Sunday, January 3, 2010

Life without Photoshop is Barely Worth Living

I'm going to try to post some pics and what I'm realizing is that without Photoshop to "fix" my images, they're not all that good. In fact they're looking pretty blue....but nothing I can do about it at this point.

Weather Forecasters are the Same the World Over

Everyday the forecast is for warmer weather and everyday the weather is not warmer.

I'm trying to be optimistic about being on vacation in arctic-like weather, after all it is what I expected. But when you read the forecast and it says 40 degrees you start thinking about how nice that will be and when it doesn't happen then you're dissapointed.

And this morning when I awoke it was snowing (again!).

One weather phenomena did happen yesterday though....the sun came out for a few minutes...for the first and last time since we've been here.

Today is our last full day in Belgium and our last day with Claire as tomorrow she will go back to school and Sarah and I will go to Paris. The earlier forecast for Paris was sunny and 40 it's something like windy, cloudy 28 degrees but feels like

Gotta laugh.

For the last few days I've been thinking a lot about what to do in Paris. We will have 7 hours there. Not very much time but certainly enough time to see a few things...the questions is "which things?"

What would you do if you had 7 hours in Paris?

How do you say "Black Friday" in French

In Belgium the equivalent to Black Friday is the Day after New Years...I guess it is whatever day of the week it happens to fall on. This year it was Saturday (yesterday).

All the stores opened early and the girls and I were out about 9 to see what was going on. There were already a lot of people out and about not to mention that it was also the normal day for the the street market.

STILL colder than hell (hmmm...guess hell is supposed to be hot.) Okay, colder than I could ever imagine walking around in for hours at a time...but that is what I'm doing.

So we notice that the line of cars going into the underground parking garage is many blocks long and yet the digital sign over the entrance says "Complet", in other words, "Full". I'm wondering how long it took for those people to find parking. No wonder the crowds in the stores seemed a little irate.

Anyway we milled around for a few hours and managed to make a couple of purchases at drastically reduced prices.

Then Claire went to meet some of her Belgian friends for ice cream (I don't even want to think about eating ice cream) and Sarah and I went off to the street chinese food vendor and ate potsticker like things in the very light snow. (Yeah, we're crazy too.)

We then spent a couple hours relaxing in the room. When Claire finished with her friends she came to the hotel and she and Sarah went out to get Claire's hair cut and I met them later for middle eastern food...pita type stuff. Afterwards and amaretto and then back to the room.

All in all a quiet (but nice) day for us.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Three Kisses Each (New Year's Eve European-style)

New Year's Eve started out normal enough. Sarah and I met Claire late morning at the chinese food street vendor where we stand in the cold for several minutes while Sarah orders egg rolls and ravioli poulet (chicken in a fried wonton-type wrapper.) Kind of funny because it's chinese food, however the name has a french word and an italian word in it. Just one of the many quirks you encounter when you travel. Probably the same thing occurs when you don't travel but at home you're not in the mood to care.

Anyway, as I mentioned, we were standing in the cold w/ Sarah's food, eating, and here comes Claire. It is now about lunch time and although Sarah had just eaten we went to another place for lunch. I ordered a sandwichie (sandwich), Claire ordered an italian marinara lunch crepe and Sarah ordered a dessert crepe. The waitress came back a few minutes later and said something to Claire in French about not having any bread for the sandwich so Claire orders something else for herself. Then I said, "Well I thought you ordered a crepe...I,m the one who ordered a sandwich. Why would they not have bread for your crepe (which doesn't even have bread) and yet have it for my chicken curry sandwich?" She said she didn't know and seemed confused. At this point we were having trouble differentiating between a sandwhich, a crepe and a flying saucer.

Anyway when the food arrived we had the two things that Claire had ordered and the desert crepe for Sarah....not a chicken curry sandwich in sight. Plus the waitress put Claire's marinara crepe in front of me. I tasted it and said, "I don't think this is a sandwich and I don't think it's chicken curry. Instead of just realizing that we screwed up, I asked the waitress where my chicken curry sandwich was and she explained (again) that they didn't have any sandwich bread.

And so our days go....what fun!

Our next stop was a bar where we each got an amaretto on the rocks. This put us in a slightly better mood.

We then went back to the hotel to get ready for the party that was supposed to be at Claire's host home, or so we thought.

We'd been invited to spend the night so that the host dad, Diddier, wouldn't have to drink and drive but I'd decided to just take a cab home so we wouldn't have to pack up a bunch of stuff and also so we'd wake up at our hotel in the morning. We get to the host house and it's very dark and not even a fire going in the hearth. There is no food or drink out and I'm thinking, "hmmm, doesn't seem to be much of a party...they don't even have the heat on."

Next thing I know they're packing us all into the car and we find out that the party is not at the host home it's at their good friends who live about 45 mins. away in a town of which I still don't know the name. (There goes my taxi idea.)

So off we go (like captives) w/ no pajamas or tooth brushes, etc. to our European -style New Year's Eve Party. We arrived after an interesting ride (Sarah asleep on my shoulder) to the party. It was the home of Benoit (a friend from college of Diddier) and Jenniline (a Fillipino woman...his wife who he met and married in the Phillipines) and their 14-year-old daughter, Amelie. They gave us a warm welcome and 3 kisses each as is their custom when greeting friends and family.

They had an amazingly beautiful home, charming and modern at the same time...extremely comfortable....not too big, not too small...just right for the 13 (!) of us. We had wonderful canapes to start w/ French sparkling wine. French sparkling wines made outside of the Champagne region of France are called Cremants. The Cremant was delicous and I'd love to bring some home but I don't think my suitcase can handle it.

A little while later we went into the dining room for dinner where a beautiful table was set. We started with fois gras and homemade bread. Claire and I ate all of ours (first time I'd ever had it) but Sarah was less than fond. She said she might have liked it if she didn't know what it was....he, he, duck liver pate. (Do you know that they force-feed the ducks w/ tubes they put down their necks?)

Anyway she completely devoured the main course....roast pork w/ an amazing sauce, roasted potatoes in rosemary and olive oil (why don't mine taste this good?) and a mixture of fresh steamed peas and string beans (haricots verts.) This was all served w/ some delicious burgundy wine from year 2000. (I made a silent toast to Jerry and wished he was there with us.)

Did I mention that when you party European-style that you spend several hours at the table?

By the time we finished eating the main course it was almost midnight plus some of the more cognizant of "les enfants" (the children) noticed that it was snowing. What a delightful thing to see on New Year's Eve.

And so the party continued...this time w/ champagne (not the Cremant we had earlier). As we counted down the seconds in French (...cinque, quatre, trois, deux, un...) we all became very excited and there were 3-kisses each all around encore (again.) Three kisses each between 13 people is 39! There were fireworks going off somewhere that we could see in the distance.

Now it was time for dessert, so we all headed back to the table where we were served crepes suzettes made by Jenneline.

Jenneline is a fabulous cook and I was overwhelmed by her hospitality and good nature in taking care of so many guests in her home. Also she and her husband Benoit spoke very good English so at any time we had a couple conversations in English and one in French.

By about 1:30am I was dragging and mentioned that I was thinking about going to bed but before I could leave the table they started exchanging gifts and even had some for us... (Did I mention that I was overwhelemed already?) Well this was over the top.

The girls followed half an hour later. Apparently the rest were up 'til 4!

In the morning there was more food....wonderful homemade breads for breakfast with nice jams and spreads, coffee, tea and pancakes.

More visiting at the table (for several hours) which then segued into lunch which consisted of homemade onion soup and beautiful plates of cheese and meats. The cheese was from all over Europe and absolutely TO DIE FOR! Meats were from Belgium, Franch and Italy and also TO DIE FOR.

More visiting at the's getting a matter of fact it's dark again, but no one is making a move to leave. I'm wondering if we're staying yet another night.... I'm also wondering how many more meals for 13 Jennaline has in her and whether or not she's about to crack.

But alas, around 6:30 we get packed and bundled up as it's about 24 degrees outside and head for "home"

....but not until we get and give 3 kisses from everybody.

Friday, January 1, 2010

A Belgian Chateau and lots of Sax

No, this is not a typo. Today (Wed. Dec. 30) we actually went to the town of Dinant where the man who invented the saxophone was born. His name was Adolfe Sax.

Claire's host family was kind enough to take us on un petite road trip. First we passed through Dinant and went a little further south (and just a few miles from France) to a beautiful chateau named Freyr sur Meuse. We toured the whole house and grounds and it was very interesting and beautiful. At one end of the garden they have two buildings called orangeries where they house the orange trees for the winter. The orange trees are moved into the orangeries at the first sign of frost to keep them alive. The funny thing was, however, that it was colder in the orangeries than outside. ..a lot colder. We all felt the same thing so it must be true. They must know what they're doing though because the orange trees are over 350 years old.

After touring the chateau we stopped in Dinant. What a charming little town. It was getting dark so we weren't able to take many pictures but along the street name "Rue to Sax", above the road were lights in the shape of saxophones, and then of course, a monument in Adolfe Sax's honor. We all had to have our pics taken with the giant saxophone. (Yes, we are unabashed American tourists.)

We also were able to visit the cathedral in Dinant named La Collegiale Notre-Dame, one of the most important gothic monuments in Belgium. This place is huge and like most important religious works of art it's history dates back thousands of years. During the course of it's existence it's been flooded, and burned and bombed and remodeled and burned again and ransacked, etc, etc. Visiting a place like this is always a humbling experience.

We walked around Dinant for a little while more and then went back to our hotel for a nice dinner "en famile" w/ Claire's Belgian family. The food was excellent but it took 3 1/2 hours to complete our dinner. Diddier (Claire's "dad" said that it was slow even by Belgian standards.

Tomorrow is New Year's Eve and we're invited to a party at Claire's house and we're really looking forward to it.

A demain.

P.S. Earlier in the day while we were window shopping through town we were informed that Saturday, Jan. 2 is the Belgian equivalent of "the day after Christmas" for sales. In all the shops the clerks were marking down merchandise like crazy and in fact had huge areas blocked off w/ crime-scene-like tape. Apparently all the stores open at 9:00 am that day. Guess where we'll be at 9:00 am on Saturday?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Things I've learned so far...

1. I love Belgium
2. I have a great family....wonderful husband and kids
3. The waffles here are amazing
4. Train travel is fun, convenient and fairly economical.
5. I look really ugly in hats!

Goals for the day (besides go to Dinant):

1. Eat at least one waffle
2. Book reservations for the train to Paris.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Some call it Bruges, others call it Brugge, I just call it a...

NO, I can't ay that For anyone who has seen the movie Bruges, you know what I was going to say.

More about Bruges later though.

I woke up his morning at 2:00 am and never did go back to sleep so I ended up going down to breakfast around 6 and I wasn't surprised to be the only one there. I've already mentioned the quirkiness of this hotel...I've never seen anything like it. It kind of reminds me of the Winchester Mystery House in California but it is one of the most interesting and charming hotels I've ever stayed at. Our room is pretty large by European standards and the bathroom is enormous, almost as big as the room itself. The toilet sits up high and only my tiptoes touch the floor. I think Sarah needs a stepstool to get up and down, ha, ha.

Anyway the breakfast is included in the price and it's a very good one indeed. They have a machine that is loaded with whole oranges and it runs periodically to produce fresh squeezed orange juice. It adds a delicous brightness to the day to be able to drink something so fresh. They also have little containers of different (wonderful) cheeses and did I mention the freshly baked breads and pastries. NOT a bad way to start out the day. Especially since it doesn't even start to get light til after 8:30.

Everytime I travel to other countries I'm amazed about how good the food is and how different it is from most of the dining out we do in Salem. Don't get me wrong, there are some very good restaurants, especially in Portland, that I love going to...but it just seems like the overall quality and effort of serving food here is better. I read somewhere recently that the only places that Europe can't import meat from is England and the United States. I don't know whether it's true or not...apparently because of the hormones that our animals are fed and injected with...but it makes sense. Anway, guess this is just food for thought (no pun intended.)

Anyway, back to Bruges.

We left on the 10:21 am train and after changing trains in Brussels, pulled into Bruges about 12:30. It was raining hard there and even though it was mid-day, it was very dark. We took a bus to the "centrum" and tried to get adjusted to yet a different language. Claire says that there are actually three languages spoken in Belgium, French, Flemish and German. It does tend to keep one on one's toes though. Namur is in the french speaking region, Bruges in the Flemish area and so on, but here's the kicker....Brussels is in the Flemish region too but just to confuse things they speak French there. Go figure.

Bruges is quite simply a beautiful, fairytale-like town although a little hard to tell through the pouring rain, bone numbing coldness and the thousands (yes, thousands of tourists). After being in Namur for several days where not too many tourists go (Claire's friend Kamil didn't even know there were any hotels in Namur until we told him) it was a little bit of culture shock to be somewhere that was hard to walk down the streets because of all the people. It was kind of like being in Venice but without the heat.

Anyway we were hungry and it being about 1 by this time, many of the restaurants were busy. We ended up at an Indian restaurant....had a nice table upstairs with an amazing view and enjoyed a long, leisurely, warm lunch. Again...the food was so darn good.

After lunch we spent a couple of hours just milling around, getting wet and did I mention how cold it is?

At one point when we were standing in the main square I said to Claire, "I wonder where the bell tower is?"....the bell tower being a major landmark in Bruges. It turned out that we were standing right in front of it..guess I couldn't see past the umbrella.

Even though Bruges is in Belgium and not far from Namur the architecture is strikingly different. More germanic or northern european where Namur is a mixture of that and french provincial.

We took a late afternoon train back and when we got back to Namur it was raining even harder here. We decided to go to a restaurant we'd already been to for dinner and had a nice time talking over the events of the day and relaxing back in our nice, quiet, cosy Namur.

Sarah took off back to the hotel on her own while I walked Claire partway to the bus station. I enjoyed my alone time walking back to the hotel (after four hours on a train w/ Claire and Sarah, one can go quietly insane...he, he, Yes, they do tend to get a little silly for hours on end.)

Anyway on the way back to the hotel I felt proud of us all for not letting the weather get in the way of being out and about and having a good time. Our spirits are high and we're enjoying being together and more than up to the challenge of the weather.

Tomorrow we go to Dinant (which is a few miles down the river) with Claire's host family. Dinant has some beautiful scenery, a wonderful old cathedral , a citadel 350 feet up on the cliff and was also the birthplace and home of Aldolfe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone.

Should be another fun day.