Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Le plat pays

One of the advantages of Belgium is that its small size, relatively centrally-located capital and long history means that you can get to many interesting places within a couple of hours - and of course, you're spoilt for choice if you want to go beyond its borders as well. So it would be silly not to make the most of living here by getting out and exploring ce plat pays.

Before I started work, Jules and I took advantage of our free time to take a day trip to Antwerp, where I'd never been before. To be honest, a lot of the day was taken up with shopping. Even though we stuck to chains, Antwerp has a great reputation as a fashion capital, and I think a little of that must have rubbed off on to the chain stores too, as we both managed to pack multiple purchases into our day. To add to the authentically Belgian experience, we had Wagamama for lunch, which was fun (and tasty). And Jules had Starbucks, so he was happy.

But we did have a little time for some cultural pursuits, mainly wandering around the city on a fairly grey day:

Grand Place, Antwerp

At the train station

Inside the train station
The absolute highlight, though, was St. Paul's church. Jules had a city maps app that gave some short descriptions of tourist sites, and it just said that this one had a good collection of statues in it. So it felt kind of magical to track down this out-of-the-way church (after first trying to go to a different one which was closed) and stumble upon an exterior tableau of the crucifixion, made up of 63 life-sized statues which date back to the 18th century, collectively known as the Calvary. We had the place to ourselves for the most part, and it really felt like a special discovery, with a peaceful, gloomy atmosphere no doubt helped by the dull weather. (Looking online, it seems to be relatively well-known, and we were guided there by an app, but it's still nice to stumble across something that feels off the beaten path, even if it's not in reality).

The Calvary, Saint Paul's church

The inside, beautifully bright in contrast to the somewhat eerie statues outside, is also filled with treasures from paintings to elaborate wooden carvings. I must confess I missed most of the famous paintings by the likes of Jordaens, Van Dyke and Rubens, but I'd really like to go back again anyway, so perhaps I'll get another chance to see them.

Interior of Saint Paul's

Carved wooden confessionals

Me and some ghost monks
Based on our quick flip through the app, there was plenty we missed in Antwerp, such as the Diamond and Fashion Museums, the Museum of Fine Arts, Rubens' house and the church where he was buried, and lots more. And as our day there attested, it's a fun place just to wander around and get your shop on. I'll definitely head back some time!

Apart from a trip to Ghent with my sister (blog post pending), our other main daytrip was to the Belgian coast, Knokke to be exact. First things first, it's really hard to park in Knokke. Having hit a bit of traffic on the motorway on our way there, followed by having to circle and then queue for a park, I was kind of dying for the loo by the time we got to the waterfront, which largely determined our choice of restaurant. Leaving Jules to find a seat on the terrace, I charged off into the restaurant and asked a waitress where the bathroom was. "In the tourist office", was the reply. I impatiently explained I was dining there, fighting the urge to knock her over on the the way to the loo, but I made it thankfully. And turns out, our lunch was actually nice. Of course, we sampled the (hopefully) local seafood - grey shrimp croquettes, which seem to be a bit of a Belgian delicacy, followed by a fish soup and a chocolate moelleux for dessert, miam miam!

Lunch was pretty leisurely, lasting about two hours or so, so it was mid-afternoon by the time we finally hit the beach. I would say it's been so long since I've been, but I keep forgetting that I did go in Majorca, so although infrequent, it's not actually been that long. I was surprised really by the fine, golden sand on offer. I suppose if you'd asked me, I would have pictured pebbly or shelly beaches in Belgium for some reason. Perhaps not so surprising was the constant gusts of wind tearing along the beach from West to East (or thereabouts). The temperatures weren't that high, and although it was pleasant when the sun was shining, any time it went behind a cloud (which was often) we were shivering. Suddenly it made sense why many people hired beach huts and why the sound of the ocean was frequently drowned out by people hammering windbreaks into the sand (seriously, a Belgian beach is about as peaceful as a construction site). There was also some guy with the deepest, growliest voice playing some sort of beach tennis behind us. We were giggling at the idea that he was a troll playing for the right to eat his opponent, but you probably had to be there. The match finished without anyone getting eaten, as far as I could tell.

Jules on the beach at Knokke

Beach selfie #nomakeupselfie

What's a day at the beach without icecream? I had gianduja (yum), limoncello (yum) and watermelon (too sweet) from an extremely popular icecream shop with an array of very exotic flavours - I tried to pick three I hadn't had before, but was spoilt for choice and changed my mind ten times even within those parameters

And a pretty bench
So that was our trip to the coast. I think Namur is on the to-do list, Jules would like to go to Bruges and I'd quite like to go back to Liège, since last time was mainly just running back and forth to the Spa Grand Prix (this weekend, yay), and we have trips to the French Côte d'Opale and Aachen, in Germany, on the books, so lots to look forward to!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

I'm alive, and when I'm not ranting, I'm having fun (and fish)

I've been very slack with posting, but I have actually been doing fun things - too many to fit in one post, so now that I've actually bothered going through my photos, hopefully I'll get back up to date. But first, a little rant. I got my deposit from my Metz apartment back (yay!), minus 100€ (boo!). The landlord had listed 5 reasons why he was withholding 100€. Some I didn't argue with - it's true that the walls did get quite dirty, although seriously, these walls stained if you coughed in their general direction - and I didn't bother contesting that he had to "clean around the wall sockets and the fuse box", although in my opinion if you don't notice these things at the time, you shouldn't really be able to decide that there was a problem several weeks later. And also something about the sink, which I didn't really understand, so I didn't say anything about it. My issue was that he charged me for some "degradation" of the wall heaters, which I have no clue about - I literally used all of them combined maybe ten times while I was living there, since it was a mild winter and I'm not one to turn the heating on full bore at the best of times, and even worse, he charged for fixing the flush on the toilet (one side of the dual flush didn't work), which I knew I had pointed out to him the first time we met. It's not so much the 100€ - if he had charged just that for the painting I probably wouldn't have argued, it's the principle that they're basically free to charge whatever they like for any and all damages, real or imaginary, and they know that you essentially have no recourse. What am I going to do - he knows I've left the country and I'm not likely to try to follow the matter up at a tribunal or whatever.

I wrote back and pointed out that whatever supposedly happened to the heaters, it wasn't my fault, and that it was kinda sorta unreasonable not to fix the loo the whole time I lived there and then to charge me for the privilege of fixing it for someone else, and received a rant back in return, saying did I think it was normal he had to clean up after me and paint the walls, and it was lucky that he did it himself because it would have cost a lot more if he had hired someone. Um no, that's why I didn't say anything about those parts, but logically if you value fixing 5 things at 100€, then fixing 3 things should cost less than that. I'm not the one who priced out the repairs, buddy. I didn't bother replying to that email, since it obviously wouldn't have done any good and would have just annoyed me further. Now that I've whined about it here I'll try to be all zen and let it go. Although, insult to injury, he sent me the deposit back in the form of a French cheque. French people and their cheques *rolls eyes*. He knew I was leaving the fricking country, what good is a French cheque to me? Okay, Jules is reading over my shoulder and laughing so I'll start zenning out now.

Anyway, on to fun times! Still settling in (no friends), but I've been exploring Brussels on the weekends with Jules (and my sister, but more on that another time). We've done a couple of little day trips, but for the moment, here's what we've seen around town -

Obligatory visit to the Grande Place - most of the time I stay away from the city centre, too many tourists!

While the World Cup was going on, Mannekin Pis was dressed up to support the team

Did you know that Mannekin Pis has a lady friend, Jennekin Pis? How egalitarian

I've visited the Musées Royaux de Beaux Arts before, but today Jules and I became friends, so we can pop in for "free" whenever we want

And see a little squirrel on a leash

As well as visiting the Musées Royaux de Beaux Arts, we also went to the Natural History Museum. This was largely at Jules's prompting, who really really wanted to go see the dinosaurs. I went along in a spirit of girlfriendly martyrdom, but I was actually surprised that it was really cool. The star attraction is definitely the collection of 30 iguanodon skeletons discovered in Belgium in the 19th century, the largest find of iguanodons to date. The skeletons are assembled upright, as was believed correct at the time. Scientists now think that they probably walked on all fours, however the fossils are too fragile to move, so they remain in their original positions. As well as the fossils, there was a lot of interesting dino information, and I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the visit. Much of the rest of the museum was being renovated, and the mammals section wasn't that interesting anyway, but it's worth a visit just for the dinosaurs.

Some of the iguanodons

Jules giving an iguanodon thumbs up (you can't really see, but they have big spikes on their thumbs)

A reconstruction showing a more accurate depiction

Dino chicken!

A tiny little prehistoric crocodile thingie

These snickering prehistoric sea creatures were quite amusing

Arrrgh! Jules is under attack from a T-Rex!

Me too!

Cow and chicken. I have no idea why they arranged them like this

I think I do a pretty good imitation of a demented koala
Today after visiting the Fine Arts Museum (and, thanks to our new membership, not staying so long that we were exhausted), we enjoyed a stroll down to the pretty Saint Catherine Place, the place to go for fish in Brussels. A trip to the legendary Nordzee/Mer du Nord fishmongers had been on the cards pretty much since I moved here, and although the rain started pouring down basically as soon as we arrived, it did not disappoint. It definitely lived up to its reputation for cheap, tasty street food (or semi street food, since as Mary Kay pointed out on Twitter, you do get proper crockery and cutlery, but there's no indoor seating, you just have to eat standing up at the counter or at a couple of tables). A bowl of fish soup, one portion of shrimp croquettes (i.e. two croquettes) and two glasses of champagne came to €22.50, which considering that it was all very fresh and tasty, I'd call great value for money. And it was nice huddling under the umbrellas with a hot portion of soup while the rain poured down around us. Definitely a good place for a snack if you're in Brussels, I'll be back!


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Chocolate and things

I would like to say that I haven't blogged in a while because I've been SO BUSY, but that would basically be a dirty lie. Yes, obviously I'm settling in to the new job, but the truth is in the evenings I find myself with almost *too* much time on my hands. Sure, when I was getting home at 8.30 pm after being out of the house for nearly 14 hours, I dreamed of having more time to myself in the evenings, being able to relax instead of rushing to cook dinner and then fall into bed - and trust me, I'm not complaining that things have changed - but turns out I kind of adjusted to not having any spare time. So going from that to having a solid 4 hours or so till bedtime, with no social life to fill them with, is a bit of a shock. So I know, I know, the answer is to throw myself in to finding new activities to fill my time (particularly before I readjust to a life of comparative leisure). I should be getting out there and meeting people, taking a class, whatever. And yes, I SHOULD do that, but there's always a fight between the part of me that is a bit bored and lonely and the part of me that really would rather just lounge around in my PJs than do something daunting like going to a meet-up where I don't know anyone. I'm hoping when the summer break is over I can start up some language classes... That gives me a couple of months to pluck up the resolve to get out there, at any rate.

So things are ticking over. Nothing much exciting to report for the moment, although my sister's coming to Brussels this weekend, and with any luck this hot, sunny weather will stick around for it. I joined the library, which I'm pleased about since it had been years since I was a member of a library and that always makes me feel guilty (support your libraries BEFORE they're threatened with closure, people! By going there and borrowing things, not by tweeting about how awesome you think libraries are), especially since there's actually a decent selection of English books in the central branch.

Here's a few old(ish) photos from the camera, and then I'll introduce Jules' and my inaugural chocolate dégustation, mmm!

Me, Caro and Liz at Vitiloire

And at Caro's place

I feel this is representative of the way I look a lot of the time

The Tours monster claims another victim

Rosé and strawberries on the balcony with Bob

Our view of the fireworks for Luxembourg's fête nationale. Over the top of a 5-storey building, people. Tsk

So, when moving to Belgium, you'd be crazy not to sample some of their finest frites and chocolates (probably not together). And I suppose beer and waffles too, if you're that way inclined. (I am not inclined to beer, I am kind of to waffles, but they're probably not a treat I'd cross the street for if there was chocolate on my side of the street.) In an attempt to class things up and justify eating a ton of chocolate, Jules and I staged the first of hopefully many chocolate dégustations together.

Our first chocolatier was Mary, recommended in the "Secret Brussels" book my old colleagues gave me as a leaving present. The book claimed that their shop on Rue Royale was recommended as one of the 1000 places to see before you die. I was expecting ornate chandeliers, crystals, velvet, whatever. I actually can't remember what it looked like and didn't take any photos, but as far as places to see before you die go, the shop itself was evidently a bit meh. But that's not the important part, the important part is how did it taste?

We originally planned to buy 5 * 2 chocolates, but ended up getting six since it was so hard to pick. Plus we got an almond praline each thrown in for free, which was a nice surprise. The 12 (14) chocolates came to 10.50€, which seemed reasonable, although I suppose each chocolate is pretty expensive if you really think about it. After some discussion of how to rate the chocolates (Jules was rating them vis à vis each other, whereas I couldn't quite decide whether to go with that idea or try to rate them against some sort of platonic ideal), it was down to business.

Our 12 contenders line up on the grid

Caramel dominoes
Jules - 5
Gwan - 4
We started with the one I would rate as my least favourite, which is always a good way to go. I thought it was too runny and not caramelly enough, although Jules thought it was fun sucking the caramel out of the crunchy shell.

Milk chocolate truffle
Jules - 6
Gwan - 7

I thought these tasted a bit like they were flavoured with raspberry liqueur - "not bad, but unexpected".

"Gianduja with a fancy name I forget but starts with A"
Jules - 9
Gwan - 8.5

High scores from both of us, but then I do always like a gianduja (who doesn't?). I noted its nice smooth filling and that I drooled a bit while eating it. Not sure if that's the chocolate's fault.

Dark chocolate lady 2 mousse 48% bitter
Jules - 3
Gwan - 7

Opinions divided on this one. Jules thought these were "really boring". He thought maybe he just needed a rest before continuing on, so I called him a chocolate baby. I thought they had a nice cocoa-y aftertaste and the consistency was more like what I expected the truffle to be, not really "moussey". I'd like to try one of the darker ladies. Extra points for the pretty picture (matches my plate!)

Jules - 8
Gwan - 9

This one was my favourite - I love raspberries! It was a dark, smooth chocolate ganache centre flavoured with raspberry, rather than a raspberry-coulis-type affair. Yum.

Manon hazelnut praline
Jules - 9
Gwan - 7.5

I described these as "unsubstantial", but Jules disagreed, describing them as light but soft and smooth, with a moussey texture. I thought the flavour was nice, but I think of a praline as being a bit denser, whereas this was more like a light cream. An extra point for the whole hazelnut though.

All gone, so sad
It was actually a lot of chocolate for one sitting, and I say that as someone who can put away her fair share. Overall, they were nice, but I don't know if I'd go back. I mean, I might, I really like chocolate, but it wasn't an experience that made me think "oh no, I'm going to be blowing my whole pay cheque on Mary" (heh heh). But nor did I think we'd stumbed into a yucky, over-priced tourist trap. We'll just have to keep looking for Brussels' best chocolates!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Two weeks

I won't do "three weeks" next week, promise. Last night of freedom before work starts tomorrow - eek! Let me tell you, the past three weeks of unemployment have just flown by, as you can imagine when organising an international move. So it's the perfect time to bring you up to date with my doings while watching France beat Nigeria (note to self: edit for hubris as necessary) before I'm too tired from the new job!

Today I got up early for a "dry run" travelling to work. Yes, I'm that much of a lame-o. It was helpful though - I arrived five minutes "late" as the bus ran 15 minutes behind schedule - and it was really packed too, so I'll leave more time tomorrow and get on at the earlier stop rather than the later (my place is about halfway between the two). Maybe it's a bit silly, but that's one less thing to stress about tomorrow, so worth it I think. On the other hand, I'm not too sure what to wear. I was planning on a suit my first day, but I don't want to turn up closely resembling a flustered puddle of sweat if it's warm. Temperatures have been fluctuating quite a bit, although the only rain we've had so far was this weekend (obviously, always rains on the weekend).

The last time I blogged, we were back in Luxembourg for the weekend. Last Monday was the Luxembourg national holiday, and I thought I should go back for it because who knows if I'll ever be around Luxembourg in the future. We went into the city on Sunday night for the festivities, which consisted of a firework display and basically street parties. The atmosphere was pretty fun at first, but when we tried to go to the recommended spot to see the fireworks, I basically freaked the eff out. Too. Many. People. I swear to god, more than the entire population of Luxembourg was there that night (the population of Luxembourg is only 531,441, so it's completely possible that that's not an exaggeration). I didn't mind it so much when we were walking, but as we were funnelled down towards the bridge which was meant to be a good vantage point to see the fireworks, it was standing room only and people just kept coming down and I couldn't handle being there. So we moved a little bit out of the way and ended up seeing only about 20% of the fireworks over the top of a 5-storey building. Bah humbug.

Other than that, the week has been taken up with exciting, exciting stuff like unpacking boxes, doing about a million loads of laundry (I decided to wash all those things like cardigans that I have a habit of just shoving into my laundry hamper on the theory that "it was in my handbag most of the time" and then lose track of how long it's been since it was washed... is that gross?) and spending a solid three hours ironing, literally the first I've done since I moved to Europe. I didn't get home wifi hooked up until this Saturday, which was actually quite a good incentive for taking care of all these sorts of things instead of pissing about all day online, although it was a bit boring at times (hello hour-long baths and afternoon naps).

So the apartment is coming together, although there's a long way to go on the furnishing front (I have all the necessary stuff, more or less, but most could do with an upgrade). I'm especially proud of our DIY window frosting (mostly courtesy of Jules). Not only does it mean I can finally have a proper stand-up shower, it looks way better than I would have thought for a stick-on transfer!

I should point out that I took this photo halfway through, to show a "before/after" effect, as both my parents commented that people could just look in the other side. Duh!
Also dyed my hair and got it cut before having to take some new ID photos and start work. Unfortunately, since my straighteners broke, it currently looks a lot wilder than this, but at least I got the photos with a fresh 'do:

And I went to the supermarket, which was cavernous and confusing and appears to have no fresh food. Kind of hard to find stuff when the toilet paper is in the same aisle as the soft drinks:

Talking of supermarkets, one of the fun things about Belgium is the bilingualism you see on products, signs, etc. It means you can learn some fun Dutch words:

Go to your room, you slaaaag. (What's that from? Something British)
But quite often, surprisingly, they seem to default to English, even in contexts you wouldn't expect such as signs wishing the Belgian football team well (by the way, they are really amped about the World Cup so far!) I suppose it's easier just to write something in English rather than using Dutch and French or just one of those and alienating half your audience (it may even be illegal not to put both, I don't know). As a side note, when we visited Antwerp the week before last, everyone asked us "Nederlands or English?". French was not an option when communicating with the (friendly, perfectly fluent in English) salespeople we talked to. And people and companies here seem much more ready to speak English than in France. Granted, I never lived in Paris, so it might be a different situation here, but all the big companies seem to have English versions of their websites, which is not at all a given in France (if they even have a website!) and people seem to speak English to me more frequently. I never know how to respond in these situations, as I do like to speak French (except on the telephone), but I'm aware here that French may not even be their first language, so it's a bit silly to persist in those circumstances.

But even if people's English is better here, they still make some mistakes...

Hair horns, not to be confused with the hair horns of Moses. It is, by the way, an enduring mystery why Francophones drop the 'h' off every word that should have it, and then tack extra ones on where they don't belong.

Horny Moses
So fingers crossed there's not some loud dance party going on tonight like there was last night (on a SUNDAY!) and I manage to grab a few winks before the big day tomorrow! Nervous, but I am looking forward to the new job, which I think (I hope) is going to be a lot more interesting than the last one :)

Oh and here's a photo of me and Bob because why not :)