Sunday, January 29, 2012

Forever 25

If you’d please be so kind as to bear with me… This is a longer entry… I’ve broken it up into sections for you if you want to read smaller portions throughout the work day without feeling like you’re cheating too much on your employer.

People might tell you that you can’t put a price on a generous compliment, but it turns out that you can. The cost is approximately 110 Euro ($140 USD).

Bri and I arrived early at the train station this past Thursday to board our train for Paris, tickets purchased from a lackluster, bilingual ticket agent boy and pocketed. We arrived early, boarded and settled down.

About a half an hour into the countryside with its green hills in the drizzly mist punctuated by Cypress trees, a brusque ticket agent stopped at our row and requested our tickets, which he processed and then asked for identification, which he looked over rather snootily.

“That’s going to be 55 Euro,” he said.

“No, we already paid,” I explained – pointing to the little bill of sale.

“No, this is a ticket for someone who has less than 26 years. You cannot have the youth price.” We looked at our orderly tickets with the word “Jeune” stamped traitorously at the bottom of the page.

“So, it’s 55 more Euro?”

“For each.”


“Each of you. Each way.”

Thanks Thalys – that’s about $263 total for a two-hour train ride that we weren’t anticipating. We huffily paid out and bemoaned the doubling of our expenses, but with a twinge of conceit, we both realized that it was rather pleasant to be mistaken for 25-year-old girls traveling through the country on a student visa by our ticket agent, even if we couldn’t fool the attendant on the train.

It turns out that the cost of a bus ride is about a quarter of what it takes to travel by train between Brussels and Paris. And rather than spend the supplemental 55 Euro to get home, we decided to stay an extra day in Paris and attend a dinner party with some friends on Saturday night and save some money on the ticket home.

Lose five years on your age, gain a day. We decided there’s nothing wrong with being “forever 25.”


When we arrived, we followed the instructions that John had emailed us and made our way from the Gare du Nord to the West side of the city where John lives. After a long bus ride with adorable old women jostling for position with their many bags and hauling our carry-on luggage around behind us for several blocks, and a tour through some beautiful, old romantic buildings, we arrived at John’s apartment and shed our bags before heading back into the heart of the city, desperate for food.

So far, at the center of everything in Europe for me, is food. I am a slave to my local patisserie. Even if I exercised every day, religiously (as I surely won’t) there is no way that I won’t gain weight on this trip. I’m in love with dessert, with chocolate, with pastries, with tiny piles of salad and rich appetizers. The other night I had a raspberry meringue tart, the meringue gently toasted and so light and buttery and fluffy that I swear it was more marshmallow than cream. In Brussels, Bri and I stop frequently at chocolate shops and look at their well-ordered selection with a shy sort of greed.

The other night when Bri and I ventured out into the city for our tour of the old quarter, I sampled (for the first time) one of the traditional Pralines – one that has a history that is over 50 years old (invented for the world’s fair in 1958)– the praline’s name was Caprice. It was a chocolate-wrapped nougat filled with vanilla fresh cream. That recipe pre-dates the Beatles, 80’s shoulder pads, my birth, Sesame Street and more. And I thought about it in the days following, wondering what other dangerously-titled foods I might sample.

I also didn’t realize that chocolate was such a recent development in Europe, really. The cacao bean itself wasn’t even discovered in South America by natives until 2,000 years ago (does that mean Jesus never tasted chocolate?), but Europeans didn’t get their first taste until the 17th century when Spanish explorers came back and started making hot chocolate for the nobility at court. Belgian chocolate didn’t come of age until the 18th century and it wasn’t until the past century that Belgian chocolate distinguished itself from the rest of the chocolatiers. It was actually Jean Neuhaus who invented pralines as these dynamic candies that could take on a variety of other flavors (coffee, hazlenut, raisins, etc.). And Belgian chocolatiers are fanatics for quality in a way that the automated corporate industry could never appreciate. In an age where everything is mass produced to meet demand, Belgian chocolate (true Belgian chocolate) is still made by hand. Another distinction is that while most chocolate companies receive their shipments of chocolate in solid form as bars to be reheated when necessary for their recipes, I read that Belgian chocolate companies receive the tempered mixture of cocoa, sugar, and butter in heated trucks and the warm tempered chocolate retains aromas that cooled chocolate just doesn’t have.

I have to remember that during my time in Europe I’m on a budget. I cannot be as capricious as my chocolate wants me to be. So I have been making a lot of meals at home. In fact, I’ve only eaten out for four meals the whole time that I’ve been here which is well below the average when I’m at home. I’ve had lasagna, quiche, casseroles, pastas, quinoa, cassoulets. And they’ve all been made by people’s hands.

“It’s funny,” Bri said on the way back from the market the other day after we had purchased breads and soups and other things for our evening meal, “that a trip to the market in Europe can make me feel so indulged.”

It’s true. I don’t feel the same after shopping at Safeway as I do after shopping here. At the outdoor market, there is no self-checkout stand. I speak to a person who tells me different ways that I can fasten and wear the new vest that’s being purchased. I am pointed in the direction of the nearest bank by a helpful shop keeper and even the cute bakery boy wishes me a good afternoon in English when he notices my trouble with the currency. It’s human and colorful and personal. When selecting food for the evening meal I can look down a row of hand-picked produce and ask the girl to give me a head of garlic while delicately testing out the word for one of the first times: “l’ail.”

It’s hard when you’re on your own and a bit lonely and you’re floundering a bit in your late twenties, wondering what life really is since it’s not everything that they told you it would be – it’s hard not to fall in love with your food. This thing that pulls the day together from three sides, like a ribbon around the things that make you feel good, that reminds you what’s pleasurable about life, that ties you to the entire tactile experience of touch, taste, sight, smell, even sound as the meal comes together – knives chopping on a board, onions frying in a pan, glasses and dishes assembling on a table. It’s the best part of the physical world in some ways.  


In Paris, Bri and I settled for tourist food a few times since our proximity to certain monuments didn’t leave us a whole lot of options, but I also bought pain au chocolat and croissants with fruit salad for our morning breakfasts. John also took us to his favorite restaurant Les Bougresses where we sampled a salad that was topped with a large toasted crouton filled with goat cheese and drizzled with raspberry vinagrette, where we each sampled each other’s desserts, where thinly sliced vegetables were arranged in a petaled pile at the center of my plate with little crevettes all around the periphery and the slightest hint of a sweet balsamic vinegar.

We walked the Champs Elysées in Paris without purchasing a thing. We visited the Eiffel Tower, both at night and with our pre-purchased tickets the next glorious day. In mid-January, there aren’t as many tourists as the various monuments and historical landmarks around the city, because you have to gamble that the weather will be acceptable. When Bri and I woke up on Friday, the sun was already blazing and for the entire eleven hours that we traveled the city, we weren’t cold.

We stopped at Notre Dame, we considered visiting the original Chanel, but my favorite area in Paris has always been Montmartre, with its peculiar little side streets that lead you uphill and take you past surprising, but small vistas with a view of the city like you’re in the clouds, so Bri and I agreed to head to Sacré Coeur before the sun set.

Don’t get me wrong, I really do love Paris, but it’s probably not my kind of city. It’s dirty, and brusque and in a totally different way than New York. But in spite of all that, when I imagine the place that I’d like to live, I think of an apartment on Montmartre, to the East of the Sacré Coeur, somewhat at a remove from the rest of the action, but if you strained perhaps, you could still hear the calliope of the merry-go-round playing at the base of the steps. Bri and I picked out just the building – an old pink apartment with hanging baskets of flowers at its windows, stooped little roofs, and a tiny veranda where one could watch the sun set over the Eiffel Tower. We told each other that when the time came, we’d move in there together with our cats.

We spent the rest of the afternoon abandoning all of other tourist plans and simply wandered through the area: window-shopping at boutiques, buying my new favorite skirt, watching painters in the square behind the church imagine rain on the cobblestones that we were standing on. We watched a pack of children running up the hill after being let out of school for the week and took out our journals in a little café with a loaf of bread on its sign. It is a reminder that sometimes the best introduction to a city happens when you put away your maps, sit down, and find Paris at the bottom of your demitasse of café on a dead end street lined with wrought-iron gates and broad-windowed apartments.


The next morning we woke late and spent some time just bumming around John’s lovely apartment listening to Who’s The Boss? dubbed in French while we typed, ate croissants and recovered a bit.

Then we set out into the city for a walk through the flea market and then the Père Lachaise cemterery. There, we visited the graves of Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Jim Morrison, and Fréderic Chopin. We wandered the long avenues of the sprawling, many-tiered cemetery in virtual anonymity since the cemetery was so vacant in the January drizzle. The very modern marker for Oscar Wilde is large and clean and is now a historical landmark surrounded by plexiglass that is covered in the pink lipstick of kisses left for the poet. It is obviously a much-frequented destination, but my favorite part of the grave marker itself was the excerpt from one of his poems:

“And alien tears will fill for him
  Pity's long-broken urn,
For his mourner will be outcast men,
  And outcasts always mourn.”

Jim Morrison’s grave is wildly unassuming, almost shoved in amongst the many other crypts and markers which only makes it seem all the more tragic. But, I think my favorite grave, was that of Fréderic Chopin. I have often imagined him as a character in one of my poems or stories – a little tortured, very human, never getting over George Sand even until his death and wanting his heart removed after he had died because he had a fear of being buried alive. He sounds neurotic and approachable and he made such dynamic, complex little compositions. As we approached his grave, I saw one old man under a gray umbrella gently arrange a rose in a single glass of water on the lip of his grave and stand back to look at the bust of the artist’s face for a long while. I wasn’t impatient for him to move away and waited until the man at last wiped off his glasses and moved farther along down the path.

If you are lost in your life a little bit, if you don’t know exactly what course you’ve put yourself on and you can’t see far enough down the road to where you’re going, you are sympathetic to people who mourn men they never knew for the art that they gave to us. The shared sadness that can span hundreds of years somehow seems like a comfort, if not an answer.

That night John brought us to a dinner party hosted by an American couple that he knows in Paris. I put on my new skirt, some beads, a shirt with high shine and regarded myself in the mirror: passable for a fashionable adult, even by Parisian standards. When John’s friend R arrived to ride along with us to M & C’s apartment, I answered the door full of anticipation for making friends with a true Parisian and kissed him lightly on each cheek – always unsure of how much pressure to apply, how much cheek to offer, how much my lips should turn towards a stranger’s face. In any case, we managed the greeting and handsome and slight as he was, I could immediately see that he was both funny and shy.

We all piled into John’s American car and tunneled through the crowded traffic of the city on Saturday night. We were in high spirits, warm in the packed little vehicle listening to the music of Kanye West as we careened around the large rond points at the Champs Elysées.

We arrived at M and C’s apartment – both professionals living in Paris (one a consultant/writer, the other a technology person). Their apartment was five floors up at the top of an old building in the Marais with a long city-sweeping view to the Eiffel Tower which twittered with sparkling lights every hour on the hour. They took our coats, complimented our clothes and smiled the whole time until, before I know it, a glass of wine is in my hand and we are all admiring their new microwave in such close proximity to one another that I’m surprised I’m not at all self conscious.

They had prepared an Italian themed meal with numerous little appetizers: foie gras, cheese tarts, spinach puffs and two different kinds of cheese to go with their crackers. They brought out a salad they had discovered in Sicily: an unexpectedly pleasant combination of oranges, onions, and Cayenne pepper that later introduced a simple greens salad. Pasta with red sauce and bread from the same market that Sarcosi buys from and then pear-chocolate tart for dessert. I might have busted out of my new skirt while their large orange and white cat strolled all around the table in a mute interrogation of the houseguests.

At two a.m., I realized however, that what was most pleasant about the evening for me was how I felt in that room full of deliriously affable people – many of whom were strangers. As M poured out another limoncello and C laughed genially as he blushed over a French curse word, I realized that I wanted to have this again, what they have, what we were having. To be a little bit older and still stylish, to be shifting through different languages (Italian, French, and English) with a group of people principally concerned with laughing, making each other feel comfortable, and the pleasures of a good meal. I would like to invite someone like me out on a night like that and keep her talking well past her bedtime and make her feel at home. I’d like to make her feel comfortable with herself again, even if she’s stretching the seams on her skirt, I’d like to talk about homemade limoncello while pouring a glass of it and discuss a particularly good book. It’s surprisingly overwhelming to meet one of your possible futures and live there for a minute. If you’re looking for it (or even if you’re not), if you shift slightly to the left of the center of your life, you can end up under the broad skylights in the roof of an apartment saturated with the sound of unrestrained laughter and you can meet yourself… even (or maybe especially) in a strange city.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Life, Off the Clock

If you’re like me, your cell phone is your watch. Not only is it a vibrating anchor that keeps you moored to your whole life through SMS, email, conversations home to your family on your evening commute, etc., it also keeps you punctual (although really less so, if you’re me).

Sunrise on my Street
However, ever since I cancelled my service for this trip, my cell phone that I had planned on using as camera, pocket watch and alarm clock has stopped resolutely at January 1st, 2012 12 a.m.  There are no instructions on how to manually change this anywhere. Once this problem emerged, JP and D promptly offered one of their spare watches for my use and I gratefully accepted it, changed out the batteries, and set the time.

The unfortunate part of this arrangement, however, is that I am just not accustomed to wearing a watch. I keep thinking it’s an elastic hair band and trying to put my hair back with it or else rearranging it in different positions while my hands rest on the keyboard. Or, just not wearing it at all.

For the past three days I’ve left the house having forgotten to put the watch on. Once I get to the tram stop and look to see when the next one should be pulling up, I realize that I’ve left the darned thing at home again next to Paulo Coelho’s Brida (in French) and a button that’s fallen off of my coat. Great!

Chocolates at Neuhaus by Bri Seeley
But really, it is kind of wonderful. Time is an idea, right? A human invention. So for however long I’m without a clock, it kind of doesn’t exist... There’s only: “it’s darker now,” “I’m hungry,” “I think I feel like heading home.” When Bri and I left to explore the center of old Brussels on Saturday night, we paced our evening entirely by how we were feeling. We didn’t worry about when the next train was coming, we simply sat down, rearranged our scarves and continued talking as we roamed from one location to the next. We took several unnecessary walks along the cobblestones that tried to trip us up by our high heels at every turn and took time to peer into shop windows, sample chocolate at Neuhaus, take pictures, fix our hair (which looked rather frightful after the wind we walked through to get there).

It also keeps you looking up. The time here isn’t (usually) on some flashing billboard on the side of the building. It’s usually on an old clock on a tower that’s shading some plaza. If you’re looking around, scanning the turrets or statuary in a particular area, you’ll probably run across one with its long arms pointing reliably at some Roman numerals. This way you can check back in – “ah, it’s 8:30” – and time briefly exists again.

It’s a departure from “real life” in this way. The way we’ve arranged everything in the “real world” leaves no room for meandering, so we have abide by a schedule. It’s a practical invention, but one that I’m not missing any more than I’m missing my morning coffee from McDonald’s.

Bri et Moi at the Grand Place (finally) by Bri Seeley
When we went out Saturday night, we took the metro into the center of town. As we went underground there was a light breeze and a mist in the air, but by the time that we had arrived at Gare Central, the rain has begun in earnest – not the noncommittal Seattle rain that drizzles in a fine mist, but a straight-down, puddle-splashing rain that beaded up on our coats and found its way down our collars. It was coupled with a rather violent wind that raked at all of our clothes – knocking off my hat and flipping Bri’s umbrella inside out (when we examine the damage later we’ll notice that all of its metal tines have bowed out and no longer close properly). We had to duck behind an old sandstone column and pause for a moment to wrap our scarves more tightly around ourselves, pull our skirts down to cover more of our tights and put on our gloves. In the downhill slope to the Grand Place, we lean into the wind and stuff our hands as deep into our pockets as we can. We can see the spire of the Town Hall in the center of Grand Place down below us, but we feel like we might have our clothes torn off us at any moment by the wind before we reach it and instead arrive naked in the city square.

And then, suddenly, we emerge from the meandering little alleys crammed with sidewalk tables and pedestrians and we are in the Grand Place city square and the wind has calmed and it’s stopped raining and after the work out of fighting to get there, we find we are warm again and we decide to take a walk down to the Mannekin Pis that is just three short blocks from Grand Place. All of the avenues are strung with lights and all of the shops are well-lit and blasting heat that floods out into the little streets and we can hear a salad of languages as we tromp towards our destination.

Manneken Pis by Bri Seeley
The Manneken Pis. It’s a two-foot tall bronze statue of a naked little boy peeing into a basin. It would be an otherwise vacant corner of the city, but the Mannekin Pis is the mascot of Brussels, and there’s a large crowd of tourists standing all around him taking pictures.

He’s charming, sure. And there are lots of little stories about his significance. One story goes that a two-year-old Duke’s troops were battling and in order to save their lord, the troops placed him in a basket and hung it from a tree in order to encourage their efforts and what did the Duke contribute? He peed on the offending troops who subsequently lost the battle. Or there’s a legend about a young boy named Julianske who happened to be spying on another foreign power that was laying siege to Brussels, which had held out for some time. The offensive troops planned to destroy the city with explosives at the city walls and little Julian urinated on the burning fuse and saved the city.

I like these stories, but it turns out that none of them are true. Rick Steve’s reports that the little kid was commissioned by the city as a symbol of Brussels’ irreverence and joie de vivre. Heads of state and various foreign powers make gifts of outfits for the statue that are changed with great aplomb; accompanied by music and sometimes beer that the little boy pees out and can be served to passersby. I don't know if I would have chosen a little boy peeing in order to illustrate my city, but at the same time, I feel reminded that Brussels is a city with an appreciable sense of humor.

Anyways, we saw him – hung out in the crowd briefly, snapped a picture and ducked in for some chocolate in the nearest open door. And then we made our way back for dinner. Not without some risks on our part. Bri is creeped out by human statues and there were a few of them on the path to the Manneken Pis and she bravely forged ahead even as they reached out to pinch the arm of an American toddler also in the flow of traffic.

Searching for Dinner by Bri Seeley
And in making a decision to dine here in the heart of Brussels it turns out that dinner itself is not nearly the event that finding a place to have dinner is. 

All along the Rue des Bouchers there are hosts that have the same role as carnival barkers. They try to stop you and talk up their menus, get you to take a table at their restaurant.

“Ducati. Lamborghini. Ferrari. Come with me, Ladies. I take you out in this,” they entreat us from their storefronts.

“Please, beautiful ladies. I have the best food here,” they point to their menus, “just ten Euros. We have the best mussels.”

“A massage after dinner,” one of them beckons.

It’s all flattery and seems far more Italian than Belgian to me – forward, not necessarily sincere, but certainly pleasurable. We spend almost an hour letting the aggressive and boisterous male hosts along the Rue de Bouchers invite us to take a table before we decide on a simple Italian restaurant and both order the Margherita pizza, which we tuck away neatly – one crisply crusted bite at a time.

Grand Place after Dinner
We have plans to go to a small bar renowned for its pear cider, but since we have no schedule and we’re having such a nice time, we decide to take another walk – running across many of the disappointed hosts whose venues we didn’t visit and we circle the square, watching tourists, seeing if we can pick out the other Americans in the crowd, listening to the wah-wah siren of some police car in the distance, we look at the ceilings of the lit rooms in each of the buildings around the square that we can see and evaluate their patterns before retreating into the heat of an old English style pub, Delirium.

In terms of getting a view of Belgium culture, Delirium fails. Everyone speaks English and a crowd of teenagers in the corner are loudly singing along to “Back in Black,” but the Pear cider does not disappoint and Bri and I spend the next few hours hashing out our lives, talking about travel, the books we want to write, love. The sort of conversation that rambles comfortably when no one has plans to be anywhere else and no time to get there.

Bri et Moi by Bri Seeley
One of my goals for 2012 is to adopt the attitude of “everything as it is.” Spend more time in the present, spend less time processing or projecting and just be here. Be in this moment without wondering what’s going on in the room I just left or the to do list growing on the desk at home. So far, one of the keys to this experience is life without a watch. Something that is easier here, but still something I can try on from time to time when I get home.

Turn off the clock, shut down the wireless and just have a moment. Just you and your journal, your friend, your lover. These are lessons from a life off the clock.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Le Déluge

Dusting off the French is a difficult and humbling process. Not only do I have to retrieve whatever’s left in the old noggin there, but I have to question if I ever really learned anything at all. I know the word for “stamps” used to be in my vocabulary – I can see my mother writing it in swoopy letters across the chalkboard in that fluorescent-lit classroom all those years ago. But it’s gone from me now. I ask JP and D questions constantly for things that should be simple: “what is the word for clothes?” You know, phrases that are important to know: “where are my clothes?”

I am tempted to take the advice of one of my friends: “Frenchwise, when in doubt, just point at random objects and say Voila!”

So when an exchange goes well, I feel as though a parade is being thrown in my honor. I lightly mount my bicycle for the ride home with “We are the Champions” sounding triumphantly in my head. I punch the sky as though I’m featured in a heroic montage and congratulate myself on a job well done.

I went to the little shopping center today to get my watch fixed and asked questions and received answers in French from the people I spoke to: “Where can I get my watch fixed?”, “no, I don’t know if the batteries are still good.” And they responded and I understood. I switched out the batteries in another watch and even though my favorite watch is still broken, I was in a resoundingly good mood the rest of the afternoon.

The thing is, the phrases that have stuck with me from French are not truly helpful. Here is one that is particularly frustrating:

There were two boys in my French class in high school who were particularly animated and particularly funny (especially in combination). Imagine the Muppets’ Statler and Waldorf, but a little bit pimply and awkward around girls, but they bloomed beautifully in French class when comfortably masked by using a new language. They were perhaps a little too boisterous for a French teacher’s liking, but the rest of us all enjoyed the show.

Anyways, Waldorf and Statler took to a specific phrase, for no apparent reason: “et après ça… le déluge!!”

They said it after everything and very loudly. “Salut, je m'appelle Luc. Et après ça… Le DELUGE!!” “Cette viande est délicieuse. Et après ça… Le DELUGE!!” “J'aime écouter le petit oiseau. Et après ça… Le DELUGE!!” Over and over, always with incredible gusto.

As far as I know, there was no point in our classroom education that they learned this. I cannot remember my mother even giving us “déluge” as a vocab word. It just sounded good to them as far as I’m concerned. But they loved saying it and it caught on spectacularly. We all started finishing our thoughts that way. Even after class in the hallways, we’d be slamming our paint-chipped lockers loudly and shouting “Et après ça… Le DELUGE!!”

It simply means “And after that… THE FLOOD.”

The problem is that this part of French class is so well-ingrained in my psyche that I am tempted to finish every conversation with that phrase.

“Thank you, dinner was so delicious. And after that… THE FLOOD!!”

“Yes, I slept well. You? And after that… THE FLOOD.”

Another French lesson that has stood the test of time:

My elementary school was fortunate enough to have mini courses in French when we were in fourth grade. A guest teacher came in for two days a week and taught us French and it all culminated in a play that we performed for the school entirely in French. The year that we did it, it was “Little Red Riding Hood.”

Now, wrangling a group of fourth graders is hard enough without having to do it in another language. They basically drilled the entire play into all of us. We all recited every line of dialogue together while acting it out. Every one of us learned every line. I remember the inflection, the tone, and it all sort of fits together sing-songily in my head.

The more I speak French the more I wander around the house sing-songing to myself “Doc Doc Doc. Qui est-ce? Le Petit Chaperon rouge. Entrez. Oh le loup!”

To anyone that might hear me, I probably sound like a bad horror movie, gently singing “Knock knock knock. Who’s there? Little Red Riding Hood. Come in. Ah the wolf!” It’s so comforting in my head though.

In any case, I am glad that I’ve decided to take a course in French during my time here. Just a few hours a week, but it will be a chance to jog the memory for some far more relevant information. 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

This is Belgium

“I’m sorry, I’ll have to see your visa,” the border guard barked at me.

“But I only have a passport. I was told that a tourist visa didn’t require paperwork.” I’m shuffling through my bag pulling out boarding passes, receipts, cords, and ready to deploy my laptop to show him the webpage I have saved on my computer that says that I didn’t have to file for a tourist visa – of course the page isn’t loading – there’s no wireless. Behind me I hear someone begin to grumble in Italian.

“Get out of the line,” he gestures viciously at a corner of the customs counter where I go and stand waiting until some mammoth agent approaches me frowning, “you’ll have to return to the U.S.”

I can tell that’s what he’s going to say. I’m already crying. I have three bags stationed around me as though we’re all about to be executed.

These were the nightmares that I was spinning in my head in the nights leading up to my departure from the U.S.

From the park near the Royal Museum for Central Africa
In reality, the experience went more like this.

I get off the plane at about 8 in the morning looking like a wilted cabbage and stumble through the line, handing my passport off to a very buoyant looking customs agent who stamped my passport without a glance, I retrieved my three bags and dragged them about fifty feet through a “gate” where no one said anything to me before I realized that the experience was already over and that I was in Brussels and that the greatest challenge now facing me was finding JP who was already walking towards me with a very hospitable smile.

I have never had such a pleasant or practical introduction to a city. When I decided to take the Rome study abroad program in summer 2007, they basically gave you an address and wished you the best of luck in finding your way to the apartments that the school owned. When I arrived at the apartment after several hours of hauling my luggage the wrong way through the city by the forum and then the Coliseum, I made a horrible impression on my new roommate. I smelled awful – but dammit, I wasn’t going to pay for a cab when I could walk myself there. It had looked easy enough on the map.

View from the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula
On the other end of the spectrum is my experience here in Brussels. I am incredibly blessed to have such wonderful and accommodating hosts who have stayed with me this first week in order to get me settled. And when I say “settled,” I don’t mean handing me a map and pointing me in the right direction, I mean that they have walked me to the nearest supermarket and purchased groceries for me (refusing my offer to pay), taken me to the city’s landmarks and introduced me to the Belgian moules frites, taken the tram and subway with me as a training session so that I would know which lines to take and where to find libraries, dentists, the works.

There is absolutely no comparison.

Hôtel de Ville in Grand Place
JP, an old friend of my grandfather’s is an imposing figure. In the picture that he emailed me so that we would recognize each other at the airport, he is laughing and jovial, well-dressed and ostensibly at some professional party. He was holding a glass of white wine in one hand and seemed to be caught in the middle of a joke. What the picture fails to convey is how tall he is. When first entering the house that they have in Woluwe St. Pierre I remarked on how high the ceilings were and he looked up in surprise “really? You think they are high?” Of course, to him they are not – to a man who requires such clearance, you would need higher ceilings. Or maybe I’m just short and used to living in a basement.

Nonetheless, I have grown incredibly fond of him in a very short time. Bearded and soft-spoken with a great deal of laughter behind his eyes, I find it very difficult to think of him as anything but a delighted and delightful uncle. I enjoy speaking with him and regret only that I cannot pass the conversation comfortably in his native tongue. He speaks incredibly fluent English however and is knowledgeable about a number of subjects, from birds to post traumatic stress disorder. It seems that there are no subjects that are off limits and in that way that it is pleasant to hear polite people curse, I was particularly charmed when our parking spot was stolen from us yesterday afternoon that he loudly said, “Shit!” for my benefit.

His wife joined us today and right now I can hear her cooking in the kitchen (coq au vin). She is a lovely woman who speaks French slowly enough so that I can understand it with a light and lovely voice – all smiles and very stylish. When I gave her the earrings that my friend Marz made, she immediately took out her own and donned the new pair. “Tell your friend that she is very talented.”

They said that they are going to spend the rest of the time here speaking in French. It’s good for me and I can understand a fair amount of it. I just say very little back. Maybe that’s also a good thing.

Le ventre de Bruxelles ("The stomach of Brussels")
I am in love with this house.  One block away I can find a patisserie, a grocery store, a convenience store, and a pharmacy. It’s just a short tram ride to the city center where I have already visited the Grand Place with JP and dined along “le ventre de Bruxelles” (the stomach of Brussels), a street that is wall-to-wall restaurants of every type imaginable.  This is how I know that I am in the right city – a place that nicknames its streets for the food that you can find there.

The weather here is a mirror of Seattle (gray, mild, maybe some rain) – except that every morning this week has featured a few hours of sunlight. Yesterday, JP and I took advantage of the good weather and went down to the outdoor market and sampled fresh cheeses and artisan sausages. Then in the afternoon we went to the park in Tervuren on the edge of the Forêt de Soignes – a location perfect for an afternoon bike ride.

Bruegel's "Fight between Carnival and Lent,"
from the Museum of Fine Arts
And then this morning we went to the Museum of the Fine Arts where I was formally introduced to Bruegel and Bosch.  As it was a Sunday morning, the traffic in the museum was light enough so that JP could keep up a running stream of information about the different styles and paintings that we were viewing. He is extraordinarily knowledgeable and his enthusiasm for Bruegel has made me a fan, the same way that Rick Kenney in Rome made me love Caravaggio.

“Bruegel, beer, moules, and chocolate,” he laughs on the way back to the car, “this is Belgium.”

He is joking, of course, but it has been a lovely tour so far with food and beautiful art as the highlights.

In the afternoons, I’ve been contending with the relentless and accusatory blinking cursor on my computer screen (a battle for another blog post). I have not had a McDonalds or Dunkin Donuts coffee, Diet Coke, or the general garbage that I usually have access to in over a week. I have salad every day with quiches and soups and very rich rillette.

Cathedral of St. Michael and Gudula at night
Which is to say, this is really all a lesson in putting aside my fears. Forget the border guard that you’ve prognosticated about, stop predicting defeat and anticipating change by tracing the possible threads to destruction, Jessica. The thing is, whatever you’ve predicted, you’re going to arrive at your destination eventually. And the chocolate at the end of the journey is worth the stress, but it never requires it.

Monday, January 9, 2012

On Leaving Your Country

"There is no moment of delight in any pilgrimage like the beginning of it.” Charles Dudley Warner

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Moules Frites and The Wedding Bridge

In middle school I remember watching some Sally Struthers-like commercial plea for the children and feeling quietly confused and sad. “Why,” I asked my mother, “were the children’s bellies so big when they were so hungry?” Mom tried to explain Kwashiorkor as simply as she could to middle-school-me– how the hungriest bellies are sometimes the largest tummies because the body is trying to eat anything it can find inside their bodies and how it processes those things... wrong. Gazing down at my tiny waistline, contemplating the peanut butter balls I had just eaten, I insisted that we were going to feed one of those bellies. My parents (even though they were staring down the barrel of bankruptcy at the time) encouraged me and agreed to sponsor a kid and filled out the necessary paperwork. A few weeks later, a hand-written card arrived in our mailbox from our 10-year-old beneficiary and I wrote back and forth with my African “sibling” for the following year.

Photo: Roger S. Duncan / Forecaster
That was the last time that I was a true pen pal with anyone until this year when my grandfather and I started writing each other bi-weekly letters. His letters (always more prompt than mine) contained descriptions of the paintings that he was working on or had painted years and years ago, stories of my grandmother’s good nature and his continuing commitment to ski every winter. I had forgotten how gratifying scribbled addresses on confident, linen stationery could feel in my hand.

My grandfather at 87 years of age loves to tell his stories about travel and work. Stories that place him in Parisian bistros playing the ukulele for businessmen or buying old European candy companies and meeting wise strangers in bars (in short, a character for many a short story). And, in truth, he is the real benefactor of my European retreat. The family that is hosting me is an old colleague-turned-friend from his days traveling for business in the 60s. It is hard not to see this Belgian experience through his eyes.

So I’ve been spending some time visiting him this week. His apartment is a small gallery arrayed with paintings of WWII battlefields, New England landscapes, and artful Winslow Homer copies. A haloed vision of my grandmother hangs in pride of place near the piano she used to play and the whole house smells dimly of paint.

Heavy Water by Frank Lundblad
“You know,” he said after lunch the other day, “I think if you’re going to Brussels, we really should go and try the Moules Frites at Lion’s Pride here in Brunswick before you go.” Lion’s Pride is a Belgian establishment set off the highway of Maine and run by a proprietor who my grandfather praises for his comprehensive knowledge of beer. I have never been to a traditional Belgian restaurant (despite the fact that there are various places to sample Belgian ales and waffles throughout Seattle) and I have learned at this point to follow my grandfather’s lead and (among other things) to stay quiet when he’s telling a story. So last night, we all went to the outskirts of Brunswick on an unseasonably warm January evening and ordered three pots of mussels prepared in the customary Flemish style with fries.

If this American interpretation is any indicator, I am going to love the food in Belgium. I have always enjoyed mussels, but the light, garlicky broth that the mussels were simmered in was absolutely delicious. Apparently there are many variations on Moules Frites (from simmering them in ale or white wine, adding parsley or cooking them with crème fraiche). This chef suggests that they are going to be at their best when I arrive (between September and February) and that I might raise a few eyebrows if I suggest that the mussels were imported from the Netherlands. Good to know – I was just about to ask…

And, of course, the fries were served with mayo.

I love food that you eat with your hands – all of us knocking against each other’s knuckles as we emptied those pots. My grandfather turned to me and said “this is how you eat them in the Belgian fashion.” He took an empty shell and used its cracked opening to clamp on the meat in a fresh one and popped the mussel into his mouth, grinning broadly.

Afterwards, I shared some of the photos that my Belgian family sent me of the house I’ll be staying at in Belgium and my grandfather, eyes sparkly like he’d just come off of another Black Diamond trail at Sunday River, said “Oh – I wish I could go, too.”

My grandfather, active as he is (still biking five days a week and rigorous about attending his “Silver Sneaker” exercise classes) says that he doesn’t have much traveling left in him, hampered as he is by his breathing machine and some health problems (not that it keeps him from skiing each winter). But rest assured, Far Far, you’ll definitely be present for my jogs through the neighborhood, my tours through the Grand Place, or my visit to the Manneken Pis. Founder of this journey, I’ll definitely be thinking of you as I experience it.

And here is this little monument in time for him as I explore Europe. My mother is coming to visit in late February and she plans to rent a car – top of our list of places to visit will be Bruges and, while there, we plan on stopping by “The Wedding Bridge.” Many years ago, my grandfather went there one afternoon to paint and enjoyed the city on one of its rare sunny Saturdays with a stranger that he had met just that week at a party. That man who went with him later made a gift of that painting of the wedding bridge that still hangs at the foot of my grandfather’s stairs in his two-story house so that it greets him every morning as he comes down for breakfast. This February, I am going to go stand where his feet stood for hours as he sketched and made a new lifelong friend to ruminate on how some things hold the value of their own history for ages: paintings, stories, family, and the long list of what-have-yous that you’re familiar with. This symmetry is particularly reassuring when I’m a little nervous about how lonely I might be in a strange country – I feel comforted by the idea of inherited familiarity, as though somehow my blood will recognize the bridge and be similarly inspired. For some reason this equation makes sense to me: I can’t be too lonely in streets that my family has already traveled.  

Here is the painting of “The Wedding Bridge” – wish me a similar sunny afternoon.