Pre-departure musings

Between studying for final exams, packing my current life away, and getting around to doing things I never did in Brussels, this is proving to be a busy week.

My checklist of “things to do that I never did in Brussels” is nearly complete, though. I’ve devoured Brussels’ art house cinema scene. I’ve finally sat back at the Cinematek and listened to a live pianist while a video montage of Berlin in the 1920’s crackled before me. I’ve perused the Comic Strip Center and am taking home some Tin Tin, en français, bien sûr. I went to the Belgian Royal Greenhouses. I’ve done a lot. A lot. And I’m comforted knowing I won’t be leaving with Brussels with too many regrets.

As part of my studying-procrastination, I went through some of my old blogposts, starting with my pre-departure musings. Reading my fears and expectations for this study abroad experience was strange, as I’m feeling virtually the exact same way now that I’m prepping to return home.

In this post, a month and a half before I left for Brussels, I was depressed. I thought too much would change in California while I was gone, that all my friends would move on to new things, and that I’d return lonely and lost. I feared having to start anew in Brussels and then come back to California and start anew again.

I tearfully hugged several friends goodbye last summer, hoping that wasn’t the final hug between us. I have since let go of those hopes — semi-permanent goodbyes abounded then, and they are abounding now more than ever. Likewise, I did miss a lot this year in California — a death, a fire, a pepper-spraying incident, an engagement — and there’s no way I can assimilate into such dramatic social situations fully.

In this post, two days before I left for Brussels, I expressed disbelief. I was all prepared to jet off, but I felt nothing. This is also how I’m feeling right now. My anguish and dread is being felt on a theoretical level.

In terms of real life emotions, I don’t have any yet. Brussels has turned into a second home and I am having trouble convincing myself that I’m leaving it.

It’s the same situation — just as I spent my last week in California soaking up all of my favorite things for “the last time,” I am currently plotting my farewell meals, nights of dancing and other things for “the last time.” In the summer, it included cuddling with old friends in a mass of blankets on a couch in Alameda, drinking tea and watching TV. This time around, it’s including cuddling with new friends in a mass of blankets on a couch in Ixelles, eating cereal and watching movies.

And again, I don’t feel like I’m actually going anywhere. Yes, I’ve de-registered from my Belgian commune, I’ve given up my identity card, I’ve got my flight confirmation printed out, and I’ve got my last dinners, my last goodbyes, with my families and friends all lined up. But still. I can’t believe that I’ll be driving a car again. I can’t believe that I’ll be reading signs in English. I can’t believe I’ll be able to eavesdrop on people all the time. I can’t believe that come fall, I’ll be in a school with more than 400 people, that I won’t be engaged in adventures every weekend. I can’t believe the levels of mundane I am surely going to feel every day my first weeks back.

In the past week, I’ve had two new friends from CouchSurfing come visit me in Brussels to say goodbye. One: a 33-year-old I met in Luxembourg, who has lived all over the world, and works in something boring like finance. But he lives with vigor, spontaneity. He has dreams that are both lofty and practical. He wants to live and feel fulfilled and he wants to take his time doing it. Another: a 23-year-old cook and future tour-guide from Ghent. He found himself traveling, found himself on CouchSurfing. He just got back from Israel, Iceland is up this summer, working in Australia is on the agenda, as is another long trek in Asia. He’s not staying still. His life goals can wait. He’s living with his mom still, sure, but why would that ever matter when he’s living his life so voraciously?

Both of these fine gentlemen told me the same thing — break away from the American rat race and live out all those globetrotting journeys that I babble on about as if they’re mythical. Aim high and aim far away. And there’s always that little detail that I keep forgetting when I draft my life plans, when I consider succumbing to societal pressures to settle: I’m only 20.

Both men left me with hugs and the customary kiss on the left cheek, which I’ll dearly miss, and both men said this wasn’t goodbye. “I’ll see you soon, somewhere.”

Is London worth it?

Along with Paris and Amsterdam, London is one of those cities seemingly every single American student in Brussels manages to visit. On the Eurostar, it’s two hours away, and a real pleasant two hours at that.

It’s taken me this long to visit the darn place for two main reasons. First, the United Kingdom is not part of the Shengen agreement. In other words, there are intense border controls, and I couldn’t sneak in without my Belgian residency card. And if you recall, I didn’t receive that until one month ago.

The second reason? Well…

I just didn’t feel the draw that so many others seem to feel toward London. To me, it was — and still is — a huge, modern, international city with no real British identity. If I wanted to get a feel for the real England, there was no point in visiting pricey London.

My travels over the course of the year kept reinforcing this idea. I met countless Brits who had fled the country, feeling like England — and London especially — was becoming more and more of a shithole.

Their words, not mine.

Plus, all of my American friends from last semester who went to London came back disappointed. London was cool, they’d say, but it wasn’t so different from visiting New York City. They felt like they wasted a weekend that could have been spent somewhere more exotic.

In a way, after returning to Brussels yesterday, I felt similarly. To think — I could have spent way less money and have lived like a king in Budapest, or something, somewhere.

But London is London, and I probably would have kicked myself for not taking advantage of my proximity if I skipped it. Plus, when would I ever have not one, but two buddies from home living there again?

So I went. And for three days in another country, I felt bizarrely at ease. People are speaking English?? I was confused at my sudden abilities to communicate.

To finally arrive face-to-face to some of the world’s most recognizable buildings is striking, no matter how many other amazing palaces and cathedrals you’ve also encountered. To look up at Big Ben is to realize you must have done something right in your life — you made it to London.

And for all my ragging on London, with its lack of British culture and whatever, there is no getting around the fact that it’s a mecca for culture in the general highbrow sense. The National Gallery? Too impressive. The Tate Modern? Inspiring. Every other museum I didn’t have time to hit? Assuredly world-class. And free.

Apart from the sights and the museums, the thing everyone says you simply must do in London is go see a show. This is obvious. And obviously, the productions are likely better than anything you’ve ever seen in your life. With this in mind, my friend and I made our decision the way that any cheap student would — what discounted tickets could we get under 30 pounds, and which of those had the best seats?

Hay Fever. Ta-da.

Hay Fever is an awkward 1920s comedy about a manic family and their bizarre guests at an impromptu weekend party. But it honestly didn’t matter what the play was — in that gorgeous theater with London’s lively, windy streets just outside, the weekend felt right; the experience necessary.

Other highlights of the weekend include two trips to the Borough Market, London’s rightfully renowned food market. The large, beautiful space has the finest in British and international products, with lots of yummy free samples.

I couldn’t help but stop at one of the sandwich vendors for buffalo and venison baguette, with red wine and apricots rolled into the juicy meat, and four vibrant sauces slathered on top.

Then there was Camden Town, by day and by night. On a spontaneous decision, I met up with a group of couchsurfers on a St. Patrick’s Day pub-crawl through Camden, where the Guinness flowed freely and lines of would-be-revelers formed outside every bar. Camden is popular at all times — a neighborhood of alternative culture, hippy street markets and grinning punks. In other words, the perfect place for a couchsurfing pub-crawl.

The too-trendy hipsters were discovered around Spitalfields, as were organic health-food stores, fair-trade coffee and designer shops with ironic signage. We walked through on the way to Brick Lane, a “lane” famous for all its curry houses.

We stepped into the smoky Aladin, where we agonized over the spread of choices far greater and far more interesting than what we’re used to in the states.

My buddy ordered a lamb sizzlar, which consisted of shredded lamb with onions, green peppers, tomato and pistachios. The pistachios were unexpectedly potent, giving the whole thing a nice… well… pistachio flavor.

I went for a garlic lamb tikka chili masala, which was a classic tikka masala amped up to rock star levels. The sauce was a piercingly bright red, with the tomatoes not dulled down by cream, rather reliably heightened by butter. And living up to all expectations of London-Indian curry, the chilies were hot. I only wish I had a pot full to take home.

On paper, London really has it all. Solid, or better than solid, cuisine from all over the world. Some of the best collections of art, ever. Constantly changing and constantly intriguing exhibits. Theater. Cool, grungy neighborhoods to offset the tourist mines, and tourist attractions that are actually worth the effort. And red double-decker buses.

It’s too much. And at the same time, it’s not enough. The question still remains: where is Britain in all of this? Do Londoners even consider themselves a part of England? And when the English don’t consider themselves European, should I even give a shit?

With my handy map, I helped a Londoner find her way to a tube stop one afternoon. I asked her about life in London — is it worth it; is it really what dreams are made of?

“London has everything you could ever want in a big city,” she said. “When you’re in your twenties, you aren’t thinking long-term and you can enjoy the galleries, the film screenings, the concerts, everything. You don’t care about the simpler things you might want in your life later on. Then you’re in your thirties, and you have to work so hard to survive that you can’t enjoy anything.”

“London’s great. You just need to come in with an exit strategy.”

Winter Break: A Czech Christmas

Maybe I should have been more concerned when I missed my bus to Prague, surely an omen of bad things to come. Maybe I should have freaked out a bit more when I finally arrived at my metro stop, 30 minutes outside the city center, and found myself in the middle of fields, with a sketchy cellular signal and my friend, who was supposed to meet me, nowhere in sight. Maybe I should have been more on guard when a little Czech lady I had never met whispered, “Janelle?” and told me to get in her car. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so relaxed when my friend and I were later pulled over by the Czech police, at 5 a.m. the morning after Christmas, for reasons we still can only guess.

Somehow complete calm engulfed me throughout my three days in Prague, where I spent the holiday with a friend-of-a-friend’s adorable Czech family.

Adorable cannot even begin to describe my Czech Mom for the weekend. In self-taught careful English, she said gems like, [on the Internet] “This is ‘Google.’ I think it’s international,” or [on feeling sick] “Twice every winter. It’s the fucking… genes? Is it ‘genes’?”

In all seriousness, this woman is the sweetest thing, and clever, too. Each morning she drove to the flat where she was kindly hosting us, and delivered breakfast. Then she drove us back to her flat, where she made us lunch. There were coffee, tea and Czech beer tasting interludes too, of course.

Christmas itself was a magical affair, and while the family said it wasn’t very traditional, it was far more traditional than anything I have ever experienced before. We had the honor of decorating the tiny Charlie-Brown-esque Christmas tree, which was later surrounded by presents for everyone — even us orphans.

There was a classic dinner table setting, with holiday cookies, dates, chocolate, bread, wine, apples, a bell and other necessities. After a nontraditional spread of endless potato salad — unbelievably good — and schnitzel, some traditions emerged. One at a time, each person at the table cut an apple in half, and if the core made a star (spoiler: the core will always make a star), that person would have good luck in the coming year. After that, each person made little “boats” with candles, and set sail in a big bowl of water. The candles symbolized our future journeys.

We orphans whispered the same phrase to one another a lot that weekend: “Is this real?”

This uttering occurred frequently post-celebration as well. That night, December 24, we explored Prague by night and understood why so many fall in love with this city. With all its regal monuments lit up, and the old and stately main square bustling with the wonder-struck, and the castle glowing across the Charles Bridge…

The views from Vsehrad were also breathtaking from every angle.

But otherwise, I didn’t see a whole lot of Prague or see any of the sights in daylight. There simply wasn’t the time, not when there was family time!

On Christmas day, my friend and I trekked across the city to a couchsurfing event — a party for the temporarily homeless. There were local surfers, and travelers from as far as Brazil. There were middle-aged hippies and freethinkers, and American expats who said things like, “Love brought me to Sweden. George Bush kept me there.”

There was wine-induced merriment, and ride and couch offers all around. There was dancing into the wee hours of the morning. On Christmas! Queue the recurrent question, “Is this real?”

Obviously, the unreal was real. The unreal beauty of Prague is real, as everyone knows and as we expected. But the absolutely unreal kindness and generosity we experienced, and the spontaneous community of freethinkers …

Well, maybe I still need to be pinched.

A taste of Paris, Barcelona, Madrid

You couldn’t possibly have thought that I’d write about trips to Paris, Barcelona and Madrid and forget about the food. No, no. The food is getting its own blog post.

We’ll start in Paris, where I went for the stereotypical ham and cheese crepes followed by ultra buttery croissants on my lunch breaks. The dinners were standard three-course affairs and oh-so French.

My last meal was the highlight, enjoyed with my friend Grace and our kind host from Couchsurfing. We picked a random, inviting spot in a cobble-stoned alleyway in the Latin Quarter, where a grizzled man played the accordion for hours.

First course: salade de gésiers. A simple salad topped with birds’ second stomachs, or, gizzards. Cooked long and slow in lots of fat, the organs came out rich and tender.

Second course: steak-frites. Our Parisian host scanned the menu options, with tantalizing mains like trout with grapes and boeuf bourguignon, and insisted that the classic steak-frites was the only way to go. We obeyed and we were pleased. The sirloin was juicy, the sauce was peppery and the fries were even up to Belgian standards.

Third course: île flottante. My first encounter with this French dessert, literally translating to “floating island,” was a rousing success. Light, fluffy meringue sits atop sweet crème anglaise, and in this case, a dash of coffee liqueur was drizzled on for good measure. Think of that soft, airy belly of a pavlova, and set it against a thin vanilla custard. Heavenly.

Spain was an entirely different story, filled with small bites and fast wonders. It begins with Mercat de La Boqueria, a rightfully overcrowded delight of the senses.

The market is a huge, covered maze right off La Rambla in Barcelona, selling everything edible you could imagine. Rainbows of fruit captivate hoards of tourists, as do long rows of fresh seafood, featuring enormous fish, eel and live crustaceans. Then there are the meat counters, with whole rabbit and various preparations of succulent pig. Then there are mini restaurants, serving up probably some of the city’s best food to the lucky few squatting occupants. Then there are small tapas stands, frying up mini octopi (pulpitos) with a squeeze of lemon, as pictured above. Sugary confections are available too, and I couldn’t resist diving into a flaky Catalan pastry — which I unfortunately I can’t remember nor find the name of! — topped with fried pork rind. Sweet, salty, slightly meaty goodness.

Our last night in Barcelona was spent at a random restaurant on a random side street, which ended up much more elegant than we had expected. The seafood paella — a Spanish rice dish with meat and saffron — was by far the best I’ve ever had. The top and sides were crunchy, the cuttlefish was fresh and the shrimp heads were prominent.

In Madrid, the market of interest was the Mercado de San Miguel, a positively gorgeous indoor market in the city center. It’s chic, gourmet and clearly for foodies. Most impressive was the array of Iberian Ham, likely the most mouthwatering cured ham in the world, requiring just the right pigs fed just the right diets and dried in just the right way.

Lunches were bocadillos, long Spanish sandwiches, from traditional, Spaniard-filled bars around the city. On one occasion, healthy calamari was freshly breaded and fried before being laid on the baguette. Another instance was a baguette stuffed with tortilla, the thick and oily fried potato omelet. Another meal was at a mini bocadillo chain, Cerveceria 100 Montaditos, where we partook in smoked salmon with sea worms (gulas). Crunchy!

A necessary stop for legendary churros and chocolate took place at San Gines, which boasted a line out the door, an old-fashioned, upscale interior and chaotic energy. Churros in Spain aren’t lathered in sugar and cinnamon like they are in Mexico. They’re simple and fried, either in the traditional skinny fashion or as porras, which are thicker and chewier. Then they’re dipped in hot chocolate, if you could even call it that. The chocolate may be served in a mug, but it’s thick and dense, more readily consumed with a spoon than by sipping.

And that leaves tapas, the ultimate experience left for my last dinner in Spain.

Four of us trekked out to El Respiro, a nondescript bar with a pulsating energy, old ladies on slot machines and a live football match on the television. My friend was somewhat buddy-buddy with a bartender, and our hope was for more free tapas.

Yes, I said more free tapas, as in tapas are free to begin with. You go into a bar, order a small beer or sangria, and the food comes as a complimentary accompaniment.

Our night started out ordinary, with one tapa of potatoes, peppers and chicken and a plate of patates bravas. The patates bravas, a common dish of pan-fried potatoes drenched in a spicy tomato sauce, was devoured in minutes. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long for the plate to be refilled.

Then our cheeky bartender bought out flowers for the girls, and a new tapa of potatoes, crispy lardons and spicy peppers. Then one girl ordered croquettes so I could experience the dreamy, deep-fried fritter of béchamel and ham. Then the bartender brought out mini croquettes. Then he brought bright yellow paella. Then more patates bravas. Then lollipops.

My old and new friends were as floored as I was — this kind of love and this level of free food hadn’t happened to any of them in their three months in Madrid. And yet, it was so very Madrid.

FALL BREAK

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.

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.

Couchsurfing (kind of)

On Monday night, I went to a CouchSurfing meeting at Monk, and met surfers from all over the world. I met a woman from Italy who was very surprised to hear my length of stay, and then told me that 9 months is definitely enough time to learn “how crazy Belgians are.” Not bad crazy, she said, and not necessarily good crazy. Just crazy.

I met a British lobbyist, who told me Istanbul is the most beautiful city in the world. I met a German student, who told me Brussels is a very transient place — usually people stay for around three years before moving on. I met a Spaniard, who apparently is at these meetings every week, and who apparently speaks in metaphors, although I couldn’t understand him.

Ultimately, the clock struck midnight and I was left with an ultimatum: attempt to find my roommate who was somewhere downtown to find a ride or split a cab, or, essentially, couchsurf.

With Brussels being a big city, and the metro being a little seedy after dark, it is not recommended for a girl to ride the last train home alone. And me being cheap and trying to avoid taking cabs back whenever possible, I chose the couch.

The couch belonged to two fellow American students at Vesalius College — one of whom I met at orientation, and had actually arranged to meet that evening, and his flatmate who has been living in Brussels for a couple years. The three of us went back to their EU-quarter house, and we laughed and listened to music and yawned and, being foodies, planned an Iron Chef-esque battle for the near future, amongst other friend-activities.

And in the morning, I rose early to get home for breakfast. I commuted amongst Brussels-EU-expat-folk — smartly dressed with somewhere important to be — a new, busy-city experience.

The spontaneity felt lovely, too. Thank goodness — I recently learned I will actually be homeless for five weeks in the winter. CS-hosts, get ready.