28 June 2009

Freaks, food, florida

florida...such a special place.

june 24: landed in miami. the airport sucks. super hard to figure out where to go, where you are when you come out, where to go when you leave. stupid place. dad found me though and we made it to south beach pretty quickly. our hotel was pretty mediocre but we were near several restaurant areas so it was helpful when we went looking for dinner.

we went walking to the lincoln road pedestrian area. man, did i forget what a trip miami was. boobs and butts and abs and crazy attire everywhere. most of the clothes i saw couldnt be worn anywhere else in the world than in miami, unless you wanted to get arrested or committed to a mental institution. such a crazy place. and i SO do not fit in. but i could care less. we found an italian place on the strip (raphaels) with a decent menu and good prices and sit down to people watch.

after dinner, we walked back and turned in for the night. because my body clock was wacked out, i woke up at like 6a. we went out looking for food at 8a, and shocker, miami is asleep at this hour. finally at 8:30a, we found a cafe open. crappy place, but it was on the ocean drive strip of south beach, so after breakfast we went out on the beach to get a look around. not too hot and sunny at this hour and all the white sand and palm trees were pretty inviting.

then we decided to get on the road back to melbourne. while i was waiting to check out, the woman in front of me was asking for directions to a nearby mall explaining how she was french and the malls here are different then france. it was so funny to hear a french accent speaking english. i felt like i was back in rennes! i wanted to say hi and ask where she was from, but that seemed too weird. so, we got in the car, drove through esplanada way (cute old spanish area of miami beach), and headed out to I-95.

(miami, your shops are so...naughty; ocean dr in miami)

june 26: moms friend, michelle, was commissioned to make us a gourmet dinner as a social meal for 10 people. she made french appetizers (brie and black currant jam in a puff pastry and warm baguette with herb butter), italian main dishes (eggplant parmesan and chicken marsala), and italian dessert (cannoli cake). the cannoli cake was DElicious: a layer of sponge cake, cannoli filling with chocolate chips, another layer of sponge cake, topped with buttercream frosting and mini cannolis. yum!

after dinner, it was suggested by the group to visit lous blues, a freaky bar down the road from my moms house. this place is a perfect microcosm of florida: senior citizens, leather-skinned ladies/cougars, social outcasts, bikers, cowboys, a few token minorities, college kids/bridal parties, and crackers. basically: liquor + awkward white people = best free entertainment ever. example image: a 70+ year old white guy with dorky sandals, denim capri pants, a beachy plaid short-sleeved shirt, and beaded/shell necklace...jumping up and down and bobbing on the dance floor. i was surprised an artificial knee wasnt shredded. hilarious. hilarious. its a must-see spot. good time, guaranteed.

(the bra chandelier at lous blues; a middle-aged man making a fool of himself)

june 27: lunch at thai zushi asia. yum. great selection of rolls. good prices. HUGE rolls. i ordered the dancing mango roll: shrimp tempura, cream cheese, avocado, lemon slice with mango pieces on top. the fifth avenue roll and almond tree roll were also good. and since it was a thai place too, they had thai iced tea. perfect!

(indialantic beach)

24 June 2009

Sky rocket's in flight

heading back to native soil.

on the way to the train station today we were able to witness a german protest. it appeared to be something to do with children and perhaps education. very well organized. then we took the 10 minute local train ride to the airport (nice airport) and dropped off my baggage. then we had time to eat lunch before we had to separate to our different terminals. :(

after lunch, i grabbed another pretzel for a plane snack (also, ho hum. cant win em all, i guess theres always next time...). so, now i had to say goodbye to dave. no biggie, "i love you, thanks for traveling with me, i had a great time, safe travels home, i'll talk to you soon, love you, miss you, see you soon."

turn away to go through ID check and turn around to wave goodbye again before going through the metal detector. hes still waiting there, waving. bye! no biggie. turn around and head away...on my own. whats that? im choking up? im tearing up? please dont make me talk to a security guard, a tear might bulge out from my eyelid and my voice will crack. being patted down by the metal wand lady sobered me up enough to speak normally with the german customs guy (he actually cared that my original french visa in my passport had expired, so i had to show him my carte de sejour).

anyway, now i was alone as i sat waiting at the gate to board. i get to see dave in about three weeks. time will go fast. just make it past this flight. but now im thinking about all the things i will see/do without dave (i call this "230 sq. ft. syndrome"). i originally began the blog for family and friends back home. then, i continued doing it for me (a great memory log and something healthy to chase the boredom away). along the way i realized dave liked its memory-saver utility as well, and i think he likes seeing how i process the experiences. and now that were apart...this blogs for you (sorry for the bud advertizing reference; but i was thinking about you when i made the title...). love you!

anyway, boarded the plane about 40 minutes before departure time...and for almost 20 minutes no one else really got on...whats going on? apparently the airline waited for all the late-ass people and at the time we were supposed to depart, the entire plane arrived. so...we got off to a late start. nice of the airline, terds for me.

but really, air berlin is a nice budget airline. i think my ticket was 250€ for a one-way ticket. we got two meals (tasty ones too), liquids galore, and movies (one negative was the fact that they only had u.s. customs forms in german...i cant read that, how do i know im filling this out legally?). we didnt have any particularly awful kids either. in fact, right in front of us was a spanish family. they seemed like partial idiots, but their little 10 month old boy was great. fabio was a cutie in striped pajamas, eating and napping on time, smiling and batting his little eyelashes in between. :)

this slightly tempered the "ew" factor of the spanish chick sitting next to me. she is like the unofficial mascot of miami. she had unnaturally bright hair color(s), tanned skin, silver jangly bracelets, tight clothes, a neon thong (dont ask), construction cone orange nails that she painted while on the plane (who does that?), she popped tons of pills (to sleep, for motion sickness?), ate tons of junk food (can of pringles, etc), read girlie/gossip magazines the whole time when she wasnt watching "confessions of a shopaholic," and totally made up her face while we were descending. then she had to pee while we were taxiing on the runway. nice.

but, all-in-all, not too bad. after 10 hours (of a smooth ride thankfully), i was ready to get off the plane and say hello to miami humidity and the high 90s...

Hot air 8 - My reading attention span

to cap off my reading list for europe, the following are the last things i read:

green mansions by w.h. hudson
- mentioned by hemingway in "the sun also rises." a book about a venezuelan man living among the "savages" of the jungle in guyana. some of the descriptions of the jungle lushness were great, but the story was lacking. totally male ego ideals. an educated man successfully lives among the tribes of the forest. he finds a most perfect and beautiful "wild" girl. he becomes obsessed with her and tries to teach her about the world. he basically dashes all her "primitive" thoughts as stupid and false, thus shattering her world view. but he convinces her that all she needs is his love to know she is right in the world. she was once a respected, powerful creature and having met him became vulnerable and weak. the guy was so arrogant and annoying, i had a hard time finishing it.

this was the last book i completed. i attempted one or two others but found my reading attention span had dwindled with all the visitors and things i had left to take care of. so...

interesting new yorker articles (read much more but these are the noteworthy ones):
- brief article about famous war time photojournalism
- brief article on the middle east "obama effect"
- short story from david sedaris. hilarious.
- short article about edgar allan poe. his life, work, and new writings about him. interesting.
- in-depth article about solitary confinement. absolutely fascinating and heart-wrenching.
- in-depth auto industry article. history of the new auto industry belt in the south and the struggling american car companies.

and, to round out my reading list full circle, i began pride and prejudice again, and continued to read it on the plane home.

23 June 2009

Germany, it düssel body good

arrived in our (read: my) final european destination: düsseldorf, germany.

when the train crossed the border from belgium into germany, i had to stop the reflex telling me i was in ohio. flat, farms, and industry. tasty. we got off in köln, and took a commuter train to düsseldorf. outside the train station we ran the gauntlet of german food stands, including pretzels, laughing in my face (i will eat you soon!). anyway, we took the city tram to our hotel and hauled the bags up 3 flights of stairs!

after getting settled, we got a map and hit the town. scanning the people on the street told me "we're not in france anymore." the people were pastie white, the hair was blunt and/or awful, the clothes...questionable, and the general appearance was less "put together" (aka, these people looked like me!).

anyway, the temperature was perfect and the day was still gorgeous. we walked through the lovely hofgarten park. great landscaping and feel to it, good job germany (though it would have been nice to not have had so much road noise...but i'll take it). we exited at the west end of the park and entered the altstadt (old town, in german). nice pedestrian area with pleasant buildings.

we found a mustard store on the main strip and went in to taste a few kinds: olives, chili, balsamic, etc. not too bad, but i like regular yellow mustard and dijon mustard. near the store was a chain bakery that sold pretzels. i wanted a snack before dinner and this was the only pretzel place id seen in a while so i got one...tasted like a chain: unmemorable, dry thing that resembles the item its supposed to be. better luck next time?

to relax before dinner, we headed further west toward the water, the rhine river where they have a big, paved promenade. a view of the grassy land on the other bank, several bridges, the city skyline, and people out enjoying the weather and beer in the riverside bars. great city atmosphere. there was again a bit of road noise, but everything else was so lovely it quickly became unnoticeable.

we located on the map the media harbor area where some of the famous city buildings are and headed south that way. perhaps the most famous building(s) is that designed by frank gehry. there are others of rivaling intrigue in the same area though. we found a great spot right on the water with shade trees and benches across the way. we sat and had a fantastically peaceful and relaxing half hour just enjoying life.

(frank gehry buildings; the building next to gehrys. the evening sun was reflecting off the water which was reflecting off the building. very cool.; dave on the düsseldorf promenade)

then we walked back along the river in search of dinner, but also people watching and soaking up more of the city. our dinner destination was in the alstadt, a place called zum schiffchen. we sat in the beer garden and had a great meal. now, to my (previous) mind, german food is dense, unhealthy, and for the last 27 years of my life something i avoided putting in my mouth. i dont think i can argue away the unhealthy (although, french food isnt healthy per se, it goes along with the lifestyle though. and germans too are an active, outdoorsy people) but from now on i will remove the "dense" and "to be avoided" tags.

(although, come on, "portion of lard?" that seems excessive. i like to disguise my lard a little bit by calling it "apple pie" or "refried beans.")

first of all FREE water (100 point bonus) and dave ordered a couple of alt beers (this is the regional speciality beer). for meals, dave ordered the braised beef "rhineland style" (der rheinische sauerbraten" nach altem hausrezept, in german) and i ordered the chicken with mushroom sauce and noodles (maispoulardenbrust mit kräutern gegrillt, in german). every item on our plates meshed perfectly well with every other thing. funny how that should be obvious, but i couldnt appreciate it until we tried them all together. yum yum yum. to round out the meal, we finished with the apple strudel. it looked and felt dense, but when you put it in your mouth it was awesome. pure apple flavor, not messed up with too much sugar. just warm, fruity, layered goodness.

(daves meal before (braised beef with raisins, almonds, stewed apples, and potato dumpling); and after; the apple strudel)

the meal was great, the ambiance was nice, and we didnt feel gross or stuffed afterward. the table behind us was also...interesting. dave overheard them asking the waiter (in english) about the where to go in the area, how to ride the trains, what there is for entertainment around here, and...where they could find some girls...prostitutes. the waiter lowered his voice and mentioned a few streets they could explore. the guys replied and said "how much?" to which the waiter replied "from 50€ to..." and they started laughing.

on the way back to the hotel, we walked through the town market area, a shopping area, some little squares, a canal, some nice churches. cute, nice. we thought that while there was nothing particular that we were interested in specifically doing/seeing in this city, it was a great place to simply be. im glad i found a cheap flight from here, it was a nice resting place before heading back. i would definitely fly out of this city again (but german maps are horrid, note to self).

(the german models in the clothing window. edgy.)

back at the hotel, we ate the pierre marcolini chocolates we had bought in brussels. of the 8 chocolate regions, our verdict was: venezuela wins for dave and ghana wins for me. also, while the java region didnt seem to fit in with the other flavors (it tasted like a melty, toasted marshmallow rather than chocolate), i thought it was quite nice. good way to end an evening that was wonderful and memorable. nighty night.

Life imitates art

and now for the reason we chose to visit brussels: the rené magritte museum.

after another yum breakfast, we checked out and lugged our bags down the cobblestone, on the metro, and locked them in central station. then we headed off toward the parc de brussels which borders the royal palace on the south end. again, a weirdly boring stone building (but, to be fair, buckingham palace isnt that exciting either).

then we arrived at the museum ticket line just as the museum was opening. JUST recently (june 2, 2009), brussels opened this end-all-be-all, world reference center museum to celebrate perhaps the countrys greatest known artist (rené magritte). the museum is closed mondays (as are most things in brussels) so today was our time to see it, before the train to germany.

being in the first group of the morning was great, few people! the museum flow was logical and informative and awesome. the ambiance was like a deep purple cave that totally drew your eye to the life and works of the man (as it should). while many of his MOST famous works are scattered in the famous museums of the world, this was aiming to be comprehensive. the collection was great and took you through his different phases and illuminated reasons for style changes and life influences. interesting. it caused me to purchase the official museum book for more reading about the man, his life, and his work (even though i had almost no room to pack it). highly recommend this museum.

(silk-screen hanging in the museum lobby; while it doesnt have the fluffy clouds, this is a very well-known "signature" piece from magritte. illuminating the fact that just because you draw a picture of a pipe doesnt mean that it is actually a pipe...you cant smoke it. in the museum, they also had a small painting of this same pipe with a penis as the mouthpiece. great stuff.)

after the museum, we were feeling pretty lucky, so we went in search of supposedly the "best chocolate in brussels." super posh chocolatier pierre marcolini is one of those places where it doesnt even look like they have anything for sale. just glass cases with the suggestion of chocolate. most things were sold in boxes so you couldnt just choose what you wanted. you were locked into that tiny box with 9 paper-thin chocolates that cost 7€. oh well, we got the saveurs du monde (a taster of the "pure standards" that represent the 8 highest respected chocolate regions in the world).

i didnt like the ambiance of the place, but hoped the chocolates set them apart. since we werent convinced, in the same area (it was like the unofficial chocolate center of the city), was another neuhaus store. we went in to chose a few more items: a plain chocolate truffle, a champagne truffle (yum!), dark chocolate with cocoa butter, and the chocolate mousse (delish!).

(in the "chocolate square," a cafe was showing its love for magritte)

with our sacks of chocolate and magritte book, we headed to the train station to reunite with our bags. got ourselves to the gare midi, and released the beastmaster bag to sit on the tracks and wait for the train. another thalys train, to düsseldorf.

the weather while in brussels was perfection: warm temperatures, clear skies, a breeze, and fluffy white clouds. nearly every time i looked at the sky, i saw a magritte painting. he had a home in brussels (which is also a museum now) and they say that he painted many of his clouds just from his window there. and swoon if i cant see why. crisp, crisp blue with the dense cotton candy puff balls sitting dreamily in the sky. its real. the train ride through belgium was like driving through a magritte landscape. it was hard to admire the hills and treetops when the landscape gained more topography because i was staring at the sky. yes, the saying is art imitates life, but this sky, his inspiration, seemed to know that it was the biggest canvas in the world...and it was strutting its stuff.

22 June 2009

Like beer for chocolate

explore brussels.

after a yummy breakfast at the hotel, we hit the pavement in search of some green spaces. the neighborhood around the hotel was very cute, a mix between brooklyn and san francisco. we were a ways away from the tourist center so this was a quiet, calm place where the regular folk lived.

anyway, we arrived at jubelpark/parc du cinquantenaire and saw the fountain, the arc du triomphe connecting some military museums, and then exited the park near the statue of a dog. walking to another park nearby, we noticed there was TONS of construction going on in the city. buildings, sidewalks, roads, everything.

(dog statue in parc du cinquantenaire. he was not neutered. turn your head and cough...)

even in the parc leopold, there was a bit of construction. this park backed up to some of the EU buildings, so we thought we'd have a look. weirdly (or maybe for security purposes?) there is no real front to the EU buildings. by that i mean, there is no long lawn or square to stand on and gaze at the immense, powerful structures. there is just a regular sidewalk and street where business-attired people go to work. yes, nice mod buildings but you couldnt get a good look at them. so, we decided to get out of this area and do the city center.

(field of poppies and the back of the European Parliament)

took the metro the the gare centraal. we exited right in front of saint gudule church which had all kinds of posters up in the park in front. the exhibit was about the construction going on in brussels. apparently by 2020 they are going to be a top green city. passive architecture and sustainable building products with useful, attractive designs. pretty cool. might a neat place to visit again in the future.

(me in a nice chair near saint gudule church)

then we found a route to the grand place. you walk into the center and on all sides are intricately carved stone buildings with gold everywhere. very nice, very grand square. since brussels isnt a huge tourist destination (the smaller, quaint towns like bruges are much higher on tourist lists), the square wasnt packed, so it was nice that we could look around without being pushed.

(part of one side in the grand place)

then we made a systematic plan to explore the area around the grand place because we assumed many chocolate stores, sweet shops, and beer places would be around. we found the belgium biscuiterie called dandoy and ordered a pain à la grecque (like a flatbread with cinnamon and sugar, yum). we also located, in the grand place, a well-respected chocolate shop called neuhaus, apparently a favorite of tourists and locals alike. we stopped in to pick out a few goodies.

(dave indicating his main objective near the grand place)

while making our selections a strange woman came in. i hope she was drunk because that is the only logical explanation for her oddity. she said "hello, im back to buy some chocolate. i want to eat it now. do you have one with bourbon? here is my husband. we are going to eat the chocolates together. do you have a list of what you have?" and on she went giving weird unnecessary information. anyway, we chose 4 chocolates: a cinnamon brown sugar, vanilla cream [fabiola], caramel truffle, and chocolate mousse [manon noir]. the best was definitely the chocolate mousse.

anyway, then we began looking for lunch. we found ourselves in the narrow gauntlet called rue des bouchers where a million restaurants crowd together and the waiters camp out and chatter at the tourists to "eat here, ive got a great seafood special." no thanks, but at least we located the delirium bar on an alley near this madness. the beer place to end all pilgrimages.

but it was still time for food, not beer. so, we headed toward place st. catherine because that was the old seafood merchant area and there is still quite a strip of seafood places. using the map from our hotel, we got turned around for the second time that day (damn map!) but eventually we found the right area. dave chose the restaurant (good job!).

we both chose a lunch menu formula at "les crustacés." for 12€, i had the fish soup (yum), fish duo (white fish and salmon), and ice cream with chocolate sauce. and for 14€, dave had lobster paté, mussels with fries (moules frites), and ice cream with caramel sauce. once again though, they tried to charge me for water (what the hell belgium!?) so i poured my own water bottle into my water glass. take that!

(dave and his mussels)

after lunch, we hopped the metro up to laeken de parc. on the north end of the park is the famous atomium structure. kinda looks like two jacks on top of each other. then we wandered through the rest of the strange rolling hills and wide open spaces of the rest of the park. there was a religious gazebo/monument called le dynastie that was pretty and it had a cleared lawn all the way to the gates of the royal palace of laeken. but the palace was stone and mostly hidden and not that exciting, so we went back to the metro.

(atomium structure)

we rode the metro a lot in brussels, and i must say that it is the most awful metro i think ive ever ridden (at least the worst in my memory). the signage is crap, the train cars are kinda grey and dark, the map/route of the lines is stupid, and the tickets are confusing. hope you intend to update that too brussels!

anyway, took the metro to the botanical gardens. probably the lamest excuse for a botanical garden in a city ive seen. the parks in brussels were all kinda head scratchers, not really sure what the theme or focus or point was. so, in search of something positive, we headed to delirium bar.

in a cool alley down a side street north of the grand place is the delirium bar. in the guinness book of records for having the most beers available, its the pub to end all pubs. and in the same alley is the associated bar called "floris garden" which sells liquor drinks including 287 different kinds of absinthe, and tons of gins, rums, whiskeys, etc. the alley of drunken debauchery basically. daves first drink was the delirium tremens. he really enjoyed it. and i...tried for free water...and had to purchase some. grrrr!

(dave and his pink elephant beer glass. cool.)

after the beer, dave wanted to walk around a bit before knocking back another, so we went to see more of central brussels. we hit the street corner with the famous fountain of the urinating boy, the mannekin pis. as these things normally are, it was underwhelming and packed with tourists. the legend is bigger than the actual thing.

afterward, we wandered around searching (in vain) for some wafel cremes to buy. :( then we settled on some fries with mustard before heading back to delirium bar. this time dave ordered a st idesbald blonde, and was again delighted. while sitting in the alley, we noticed tons of tourists walking past us, taking pictures of something at the far end and leaving...? went to check it out and...was i shocked.

it was the girl version of the mannekin pis. a little girl, naked, squatting and peeing into a small fountain. i had to laugh, but then i became uncomfortable. it was such a different kind of image. and the fountain was much smaller and she had a gate and padlock totally blocking direct camera shots of her. so i messed around with the gate and the angle of the camera and the only semi non-blurry shot i got was highly inappropriate. makes me blush...ME! a much more memorable fountain than the little boy.

anyway, after daves beer we were tired and ready to relax at the hotel. got off the metro and walked through square marie louise, found an indian restaurant, and got some take out to eat in the hotel dining room. after several sweeps of the city today, i think we found only about 50% of the things we aimed for were actually exciting/interesting. (jj was right, brussels is kind of a ho hum place compared to surrounding options. score #221 in the "good advice" column.).

21 June 2009

Sugar shock

more sights in bruges and travel to brussels.

first of all, our hotel bed was ridiculously comfortable so we nearly didnt make it out of it. when we did, we were greeted with the bruges rain (similar to brittany rain). we headed across the street to a bakery and got an apple pastry and a bowtie pastry painted with buttercream frosting. not too bad.

then we started the day with a walk through the convent square again. quiet, but without the sun it was slightly less magical, but still peaceful and serene. then we headed south along the canal to minnewater park. after that, we worked our way up to grot markt again to see if the concert and triathlon stuff had been taken down yet so we could take better pictures. some of it was gone, some of it was not.

(typical bruges buildings in the grot markt)

then we charted another course north of the city centre, this time heading west. canals, bridges, parks, all with no people and then we arrived at the big, open, modern square called t'zand. apparently this is where the biggest saturday market is in the city. they have a huge fountain in the middle and mod building on the south side. along the east side are TONS of restaurants and cafes.

(us by a canal on our walk; me by the mermaid in the fountain squirting water from her boobs)

on the t'zand, we chose the "petite maison" for lunch. dave ordered a formula menu with tomato soup, steak in pepper sauce, and vanilla ice cream. i ordered just a main dish of pork loin in mustard sauce. damn was it good! also, i tried to order water again, this time the french way that always gets me free tap water (une carafe d'eau). nope, still got a 2€ water. i was especially offended because dave got a jupiler pilsner for 1.90€. i have been drinking the tap water from the hotel without getting sick so i was pretty annoyed that this city seems to be incapable of giving people free water.

(my lunch...mmm, pork)

anyway, after lunch, we walked south along the western canal bank under shade trees and groomed trails listening to the sounds of nature. we passed a covered bridge (smedenpoort), the minnewater bridge, and stopped at the gentpoort. here we found ourselves close to astridpark again. there was a bakery we had noted and wanted to go in. they had a selection of things, but something simple caught my eye, a wafel crème (looks similar to this dutch wafel). hands down the best thing i ate in belgium! thin and chewy and filled with amazing tasting cream. sweet but not overly sugary. amazing little snack. mm mm mmm.

(us by the minnewater bridge)

we walked north, licking our fingers, inspired to find a belgian waffle shop to add to our tasty treat experience. our nose led us to a shop selling fresh waffles with toppings for a pretty reasonable price (under 3€ for waffle and a sauce). we ordered a waffle with chocolate. came to us piping hot from the iron with two fork-knives. plastic forks with a knife edge on one of the tines (so, a knork then? or fife?).

(me and the chocolate waffle)

the waffle is not a breakfast food. the batter is different than the u.s. it makes the waffle stiffer and resistant to becoming too soggy and mushy. the batter is also sweeter, like a waffle cone for ice cream. also, they dont pour a batter onto the iron, they press a dough ball into it, so its definitely a different texture. good, but now we were in sugar shock.

hopped up on sugar, i didnt have the presence of mind to buy the 4.40€ bag of 10 wafel crèmes at the fresh waffle store. i convinced myself that id find them all over belgium and be able to enjoy many more of their deliciousness before leaving. note to self, dont be a dumbass. if you have in your hands a reasonable-priced multi-pack of the most delicious/memorable thing youve eaten in a while...do NOT set it back down and walk away. it will come back to haunt you (i was unable to locate any more of those while in belgium and couldnt bring any home for tasting purposes).

but, ignorance is bliss, so at this point we simply left the waffle shop and bumbled along the canal, a little street market, down side streets, through a garden, over a little stone bridge, and back to the hotel to collect our bags to head to the train station for brussels.

(adorable wooden toy snails at the market. loved em; dave in the garden by the museum)

overall, i liked bruges, when we avoided the tourists. its an expensive place but a nice visit for one night. the people were nice and the adjustment to the multi-lingual world was a bit strange. you were jealous, impressed, but also a little frustrated. we knew enough french to communicate with them in one of the national languages, but this was flanders so flemish was the language of choice, and pleasing the tourist was the name of the game so they preferred to switch to your native language once it was identified.

other weird things: a snack option nearly everywhere was a ½ chicken and fries (a snack!?), the tv channels at the hotel were vulgar! (simulating having sex at work, other less main stream sexual inuendos, etc!), and the american music choices were weirder than france even (my sharona, mm mm mm mmm [crash test dummies], easy like sunday morning, metallica, etc).

anyway, we left bruges on a train bound for brussels. once there, we stashed the heavy bag again in a luggage locker and navigated the brussels metro to the stop closest to our hotel. once we emerged from underground, we encountered construction and a roundabout. we had to take one of the spokes but 50% of the streets werent marked. fun when youre tired and hot...finally we chose the right path and walked up hill on cobblestone dragging luggage for 1 km.

tired and sweaty, we arrived at the hotel. thank god it was awesome cuz i had a short amount of patience at this point. the place is called Hotel Housing (rue louis scutenaire 3) and your actual room is exactly like a regular hotel room, and its a nice modern one. but, just outside our room was a loft-style common area with nice couches, a big TV (there was also a tv in each room), a computer, a table, a sliding door with balcony and sitting chairs. nice. then the check-in area on the main floor was also the kitchen. stocked with snacks at all hours (water, juice, tea, granola bars, candies, cookies, yogurt, bread) and a free breakfast in the morning. pretty sweet.

after check-in, we went out in search of dinner. we were too hungry and tired to look far and weigh our options, so we got pizza. and it was poop. but we have tomorrow to find something better.

20 June 2009

In Bruges

left france with my belongings and lugged them into belgium, bruges to be exact.

got up at 6a (couldnt sleep well anyway) to lug our bags to the rennes train station for the 7:05a train to paris. i have two large, heavy bags, one carry-on size bag and a backpack (dave brought a backpack for his stuff for the trip as well). anyway, poundage and poundage of bags ripping out our muscles. after making it to paris, we had to walk the underground mile to the métro to take us to gare du nord.

we took a train direct from paris to brussels on the Thalys train. very nice, comfortable train and we could follow the speed on the computer (300 kph at one point). stopping in brussels, we changed to a local belgian train to get us to bruges. here is where i felt the first "its better in france" moment. waiting on the platform for the bruges train...and it was late...NOT okay. french trains run on time, and if they are going to be late they make an announcement and then apologize for the inconvenience. nothing like this happened. the train ended up being about 5 minutes late and we boarded the crowded train for the one hour trip to bruges.

we arrived in bruges (apparently called the "venice of the north") and dumped our most cumbersome bag at the left luggage area of the train station. then we consulted the map and headed off to the hotel. directly across the street from the train station, we walked over one of the canals, along tree lined streets, and remarked that the brick buildings here were quite a shock from all the stone and wood buildings weve been seeing in france.

we passed another canal with swimming swans and a street buzzing with the sounds of people and horse hooves clacking on the cobblestone as carriages full of tourists were pulled along. then we arrived at our hotel. great place (good job dave). the hotel academie is perfectly located, as we later found out, in the heart of bruges but not in the super busy, touristy area.

so, got settled in our posh room with great views of city rooftops and planned our exploring for the day. we headed down our street toward a canal and started taking a look around. the lighter-colored brick was lovely and the black painted window frames with contrasting white edging had such a classic, clean appearance. as i reached for the camera to capture some first impressions, a nearby man (carrying a digital SLR with a fancy professional zoom lens) commented on our old school Nokia CoolPix camera.

he knew it by sight and told us its the best camera for taking pictures of nature (the moon, birds, etc) in the distance (i dont know what his native language was, but we were having a pseudo-discussion in french and he clearly didnt know english, so we couldnt quite tell exactly what he was saying). dave was excited that someone knew and complimented his huge old camera, rather than look at us strangely, as they normally do.

after this encounter, we walked over a little bridge into the quiet convent square (the beguinage) to look around. the sun was out (a fairly uncommon experience in bruges apparently) and the tall slanted plane trees in the center of this square of homes dappled the grass with shade while the breeze made the leaves quake and whisper waves of peace and silent meditation. such a great place to be and introduce ourselves to bruges. gorgeous weather, impeccably tended homes, quaint architecture, silence in nature, and almost no people. fabulous.

(dave in the convent square)

anyway, after spending some time in the convent area, we started on the "scenic walking tour" path for bruges that our hotel had given us. we walked through an archway and passed the neighborhood brewery, some shops and restaurants, crossed a canal, and arrived at the church of our lady. the steeple was under renovation but we went inside. a little confusing because i had no reference point or history to know why or when the church was built (jj where are you?). it definitely didnt have awesome stained glass or the deep, dense feeling of stone, but it was an interesting church.

after the church, the walk became more crowded and we saw more, and more, and more people with seriously expensive, professional-looking cameras (SLRs, zoom lens, wide-angle lens, etc) walking around snapping pictures of everything in town. dave was getting a bit of camera-envy when we finally saw a few people in shirts saying "fotomarathon brugge" and felt a little better that they were here competing with those things.

(a canal with cute buildings)

anyway, it was crowded and we were getting closer to the absolute center of the town walking along the canals, stone bridges, and the medieval buildings. very nice and very hard to appreciate with thousands of people. thankfully, at this time we found a candy/cookie shop to duck into. its called la cure gourmande. they make hard candies, chocolates candies, and a wide array of hard cookies and biscuits. they had people giving samples and we selected a few sweets to purchase.

(me on a bridge with the map; dave in the candy store)

at the cash register, they wanted to know what language you spoke so they could best help the customer. from what we gathered, these people spoke flemish (bruges is in the flanders region of belgian [flemish is similar to dutch]), french (the other national language of belgium), english, some spanish, and probably german (there were many local restaurants offering their menus in these languages, i think occasionally italian too). it was mind boggling that these people worked at a candy store and could communicate in 4-5 languages! get out of here!

so, stumbling out of the store, feeling inadequate...we peered into a few shops selling handmade lace, another speciality of belgium. beautiful stuff, too bad i would have no idea what to do with it if i bought any. and finally, we arrived in the grand place (grot markt in flemish).

(lace store near grot markt)

the square is surrounded on all sides by historic buildings and the focal point is the belfry. the square was set up for a concert in the center and around the edges, a city triathlon was being organized. add to this the tourists and it was madness! we did manage to purchase a small packet of fries with ketchup, another belgian speciality. there are fritteries (fried places) everywhere. i found a few fries that werent drenched in ketchup and together we finished the snack.

(dave and ketchup fries)

we then headed north to wander some paths less traveled and it was great that we did. we still saw beautiful buildings, canals, bridges, but we had them all to ourselves. we were in the areas where the real citizens of bruges live and relax. their homes were so cheery and adorable and the gardens, gates, and green space around them would be permanent delight.

(me enjoying the uncrowded streets)

we finally hit the outer canal on the eastern side of bruges and noted the little neighborhood pub facing the green lawn running up to the windmill nearby. very nice. we headed south to pass another windmill and turned western to go back into town. we passed a couple of churches and went in to st annes.

these churches are very different than france. they have much more wood, marble, lots of black paint, and the gold that combines with these style elements makes the place look strange. also the organs are quite small and are in the center of the church. interesting.

so, after st. annes, we walked south to astridpark. very nice park with all the important park elements, and again not very touristy. bonus. plus, it looked like an especially ritzy area to own a home. we saw one gorgeous, elaborate home on the park edge that was just this side of gawdy. loved it.

at the south end of the park was another church, this one was VERY different. saint magdalene’s church has been repossessed for art purposes. so, inside, the typical religious architecture makes a home for a water installation, a spiral staircase to nowhere, several tall canvases with abstract designs, and in the area of the altar hangs a large metal frame suspending a shiny rectangle. there were also some exhibits in a side alcove. very cool, very intriguing way to bring contemplation and intrigue to every person who enters your sacred place.

after this delightful afternoon, we headed back to the hotel to formulate a secondary plan of attack. we were hungry and wanted to avoid tourists...so, what to do? we first went to the nearby "de halve maan" brewery, bruges' only local brewery. after squishing past a hundred people, we managed to grab a table so dave could drink his double zot beer. he said it was pretty tasty, but admitted that he is coming off of living on french beer, so...his standards might be lower than normal.

after beer, i was starving, snacktime, because it wasnt yet 7p, when places start to serve dinner. we ordered another packet of fries, with mustard this time. yum! then we circled back to the hotel again to wait for 7p to arrive. then we headed out away from tourist central to find something to eat.

we chose bistro cozy based on location, menu options, and price (it was kinda pricey, but everything is bruges is SO expensive!). it was actually primarily a fondue place but i'd had enough fat for one day so i ordered the asparagus prepared "the flemish way" and dave ordered the petit soles.

i ordered water but received a 2 euro bottle of eau-la la (oh la la!). the butter was crappy (by my french tastebud standards) and the bread was poop. then they gave us an appetizer in a shot glass with tiny shrimp, mayonnaise, and sprouts. it was quite good. then the main courses came. daves was great and mine was interesting. white asparagus with eggs (im guessing the egg preparation was the "flemish way"). the staff was nice but kept coming over asking, "is it good, please?" what a weird question. must be something lost in translation.

(my asparagus dish. looks like chopped off corpse fingers with vomit)

anyway, dinner was good but we stuffed ourselves. way, way, way too full. tomorrow i want to avoid fatty stuff and minimize my food intake. oof!

*title is simple but references the movie title of the same name. dark comedy and a good cinematography effort to capture the sights and scenes in bruges.

19 June 2009

The setting sun casts shadows

met martin for our last night in rennes. last night!

after a day of packing and slowly realizing this...is...it, dave and i planned to meet martin for a drink. dave came from school by bike and i walked over by myself. the sun was lower and made all the buildings on one side of the canal glow golden, even more lovely than normal. walking through the city, i saw everything with different eyes, or rather, the same eyes as when i first arrived. streets, buildings, the people, everything was magical and beautiful and now i had a story to go with it.

we met martin in place du parliament de bretagne and walked through the historic area to a nice pub on a street corner for a drink. afterward, sitting in the shadow was making us chilly so we decided it was a good time to look for dinner. so, we went up to rue st malo.

we chose dinner...our last dinner in france...lebanese food. pretty inexpensive huge platter with falafel, four different dipping sauces (including hummus), spinach pies, and a couple other fried goodies and of course pita. martin intrigued us with stories of the tasty food he has fond memories of from australia (yum, i wanna go to there!) and we had a nice meal and a proper goodbye. thanks for being a good friend, have fun moving your stuff with dave, safe travels to london, and have an awesome experience working at the TNB this fall! happy stalking you and glen on facebook!

so, dave and i walked back through rennes after dinner, together. our last time people-watching and feeling the energy of french people drinking, smoking, and talking at the bars and cafés. friendly, relaxed, social...what a life and only time will tell how much this place and its people have affected and changed me, but it was definitely a generally positive thing and im glad to have had the opportunity. thanks for everything france!

17 June 2009

Au revoir, à bientôt, à tout à l'heure...

la dernière fois avec les groupes français (the last time with the french groups).

met with jj for tea at our "usual spot." chatted about the travel coming up and then he gave me a petit cadeau (little gift) of french poetry. a nice little book with representation from all the poetry he has introduced me to since ive been here (plus, more to translate on a rainy day). then we read the newspaper, ouest france.

there was an article about obama and his announcement of a national health care plan. of course the french find this to be fascinating so it drew attention and gained space in the newspaper amid all the stories about iran. also making the news was an interview and photo with jj and his co-workers about helping the homeless in brittany and france.

(jj and his newspaper. famous!; me and jj and the café)

after morning tea, we took the métro north to meet up with dave and the rest of the crew. we drove north to la chapelle des fougeretz to have a lunch of crêpes. fine by me! we had lovely weather, nice conversation, and lots of laughs. the group signed a "landscapes of brittany" book for me with beautiful photos of the wild land of bretagne, made more beautiful by the wonderfully kind inscriptions inside. thank you!

a toast with cider over lunch brought some fun expressions (irmat [breton for "cheers"] and a new favorite cul-sec [french for "bottoms up"]), and dessert was an all-out calorie buster. "la crumble" crêpe consisted of caramel apples, caramel sauce, and crumbles (like struesel)...yum!

such nice people, such a lucky find for a "second family." i hope they get to come visit NYC next year so we can meet up, but if not, i think we'll have other chances to get to paris, if not rennes, in the future. very much looking forward to it...

(at the table with galettes and cider. jacques doing his "yes we can" fist pump; the crew after eating: jj, anne, alastair, dave, me, jacques)

our other group to say goodbye and thank you to was daves co-worker christelle and her partner vincent. dave actually met them when he first visited halifax last year in february. she has shared an office with him since he arrived in rennes and vincent will actually be in halifax for some of the weeks after we arrive. they were very helpful in showing us around rennes and brittany and taking us out in their car early on so we could get a feel for the area. very nice people.

since we dont have the space or equipment to make a proper dinner, we had them over for a dinner-equivalent. tons of cheese (a super soft cheese from the pyrenees region that reeked(!) and a hard, dry goat cheese that was tasty), bread, some sausage, a mini leek quiche, and our favorite gourmet pizza (the one with artichokes and green olives). dessert and two bottles of wine were also compulsory.

we had plenty of french conversation today and it reminded me to make an effort in halifax to find ways to retain this new part of my life. there is a place, similar to the franco-american institute, in halifax called Alliance Française d'Halifax. i hope to get over there within the first month after we arrive.

15 June 2009

Das food

the long awaited dinner with the german guy from daves french class occurred tonight.

so, dave took a short french class from approximately february-april here in rennes. one friendly guy in his class was a german engineer who mentioned hanging out at some point outside of class. one day, this idea got narrowed down to a choice of a couple specific dates. and, by email, dave chose a date that he said would work best for us. when we didnt receive any confirmation and the date came and went, we thought it was a bit odd but not a problem.

apparently, on the other other end, since dave had said "this date works for us," the dinner was considered official and the german and his wife made dinner that night and waited, and waited, and waited for us. so, the next time dave saw the guy in class they discussed...

apparently the "confirmation" email with their home address (we didnt even know where they lived!) had somehow gone to daves spam box. even so, without receiving a "got your address, see you for dinner on this date" response, they had gone ahead with the food. and, as i recall, dave mentioned that the wifes reaction was "this is typical american behavior/this is why i dont like americans." awesome.

anywho, we chalked that up as a botched friendship and poor ambassadorship (though it really wasnt our fault!). but in a future class, they tried to organize again. dave sent an email with some available dates but for weeks we had no response. recently, dave received a "sorry i didnt get in contact sooner, i nearly severed some fingers off at work a couple weeks ago" email. mmmm, k. so we set up and confirmed the next dinner.

it was my last night of supinfo and i got home at around 8:15p. dave had just gotten off the phone from a "we're waiting for you" call...ugh. (dave had emailed and told them i get off work at 8p and dont get home until 8:15p and its my last night teaching...so we hope to be there by 8:30p). anyway, we headed to their house apparently "late" and i considered ourselves doomed.

finally arriving at the apartment, we met the man (christophe) and his wife (annegret). they had two small girls the wife was putting to bed so we sat and talked with christophe. at one point, his oldest little girl quietly came into the room to say hello and after a few minutes agreed to go to bed. very well-behaved kids.

anyway, we learned more about the severed finger accident (a big, sharp knife at work sliced through some tendons, yum) and why they were here in rennes (wife getting phd in eco-bio...studying snails). then dinner arrived as a european sampler: russian-style beets, handmade german noodles (spätzle), and the southern french dish called canard confit. everything was great. wasnt sure i liked beets but i'll try em. they were pretty good!

during dinner, we learned that they had lived for a few months in racine, wisconsin (so thats your view of americans?), had hitchhiked across many parts of europe, and had taken a one year honeymoon to tandem bike across russia, ukraine, and kazakhstan...ending the trip by taking a cargo ship up to the seriously remote russian island city of kamchatskiy. whoa. um, i think youre outta my league in terms of worldliness.

but, the food the good, they were friendly and interesting, and the night turned out okay. perhaps we helped them "update" their opinions of us and left things on a good note. j'espère (i hope).

14 June 2009

We wont be back 'til its over oberthür

sunday picnic in oberthür park with glen and martin to say goodbye to glen.

met up in the park with lovely weather to sit in the shade of a large pine tree. blanket spread, shoes off, food laid out. feasted on ham, cheese, green olives, bread, chips, and juice. all thats needed is good conversation...check!

once, again, always a good time with these two. dave and i will see martin again, glen and i will teach one final time tomorrow (woo hoo!) but dave and glen have the final goodbye, and the group quickly dismantles. its all coming to an end...

no! we are determined travelers. their goal is to end up living in australia. we have never been to australia, thus, problem solved. we will get there at some point, i have but little doubt. so, farewell glen! have fun doing your training course in london, have a lovely summer, and i wish you all the strength and patience in the world to get through teaching at supinfo next year (crazy glen is going back for more)!

(glen and martin; glen with his daisy and martin tying his shoes; glen spinning spinning...love the pained look on his face; the boys in the park)

*title is a modified lyrical reference to WWI song: "over there"

13 June 2009

Last market meet-up

it was our last rennes market day.

to commemorate the occasion, we accidentally slept in and missed most of the market, damn! we met jj and his son by the galette saucisse stand and decided where to go for a drink. we chose a nice pub nearby owned by their friends with tables in the sun (and shade, for me). jjs wife and his sons (pregnant!) girlfriend joined us at the table.

nice, casual french conversation. jj and his wife are planning on coming to NYC next year (!) so there was some talk of that. jj was giving advice for our upcoming belgium trip. jokes and general friendly commentary were whirling around the table. such nice people, such a lucky find!

afterward, they were heading to the beach to enjoy the lovely (25 C, 77 F) weather! and we made a quick run through the market as it was closing up to get our last hoorah in. bye bye best market EVER!!!

12 June 2009

Fri tea with the guys

had friday afternoon tea with glen and martin (glen insists 5p is in the afternoon).

we met in place st anne and headed in a direction ive never traveled before, down rue d'echange. nice little street that crossed rue de dinan. a fabulous little stone church with trees shared the street corner with some adorable shops, cafés, and restaurants. martin led us to a tea place called "Histoire de Thé." it had an eclectic selection of tea cups, pots, books, and odds n' ends to gaze at in the tiny shop while chatting over delicious pots of tea.

fab idea for a friday activity! we also sampled the clafoutis rhubarbe, which is close to the regional specialty "far breton."

after tea, we introduced the guys to our tiny ass apartment and convinced them to take our furniture after we leave. hooray, dave doesnt have to build a bonfire on his last day in rennes.

11 June 2009

Fontaine of information

met up with jj for one of our last times. :(

sat at a café and, what else, read some literature. this time i was introduced to the famous french writer jean de la fontaine, born in 1621. he is the most beloved french fable writer and so we read one of his well-know stories.

"La Laitière et Le Pot au Lait" (the dairywoman and the pot of milk, in english) is the story with the moral we know as: dont count your chickens before theyve hatched. when we have a place to start a library, im gonna need to have a small french section.

09 June 2009

I'm laughing at the clouds, so dark up above

mom started her travel home and i returned "home" for one last time.

after a morning spent wandering around our little area by the hotel, we decided to check out and head to the gare du nord to get mom settled for her train ride back to london (plane home on tuesday). after she went through the security area, i set out for my trip back to rennes.

as my train pulled into the station, i could hear the rain blasting against the windows and i chuckled out loud. it was a brittany welcoming rain and i realized it was my last time returning to this place as my home.

getting drenched on the short walk back, i started thinking about getting myself unpacked, reorganized and settled again...but then i had the reminding pang that i was only here for 2 more weeks. im not getting settled, im getting ready to leave. it was (and still is) a hard concept to grasp.

i have just made it through the grey winter and period of unemployment and awkwardness. true, i dont wanna be a teacher anymore and our apartment is horribly spartan, but its already here, and set up, and stable. halifax seems to loom large with more promise, but i still have to be homeless and jobless and friendless and identitiless again. as quickly as these thoughts came, i let the rain wash away the fear and instead chose denial as my prescription to combat the turmoil ahead. although i realize that strategy cant last long...

in the mean time i had blogging, emailing, website reading, and celebrity watching to catch up on. however, this too was equal parts fun and sobering. i am soon reentering the u.s., my native land, but i dont have a home there. my stuff is stacked in storage, my car is in florida, my cat is in dearborn, and my mail is in berkley. i dont have a real handle on what is going on back home and im entering a world where people have regular day jobs and big-person bills to pay. "home" has changed, and ive changed, and i can only assume that, as life goes on, my friends and family have changed. trying not to panic...yes...i can?

(look reese and jake are still going strong. check; still get a surge of pride in my heart when i see UM paraphernalia. check; and patrick dempsey is 150 km away in le mans for the famous 24 of le mans race...what?)