It’s starting. Tomorrow, I’ll be in Paris! A few days later, Barcelona! A couple days after that, Madrid!

I booked my flights nearly two months ago, and I can’t believe fall break is actually here. Spain has seemed like a lifetime away. And once I get back from Spain, my first semester in Brussels will officially be winding down.

Thank goodness I have one more term.

My first four days of break will be spent with my art history class. In other words, my days will be packed with museum and architectural visits. Luckily, that’s what Paris is all about, and I’m relieved to be hitting the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay and Versailles — three major “must-do’s” that I missed last time around. I went to Paris with my family for a mere three days a few years ago, and we opted to do more of a walking and eating sort of thing.

But in Barcelona, I intend to continue my normal walking and eating thing. And in Madrid, I’m staying with a friend from UC Davis, who I know will show me a good time.

So, that’s that. I won’t be posting for at least ten days. But when I return, expect an indecipherable whirlwind of catch-up posts from my trip.

I leave you with a quick tidbit from my last ISA day trip to Antwerp, where we visited a concentration camp (eerie) and embarked on a ghost walk (bizarre). In between, while the rest of the ISA kids did things I had already done with the art history class, I spent a few hours with a couchsurfer. There was a beautiful view atop Antwerp’s newest, ultra-modern building. There was also the red light district, an OccupyAntwerp protest, guerilla knitting, the most gaudy mall I have ever seen, and a lovely sunset.

Waffling around

I’ve been writing a weekly column for my university newspaper, The California Aggie, on life as a study abroad student. Here’s a bulk from my most recent column, which I felt could benefit from illustrations.

Without further ado:


A friend e-mailed me last week and complimented my column. Sort of. He said my environmental one bored him. He wanted to hear about three things: the European Union, soccer and waffles.

Yes, it’s true; Brussels is basically the capital of the European Union. Brussels hosts the European Commission, Council of the European Union, European Council and the second seat of the European Parliament.

But I don’t really care about any of that. I’ve woken up and marched through the sea of EU employees, through the EU quarter, and I’ve even had a few beers among them. While the international politics thing definitely has a presence here, it doesn’t factor into my daily life.

Soccer is also not much of a factor. I’ve been to a match, and yes, it was a joyous occasion, even in the rain. Everyone was singing and drinking and waving flags. But the truth is, the Belgian team kind of sucks. I rarely hear anyone in Brussels talking about soccer for this reason – field hockey and tennis are far hotter topics.

That leaves waffles.

Out of the EU, soccer and waffles, there is no contest as to which is dominating my study abroad experience. It’s waffles.

Waffles are very popular in Brussels. In the touristy spots, you’ll see long lines for waffles buried under whipped cream, chocolate and strawberries. Downtown, you’ll see a businesswoman briskly walking to work with waffle in hand. In the super markets, you’ll find prepackaged assortments of waffles and waffle cookies.

But the image you have in your head of a Belgian waffle is probably wrong, because the term “Belgian waffle” only exists in America.

In Belgium, apart from the prepackaged cookie varieties, there are two types of waffles – the Brussels and the Liège.

The Brussels waffle is the most similar to the airy, crisp waffle you are picturing. They are perfectly rectangular, with deep pockets for catching powdered sugar. They’re light, thick and should be eaten sitting down. Eating them with more than just powdered sugar or butter – in other words, the mountains of cream, chocolate and fruit that make them taste so good – is unauthentic.

But the Liège is the waffle that has my heart. It’s the waffle that has everyone’s hearts, actually. It’s the waffle that makes travelers go home and say, “I LOVE BELGIAN WAFFLES.”

Imagine a waffle-cookie hybrid. It’s doughy, dense and chewy. It’s served warm. Its batter holds pearl sugar crystals, which then caramelize when baked, and can satisfy any sweet tooth. It’s perfect au natural. It can be made even more perfect with a healthy spread of melted Belgian chocolate. Or a slight dollop of whipped cream. Or vanilla-scented.


If you find yourself in the city center with a grave hankering for caramelized butter, head to the nearest Belgaufra for an easy fix. The brown and yellow signs can be seen all over the place, and the waffles — 1,80 euro for plain, 2,20 for chocolate coated or with whipped cream — are a good value. For a fancier treat, find the lone Vitalgaufre on Rue Neuve. The waffles are slightly more expensive — 2 euro for plain and 2,50 euro for specialties — but they’re even chewier and stickier. If you like eating colors, opt for the bright pink raspberry or green-tinted apple, but the simple chocolate is truly magnificent — sticks of Belgian chocolate are inserted into the waffle right before you. Genius.

Feasting in Berlin

Take note: two nights in Berlin is not enough.

My friend Grace and I flew in last Saturday afternoon and left Monday evening. While we managed to see all the main sites, we quickly realized that we could spend weeks and weeks in this city without feeling fully satisfied.

We stayed at The Circus, a hipster backpackers hostel with a cute cafe and a cute staff. We meandered through the area after check-in, and block after block, we squealed at shop after shop. This sounds silly, but the window displays in Berlin are ubiquitously trendier than anything I’ve ever seen. I gawked at literally every cafe, because literally every cafe was simultaneously quirky and perfect.

Needless to say, I was highly caffeinated all weekend, and I loved it.

The Circus also offers a free, four-hour walking tour, which we took advantage of. Our guide Tobey was witty and knowledgeable, walking us through the city center and providing history lessons along the way.

I don’t need to tell you about Germanic history. The Berlin Wall? Crazy! The Stasi? Insane!

But what’s beautiful is how Berlin doesn’t try to hide its nasty past. There are countless museums and memorials that act more like reminders — the city and its people have moved on.

Those dots are bullet holes.

We lucked out, too, and managed to catch some of the seventh annual Festival of Lights, where the city’s monuments are vibrantly lit at night.

The Berliner Dom is already staggeringly beautiful in the daylight, so the psychedelic display was unreal. After a walk through the rainbow trees, I felt like Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

And, of course, we ate!

Like a food nerd, I prepped quite a bit for this weekend. I surfed countless food blogs, consulted German students and rewatched Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations episode in Berlin. While Grace and I didn’t budget for a nice, sit-down German feast, we did budget for overeating.

Street food in Berlin is dirt cheap, especially compared to the prices we are used in Brussels. The most popular fast food option is probably döner kebab, meat roasted on a rotating spit and carved off into delicious variations. If you’re having trouble picturing it, think about gyros — it derived from the döner kebab.

We trekked down to Kreuzberg, an up and coming district of artists where there’s also a high Turkish population. In other words, we trekked to the perfect district for some döner kebab.

We joined the queue at Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap and ordered Hähnchen Döner mit Gemüse, like everyone else was doing.

The chicken was succulent, continually doused with fresh marinade as it’s sliced. The bread was at once crispy and soft, and more importantly, warm. Three sauces were generously slathered on — kräuter (a dill yogurt spread), knoblauch, (a garlic sauce) and scharf (spicy and peppery). Plus the perfect meat. Plus some handsome roasted veggies. Plus a fresh salad. Plus feta cheese. And lastly, a squeeze of lemon to brighten the whole thing up.

“If I could eat this every single day for the rest of my life, I would,” Grace said, breaking our silent immersion into kebab bliss. I agreed.

Our other meals weren’t as revolutionary, but they were awfully good. We compared two different currywurst stands, said by bloggers, guidebooks and locals to be the best two currywurst stands in the city.

Recognize the first stand from No Reservations? We ate standing up at the same table as the man himself!

The second stand was Curry 36 in Kreuzberg, just steps away from Mustafa’s. Konnopke lies underneath the train tracks in Prenzlauerberg, the hopelessly trendy area just north of our hostel.

Konnopke is the oldest currywurst spot in Berlin, having opened in 1930. We preferred its old-fashioned vibe to the newness of Curry 36, and we preferred the food as well. The wurst at 36 was a bit watery, and its curry ketchup was less robust. And no, I am not just saying this because Bourdain went to Konnopke.

Bourdain also hit Rogacki, a gorgeous indoor market in Charlottenburg, amidst mainstream shops and wide boulevards. We marveled at Rogacki’s products — from complex headcheese to eel — before heading to its cafeteria-like corner for blutwurst and liverwurst.

Blutwurst is primarily made from pork rind and congealed blood, and liverwurst from pigs’ liver. The casings nearly burst with the pink and deep red silk, blending beautifully with the creamy potatoes, fresh parsley and sharp sauerkraut.

Will I be back to Berlin before my Euro-adventure ends? Goodness, I hope so. If for no other reason, I need to go to eat more.

Highlight of the week: eating, of course

Midterm week is almost over, and to celebrate, a friend and I went out for lunch.

We stepped away from the normal sandwicherie or durum action and splurged. We sat down. We ordered wine. For two hours, we were happy and stress-free.

Reservations were made a week prior at Millesime as part of the RestoDays week sweeping Belgium, Luxembourg and France. For one week, hundreds of top-tier restaurants were offering special, three-course gourmet menus. Lunch was 21 euros across the board and dinner was 28 euros. Michelin starred restaurants cost 15 euros extra, but they were all fully booked before I could even tempt the idea.

Out of 55 restaurants in Brussels, we landed on Millisime for its favorable reviews and even more favorable location — just steps away from school.

The chic entrance was studded with deep red, but the warm brick dining room was the right mix of comfort and class. Service, too, was sweet and professional.

Our meal began with wine — floral Bordeaux in red and white, which at 3 euros apiece, definitely qualified as a steal.

Then the server brought out a gorgeous carpaccio of smoked duck, garnished with arugula, toasted pine nuts, shaved apple, walnut oil and reduced balsamic. Sublime.

Our main dish was Norwegian salmon drenched in butter. I’m not complaining, but my mom would have died at the sight of it. Baby shrimp sat on top while a mix of vibrant vegetables hid underneath. The salmon itself was half-cooked, fatty, fleshy and perfect.

Dessert, according to the menu, was supposed to be violet crème brûlée. But they ran out, apparently, and we got to split an order of tiramisu and pineapple carpaccio.

This was no ordinary tiramisu, though. It was in true Belgian style, made with speculoos. YES. Speculoos. And exclusively white chocolate, and with a luscious raspberry sauce on top. It was light, fluffy, slightly spicy and soothing.

The pineapple carpaccio was truly something special. Two thin rings of pineapple were marinated in a sweet mint syrup and sat in a resultant consommé. Ultra coconutty coconut sorbet and a crispy mint cracker spelled out exceptional.


I now know that it has taken seven weeks for me to feel very, very comfortable with my life in Brussels.

The tip off?

I have finally watched TV.

At home, my daily routine includes hours of television. When I get home from work, I plop down and watch an episode of, say, 30 Rock, and then I start making dinner while an episode or two of Stella blares in the background. Before bed, I start in on Mad Men and the sight of so much Johnnie Walker lulls me to sleep.

Thus far in Brussels, I’ve been on the go, constantly. City life is exciting and there’s always something I could be doing or people I could be attempting to befriend.

I did have some plans this weekend. It was going to be an exciting one, actually. I was going to hitchhike with a friend to Luxembourg on Saturday. Sunday, a couchsurfer in Liège was going to show me all around his city. But the rain deterred both of these activities, which is probably for the best. I stayed in my house and studied for midterms week instead, which I realized I am not as prepared for as I should be.

This was the first Saturday night that I’ve spent alone, indoors, and to celebrate my return to my normal, anti-social self, I caught up on Dexter and The Office. And, of course, I studied.

Sunday morning also played out like a Europeanized version of what I do at home. I set my alarm for 9 a.m. but somehow didn’t rise until 11 a.m. In Davis, I’d make a mad dash for the farmers’ market before its noon closing. Here, I made an equally mad dash across the city for the Midi Market.

Steps away from the Gare Midi train station is an extensive outdoor market with, well, everything. It’s said to be the second biggest in all of Europe (after Ventimiglia in Italy, which I visited last summer) with 450 vendors selling produce, meat, fish, spices, clothes, shoes, jewelry, house wares, instruments, antiques, shampoo… everything.

And of course, the prices are great, and drop even further during the final hours. My 10-euro boots were 15 euro when I walked by an hour earlier.

The market has a strong international feel as opposed to the one in Ventimiglia, which while larger, had much of the same knock-off perfume and Italian leather wallets at every stand. The Moroccan and Turkish populations in Brussels are more than present at Midi, in both offerings and clientele.

I still prefer the simple daily flea market at Place de Jeu de Balle, with more silly items, dirt-cheap prices and less crowds. However, next time I’m in Brussels on a Sunday, I’m going to the Midi Market for one thing.


All afternoon, I saw people chowing down on these oh-so fragrant wraps gushing with fresh goat cheese. Finally, next to a friendly stand of fresh eggs, I found the long line of people patiently waiting for sustenance at an olive stand. On the other side, patrons were huddled over small wooden tables with their wraps and steaming cups of sweetened mint tea. The wrap — the m’semen — is a Moroccan crepe with tangy cheese, sweet honey and spicy, oily olives.

If I weren’t already carrying semi-heavy groceries, I would have queued up right there. Alas, I’m weak, but now I know exactly where I must return.

Legal matters, movie nights, couchsurfers and jazz

With a week full of midterms nearing, my social life has taken a serious hit this week.

That doesn’t mean I’ve had much time to study though. Tuesday and Thursday mornings were both spent at the Schaerbeek commune, where I’ve wrestled with Belgian bureaucracy.

Or more like, my ISA resident director Sabine has been wrestling, and I’ve been cheering.

The goal is to legalize my stay in Brussels, and ultimately, to extend my visa until May to schengen and non-schengen areas alike. As of now, I am technically not a resident of Brussels, and once my visa expires, I can’t go to non-schengen countries like the England, Ireland or Romania.

Each commune, or neighborhood, has its own rules and required documents. And they’re probably all annoying.

The very first time Sabine and I trekked out there, it was just after the 8 a.m. opening, the last week of August. We were told that the rules had changed. I was given an appointment — which means nothing — for October 20, but we were also advised to try at the end of September.

Due to business and busyness, we didn’t return until this Tuesday. I arrived 10 minutes before the commune’s opening to hoards of people crowded around the door. Yikes. Three hours later, our ticket number was finally called, and we were told we not only needed the previously specified documents, but photocopies of said documents. And no, they did not have time to photocopy things themselves.

So we grudgingly returned on Thursday at 8 a.m., the train station-esque waiting hall becoming very familiar territory. Two hours of waiting later, we lucked out. Step number one to my resident permit has been completed. Now I wait three weeks, get something in the mail and — whee! — I get to go back.

The week had some more pleasant times, too, though.

On the first Wednesday of every met, a bunch of museums in Brussels are free after 1 p.m. I headed to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, specifically, the Museum of Ancient Art and the tiny “Museum of Modern Art,” which was basically a small exhibit due to some remodeling.

The Museum of Ancient art was quite beautiful though, and it held impressive collections of Pieter Brueghel and Peter Paul Rubens — two painters I’ve been studying in my Art History class. I convinced myself that my museum trip was as helpful to my studies as, say, studying.

Later that night, Sabine hosted a movie night at the ISA office, where we had a fabulous Belgian dinner and watched “In Bruges.” Sabine dished out carbonnade à la flamande, a traditional beef stew made with (of course) beer. On the side was seemingly bottomless frites (of course).

I saw “In Bruges” years ago in the states, but I enjoyed the film far more after visiting Bruges. And jokes about Belgium being a bullshit country are a lot funnier after you hear them in person, in Belgium.

On Thursday I showed a 23-year-old couchsurfer from Poland around downtown Brussels during my three-hour break between classes. Brussels was her last stop on a one-month sojourn through Europe, where she almost exclusively couchsurfed and hitchhiked solo. We talked about Belgium, Poland and her travels. She said there was only one instance all month where she felt uneasy about one of her hosts, but otherwise, she met the most wonderful and memorable people. Her only real regret was not bringing her laptop around, as the lack of internet made couch-searching and such more difficult than she had anticipated. She also recommended pepper spray, just in case. Tips noted!

And, finally, last night I finally checked out L’Archiduc, a 1930s jazz bar in downtown Brussels. The swanky decor and swanky clientele, joyously grooving to an eclectic jazz DJ, was a beautiful escape from the standard Belgian pub scene. In other words, I am definitely taking my dad there.

Daytrips: Antwerp, Ostend

Saturday was another excursion with my art history class. Destination: Antwerp.

If you thought the Antwerp train station was baroque, I can now tell you that you’re wrong. It’s eclectic, silly.

Students I meet in Brussels really like Antwerp, and I understand why. It’s the second biggest city in Belgium, making it more accessible than Brussels but still metropolitan. It’s trendier, with better shopping, and a lot of diamonds.

The focus of the trip was the house of painter Peter Paul Rubens, and after, the Plantin Moretus Museum. The latter held extensive collections of old books and printing presses.

In a couple of weeks, I’m coming back to Antwerp with ISA, where we’ll do less academic activities and I’ll get a better feel for the city. A group of us will also stay overnight and finally experience what some students say is the best in Belgian nightlife.

On Sunday, I took advantage of the last weekend of summer weather and headed to the Belgian coast. At less than two hours away, Ostend, despite being industrial and void of charm, was a worthwhile journey. Obviously just about all of Belgium agreed — the city was packed!

Hoards of sunbathers took over the main beach. Little kids were digging till they struck water and the elderly were letting everything hang loose.

We met up with a couchsurfer, who after a walk through downtown, wanted to go ride a horse through sand — a reasonable request. We accompanied him for a tram ride all along the coast, ultimately getting off and relaxing on a gorgeous, virtually empty beach. Then the sun started to set. Perfection.

Nuit Blanche et un voleur

I took a nap Saturday night at 9 p.m., and then I had a Red Bull. The night demanded it.

Nuit Blanche took over several major European cities the first evening of October, with Brussels being one of them. Ultra contemporary art instillations sprung up downtown, indoors and outdoors. Public transportation was free and extended so festival-goers could party all night. The event’s end was signaled by a free breakfast for the insomniacs still out at 5 a.m.

I was picturing the UC Davis Technocultural Studies department taking over Brussels, and I was getting very excited.

Sure enough, I got off the metro and immediately saw this:

In the photo, people are poking their heads into “dreaming drops,” where an individual can meet oneself in a magical micro space and share a common experience, according to the description of this bizarre visual experiment. There were even creepy whispers as the sonic accompaniment.

It was a funny start to my night, and other events had similarly convoluted experiential themes. But that didn’t make it any less enjoyable. I eat that stuff up!

Later in the night, I met friends to take in DJ sets — enduring dubstep to 50s swing — and the nocturnal party atmosphere — apparently awful compared to previous years but still amusing for an American accustomed to quiet at 2 a.m.

Unfortunately at some point in a crowded Beursschouwburg, my wallet was stolen. A somewhat large sum of cash, identification cards, bank card, etc., gone.

I refused to let it ruin my night, but I did let it ruin my Monday.

I started by heading to the local police station to report the theft. It was lengthy, but all in all painless and routine  — petty theft is ubiquitous in Brussels.

The annoyance was in blocking my ATM card. This is entirely my fault, but frustrating nonetheless. After being on hold and transferred around (“You need a new card sent to Belgium?”), I finally told the right person my Belgian address. I heard her say, “And Brussels is in… Belgium?” and then the call dropped. Shit.

Did she get it? Did she figure out that Belgium is a country yet? Am I going to get a new card or what?

I could have called back, but the call dropped because I ran out of credit on my phone. That means the phone call zapped 19 euro.

That’s when I started screaming obscenities.

Again, entirely my fault for stupidly using my phone for this — skype would have been far more affordable.

But things have changed a bit since then. I still don’t know the status of my card and that phone call, but my wallet was “returned” to Beursschouwburg and we are currently reunited.

Coming soon: a more pleasant recap of my days in Antwerp and Ostend.