Monday, December 15, 2014

Winter warmers

I'm, unexpectedly, writing this tucked up in bed in Luxembourg on a Monday afternoon. Unexpectedly because, although (thankfully) I had already taken the day off work today, I had planned to be back home in Brussels chilling out, rather than here. I took the day off because today is a nationwide strike in Belgium, and I thought I'd rather deal with that from the comfort of my bed than struggle to try to get to work and back. It's maybe 5 km between my house and work, so not really comfortable walking distance and I can't ride (and don't have) a bike, so seeing that I have around 7 leave days left for this year, it seemed easier to just call it a long weekend and opt out of the whole mess.

This was all planned out weeks ago, since the strike was announced far in advance. What I didn't see explained anywhere was that the widely-advertised strike on Monday, 15th December, actually started at 10 pm on Sunday, 14th. And since trains, especially crappy Belgian trains, take time to get places, I turned up to the station yesterday to find out that the 7.35 train was only going as far as Namur, since the 22.10 arrival time in Brussels would have run past the start of the strike... I mean, how ridiculous for one. And for another, I checked the times on the website at around 6.30 pm and it showed the train going to Brussels just fine. It would have still been too late to catch a different train, but at least we could have avoided a 45-minute round trip to Arlon if we'd known.

There are definitely no trains going today, so I'm hanging at Jules' apartment while he goes to work and then comes home and drives me all the way to Brussels tonight. What a champion.

Between the strikes, and rain and cold and darkness and impatiently counting down to the holidays, we all need some cheering up. That's why, in this hemisphere, we're lucky to have Christmas. At home, frankly, Christmas is badly timed. It's not far enough into summer to reliably hit good weather, then offices often close for a couple of weeks for Christmas and New Year, which means you're basically forced to take summer holidays then, rather than later in January or February, when the weather's generally better, and then there's absolutely nothing to cheer you up through winter (which admittedly is not as cold or dark as it is here, but still). But here, there's really no excuse not to warm up with a mulled wine, hot chocolate or Belgian peket and enjoy what the festive season has to offer.

My first inclination was that Brussels Christmas market probably wasn't worth bothering with. For some reason, I thought a big-city market wouldn't have any charm, and we should head to a smaller town instead. But it was recommended by people at work and it turns out to be pretty good. For starters, it's really big and spread over multiple locations, so while it's crowded, it wasn't too much of a crush. We filled up on the aforementioned beverages, and (in several different trips) tried out some wurst, raclette sandwiches and what purported to be authentic Quebecois poutine, which was disappointingly unlike what I had in Canada. (Where were the cheese curds? This one had chopped up blocks of what tasted like Emmenthal on it! Granted, I tried poutine in Toronto or Vancouver, I can't remember which, so maybe it's different in Quebec. Any poutine experts out there?)

In front of the Grande Roue in Brussels

Christmas tree in the Grand Place

Oh, and by the way, we found where you can get a fantastic view of central Brussels for free - on top of the carpark at De Brouckere! It was so full we had to go all the way to the 9th floor to find a spot, but you're rewarded with 360 degree views of the central city. They should stick a revolving restaurant up there.

St Catherine church is lit up for the markets

The Brussels Christmas markets by night
One of the occasions we visited the Brussels Christmas market was on my birthday. We both had the day off, and we celebrated pretty quietly, just shopping and visiting the markets by day and then champagne at home followed by a trip to the same local restaurant we visited for Jules's birthday.

Prost! New LBD I bought that day :)

Birthday dinner
While I was waiting for the bathroom at the restaurant, I got chatting with two women who were smoking in the lobby. Normally that would annoy me, but I was in a good mood, and somehow ended up confessing that it was my birthday. The guy using the bathroom before me overheard and said happy birthday to me, and he then went inside and told the restaurant owner that it was my birthday. She ended up bringing me out a birthday moelleux while the bathroom guy sang me a (strangely ballad-y and intense) Mexican birthday song, and then the whole restaurant (a dozen or so people) sang happy birthday to me. I was really quite touched!

The day after my birthday is Sinterklass, or Niklosdaag, or Saint Nicholas's Day, in this part of the world. I'm glad it wasn't celebrated at home, since as a kid I already found my birthday to be way too close to Christmas, but this year it was fun to share a little of the tradition with Jules. In Luxembourg, the Kleeschen (Saint Nicholas) brings a Teller (plate) of chocolates to good girls and boys, while the Housecker (the equivalent to the French Pere Fouettard or Dutch Zwarte Peet) brings sticks to naughty children. I must have been good for the first time ever, because the Kleeschen brought me my first Teller.

A partly-eaten Teller
That brings us (finally) to this weekend, which of course was spent here in Luxembourg, mainly shopping and visiting the Christmas market in town for souvenir mulled wine mugs and gromperekischelcher.

Lucky the Kleeschen didn't see me being naughty at the Luxembourg Christmas market!

Jules's head fits perfectly into the chalet roof

And we had a lovely winter dinner of baked Mont d'Or cheese

Sunset in Luxembourg
Just six working days to go for the year before a nice long break and my first Christmas with Jules's family (prepare the champagne). I hope you're all finding ways to cope with the cold and gloom too (even in Auckland, where I hear it's miserable too!)

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Gwan's Year in Review - 2014

It's that time of year again (a bit early, even), where I look back on the year that's been (and, via reading last year's round-up, the year before last) and reflect on my life and travels for another year. Last year's round-up was entitled "2013: A Year of Changes" - appropriately enough, since I had two different new jobs, moved across France and started working in Luxembourg. But this year I once again put the "where in the world is..." into my blog title, moving to Belgium mid-year for a new opportunity. And I don't want to sopify all over the blog, but obviously another big change was meeting the lovely Jules almost nine months ago, time flies.

2014: More stuff happened

Like 2012, I managed to be mostly upbeat in last year's round-up. But, you know, sometimes these things are a matter of trying to look on the bright side and convince ourselves as much as others that everything's okay. It wasn't like the worst time of my life or anything, but as time went on it definitely got harder to live in my dank box of an apartment, where I could never open the shutters because of being on the ground floor and where I couldn't own things such salt because it was so damp in there. Not that that mattered so much when I was out of the house every day from 6.45 am to 8.30 pm, too exhausted to do anything but inhale a quick pasta or pizza before going to bed. I remember it would take me like three days to watch an episode of Downton Abbey because it would be time for bed after 20 minutes of it. When Jules asked me out on our third date on a Monday evening, he (as he told me later) took it as a bad sign that I said I wouldn't be able to stay too long. Truth was that I just couldn't face starting out the week with a late night since I had to get up at 5.45 am every day.

And the job itself - sheesh, borefest, especially grinding out those last few months after I knew I had a new job to go to in Belgium. But you know, hard times make you appreciate when things improve, or at least to a certain extent. People are adaptable, both to good and bad circumstances. I find the amount of money I require to have a comfortable lifestyle is infinitely adaptable according to how much money I actually have. That is, I somehow find ways to fritter it away when my income goes up, but equally, I've managed to adapt to living on not very much money at all without my head exploding. So, it's helpful to think "at least I'm not unemployed" when your job kind of sucks or "at least I'm not working/commuting for 14 hours a day" when you don't want to get out of bed on a cold winter's morning, but that still doesn't mean you won't find something to whine about at least from time to time. Maybe I'm just a negative nancy, but that's one of the things that really annoys me about the whole "first world problems" meme. It's just human nature to have things in your life that you're happy about and other things that you think aren't so great, even if overall, yes, you should be grateful you're not picking litter in a slum for a living. Anyway, I'm way off track here.

Point was meant to be, that yes, things improved. I got a new job in Belgium that pays better, is more secure and more interesting than my old job, and the working conditions are much better. And I do have to remind myself of those points because everyone there bitches and moans constantly about how it's so much worse than it used to be in the good old days. I swapped the damp cardboard box for a bigger, nicer apartment that actually gets light and fresh air and doesn't make my chocolate stash cry or my bread go mouldy, and the cat is much happier here too, which is a bonus. I don't have any friends, so that's a bit of a downer, but I've got to take some of the responsibility for that in that I haven't been so motivated to go out and make an effort to meet people since Jules and I only see each other on the weekends, so we just spend them together, and I've never really been the kind of person who wants to run around doing a lot of stuff in the evenings after work. I always vowed I wouldn't be one of those girls who dropped all their friends for a new boyfriend, so luckily I can live up to that by just not having any, ha ha. 

Enough rambling, now on to the awards portion of the evening -

Best trip abroad

So, again, this is a bit complicated since I lived in two different countries this year and worked in a third, so I'll make an executive decision and put them all in the "domestic" category. Thanks partly to this decision, partly to the inconvenience of having to move countries and jobs halfway through the year, my international trips portfolio is a little thin for 2014! I already have plans to get out and about more in 2015 though, so watch this space.

  • So that means that January and February trips to Brussels and Reims are out, for the moment, and we begin with a one-day trip to Trier, Germany. I'd been before, but this time I really had the time to explore the beautiful churches, Roman ruins and charming town squares. 

  • In May, I got an early taste of summer with a trip to Majorca to celebrate a friend's 30th birthday (although, looking back at my pictures, I see there was actually a lot of nice weather in April and May anyway). I was quite surprised by the beautiful, rugged scenery, although I wish we made the most of the good weather instead of going to the beach when it was a bit cold and grey. The reason for that was the interminable delays and haggling of group trips, so while I mostly had a good time, by the time it was over I was quite glad to be going home! I don't think I'm cut out for people, ha ha. 

  • In September, we made a long-anticipated (by me) trip to Aachen, Germany to see the exhibitions put on for the 1200th anniversary of Charlemagne's death. The historic significance was huge and some of the exhibits were amazing, but I also kinda went into full freak-out mode with all of the crowds, so I didn't always have a great time. On day two, however, we visited an empty museum (sigh of relief) and I fell in love with the gorgeously-mosaicked cathedral - definitely worth a trip to Aachen to see it.

  • Weirdly enough, I realise my international trip section has been left with only Spain and Germany in it, particularly strange since I'd only been once overnight to Berlin (didn't see anything) and once to Barcelona for a weekend before. This time, we took a family holiday to Madrid, which I really enjoyed. Tapas, sangria, sunshine and fine art, what's not to like? Well, the Reina Sofia museum, but hey, can't have it all.

And the winner is...

Boring as it is, I'm going to have to go the family holiday again! I didn't really have any big expectations of Madrid, and it turned out to be so relaxing and lovely, and a really world-class destination. I'm surprised it doesn't get more press, really.

Best domestic trip

  • The year began with an international trip that magically transformed into a "domestic" trip, as I came to Brussels for a job interview that led to me getting a job here and of course, moving here in June. I didn't stay long (in fact, I took an early train home because I just wanted to basically crawl into bed after the trauma of the interview), but managed to burn my retinas on the world's ugliest painting at the Musée Fin de Siècle.

  • By May, my plans for moving to Brussels were solidifying, so I realised the clock was ticking on seeing the sights of Eastern France before I moved father away. We packed quite a lot in those last few weekends, including a daytrip to Nancy, which is lovely and has a great Art Nouveau house museum.

  • Next up was Colmar, which is as picturesque as everyone says it is, but also just as touristy as you'd expect. We enjoyed wandering the streets and seeing the Issenheim Altarpiece, but decided to leave quite early the next morning to check out some of the surrounding villages.

  • The way home took us through the amazing scenery of the Route du Vin, including the small but also touristy villages of Riquewihr and Ribeauvillé. The weather was perfect, the landscape was beautiful and the food was great, so this was a very good day.

  • We topped our Alsatian weekend off with a visit to the Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg, which isn't that amazing inside (Jules liked it though), but has an incredible view.

  • In June, I moved to Brussels, and over the past five months, I've got to explore a bit of my new home, with trips to Antwerp (twice), Ghent (twice), Namur and Knokke. I loved the elaborate statues of St. Paul's, Antwerp, on both my visits, and we managed to find the beautiful part of Ghent the second time round (sorry about that, Jess). Belgium definitely has some nice things to offer!

  • At the end of August, we had a great weekend away in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais, exploring Ambleteuse, Wimereux and the Caps Gris Nez and Blanc Nez. The weather didn't always play along, but the scenery was really beautiful and we had a fabulous weekend.

And the winner is...

It was a real toss-up between our Ambleteuse and Alsace trips. I think I probably had the overall best time in Ambleteuse, and was pleasantly surprised that a place that I thought I knew, and that has a pretty terrible reputation turned out to be so scenic, but I think a lot was down to the company and just chilling out with Jules and Susi the dog. So I think if I had to do it as a recommendation, then the prize should go to Alsace.

The weather was great, we had a fantastic lunch in Ribeauvillé (after a disappointing dinner the night before), and it seemed a breathtakingly picturesque vineyard, or cobbled street, or medieval building was around every corner. It probably gets a bit much in the height of summer, but it's definitely one for the bucket list.

What's next?

Travel-wise, we have a few ideas floating around, probably starting with a weekend trip to Lisbon early next year, Champagne at some point and we're tossing around longer trips to "Cathar country", France, and Albania (I've been banging on about Albania for ages and probably would have gone this year if not for the move and everything). After that, it will be time to start saving some pennies and leave days because I'll almost definitely be heading home to New Zealand for the first time in (by that time) over six years in early 2016.

Life-wise, things will hopefully be a bit more settled. My position has been confirmed after the probationary period, so that's several more years where I don't have to worry about having a job, which is nice. Longer term, obviously it would be nice to live in the same country as my boyfriend, but we don't have plans for that yet. Just looking forward to a bit more stability and a year without upheaval!

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Halloween with the girls

My lovely friends from Tours came to visit me for the Halloween long weekend (well, I had a long weekend, I don't think they did in France because the 1st was a Saturday). I threw a small party in my apartment, we ate raclette, drank a lot of wine and some Jagermeister and Red Bull and the neighbours didn't complain. Success!

This was the first year I really made an effort with a costume, and even so, it wasn't super elaborate. Jules went all out, however! We actually got the idea for his costume back when I first moved to Brussels and purchased a red rubber oven mitt from IKEA that kind of looks like a claw. He thought it looked like the claw of a certain someone and I set myself the challenge of working out a costume that sort of matched. Can you guess who we were???

Excited to see my friends coming up the stairs
Elaborate cobweb decorations in the background

Is that a fish in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

The rest of the weekend was fairly quiet. On Saturday, we just mosied about the city centre seeing what there is to see (Mannekin Pis, the Grand Place etc.) and had dinner at a pretty average place in Sainte-Catherine. Jules, Mel and I headed back to bed like good boys and girls, but Caro and Liz stayed out partying to the wee hours (oh, how I have changed that I wasn't with them - although I probably would have stayed up longer the night before if people had let me) and were subsequently "indisposed" the next day.

The girls in Grande Place
Cheers! (It looks like I'm drinking milk but it was one of those fancy hot chocolates where you stir it in. It wasn't great)
Having a post-dinner rum in Place Sainte-Catherine

Although, again, we were lucky with the weather, it was a bit cold on the Sunday and I confess I was a bit jealous when we headed out leaving the girls to order pizza and watch a movie snuggled up on the coach. Mel, Jules and I had a lovely morning though, with champagne and fishy delights at Nordzee followed by a hot chocolate AND dessert at Frederic Blondeel. Spoiled!

Mel and I tuck into champagne and fish soup at Nordzee
Brussels traffic (there's always traffic, even on a Sunday) almost made the girls miss their train, but they got out of the car and ran for it and made it home after way too short a trip. We've got to start planning the next one!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Madrid: A hit and a miss

The rest of our time in Madrid was principally taken up with visits to two more museums, one of which I very much enjoyed; the other, not. The one I liked was the Thyssen-Bornemisza, the name of which is impossible to remember/spell, but which is otherwise very good. Formerly a private collection (the mind boggles), it ranges across eight centuries of (mostly) European art.

My favourite work. I noted that this was by "Chasnyk", but I now have my doubts since a Google Image search for "Chasnyk artist" just brings up hundreds of pictures of fighting troll figurines

The rest of his oeuvre?

Jesus and Mary had a bad case of elephantiasis of the head. I have a story about that, but this is a family show 

Ghost foetuses!

Portrait after portrait of the Hapsburgs, and this was the only one which properly showed the famous "Hapsburg jaw" (I think Jules was quite glad because then I finally stopped going on about it)

A twin for my Belle Ferronière!

Death's totally copping a feel

This guy is right between Jesus and another guy on the cross, but it's still all about him. He's just so dandy!

After the TB museum, we grabbed some delicious churros and hot chocolate (as featured in a Buzzfeed list of the world's best hot chocolate that I conveniently happened to see while we were in Madrid) and walked to the other side of Madrid to check out an Egyptian temple recommended by my sister's colleague. Not a reconstruction of an Egyptian temple, but an actual temple dating from the second century BC. It was gifted by Egypt to Spain to say thank you for Spanish help to preserve the temples of Abu Simbel (which are probably more impressive than the temple they gave away, I'm guessing).

Hanging out on the Gran Via. This is actually from another day, I didn't change for the stroll

Not that it's not pretty, and in a nice location, but it's quite small

The view from nearby
The line was quite long, and understandably they don't let a ton of people in at once, so we didn't go inside, but it was cool to see anyway.

The abortion expo was closed when we walked past. Pity, I'd like to have found out how to go about feeding an oddly muscular-bummed baby to a crocodile

Stop, churro time! As you can see, you get a loooot of churros for your buck
On Sunday evening, we headed to Casa 9 restaurant, which had a ton of glowing reviews on TripAdvisor, was too busy to fit us in on Saturday night, and was well worth the trip. We enquired about the menu when booking, since my sister eats fish but not meat, and were told that they couldn't tell us what was on the menu since the chef went to the market each day to get fresh ingredients, but that there would be something she could eat. A special daily menu fresh from the market? Sign us up please!
"Cow ham"
The 19.95 price you see there actually covered an entrée, main and dessert, plus water for the table, a glass of wine and coffee. *And*, since I don't drink coffee, I asked for another glass of wine at the end of the meal, assuming they'd charge for it, but they threw it in instead of the coffee. Now you might think at that price, it'd be cheap and nasty. Far from it, it was so delicious, and I think none of us got exactly the same menu, but everyone was really happy with their food. Plus the waiters were super friendly, even pointing us to another (also good) restaurant the night before when they were booked up. If you're heading to Madrid, definitely give it a go!

Pre-dinner cocktails

From a highlight to a lowlight, our last day was spent at the Reina Sofia museum. Basically we went there to see Picasso's Guernica, which is about the only half-interesting thing in the place. Every piece of art (almost all Spanish, from what I could see) we saw in there was grey and brown, it was filled with groups of LOUD children, made worse by the echoing acoustics, and the whole place is huge and maze-like even by the high standards of museums. We only did one floor before we had to meet up with my parents to say goodbye as they were heading to the airport before us (sniff) and I refused to go back in. I'm not usually one to say I hate a museum, but boy did I hate this one. Worst. Museum. Ever. It's blimming lucky it has Guernica, because otherwise I'm convinced you couldn't pay people to go inside.

It was a relief to escape back into the sunshine and stroll back to our apartment via the lovely (and huge) Buen Retiro park, home of (amongst other things), the beautiful Crystal Palace:

Looked less like a glorified greenhouse in person

Now with white van

The view from the Crystal Palace steps (you couldn't go in)

And then it was time to go home... Other than the Reina Sofia, obviously, I really enjoyed Madrid. The food was amazing, it was relatively inexpensive (especially with Mum and Dad footing the bill, haha), the weather was great and there was a ton to see and do. If you've never thought of visiting, I would put it on the list!