Adventures in Culture and Travel

30 September, 2012

Amsterdam | So High You Can't Move

Some of my favorite things was dinner with friends, and
Anne Franks house. 
 Amsterdam, the home of near-naked women standing in a bath of red light, coffee shops that sell marijuana laced brownies, and joints to anyone trying to escape reality. Vegas has nothing on Amsterdam. Welcome to the true Sin City. It's a place so high on life, you'll find yourself at some point during your visit sitting upon the city's pavement, head leaned back against the facade, smoke pouring out of the nearby door, wondering where and who you are.

It's a vibrant, wonderful city that whispers in English from every nook and cranny, often better than most southern accented Americans do. It's quite an odd phenomenon having spent the last six weeks in Brussels. Amsterdam is filled with gluttony that ranges from the New York hot-dog, to native Netherlandish food. One night we were greeted by a singing Italian man as we ate dinner just outside the red-light district, the next we ate from a curbside cafe as the smells and sounds of Amsterdam fell upon our table.

One thing I didn't enjoy was the pervert on the
Tram trying to bump and grind with me.
However I don't really want to blog the Fodor's guide to Amsterdam, I'm here to blog my experiences in my own way, and hopefully presents a true perspective of my visits abroad. In the case of Amsterdam, I can say I loved the city intensely the moment I laid my eyes on it. There in the train as we, a group of about twenty students from Vesalius College arrived at the train station, we could barely contain ourselves as we would soon embark upon a day of learning. I'm of course being sarcastic. What a cruel joke upon students to take them to the Disneyland of the Netherlands and make them see churches and paintings. The paintings are (obviously) in this city for a reason, and I really don't think they were ever meant to be seen sober (especially Van Gogh.). It was apparent by the first art museum that the matter of obtaining mood altering drugs was a priority for some students, now turned secret agents, and who snuck down a blind alley, running three blocks and back, covered in cake crumbs and avoiding detection by Madam Delsemme.

Whiting out (known as a "whitey") occurs
 when the blood pressure of an individual drops
 to such a point that they become incapacitated,
 unresponsive, and come in and out of
 consciousness.  Typically this is a result of
dehydration (likely from our walking),
drinking, and/or other factors. 
By the end of the day our official school duties of paying attention were left behind as we departed the corner of a robust, busty woman inside her little glass box, and as Madam (which we affectionately call her) released us from the bonds of academia with the final warning: "be safe". We all made our way to a local bar where a series of events occurred after a single beer that no one expected or hoped for. It was as if someone had taken a highlight reel for the next few hours and had cut it into a million pieces, spliced it back together in the wrong order, and stuck a few extra scenes with police, paramedics, and a world of hurt and embarrassment for one. What was really remarkable for me that evening was the fact that these twenty students, all from different parts of the world, different backgrounds and upbringings, came together and cared for someone who they didn't know just two months ago. That's a beautiful thing, something that will leave you moved by humanity's kindness in our weakest hours.

Which brings me to my point. Of anything that was taught and learned on this day in Amsterdam, I'm certain that this particular evening in question will be the one we remember in twenty years. One which I suspect that despite the unpleasantness at the time will be looked upon fondly in our memories. Not because it was wild or crazy, but because in that one single moment, eighteen people came together with deep empathy and aided someone in need.  If only we can remember to do that the rest of our lives then I'd say that it was a lesson worth learning.

25 September, 2012

Conviction of the Heart

Where are the dreams that we once had? 
This is the time to bring them back.
- Kenny Loggins
 Welcome to your life, there's no turning back.   -Tears for Fears

How can I possibly keep going down this path, blinded by reality, faithful to my convictions that a destiny awaits before me? Faith is rather scary word, especially when I use it to describe my life but yet I find it most accurately reflects my hope, my dreams, and most of all my future. Not in a religious sense, but maybe a "religious sense", that somewhere out there is the life I will live.

Never having figured out how the paths we chose yesterday seem to never lead to our expected arrivals, I'm never-the-less grateful to advent the terminus of choices from the past. So why do we continue to expect the outcomes of tomorrow to follow the actions of the present? How long must I wait to change? It's been too long coming. Certainly I know that life is never planned, life is lived at one moment at a time, in the dark, randomly circling in chaos waiting for the precise combination of fortune to make living worth all that we hope it to be. Yet we only have one life.

Last night in my journal I definitively answered the question of why I'm here. For the first time in quite sometime tears rolled down my face. I've given out many reasons to many people here, all which have a bit of truth, but none precisely defined exactly what it was I'm doing here. I now know the answer, and it's not pretty. I don't have some way of making it sound poetic, or spin it to make me sound like I'm less of a nutter. The reason I'm here, plain and simple is despite my inner conscience constantly telling me that there's something wrong with me, that I'm a failure on so many levels, that I'm broken, worthless, that something is seriously faulty with me as a human, despite all this, I have this voice inside still encouraging me to move forward, move faster, and do more. A song of heartbeats playing inside my soul trying to evoke courage to continue, screaming at me to get up and overcome my own dissent. Wailing at me to just remember the dreams I once had if I'm just brave enough to have conviction of the heart.

24 September, 2012

Thank You Wonderland : Brussels

Somewhere in the past my life split off into this tangent. The moment it happened I fell into a reality, a life which forever what reasons became my life here in Wonderland otherwise known as Brussels. Life here isn't "normal" (meant in the nicest way), you can't explain it to someone who doesn't live here. You can't define what life is here. There's bad here, but it's usually outweighed ten-fold by the good. The mood of the city can shift from one neighborhood to another. One moment in your in deep solace, in a grey building with a vacant cold-war building and Dutch speaking friends and mindset, the next your in a rainbow building with puckered lip French people listening to vulgar songs and who seem to arrive drunk-on-life and always seem to have food in their hand. (I stereotype of course, which you're free to hate me for.) My American mind wants to make sense out of it all, but after a month you start adhering to the need of compartmentalization and acceptance of the city's cognitive dissonance. There are chameleons who are able to navigate the multi-cultural geography of the Wonderland, and then there are those like myself who feel they've landed in the most interesting place in the world trying to make sense out of it all- but you can't. I walk around with a smile at the chaos, the character, and the beauty of it all. Literally, it's the one of the greatest places on earth to witness the wonders of the human spirit in all its forms. All its expectations, all its hopes, dreams, failures and regrets, all in one place.

The tunnels from Gare Du Centrale to the Metro is a perfect example. The overhead sign plays Atari tennis as lights flicker and reminds me of a post apocalyptic relic. The graffiti'd, closed off passages lead to residences of the homeless each with their "government issued" dog. (My theory is when you become homeless, that you get a free puppy.) A lone floor cleaner drives in no sensible pattern and seems to enjoy his artistic waste of hourly employment and his responsibilities. It's all likely futile as the smell of urine never seems to fade from this corridor to the center of a city which is the hub of the second largest supranational governmental body. Yes Alanis, it's ironic.

I can tell when I pass through De Brouckere (a metro stop) without looking just by the smell (waffles) just as you can feel the trains through the vibrations of your feet, as to their arrival times without use of the overhead status boards.

I know nothing technological ever works here the way you expect, yet somehow you always get where you need to be. People with three PHDs and who speak five languages become like neanderthals around flames the moment transit, or technology stops working. Indeed I join in, scratching my forehead as a dead body lays in the traffic circle with police surrounding it,  and I wonder when the "magic moving rolly thing" will go again. Worse yet is the look of fear and devastation by a Belgian confronted with an escalator out of service. You step on, stop, realize it won't go.... get really scared... then realize they work as stairs too and feel deeply relieved.

I know everyday here is an adventure, a marvelous, wonderful, incredible, journey. Nothing is ever the same, and unlike my visits to more "proper" (wealthy) cities like Antwerp, my Brussels Wonderland has a heart, a soul, that I can't describe why I love, but I do.

So thank you Brusslels for the accordion player on the tram. Thank you for the dirty looks on the bus. Thank you for the kissing couples on benches and dark corners. Thank you for the filthy men. Thank you for the smell of drugs in the park. Thank you for the violin player in front of the church. Thank you for homework with wine and cheese. Thank you for a metro station called Kunst-Wet (you always make me smile). Thank you for the many splendored places and people. Thank you for the thief, the pickpocket, and rampant crazy people who seem to take a liking to me. Thank you for messages on the wall telling me to love myself. Thank you for everything.

I may never completely understand this city, but I love every bit of it. Most of all I'm thankful for the fact that the moment I decided to jump into the rabbit hole, was the moment I became grounded at the greatness of it all.

Mamma Roma's Pizza

Spicy mushroom and ham and cheese.

Pizza, it's a fabulous food when done right, an atrocity when done wrong. I haven't decided if what Mamma Roma's is doing here in Brussels is right or heretical. People swear by the place which started out just a few short years ago in Place Flagey. I don't blame my fellow Brusselian's for latching on to this establishment. Honestly, I ordered Pizza Hut the first week I was here (don't ask, it's very complicated) and can tell you that they managed to make a fairly decent fast-food American pizza into rubbish here. The flavors are muted, the toppings sparse, and much like the American version of the same food, you'll be filled only with regret and concern as to why you ordered it. In comparison Mamma Roma's is the Sistine Chapel to Pizza Hut's drive-thru chapel.

Momma Roma's does a couple things right, the first being, the bread. The crust is about as perfect as it comes, doused in oil with a bit of crunch. Then there is the variety of options that you can get on the pizza, and for about 10 Euros you can get two massive slices and a drink to-go. Was it good? Yes. Spectacular? I'm not sure I'd go there. Let's leave it as really, really good. I think both the sauce and cheeses on the pieces I received were muted in flavor and lacking in the abundance. What I did receive I liked.

Perhaps what reinforced my concern for Mamma Rosa's was the fact I handed them a 50 to pay for dinner and whether by mistake or on purpose, the gentleman handed me back my change minus a 20. He quickly fixed it when I pointed it out, but I do wonder if my obvious "Americanista flair" (and poor French) was enough to make the employee think he could pull one over on me. I of course could just be a bit paranoid about the entire mistake, though Saint Gilles did seem a bit shady.

Probably didn't help that I thought I was creative by ordering from their marketing sign saying "morsel" for a piece of pizza. Rule #86, marketing lingo is different than real ordering. It was like me going into McDonald's in the States and ordering "A big juicy, and delicious Big Mac please." Then again I may be reading way to much into this, and "morceu" is an appropriate word. Such is the fun in being new to a language.

With that said, I enjoyed Mamma Rosa's and would love to try more, but traveling half-way across town for pizza, while an adventure the first time, will likely make me hesitant to do it again. Build one in Anderlecht, or near the VUB (Flagey, or the ULB doesn't count) and we will talk. (They'd make a killing on campus.)

Bottom line, great concept, okay execution, really good pizza, and employees with bad math skills.

So I thought I'd update this post. I went to the Flagey location a couple days ago and had a completely opposite experience of what I had in Saint Gilles. Outrageously good food, and amazing service. I believe (if my French is good enough) that I read in the paper that the owner has disliked the way the chain has lost it's quality aspect, so the timing of what I wrote seems on par with a fast-growing business. That said, I'm officially hooked now.

Burger Republic | Best Take-Away in Brussels?

The most expensive burger I've ever purchased.

It would seem my gastronomy radar is improving the more I stay here. Every time you think you find the best  food in town, it's overshadowed by the next meal. However this one does not come cheap. It's a $16 (12 Euro) burger that's out of this world. It could just be amazing since it's one of the few places in town that actually caters real American style hamburgers (though not really).

So what's the deal? Try hand baked bread made daily, homemade truffle sauce, sauteed mushrooms, bacon, gobs of cheese and Irish Angus ground beef cooked to perfection. I'm not saying it's the best burger I've ever had, but it definitely is one of the top-three. It's uniqueness factor alone is unrivaled, with the truffle sauce being the culinary indulgence that makes this sandwich worth 12 Euros. No not really. $16 dollars for a burger? I must be out of my mind! (That's just the burger... fries and drinks are extra.)

I nominate this for the category of AWESOME!
Burger Republic is at Place Flagey. It's the up and coming (may have already arrived) face of cheap eats (figuratively), and good food. Situated right next to Mama Roma it boasts a monochrome dining room somewhere between fast-food and kitsch Americana. Sit and eat, or approach the back bench for the take-away of your dreams. I arrived right at their opening at 7 PM (yes 7 PM, it's a Belgian thing I think) and had a 15 minute wait. Service was nice, and typical. I left with a boutique bag (that's where the money is going) filled with one Mushroom Bacon Burger and an order of onion rings. Believe you me, it was a long-freaking ride home to Anderlecht on Tram 81.

I sat down, pulled out my sandwich and indulged. Love at first bite. It's rich, creamy, flavorful and indulgent. It's by far the best take-aways that I've had since arriving in Brussels. Each bite was like $2.00 worth of food, but like a fine wine, or candy... I loved every minute of it. All I can say is if you have a hankering for an American style cheeseburger in Brussels, but with a European twist (and price tag), then run don't walk to Burger Republic.
Big, juicy, delicious onion rings? Actually they're sort of bland.

In my opinion I'd skip the onion rings. They were good but lacked the flavors of the sandwich. If they were breaded in a chicken breader, then they might have something, or if you're happy to season them on your own, you'd likely find they're delicious. As is they're a bit uneventful.

21 September, 2012

Forging A New Path

This is my fight now. 
Expectation leads to disappointment. Surely when I began this adventure I had many expectations. Ideas, hopes, and dreams of what this adventure was to be, and the many people I had yet to meet, and how they'd be a part of it. Life never turns out the way you think it will, and indeed this journey hasn't either. Not to say that any of this should be construed to be negative, because it shouldn't. Life here in Wonderland is truly fantastic. It's just that, in order to move forward, in order to stop myself from constantly trying fulfill those expectations, it's time for me to break free. It's time to forge a new path, a future of chaos, unexpectedness, where up is down, where I shed my reliance on those imaginary phantoms I had longed to manifest into reality. The truth is, those people, those places, only truly ever existed in my head, and it's now time to give myself over to a world without limits and forge this new path. A path distinctly mine, a life which doesn't stop at typical, at precedent, and that doesn't adhere to the stories told of others. A reality of my own making.

Destiny they say is the voice in the wind calling us to distant shores, to seek that fate which regardless of it's outcome is our rite of passage. This is the day which I choose to begin this pilgrimage, this is my chance to find greatness in myself by letting go.

To those who I've dreamed- I wish thee well, Godspeed you in your journey but alas we now go our separate ways. What was shall not be forgotten, but the path I've chosen is no longer ours to share. This is my burden now, our history is your gift to me. To the shadows of my past, thank you.

20 September, 2012

Love Versus Need

Love Versus Need.
I walk off the Marius Renard tram, down the escalator at Saint Guidon where I stand beside a trench of cables and rails. The ground begins to shake, a breeze begins to blow against my face, my hair begins to tousle, and a roar from the dark tunnel indicates my pending train. For a moment I close my eyes, and I brace for the impact fearful that when I open them I won't be here in Brussels. That I won't be the person who I've become as a result of this journey. That it was all imagined, a dream, and I'll wake up in that horrible cubicle of corporate Hell I once defined as my life.

The last five years of my life have been like a whirlwind of running, flying, and amazing times. I wouldn't trade this life for fortune and fame, nor would I ever return to who I was before: that shadow of a person, from which I've now come a long way from. (Thank you Nickelback and Avicii.)

Life it seems has a way of teaching you lessons. Some of us refuse to be learned. It took me a month of time separated from loved ones and 4186 miles for me to learn exactly the difference between love and need. Upon first meeting a new acquaintance at school here in Brussels and them finding out I have a committed relationship with two kids at home, their exact response, every time is, "that must be hard?" Indeed it was this sentiment by several friends back at home, as they paralleled their own commitments as justification for them never being able to follow in my foot-steps. The answer to the question however, which you likely won't expect unless you've already villainized my character, is that it's not too hard.

Sure the first few times I was asked I did the societal norm of saying "yes", but to be blunt (and downright honest) the hardest part of it all was leaving. Being gone, and talking to them almost nightly reminds me how little they actually need me. Their lives have gone on in much of a similar fashion had they if I was in their presence. We never needed each other all that much despite protests from them when technology goes awry. Do I miss them? Like you couldn't imagine! That's just it though, love isn't need. The lesson is, love is want. I still, despite the most incredible, most wonderful adventures I have everyday here in Brussels, want my the companionship of my family. If they, or I needed each other, then where's the love in that? Love is not compulsory, it's a gift, it's sacrifice, it's something that should give you strength, it should give you comfort, and most importantly it should give you everything you need, without requiring you to be less than your best, your happiest, and most importantly... who you might become. I need love.

18 September, 2012

Hot Dogs in Brussels?

Crispy Barbecue: Soft white bun, chicken
sausage, barbecue sauce, and fried onions.

Perhaps you think I fell of the metro and hit my head. A hot-dog in Brussels? That's what I thought too. There are these ironic deficiencies of very obviously popular foods among Brussels diverse gastronomy network, but then in some tiny corner of town you'll find it, often re-invented with a European twist. Such is the case at HopDog, a small restaurant situated in a crack of the busiest shopping area in Brussels (near De Brouckere). Here's the thing, it's idyllic, and what they're doing there is amazing. Through the window, or a two seat counter you can order up a gourmet hot-dog in rather unique packaging. No this isn't the New York dirty water hot dog, it's artisan bread, high-end sausages, and toppings like crunchy BBQ that round out one of the best take-aways I've had. Which is rather ironic since I'm in Belgium not the U.S.

Lawrence Peter once said "The noblest of all dogs is the hot-dog, it feeds the hand that bites it." Indeed I'm constantly surveying my counterparts for their gastronomic discoveries here in this new world of Brussels, but I'm often left speculating for how much they actually care to try something new. One individual ordered Chinese, something I have two blocks from my U.S. house, another complained of the mass-quantities of cheese used on everything here (I sadly completely disagree with this observation, there is not enough). Who doesn't like cheese?  My room-mate has been on a budget of 3 Euros a day purchasing nothing but durums. When I mentioned my escapades into new foods, their reply was "I'll stick to the durums". Not that there's anything wrong with anything my friends are doing, and we all must explore this city in our own way, but without the exploration of food- that emotional, sensory adventure, how can you say you lived in Brussels? The interesting part, is there's a true lack of information out there on what's good, and what's rubbish. It could take a life-time to figure it all out.

So back to HopDog. Why the name HopDog? Beer fermented sausages? I really don't know, though I can tell you they're out of this world. What was recommended to me as their specialty is their Crispy Barbecue. It leans a bit more towards ketchup than U.S. BBQ, but the combination of crunch and taste is absolutely out of this world. I'm told the bread is baked daily, and most all the ingredients are local. There's even vegetarian (not sure how) and organic options for my fellow woodchucks. It truly is a fun, fantastic concept with amazing food. Now if I can just convince the owner into making me a chili dog. Then I'd be in take-away heaven.

15 September, 2012

Do Good: Serve The City

"True charity involves participating in the
 pain and privation of others."
Someone once said “Virtue is incomplete without practical action.” I tend to agree. To me the deed is far more important than the "vow". In America there's a deficiency of secular organizations/movements allowing those from all varieties of life to come together in a single unified team to change the world for the better.  A place where we set aside our differences to make a dent in the universe. It's not that I don't want to be a part of an organization like that in the U.S., but in my particular corner of the world, saying you're an atheist generally closes the door in your face. Tell them you're an atheist who wants to mission not for proselytizing but to merely to do good and feel needed, and likely their head will explode.

Despite only my limited experience with Serve The City, it appears that this aspect is the truly unique part of the organization:  that it welcomes anyone, from any belief (or non-belief) to give something back to this world. It's something I've been looking for- for a long time, a place where I can be a part of something greater, something more important than living life intentionally ignoring the world's problems that could be fixed, if only we gave something of ourselves.

Today I was a part of a team who visited the Little Sisters of the Poor here in Brussels where we peeled apples for the resident's dinner while other members raked leaves and gardened the outdoor common areas. We all bonded as a team, met new friends, and for the first time since arriving in Brussels, I felt truly a part of the community. It was very rewarding, and I hope I can give more in my time here.

I don't pretend to be a Saint, and by far there's a lot to give and do everywhere in the world, but after years of searching for a place to become a part of and finding it here, it is bittersweet. I've arrived at a point both in my life and my adventure abroad, where preparing for life, as in school and future careers, that it seems so counter-intuitive to what's really important in life: the happiness of myself, and of others. I never want to go back to that world of sterile corporate cubicals where my servitude was not optional. Where I was enslaved to capitalism and making others rich at the expense of others. No, instead I'd rather live modestly, be happy and use my life as a tool not only to serve the city, but the world.

14 September, 2012

What Do You Do When All Your Dreams Have Come True?

So you know that scene in the middle of the movie where the lead character is in some foreign country on a bike, moped, or motorcycle flying through the city at break-neck speeds, hair blowing in the wind, and then she puts her arms outs, her head back, and we know as an audience in that moment she has found brilliance, even happiness?

Today I rented a Villo bike in Brussels and did just that. I flew through the business district weaving in and out of cars. It started to rain, but I didn't care. Bumpy cobblestone roads? Who cares! Of course I was supposed to be reading endless chapters on economics with math functions that make me want to gouge my heart out with a broken beer bottle, but I couldn't take it anymore.

So here I am, in the midst of my dream-come-true, realizing the answer to my question I posed several years ago in a article I called What do you do when all your dreams come true? It's from one of my favorite movies called Coyote Ugly, based upon the experiences of Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat Pray Love).

"I'm not lost. Somebody just moved my street"
Happy endings. They're great in the movies aren't they? When the writer ties up all the of the plot, and relationships are mended, and the story ends happily ever after. 
For the uninitiated, Coyote Ugly is about a Jersey girl trying to make a life as a singer, who momentarily finds herself working for a bar called Coyote Ugly where she basically dances and pours liquor all  over herself. Her dad comes in and says he's "ashamed" of her, then gets into a car accident and all seems lost as 'Violet' moves out of her apartment, finds her boyfriend cheating, and decides to move back home and give up her music career. But that's not how the movie ends. By the end of it, she reconciles with her father who has an epiphany, gets a music career and everyone lives happily ever after with Lee Ann Rimes on a bar top. 
 I ponder the bigger picture. While I've had my share of happy endings, I'm wondering does the big one still exist?
This is where you respond "You make your own happy endings, Liv".
I mean. I'm 32 and I have no clue how this life is going to end. Am I going to die homeless and lonely living under a tree at the end of this? Do I begin a music career (probably not as you don't want to hear me sing) and dance on bar-tops? I mean, don't get me wrong, I can take lemons and make lemonade like the rest of us, but the evidence of the first 32 years of my life led me to believe, most people die with regrets, unfulfilled dreams, and at least a couple of relationships where people remained "ashamed" of them. Epiphanies are hard to come by these days.
I guess the only consolation is that I don't know the outcome already. An ending which might stop me from hoping, from trying, from wanting that happy ending. I don't think I'm ready to give up on my happy ending quite yet.
So Tell me what do you do when you realize all youre dreams have come true? 
Is this a church meeting or is this a bar?
Make some noise!
Three years later I'm living my dreams, as my friend Christie reminded me the other day.  I've stood upon Waterloo, explored the inner workings of a pyramid. I've climbed a belfry, spent the night in Paris and walked the Seine. London is a second home, and Wales is a place I now long for. Yet nothing compares to the fact that this dream, this lucid reality I realize I am within, is a story I can shape and weave to my expectations. Life IS a fairy tale authored by its own characters, and what they make of their journey.

Of course you have to know what you want. Preferably I'd like a permanent visa here, and death to all who teach economics (okay I like the professor, just not the subject), but what I think I'm really asking for is likely the most impossible part of realizing your dreams. In order for them to come true, you must never wake up.

12 September, 2012

La Drague | The Art of Seduction and Harassment

La Drague, as in to pick up, as in the initial verbal word play of courting is a popular topic in Brussels right now. Not because the art of seduction is a good thing, but that La Drague has become associated with something very, very bad: harassment. More importantly, the "cat-calling", or often offensive sexist slang or vulgarities that are commonly associated with harassment of women. In America we iconized the concept through construction workers whistling at the passerby woman. Here, in Brussels it's much, much worse.

My first encounter with harassment on the streets of Brussels was last year on a visit to see some friends. Not knowing where anything was or where to go in our unguided free time, me and Shannon ended up in a neighborhood I now know as Schaerbeek. While parts of Schaerbeek are safe, and void of this phenomenon for the most part, other parts are colloquially know as Petite Moroc or La Capitale du Moroc, (little Morroco) in reference to the very high ethnicity of Middle-Easter descent inhabitants. Indeed you feel a bit naked walking down the streets as eyes stare, men follow, and words (which I couldn't understand then) are shouted at your back-side as if it's (ever) going to make you turn around and quickly fall in love.

Recently, a documentary called "Femme de la Rue" on the matter caused quite a stir in Brussels. It occurred before I moved hear, but the effects have been profound. In the video a woman dressed conservatively tries to walk around her neighborhood and receives many remarks. The point being is a woman's dignity in Brussels is always likely to be soiled by the conflict of cohabitation of many cultures here in Brussels unless things change. This is a difficult to swallow for the home of the EU which in 2008 made a very controversial decision to ban hate speech and to reduce social friction. Yet Brussels can't keep the men on the street from vomiting vulgarity right outside their shiny supra-national government buildings. The irony is unyielding and many Belgian conservatives I've become acquainted with (who will remain nameless), even those who are running for election are quietly xenophobic about the Arab culture which they believe is to blame these activities. Worse yet, is they know they're xenophobic, and like in the US with Hispanics, these Belgian conservative think you should either conform or leave.

So I suppose we're really not all that different, but if the ideals of community and unified diversity (the mantra of the E.U.) are ever going to succeed in this world, then they have to start here in Brussels. Brussels knows it too, and in response to La Drague, last week it is now illegal to curse in Belgium in a way that's inflammatory to another individual. (Like calling somewhat a slut, etc.) It's all pretty nifty on paper, just as many of the laws that stemmed from the 2008 decision are, but enforcing them? Likely a nightmare.

Considering I've been here just under four weeks, my experience as many of the girls I go to school with have reinforced that La Drague is very common here. I've had men follow me home, call me names I've only recently learned in French, and likely countless other things I can't comprehend. It ranges from scary to corny and very quickly gets old really quick. Yet there is this habit to just accept it's a part of life living in this very diverse city. It's part of the culture of being a woman in Brussels and generally becomes little more than a nuisance in everyday life. (Likely why a lot of us just put headphones on and zone out.) The truth is as a writer I know one fact that I suspect a lot of women worry about, but fail to materialize into their justification of acceptance of this harassment: words can become actions. Having visited the Middle-East personally and knowing that there, physical harassment (touching, grabing, etc) often occurs with the verbal harassment, and having experienced it: I'm glad to say it hasn't occurred yet to me here. But with a 150,000 people living in Brussels it's just a matter of time till someone crosses that line and the worst fears of Sofie Peeters and the rest of us in Brussels becomes a new reality.

11 September, 2012

Durums, the Best Street Food in Brussels?

Best Street Food in Brussels?

So I travel different then most people. Definitely a lot different than most Americans. I would rather have cheap street food from a cart vendor in some back alley than spend 25 Euros on sit down meal. Don't get me wrong, I like a good evening out with friends and wine for the socialization, but when it comes to the really, really good food- I've just found it usually comes from the unlikeliest of places: street carts, hole-in-the walls, and sidewalk vendors.

Brussels is of course known for street-food with their often permanently anchored fritures and gaufre vendors in commune squares selling fries and waffles late into the night. Of course I've already mentioned the pitas from Pita Alley, and the numerous combinations of foods you get from this restaurants. It's all delicious. Then again, I'm always looking for that next fix. I tried the mitrailletes (sub) which I had hoped would be more like the French's Americain (not the Belgian version of minced raw meat which I very much don't like) but found the meat sub-par though unusually tasty. If only I could find one like in France, I might die happy. Of course the baguettes and the traditional sandwiches here are out of this world too, and as I've said before I'm sure there are countless variations of street-foods out there awaiting my purchase, I just have to find them.

One very popular option here in Brussels is the durum. After trying it, I completely became addicted and began a 12-step program which included avoiding certain metro stops which have donner-kebab shops. So far, I'll say it's the best darn street food I've had. What's a durum?  Well here at least it's a tortilla wrap (that they'll call a pita) with spicy chicken, lamb or other mystery meat cooked on a spit, Donair (pita garlic flavored) sauce, lettuce, tomatoes and onions. It's all wrapped up and grilled than rolled into a Middle-Eastern-"burrito" of perfection with some hot-golden Belgian fries. Some shops will add cheese for a bit more, and I can't explain to you how good these things are. Just absolutely amazing!

The question now is what's next, there must be some undiscovered secret saucy, cheesy, delicious street food hidden right around the corner, the trouble is finding that. Till then you might find me hanging around my neighborhood Anderlecht durum vendor enjoying my new European vice waiting for suggestions.

08 September, 2012

Nostophobia | The fear of going home

I've now been in Belgium three weeks. I'm feeling comfortable here, though I've seen several of my fellow students suffer quietly in their discomfort for their surroundings, their culture shock (difficulty shopping, refusing to go out, etc.). I think I'm quite honestly to the point I'm fairly adjusted. I may butcher the hell out of French, but I can get what I want, and do. I think I've got the Metro down, and can go most anywhere. I'm independent, yet building an ever growing social network. My worse fear now is not really anything about adapting to Belgium, my condition is: Nostophobia, the fear of going home.

Look I know it's not rational, I've just got here, but in another week almost 1/4 of my time living here will be gone. Soon my dream, though fulfilled, will go back into its glass case to become nothing but memories, a glorified dream I can say I once lived. What I mean to say is I love it here, and as much as I look forward to Christmas with my family (and I really, really do), and reuniting with loved ones over a long meal of Taco Bell and a few dozen hot sauce packets; I can't fathom going back to the States, cuddling up in the cozy blanket of American nationalism and drinking the Kool-Aid.

I mean, I fully know what reverse culture shock is, hell I wrote a book on it, why the the hell am I experiencing it before I even get back? Is it because I know what's coming? What's coming is me being locked in a box, buried alive, and told to deal with it, because that's the way the world turns. Studying abroad was my single reprieve from my life sentence, but at such a large cost (literally) there's no way of duplicating the experience once it's over. No way I can see short of some random bit of luck in someday finding a job here.

I'm so grateful for what I've been given, but I wonder if it may have been a better choice to never have come. Sure I would have wondered, but I would have never known for sure what I know now. That I am strong enough, capable enough, and- if I so humbly suggest- deserving of a life better than what my social-economic class determines for me.

Life is so beautiful, so wonderful, but what do I do now? Do I go home finish my degree, and hope in another year-and-a-half I can manage to find a job abroad? Do I even have a choice?

Perhaps something is yet to happen, so horrible, that it will change my outlook and have me running back to the US  never wanting to return?  I'll vote Mitt Romney, stone my own gay family, and buy a fall-out shelter filled with guns. Maybe... but it's unlikely.

In the end, I suppose all dreams must come to an end, all stories eventually have a final chapter, and all characters must eventually encounter their hubris. My downfall, is likely my continued childish belief that all stories end happily if you just never give up.

07 September, 2012

How to get to Waterloo

The tallest stairs in Belgium?
Napoleon has always been near and dear to my heart. A man who conquered a world for a single woman? What's more is this man was amazing, and despite his dark side, you can't doubt that he fundamentally changed the world, perhaps even for the better. So my admiration for the man has always led me to want to visit the place of his downfall: Waterloo. Having had visited Brussels twice before moving here, and never having visited it, I was certain I would this time.

Indeed I now understood the kind and gentle persuading by my friends that thwarted my visiting Waterloo in previous trips, as the journey isn't exactly a short one. By all means it's a day-trip by public transportation unless you own/rent a car. Ask most locals about Waterloo and they say "it's just a big hill", which of course is similar to the response when I first visited Stonehenge: "It's just a bunch of rocks." No you idiot, it's a bloody time-machine! Where in the world can you get closer to history then Napoleon's last stand? Where can you climb a mountain built upon the bodies of the dead from one of world's great historical moments and feel your spirit rise bit by bit as you scale the tragedy and victories under you feet?

Corn is now grown on the mass graves. Mmmm Tasty!
How to get to Waterloo?
Where? Not Brussels. Oh no, anyone tells you it's in Brussels they're wrong. In fact it's not even in the town of Waterloo (it's darn close though). No Waterloo, as in the place most westerners are looking for (that pyramid looking thing) is past Waterloo-ville on the outskirts of town. Past the Carrefour and the McDonalds (Napoleon is rolling over in his grave.) and down a freeway like road, then out in the middle of a cornfield. A bus-stop, covered with trees will be your stop on the 1.5 hour ride from Brussels  on bus 365A (Gare du Midi) or W (at 7.50 Euros for a day pass). It's really only 20 miles, but the number of stops they make to get there made me long for a plastic bag to place over my head and suffocate myself. Actually it's not too bad, but after adapting to the metro and trams of the inner city, taking the "country bus" (TEC) which only comes around every hour or so makes me contemplate our previous discussion on why so many people just don't want to take visitors to Waterloo.

Napoleon's death mask was one of the
coolest parts of the whole trip IMHO.
For me it was well worth the money and the time. While the attraction is a bit run-down and outdated, a good imagination will make you tear up with the overwhelming fact you are now part of history. Cost was 12 Euros for the VIP tour, or a-la-carte individual parts for less. Considering this was a chance of a lifetime, I gladly plopped my Monopoly money over to the nice cashier and began my afternoon of awesome.

There's a wax museum, and a panaramium (360 degree painting), a "hay ride" sort of tour through the battlefield, and of course the Waterloo challenge: a bazillion steps to the top of Butte du Lion that is not for the faint of heart. Reach the top and you'll be awarded with amazing views, and that sense of accomplishment in travel that only occurs when you overcome the battles of the world to arrive at where you're standing. At that moment, I knew what it felt like to win on a battlefield; my war: my life, is clearly one amazing gift given to me at the expense of so many sacrifices of the past.

04 September, 2012

Pita Alley

Pita Alley Gyro?

It's called the Rue Des Pitas, or Pita Street in Brussels Belgium, and it's where you'll find some awesome Greek food, most importantly gryos and pitas. An entire street off the southwest corner of Grand Place is filled with nothing but Greek restaurants.

Which of course makes you wonder, how that happens. Because for the most part all of them sell the same stuff. While I'm certain each has their own flavor, and much like Butcher's Street the phenomenon of similar ethnic food vending isn't uncommon, but what makes one Greek person say to themselves: "Where should I put my pita shop? Oh yes, right next to the other pita shop in the alley." Is it some cover-up for illegal activities, or is there just that much demand for Greek food in Brussels, that the competition doesn't matter?

I went to find out.  One of the things I'm learning is that most restaurants will love to have you sit down and order 25 Euros worth of food and drink, or you can, if your a cheapskate like myself, go inside order a single gyro and pay 3.50 for the luxury, then walk around and eat it. Same food, but a-la-carte, and way better for the budget. I went to one of the restaurants in Pita Alley today for lunch. My French seemed useless as they kept talking in a language I did not comprehend. Perhaps it was French, but to me it might as well been Latin. However I did manage the word "gyro" which involved a facial expression of understanding from the vendor, and who quickly made me a fist size stuffed flat-bread gyro with Greek coleslaw (not exactly sure what it's called) and the meat from the whirl-o-veal on the counter. Another dwarf fork stuck in the top, I handed them a 5 Euro and got back some change. Perhaps it was lost in translation, but it was then I think I actually got a pita by mistake... oh well... Off I went forking at my gyro/pita, and it was out of this world. The meat fabulous, the slaw out of this world. In fact, it may have been the best thing I've ate since arriving in Brussels, it was that good.

Now I'm told, the thing to look for is a mitraillette gyro. A mitraillete is sub, typically with sausage or some goofy version of a hamburger on it, but the greek version uses the tangy gyro meat instead. I can only imagine it's out of this world. I'm told Plaka has them, but I'm looking for others. In fact I imaging there's lots of interesting sandwiches here in Brussels, I just have to find them.

The cost of water in Brussels

So I'm not setting out to offend anyone, and my limited views are just that, limited.... but I've noticed some interesting trends I think that are worth talking about.

In America, I'd say most people aren't ecological friendly, and they're okay with that. "I drive an SUV, I don't recycle, I take 2 hour showers, yada, yada, yada.... It's my God given right" And we all know how I feel about that. I live (in the U.S.) in a house were every room has motion sensors to shut off lights, where water-flow is restricted with the latest fittings, I'm a member of the electrical "shut-off club" (not sure what it's really called) where I allow the power company to control my A/C unit in the summer. I have programmable thermostats, fluorescent bulbs, yet I live a really great awesome life, that's cheap by US standards.

I realize I'm a rarity in America, and when you arrive in Brussels everyone tells you how ecologically friendly they are, but I've seen very few signs of it. In fact there almost is a hypocrisy, as in they all believe they're participating in some community eco-friendly scheme, but individual do very little than the popular aspects of recycling and public transport.

Now first I must point out my school, is state of the art, and most of the stuff I mentioned in my house is installed there. However throughout the home-stay process it's constantly re-iterated how expensive water is here in Brussels. It's like a manufactured statement designed to limit foreigner's use of water. That's all great and such, but from both statistics I find online, and the answers I received from my host-sister last night it's not that bad at all. Maybe even less than the states, and to make it more interesting, most land-lords include it in rent, so why are they complaining? Environmental consciousness? Then why are there not flow restricted on sinks and showers. None of the three home-stays I've done since my arrival had restrictors of any kind. I did my entire house for under a $100, and cut my water usage to 1/10th of it's previous flow.

Then there's the climatization or A/C/Heat as we call it in the U.S. The Metros and trams have no problem running the heat when the weathers 85 degrees, and worse yet there's absolutely no consistency in temperatures here. Even my high-tech school has the HVAC system blowing hot air out, as we beg for mercy for an open window. Do we really even need heat on the trams? (Ask me again in Dec.)

There are some good things here, like the motion censored escalators at public transport, and accepted use of bring-your-own-bag to the supermarket.

What really is the crazy part to me is the Internet here. Technologically speaking, Brussels is in the dark ages when it comes to Internet and mobile data. Tiny 40 Gig plans a month are common at home, and I can roll through 15 Euros of mobile data in three days. You can't even use the GPS on your phone here without dropping a 5 Euro bill, which puts what is often seen as the city of the future, oddly behind so many other places I've visited. There's so much international-ness here it isn't funny, but ask the average person here about an Internet meme, international news, or even a cult television program from the UK, and you might get a blank look unless they're one of the few who manage to circumvent this bottleneck.

I'm not sure what to make of all this, and whether a blatant disregard like we have in the US is more acceptable than a society which does have some measures of ecological-ness but lacks the technological implementation to not sound like hypocrites (be nice to me) when you dig into the details.

03 September, 2012

Best Frites (Fries) in Brussels

Best fries in Brussels?

Yesterday, I attempted to obtain the best waffle in Belgium, today I went in search of the best frites, or as we call it in America, Freedom Fries. After staring at myself in the windows of Vesalius's Pleinlaan 5 windows, and realizing exactly how fat I've gotten (living in the U.S.), I decided to pretty much stop eating right then and there. No wonder people look at me strange here, it's not because I'm American, it's because I'm the fattest person in Belgium! Interestingly, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum and I ran into Liz, another study-abroad student attending Veco, outside of the Petillion Metro station. She was in need of a transit card, and I knew where the place was. We ended up hanging out on the way, and then catching a bite to eat afterwards. Social interaction always trumps dietary promises, and I was grateful for the companionship. Where to go though?

Well if you ask around where the best fries are, the one friture that continuously comes up among the gaggle of responses is the third generation  Maison Antoine at Jordan Place. It's not in a overly touristy area (which is a good thing), but is rather easy to find. Get off at Shuman Metro and walk around the traffic circle till you see Rue Froissart and head down it till you run smack-dab-into-it (about a five minute walk).

There we ran into a backpacker who confirmed the reputation of the place, as it was the one place which he had been recommended to go on his walking tour.

The specialty of Maison Antoine is their tartar sauce, and I can confirm it's perfect. They promptly wrap your fries in a spectacular display of showmanship, salt them, then place the tartar sauce on top. Hand over your money, and pop a dwarf fork in your cone of potato perfection. The fries are twice fried at two different temperatures in beef fat, similar to the way McDonald's does it in the U.S. (Though McDonald's now synthesizes the flavors artificially after being sued by a vegetarian.) Not only were the frites good, but the service too. So is it the best in Brussels? I'd say it has to be darn close.

In addition to being off in a shady square (as in covered by trees) where you can enjoy your frites, there are several bars adjacent which allow you to bring your frites over, sit down and order a beer (look for the picture of the frites on the wall). How cool is that? So to recap, we've got a secret location, great ambiance, the possibility of having beer, and great fries. Winning!

I'm quite convinced this could be my secret hang-out now. In addition to the fries, they have tacos (not sure how that's going to go down), Mitraillettes (sandwiches with fries in them [for the UK crowd: chip buddies],[ex]),  and even the good ole American hot-dog. Personally I'm dead-set on trying a Cheese-Crack, whatever that may be. Now if I can just find a friture willing to put cheese on my fries.... hmmmm....

02 September, 2012

The Best Waffle in Brussels : Jean Gaston

This is Dandoy's attempt.

Waffle-Land, otherwise known as Belgium is split not only with their culture and language, but also their waffles. You could call it a Tale of Two Waffles, as everyone has their preference as to what is the best waffle. Me, I like the Liege waffle with its caramelized sticky sweet sugar, and I'm far from an expert but in my short time abroad I've had some truly great waffles, and some rather horrible ones too.

The worst of course are the ones in cellophane which I would never ever buy, but people keep trying to give me. It's like candy corns back at home. Everyone gives them out for Halloween, never eats them, and then passes them out the following year to someone else. I'm certain there are remnants of the first candy corn ever made sitting in someone's pantry in the U.S. Which brings us back to the waffles. Why in the world would you ever buy the store bought kind when you can either make them fresh yourself, or buy one almost everywhere in this fine city of Brussels?

This is the best Guafre in Brussels!
But the really good ones are hard to find. There's of course the McDonald's-like chains of of cheap waffle makers, typically in tourist locations like the Grand Place, and the mobile versions in ice-cream trucks. If waffles were crack,  these would be your playground drug dealers selling the drugs to the five year olds. Somewhere in Brussels there is a gathering of lethargic tourists that have grown to fat to leave and sit on a remote park bench twitching every time they hear the ice-cream/waffle truck song rolling down the street. Their eyes glazed over, their mouths foaming for just one more cheap fix to get them high on Pearl sugar and carbs.

Look for the white trailer truck!
Of course when you want the best, and you're not pan-handling for second rate waffles, you're going to pay out the derriere for the centrally located Dandoy most people (even Belgians) recommend for the best waffle in Brussels. Funny enough they're near the tourism black-hole of the Grand Plaza too. (Metro: Gare Centrale) It's a near-200 year old tea room that sells biscuits, cookies, and waffles: both liege and Brussels. A plain "Natural" waffle costs about 3 Euros, and it's out of this world. They also add toppings and you can be served on a plate with a fork too if you're too high and mighty to get your fingers sticky.

1.60 Euro a piece.
But the absolute best in Brussels in my opinion is Jean Gaston's. This, the undefeated champion of waffles in Bruxelles ALWAYS has a huge line around the markets where their mobile waffle truck arrives. So you see, getting the best isn't the easiest. I waited for four month after arriving in Brussels till I could make it to the Stockel Market (Metro: Stockel) to buy deux of the most beautiful waffles I've ever seen in my life. The market is open every Saturday till 3 PM and is one of the best kept secret in town. Jean Gaston's can usually be smelled half a kilometer a way at the Metro as they cook/bake them fresh on the spot with traditional methods. These waffles will change your life! In fact you're doing yourself a de-service if you settle for anything less than these or choose to leave without a Gaston waffle.

01 September, 2012


Placed in a tower, Alice ate the cake from the step mother and she grew so big she could not walk out the door. It might sound the likes of Brother's Grimm or Lewis Carroll, but it actually accurately describes my last home stay. A home stay which lasted just a few days, but included numerous head wounds, a unintended split in the bathroom, some quite odd behavior on behalf of my host (like buying us chocolate milk for our breakfast), and some rather emotional abuse birthed from the thought of living like that for the next four months.

I'm not someone to complain either, but interestingly enough we (my roommate and I) were placed in the third (or fourth [I lost count after a few flights]) floor of the house, in what likely was once an attic. It was obvious at one time it was meant as a nursery, then for small children as there remained a baby gate and what to me looked like a baby changing table like we have in the U.S. The ceilings averaged less than five feet high, and even the doors reminded me of a crawl space door. I'd hunch over (I'm 6') and make my way to the only furniture I felt could bare the brunt of my adult self, the bed, and lay down (the only position I could) as it creaked with stress. However, none of this was a problem. What me and Maria, (who had similar concerns) dubbed the "Doll House", was another logistical difference in what was termed acceptable (by our host mom) but really wasn't- yet we were (or I was) worried that complaining would cross the cultural boundary of respect in the differences of habitation between Europe and the US. Or so we thought. 

The kicker was when you tried to wash. The sinks, surrounded by colorful fish the likes of the animated movie Nemo, made me want to sing the happy birthday song  three times while brushing my teeth. Then there was the tub. Tucked under the angle of the roof as if it was in a cupboard, you would squeeze one half of your body in and straddle the tub as you attempted to bathe yourself. In all honesty I must have looked like an elephant with a water hose, as this expedition led to a solid 2-3 inches of water on the floor, walls, toilet, and every place in between. This first night, I knew it wasn't going to work.

What made it worse was our house-"mom" was very particular with her home. She expected not one drop of water in the sink or tub when we were done. This was explained to prevent calcium deposits on her facilities. An elaborate checklist of steam evacuation which included opening and closing windows, cracking doors, and the use of towels became a routine of post-bathing. I gladly tried to do my best at respecting her wishes, but given another week she likely would have had wood rot so bad her house would have been damaged. When confronted with this aspect she provided another towel, and seemed to have a lack of empathy towards the situation.

Now don't get me wrong, my first home-stay mother was nice, but it always came across as though she was running a business. We were issued toilet paper, and when it ran out it became our problem. We were barred from parts of the house, and there was no social area aside from a dinner table which shockingly we were encourage to exit straight to our rooms from post dinner. Food was rationed, and left-overs were common the following evening. While I managed fine with the genre of foods prepared, my roommate decided it was pre-processed and tasteless. When I tried to suggest, foods may taste different in Belgium, she jokingly called me a hypocrite and forced me to admit perhaps mom's culinary skills were lacking. I will continue to cling to my previous courteous response as the proper response, but I will admit Maria has a unique way of reaching into my head and ripping those thoughts from the depths of my suppressed innermost id. 

Then there was the paranoia. The repetitive worrying about locking doors, setting alarms, and the constant paternalism which I think was about to lead to confrontation, as she continued to push her expectations upon us. She wanted to know when and where we were going, when we'd be back, and we found ourselves sneaking out past her just to avoid a lengthy conversation about our procedural weaknesses.

It just didn't have that welcome feel. While I agree 100% that there is going to be some discomfort in adjusting to a host-stay, which by definition means, immersion in things that are different- there is also, in my opinion some reverse (unwritten) understanding, that they must adjust to the guests idiosyncrasies. That's called making your self at home. When I'm at my home (in the U.S.), even my family comes to visit and I find our lifestyles different enough that I overextend my self and my home to make them feel comfortable. Likewise they compromise to their alternate living style and we all find this comfy medium where we feel welcome, and can let go of our inhibitions to some degree. It generally, for most people works out fine. That's called being a good host, and that's what you should want if you're in a home-stay. You want the place to feel like home. Indeed the first day at my new host's and I can say I've felt more welcomed than I did for the week at the previous home. I'm grateful for my school and their hard-work to make my study-abroad life incredible, and understanding I didn't want to be difficult, but sometimes the only solution is to change you home-stay, in order to truly come home.