on rubber wading books and protective pants, because the kiwi was quite territorial and aggressive, and had even injured one of her colleagues. You sort of hear this and think "yeah right", because I've never seen or heard of kiwis being anything but cute and passive. But as soon as she approached the pen, the kiwi became agitated and went from sleeping in the corner to running back and forth the spot where she was climbing over the fence. And then it totally went for her. It was hanging off her crotch by its beak, clawing at her legs, sticking its beak in the turn-ups of her pants, etc. I couldn't find any videos online, so you'll just have to imagine the sight of a mad, fat kiwi hanging off a girl's crotch. Quite amusing.


Jules and a parakeet (kakariki)

I forget what this is, some species of native duck I suppose. A little cutie anyway
A cheeky kea
We spent our last night on the road at Waitomo, to visit the famous glowworm caves. Setting off in the morning, Jules backed into a grass bank and broke the plastic taillight surround off. Poor van, it had one day left till retirement!

The caves are another place I'd been before, but only remembered vaguely. The walk through the caves was nice enough, but the boat trip with the glowworms was average. I say average to mean really a blend of good and bad. The good was the glowworms themselves, they were really pretty and it is a cool feeling to be gliding through the pitch black in silence (apart from a noisy kid) looking up at them. It really does feel like you're looking up at stars in the sky.

The bad is that they make out like you're really voyaging through a glowworm universe or something, when in reality they just turn the boat around a few times in a relatively small space. Photos aren't allowed until the very end, which is allegedly for "safety", but I don't really see how it's safer encouraging people to take a few panicked snaps at the cave entrance. Presumably if you can't take your own photos it's easier to sell you the photoshopped snap of you in front of a glowworm background that they make up. Everyone taking photos all the time would detract from the overall experience, but since you're essentially just going around in circles, it would be better to have the first few turns photo-free and then let people take one on the last circuit. We probably should have taken the rainy-day opportunity to go to the much less famous glowworm caves in Te Anau, instead of what we did do, which was just sitting in the van.

My hurried glowworm snap

Outside the cave
And so, that was pretty much that. We drove back to Auckland, where our time was mostly taken up with house-keeping (packing, cleaning the van, shipping my old books and stuff back to Europe) and winning "New Zealand's biggest pub quiz" (high five?) It was a lot of fun, but it's nice to be home. I hope those of you who don't know a lot about NZ enjoyed exploring the country a bit with us!

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Art Deco adventure

A few days after visiting Christchurch, still struggling with the aftermath of earthquakes of over 5 years ago, we visited Napier, a town with its own unique earthquake experience. The town was destroyed in an earthquake in 1931, and its claim to fame these days is that it was rebuilt mostly in the then-fashionable Art Deco style. Walking around, particularly after visiting Christchurch, I marvelled that so much was built so quickly (mostly in 1932 and 1933, although some major buildings were built later due to money issues), in the middle of the Depression, and that they went to the effort to produce decorative and fashionable buildings.

We took a walking tour in the morning - 1 hour, although I think one of the longer tours would have been better (they run longer tours in the afternoon, but we wanted to get an overview straight away in the morning). One thing I didn't know was that, although the earthquake was obviously very destructive, destroying nearly all the buildings in central Napier and nearby Hastings and taking the lives of 256 people, it also had a fringe benefit. The land was lifted up by about two metres, which caused a lagoon around the city to drain and thus added around 40 km sq. of dry land to the area. Without this, Napier would have had little room to grow and would probably have remained a small town to this day (it currently clocks in at a respectable 61,500 people).

Most of the Art Deco buildings are essentially just square concrete blocks, fancied up with windows and decorative façades. This was a fortuitous mix between the rectilinear Art Deco style with the realisation that many of the ornately-decorated Victorian buildings had been particularly fragile and dangerous during the earthquake. The individual buildings may not compare to the likes of the Empire State building or other well-known Art Deco designs, but Napier has the most concentrated and coherent ensemble of Art Deco architecture in the world.

The ASB bank (I think originally a BNZ bank), one of my favourites for its elegant simplicity
Ceiling of the bank foyer, it is notable for incorporating Maori designs

Inside the bank

Ceiling detail (I can't remember what these are called. Awnings? Porticos?)

Trinity Church, built in 1876, so one of the few city centre buildings that pre-date the earthquake
St Paul's. As far as I can find out, the original was destroyed in a fire in 1929, just about rebuilt, then destroyed in the earthquake. There's a real kick in the pants for you.
How awesome would it be to work here? (You can, if you become a real estate agent. Nothing's perfect.)

Marine Parade. The trees date from before the earthquake - they just hung on and enjoyed the 2-metre ride


The Masonic hotel. The Queen once stayed here

You mostly have to look up to enjoy the Art Deco architecture
The Public Trust building in the neo-classical style, another pre-earthquake survivor

This is hard to see, but I enjoyed the "Self Help Shoppers Fair". I assume it means you can pick out your goods yourself, rather than them being behind a counter, but I like to imagine a more neurotic scene 

The "Six Sisters" on Marine Parade
Street lettuce!

Cutting-edge neon lighting in the theatre, built in 1937


We were in Napier on a Saturday, and as the following day was our 2-year anniversary, we decided to go out for a fancy dinner. We chose Pacifica, a fine-dining restaurant that offers a choice only between two five-course dégustation menus, which change nightly. It describes itself as "Michelin-quality food" but with relaxed service, so we had an enjoyable time critiquing the meal as to whether it really was Michelin quality. (Not that I'm an expert, but it was fun.) We both had the seafood dégustation (you can choose between seafood or meat emphasis, sorry vegetarians), and it was overall good quality, with some courses hitting the spot better than others. The service was attentive, friendly and relaxed, although one of the waitresses did the "squat down beside the table" thing, which personally I don't like. One thing that you definitely can't fault the restaurant on is the price. Jules took the wine-matching option, I didn't because they were all whites and I don't really drink whites. I had two glasses of bubbly, a red and a glass of port (mostly because Jules got a sherry with his dessert and I had wine envy, even though I usually steer clear of dessert wines, digestifs and so on). The bill for two came to $201, which is 121€ at current rates. I also liked that you could watch the chefs at work (although it meant peeping around a woven mat).

Glammed up for the evening. I even blow-dryed my hair, which I never do (can you tell?). (I was amazed by the number of women who seemingly bothered to do this every day in a campsite!)


First course was a John Dory sashimi, our least favourite dish. I suppose good to start low and end high

Corn tortellini. This was my favourite course, mostly because I was unenthused looking at it on the menu and turned out to really love it. 

A yummy crunchy swiss chard chip hiding a mussel and prawn broth (should have photographed it sans chard). This was a mid-field runner for both of us

Sesame-crusted albacore tuna with salt-and-pepper squid. Jules' favourite and my runner-up. I loved the melt-in-your-mouth tuna (having previously never really liked tuna that didn't come out of a can), but the squid was a touch flabby

My final course - I'm usually a dessert girl, but dessert was coffee-themed :( The cheese was nice, but you know, cheese is cheese unless it comes on one of those groaning cheese carts and you can have as much as you like

Jules' dessert - a yummy vanilla ballotine sadly flanked (ruined) by mocha and espresso creams

A slightly tipsy selfie back in the van after dinner

The Masonic sign at night

Marine Parade
Like most of the stops on our trip, I'd never visited Napier before, but had always wanted to. It's a lovely little city to spend a couple of nights and even celebrate a special occasion. I think it's always good to show that there are things to see and do in New Zealand that aren't outdoorsy or beachy-type things (as fun and amazing as those may be).

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Whale or log?

After Christchurch, our last stop on the South Island was Kaikoura, a town which is practically synonymous with whale watching. Just offshore is a deep marine canyon, fed by two ocean currents, which provide the environment and nutrients to support an abundance of marine life, including whales.

I had kind of the wrong idea about whale watching. I sort of thought we would be just ambling about on the ocean, enjoying some picturesque scenery, and if a whale popped up, hurrah! In fact, it's a lot more goal-oriented than that. They use radar and GPS tracking to locate a whale (sperm whales in this case), and then time when it dives. I didn't know this, but apparently they have a pretty regular schedule of diving down for 45 minutes to an hour, then surfacing for a bit, before diving again. I suppose I thought they cruised around on the surface (maybe other kinds of whales do), but they're actually only up for short periods, so you'd probably be out of luck with my "wander around" whale-finding strategy.

This single-mindedness annoyed me a bit. We headed straight for the spot where they had tracked a whale to, and they announced that the whale had dived about 15 minutes before. So, knowing that they dived for 45 minutes to an hour, that meant they knew we would just be bobbing around on a featureless ocean for 30-45 minutes, waiting for the whale to come back up. While we were waiting, two boats came up behind us. So I was annoyed, thinking that if we had been on one of the other two boats, we could have come straight to the same spot, spent less time waiting around, and (as it turned out later), had more time seeing other marine life. They guarantee 80% of your money back if you don't see a whale, so it just felt like they were taking no chances, preferring just to sit there waiting for a whale rather than do something else in the meantime and risk somehow missing it.

For the record, Jules felt that the waiting around for the whale was agreeably suspenseful, so maybe I'm just being curmudgeonly.

An albatross spotting while waiting
After my seasickness on Doubtful Sound, I was a bit nervous this time and took a seasickness pill. I don't know if it worked or I wouldn't have got sick anyway, but it wasn't too bad. However, while I may be Official Road Trip Photographer, Jules was nominated Official Boat Trip Photographer to spare my stomach.

Finally, a puff of water announced the presence of a whale. There was huge excitement at this, as you can imagine. Unfortunately, most of the time you could have chucked a big log in the water and told me it was a whale, and I would have been none the wiser. Some old guy turned to me as we were looking at the whale and said "Magnificent, isn't it!" I just gave him my standard, tight-smiling "Mmm...", because I was secretly thinking that it was a bit crap.

First sighting

What the whale looked like 99% of the 10 minutes or so it was on the surface. Actually, that's being generous, since it wasn't making the puff of water most of the time
It only really looked whale-y when it arched its back, flipped up its tail, and dived back down to the bottom. And I must confess, this bit was pretty cool. Jules did a great job capturing it, using a rapid-fire technique (I tend to fuss around composing the shot and then miss most of the action at such moments). I even made my very first GIF of it!






At least the whale wasn't beached as though.





After the whale had disappeared, we steamed off to a guano-covered island (you could smell it from the boat) to see another colony of NZ fur seals. So cute!




And then came the best bit of all - we sailed off to find a whole pod of Dusky dolphins. There were tons of them, and they were incredibly playful. They were leaping out of the water (really high sometimes), twisting around in the air and landing on their backs, swimming in packs of three to five in perfect co-ordination, coming right up to the boat. It was so cool! I take back all my petulant #firstworldproblem grumbling about the whale, because this was amazing. (Although I will note that, had we not been hanging around so long waiting for the whale to surface, we could have stayed longer looking at the awesome dolphins.)