Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Wedding season

Oooooookay, once again it's been a month (actually a bit more) since my last post...yikes! I've been keeping busy though, working, finishing up the spring French class, running a few more races, hosting the visit of our friends Jim and Grace, and traveling for a few weddings! That's the subject of this post in fact, the weddings of two sets of friends that we've attended in the past month or so.

First, Tom & Jen got hitched on May 9th at a gorgeous chateau in Ciney, Belgium. It's about an hour south of Brussels, and the chateau itself is outside the town and on some beautiful grounds. They rented the whole place for the week and stayed there with their out of town family and friends, and we came down for an overnight to attend the ceremony and reception. The pictures hopefully convey just how beautiful the setting of this place is...it's gorgeous, and everyone had a great time! (Photo credit to Inez Summers for the group shot of all the BSIS "gang")

Next up was the wedding of our friends Volker & Johanna, which was held last Thursday in their hometown of Tübingen, Germany. It's in the state of Baden-Württemburg, about 40 minutes south of Stuttgart. If you're a regular reader you'll recall that we spent this past Christmas with them as well, so we were very excited to go back and see their families again, and enjoy the warmer weather this time around! The ceremony was held in the Alstadt (Old Town), in the castle complex at the top of the hill with a beautiful view over the city. Later, the reception was held in a hotel/restaurant complex the nearby city of Reutlingen, in another beautiful setting overlooking the town from high above. The day after the wedding we headed over to Munich for a few days...more on that in the next post!

Congratulations to all of you, and thank you for including us in your special days!!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Alsace & Lorraine

Wow, has it been a month? It seems there's nothing like the re-starting of full-time work to slow down the pace of blogging! April was a busy month, but there wasn't much to report on up until our trip last weekend to the Alsace and Lorraine regions of France, in the northeast of the country. This place had been on my must-see list for some time, so when the same professors who led the trip to Normandy last year announced they would also do this trip, we had to sign up! Like last year, several of our friends from Carl's school went along as well, so we had a nice little group to enjoy the trip with.

Alsace/Lorraine have at different times been part of both France and Germany, so both regions offers visitors a really interesting mix of the two cultures. Rolling hills, low mountains and several rivers also make it a very scenic area, so all around it's a very appealing place. In Alsace, we visited the cities of Strasbourg and Colmar, as well as the town of Riquewihr along the wine road where we got to sample some Alsatian wine. Also in this region was the World War II concentration camp of Natzweiler-Struthof, which was in a beautiful setting on a hilltop with amazing views, but despite that was obviously a rather depressing place.

In Lorraine, we visited the city of Metz, which I was a bit surprised to find was incredibly beautiful and had a very Roman feel to it. I'd never really heard much about the city before going there but I have to say it was probably my personal favorite of the places we visited, with Strasbourg a close second. Finally, also in Lorraine we visited Fort Hackenberg, an underground post along the Maginot Line, which was a network of fortifications built by France during the period between the first and second World Wars to defend against a German attack (obviously it did not succeed). It was another place that was in a beautiful setting but with a not so beautiful story behind it.

#1 Strasbourg
#2 Natzweiler-Struthof
#3 Metz cathedral
#4 The University of Kent "gang" along with our trip leaders Dr. Palo and Madame Delsemme
#5 View from outside one of the installations at Fort Hackenberg

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Finished, and Still Among the Living!

So we both finished today, and all is well. I had a great run, was on track to meet my goal of 4:15 up through the 30th kilometer, but at that point it became clear that I just couldn't keep up that pace all the way until the end. So in the end I finished with a time of 4:23:36, but I'm not disappointed in the least because it's still 11:33 better than I did last year! :-)

Carl sadly didn't have it so easy - the poor guy (AGAIN!) came into this race with an injury that wasn't healed, and this time it was even worse for him than last year. I'm pretty sure he was in significant pain for the entire race, but he perservered and didn't give up when I'm sure most people (I include myself here as well) surely would have done so. He finished with a time of 5:23:26, and I'm very proud and impressed that he managed that under the circumstances. He did great, and I REALLY hope he'll be healthy for his next race and be able to run the kind of time he deserves to have!

Okay well I'm completely exhausted so will sign off now, in the hopes of perhaps squeezing in a nap before dinner. Thanks everyone for all of the encouragement, kind words and positive thoughts you've sent our way!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Paris Marathon, 33rd Edition

While sitting on a rather long metro ride to get back to the hotel after the expo this evening, I was reading the small guide they printed with information about this year's marathon. In it was a page of statistics, some of which I found pretty interesting and thought I'd share with you.

  • This year there are 37,000 runners registered, which is 2,000 more than last year. A whopping 82.5% of them are male, leaving only 17.5% women! I have no idea why that is; I think the distribution is much closer to even in the US, but here I think that percentage breakdown is about the norm. Perhaps European women just aren't into distance running as much as their American counterparts, but who knows for sure?!?
  • Of this year's registrants, 69% are from France and 31% other countries.
  • The country with the biggest representation besides France is the UK with 5,078 runners registered. Belgium is #4 with 716 and the US is right behind at #5 with 708. And in case you're wondering, Carl and I were classified based on our residence, so we're counted as representatives of Belgium. Allez, Belgique!! :-) **FOLLOW-UP: It turns out I was wrong on this point. Since we paid with a US account it turns out we were actually counted in the tally of Americans.
  • When the first Paris marathon was run in 1977, there were just 87 finishers - last year there were 28,844!
  • The fastest times ever run on this course were 2:06:33 for the men, 2:23:05 for the women. If all goes perfectly I hope to be able to reach the halfway mark around the time the male record holder crossed the finish line. Kind of puts that in perspective doesn't it?

As I write this I'm sitting in the lobby of our hotel, because the wi-fi connection doesn't reach into the rooms. I've seen a number of runners pass through, either going for light jogs or carrying the little "goodie bags" they give out when you pick up your race bib and t-shirt. I struck up a conversation with one of them, a guy from Denmark named Claes, who extended us an invitation to stay with he and his family if we ever want to visit Copenhagen - seriously! Marathoners are a friendly bunch, and there's definitely a "fraternity" of sorts shared among those who have conquered this distance. If all goes well, tomorrow I'll join the "extra special" group of crazies who have willingly subjected themselves to this torture more than once!! Kidding of course. ;-)

Look for the post-race update tomorrow afternoon!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Paris - Part Deux

In two more days we're off to Paris to run the marathon for the second time. We're both excited and nervous, although having an idea of what to expect certainly takes the edge off the nerves a bit. For me this is also going to be the last marathon, at least for a while. The training is just so time consuming and hard on the body that I've decided to stick to the (comparatively) shorter distances of half-marathon and below.

I'm feeling good going into the race, except for the fact that I'm just now getting over a moderate case of food poisoning. I should be totally fine by Sunday though, so I'm not too worried about any negative effects from it. Carl, on the other hand, has been battling a calf strain for almost 3 weeks, and is just getting back near 100% now, so we'll have to wait and see how it holds up. Send some healing thoughts his way, I know he'll appreciate it!

We're off to Paris early Saturday afternoon and will return Monday, so it's a short trip compared to last year. That was a necessity though, because Carl has to get back to work and I have my new job starting next Tuesday as well! We should have wifi access at our hotel so I will do a blog update on Sunday afternoon (like last year, by 4 PM CET, which is 10 AM Eastern) to let everyone know how it turned out. Hopefully it will be all good news!!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Belgian Culinary Delights

"A country with distinct Flemish (Dutch) and French influences, including language, it is sometimes said that Belgium serves food with the quantity of Germany and the quality of France."
--The Global Gourmet

We've been living in Belgium for a little over a year and a half now, and it's occurred to me that although I enjoy the cuisine very much, I really haven't learned how to make any of the traditional Belgian dishes myself. When it comes to cooking at home I've largely stuck to things I already know how to do, but I think now it's time to "branch out" a bit! I have a few more weeks remaining before I start my new job (on April 7th), so between now and then I'm going to try making a few well-known Belgian recipes at home, and will let everyone know via the blog how things turn out! But first, a little introduction to some of the best Belgian dishes (besides mussels and fries) is in order.

From the Flanders region, one recipe I've really been wanting to try is for Flemish Carbonnade, or "Vlaamse Stoverij" in Dutch. It's a Flemish version of the French beef stew, using (of course!) beer instead of wine as a base. It's very hearty, flavorful and one of my favorites! Another dish which I actually have yet to try is "Waterzooi", which hails from my favorite Flemish city of Ghent and means "watery mess" (the Flemish have a terrific sense of humor!). It's another stew, cream-based and usually made with either fish or chicken. It sounds tasty so I think I might give it a try sometime!

The Wallonian cuisine is heavily French-influenced so you see a lot of French recipes, but the Wallonians have also created their own niche, including many ways of serving game (think duck or rabbit) and some really terrific cheeses. I haven't found any really well-known "signature" recipes, perhaps because of the sheer variety of ways in which different items are prepared. I can say though, that some of the best meals I've had in Belgium were in Wallonia, so I'll look up a few recipes, give them a try and see if I can do them any justice!

Have any comments or recipe suggestions to add? By all means post them under the "Comments" section if you do!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


While trying to overcome my blogger's block and make good on my promise to write more often, I received a suggestion to do a post about the fabulous chocolate of Belgium (thanks Mom!). I frankly can't believe I never thought to do this before, especially considering that I've written individual posts about beer and fries already! So let's add chocolate to the list - then I can say that I've covered what I think most people would agree are the three greatest edible/drinkable claims to fame of this fascinating little country!

I've perhaps mentioned it in passing, but let me state it clearly: the quality and variety of tasty chocolate confections available here is world famous, and justifiably so! The main reason for this is the strict quality standards that Belgium has had in place for many years and has continued to uphold, even as the EU has relaxed its requirements (yes, the EU has passed regulations addressing the content of chocolates produced within its borders!). The tradition of Belgian chocolate making goes back several hundred years, and in many cases chocolatier families have been in business for generations, passing down their closely guarded recipes from one family member to the next.

Most of the chocolates sold in shops are pralines, which are essentially a thin chocolate coating filled with almost anything you can imagine (for example fruit, coffee, hazelnut or more chocolate), in a nougat or creme form. They come in many shapes, and are often beautifully decorated to the point where you almost feel badly about eating them...almost! ;-)

Since most of my readers are American, I'll also briefly touch upon how Belgian chocolate differs from what is typically produced in the US. The most notable difference is the sugar content; Belgian chocolates are a lot less sweet than their American counterparts, which also means they are not as high in calories - a nice bonus indeed! That lack of extreme sweetness, combined with the quality of the ingredients, allows the flavors of the chocolate and fillings to really take center stage, with truly amazing results!!

Mmm...tomorrow sounds like a great day to pay a little visit to my neighborhood chocolate shop! :-)

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Blogger's Block and BIG NEWS!!

I've been suffering from a pretty severe case of blogger's block lately, probably because things have been relatively quiet up until this past week. We haven't done any traveling, and my mind just wasn't coming up with any interesting ideas to write about. So the blog has been neglected a bit; my apologies to my faithful readers who keep checking, and with the apology is a promise that I will get back into the swing of it and start writing a bit more often!

Now, on to the second half of my post title. On Friday afternoon I received some excellent news that both Carl and I have been waiting for months to hear. I've been offered a job here in Brussels!! It's with a company called ARC Europe, which is both an umbrella organization for automobile clubs around Europe and a seller of roadside assistance services to automobile manufacturers, who in turn provide those services to their customers under warranty. I'll be working in the second area, in their reporting and analysis group. It's a combination of IT/database work and statistical/financial analysis, which is right up my alley as a data and finance "geek". I'm also really excited about the company, because it's a very international work environment (about 16 nationalities represented among only 40 employees!) and I really like the atmosphere and all of the people I've met there. The process of getting the work permit will begin this coming week, and we've set a tentative start time of the first or second week of April. Exciting times, and although I'm sure there will be a period of re-adjustment to the "working world", I am thrilled to get back in the action!!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Trappist Tradition

I know I've mentioned the impressive array of truly excellent beer available in Belgium before, and the country's reputation for brewing is certainly known worldwide. There is however, a small category of beers for which Belgium is particularly famous, and that is the Trappist brews.

The Trappists are a branch of the Cisterian order of monks, and they live in about 170 monasteries around the world. They support themselves primarily through manual labor and the sale of goods produced at the monastery. For seven of the Trappist monasteries, that includes beer brewed by the monks themselves, and six of these are located in Belgium (the 7th is in the Netherlands). To be called a Trappist beer, there are strict rules surrounding the brewing process, and laws exist to prevent the misuse of the title by non-Trappist operations.

The seven Trappist abbey-breweries are:
Koningshoeven (Netherlands)

Having tasted five of these seven beers (all except Koningshoeven and Westvleteren), I can tell you that they are among the best you'll find anywhere. Chimay is my personal favorite, my favorite beer in the world in fact! Carl's favorite is Westmalle, and we both recently cemented our "fan" status by purchasing the official glasses of both beers so we can enjoy the full Trappist beer experience at home!


Saturday, January 3, 2009

Beautiful Baden-Württemburg!

Happy New Year!

I hope everyone had a safe, happy and healthy holiday! As I mentioned in a previous post, we spent Christmas with our friends Volker and Johanna in Tübingen, in Baden-Württemburg state in Germany, and then returned to Brussels for New Year's Eve. We had a wonderful time in Germany, and as always I have some photos and commentary to share!

First up of course, is Tübingen. It's a university town of about 88,000, located approximately 30 minutes drive south of Stuttgart, and it's absolutely beautiful...think cozy riverfront Alstadt (old town) complete with half-timbered buildings, cathedral and hilltop castle. The best part was that it's the hometown of our good friends, so we had very knowledgeable guides and the unbelievably warm hospitality of their families. We were made to feel so welcome, almost like we were part of the family! It was truly a memorable holiday and we can't wait to go back in June to attend their wedding!

While we were there we also had some time for daytrips, one to the small town of Gosbach (SE of Stuttgart), where our friends from Portland, Andreas and Lyndsay, were visiting his family for the holidays. Andreas' parents fed us a terrific traditional Swabian lunch (one of several spectacular meals we enjoyed); afterwards we hiked to the top of one of the small mountains above town, then back down into the neighboring town to warm up in the hot spring pools located there. We followed that with dinner at a local restaurant and board games back at the house, topping off a great day. Thanks guys!!

Finally, on our last day in Germany we drove about 90 minutes southwest to Freiburg, a city of just over 200,000 people on the western edge of the Black Forest, close to the French border. The drive crossed over some beautiful mountain terrain before dropping back down into the valley where the city is located. We enjoyed the old town for a few hours, had lunch in a great brewery and visited the big cathedral called the Münster, located on a very picturesque square in the center of the old town. One of the original city gates also remains, but sadly any photos of it are ruined by a huge McDonald's sign prominently featured on the adjoining building...they did at least avoid using the bright yellow and red colors but still, couldn't they have found somewhere ELSE to put that??

On the 28th we returned to Brussels, and spent New Year's Eve with friends at a party that was conveniently located only 3 blocks away...which came in quite handy when we stayed there until 4:30 AM!! :-)

Photo #1: Riverfront of Tübingen, with the Alstadt to the right
Photo #2: the Christmas tree at Johanna's mother's house - with REAL CANDLES!!
Photo #3: side of the Münster cathedral, Freiburg
Photo #4: Happy New Year!

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Very Merry European Christmas

The holidays have really crept up on me this year, mostly because I was sick for the last week of November and the first two weeks of December. I'm finally back to 100% just this past week, but now there's so much to do in so little time that it's been a little crazy! Anyway, I doubt you want to hear all the details, so I'll move on to the fun stuff...

We had hoped to fly home to the USA this Christmas, but Carl's work schedule and our budgetary restraints made that impossible. We won't be alone however...thanks to the kindness and generosity of our friends Volker and Johanna and their families, we have been invited to spend the holidays in Tübingen, Germany! It's a pretty university town in the state of Baden-Württemberg in the southwest of the country, and we've never been there before so we're very excited to see the area and experience a real German Christmas. We leave tomorrow afternoon and return the evening of the 28th, so we will have plenty of time to enjoy the surroundings and partake in the holiday celebrations!

So to all our friends and family near and far, have a very Merry Christmas, and I will write again soon!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

I'm Dreaming of a White...Birthday?

Truth be told, I'd have most preferred an unseasonably warm and sunny day today, but I suppose the white stuff would be the second choice! It didn't accumulate on the ground, but late this morning I looked out the window and saw some big, fluffy white flakes falling, and it made me smile!

Sorry to have neglected the blog a bit, but it's been an uneventful few weeks aside from the nasty and persistent colds that Carl and I both picked up in England. This one has been particularly hard to shake for some reason, and I'm not even sure whether I'm feeling better or just getting used to not feeling well. Regardless, I'm ready to be over it already!

In other news, a month or two ago we signed up to run the Paris marathon a second time, so training for that has begun - though the illness has thus far hindered my efforts to get back into running condition. The date is April 5th if anyone was thinking of coming to watch! Finally, I had another job interview which went very well, and with any luck I may have some employment news to report soon. I don't want to say any more than that because I don't want to jinx anything, but I think my chances are pretty good, so fingers crossed!

That's all for now - I hope everyone is doing well and enjoying the holiday season thus far!!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Canterbury Tales

Last weekend was our big trip to England to attend Carl's graduation ceremonies, something we'd both been looking forward to for a good while. First, we were excited about seeing a number of our friends who have left Brussels and moved on to other places during the past several months. Second, Carl was excited to finally get his degree "in hand"; and third, we were visiting the UK for the first time in nearly seven years!

We took the Eurostar train over on Thursday evening, spending Thursday and Friday nights in the town of Canterbury in Kent, where the graduation ceremony was held in the Canterbury cathedral on Friday night. That was very exciting, and Canterbury is a really attractive, quaint and historic town. We had a great time catching up with friends and doing the graduation thing, but sadly didn't have the chance to check out the cathedral as tourists, because it was closed all day Friday for the graduation ceremonies (there were three of them held that day). Oh well, I guess we'll have to go back sometime!

On Saturday we drove south to see the famous white cliffs of Dover, and fortunately the sun came out for a while and we were able to see just how white they are! We later stopped in the medieval port city of Rye, where we spent the night in a nice bed & breakfast just outside of town. Finally, on Sunday we drove into East Sussex to visit the town of Battle, the aptly named site of the Norman invasion of 1066, commonly known as the Battle of Hastings (the larger town of Hastings is nearby). That was a really interesting place to see; the battlefield itself is still there, as well as what's left of the huge abbey complex built by William the Conqueror to honor/commemorate the lives lost in the battle. Unfortunately the weather didn't contribute to our enjoyment of the almost completely outdoor site - it was cold, rainy and windy for most of the time we were there, and by the end of the visit we were completely soaked and thoroughly chilled!! We did manage to warm up on the car ride back to the Eurostar terminal on Sunday evening though, and we got back to Brussels around 9PM Sunday night. A short visit, but well worth it and fun!

#1 - the graduate and yours truly
#2 - the BSIS gang, or some of them at least!
#3 - the Canterbury cathedral just before the ceremony
#4 - the White Cliffs of Dover
#5 - Carl attempting to stay dry during our visit to the Battle of Hastings sight - the battlefield itself is behind him

Friday, November 14, 2008

Le Quartier Thieffry

I'm not sure if I've stated it clearly in any previous posts or not, but our neighborhood continues to be one of the things we've enjoyed most about our time in Belgium thus far. For that reason I thought I'd take a little time to properly introduce it to those of you who haven't yet made it here to visit us.

Our commune (municipality) is called Etterbeek, but the specific neighborhood is called Thieffry, named after the decorated World War I aviator Edmond Thieffry, who was born in this area. It's in the southeast part of the city, and is along one of the metro lines and several tram lines, making it an extremely convenient place to live. Despite that, it's a pretty quiet area (meaning no noisy bars or people on the street at all hours) that definitely has a "neighborhood" feel to it.

One of the things we really love about it is the amount of shops and restaurants available within a 5 minute walk. We have two good-sized supermarkets and one smaller convenience market (open on Sundays too - not typical here!), as well as several other shops like a home improvement store, interior décor shop, drugstore, beauty shop, bookstore, travel agency, jeweler, flower shop, electronics store, etc...you get the idea. What really makes it special though, is the great little food shops that are literally all within 3 blocks of our front door. I went out this afternoon and photographed some of them to show you what's on offer:

there's the butcher;

the baker;

and while there's no candlestick maker, we do have a terrific chocolate shop! I've gotten to know the lady who runs it with her husband, and she was nice enough to let me photograph her inside.

Finally, to round it all out we have a cheese shop and a wine shop.

There are more of course, including an Italian specialty foods store and another gourmet shop that sells lots of prepared foods. Then there's the restaurants, pubs and cafés, which are a whole other category I didn't have room for in this post. Perhaps I'll get to that one later!
So now perhaps you see why we like being in this neighborhood so much, and why we're so glad that upon our arrival, knowing practically nothing about the city, we managed to be so lucky to find such a great community! Now, if we could just manage to upgrade a few things about the apartment...

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Europe's Love Affair with Obama

Okay, so I don't want to spark a big political debate here, because the election is over and we have a new President-elect...but I feel I have to spend a few lines of my blog describing the mood in Brussels following the US Presidential Election.

It has received lots of coverage so I'm sure everyone is well aware that most Europeans strongly favored Barack Obama and are thrilled at the results. The cover of the French version of today's Metro (a local daily "commuter" paper) translates to "Obama's American Dream" and is covered with a huge photo of a smiling, waving Obama as well as photos of numerous teary-eyed, ecstatic Obama supporters...subtle, eh? When Carl went to work yesterday he was also asked about the election from practically everyone he encountered. He's the only American working on his floor and it seems everyone was particularly interested in talking to him about it. To put it quite simply, people here are both happy and excited, to say the least!

I've heard it said that Obama has some pretty massive expectations to live up to, and I think that couldn't be more true, particularly when it comes to transatlantic relations. Time will tell if he is able to meet such high expectations, but the enthusiasm and positive reaction to a US election from this side of the pond is certainly something that hasn't been seen for a while. And if that enthusiasm translates into better cooperation and understanding between the US and the EU, that's got to be a good thing, right?

'Nuff said!!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Het Boekenfestijn is Fantastisch!!

A few weeks ago Brussels hosted a huge traveling book fair, called "Het Boekenfestijn". It's operated by a Dutch company called De Centrale Boekhandel, and throughout the year it travels throughout the Netherlands and Flemish-speaking parts of Belgium. A friend of mine who has lived here for several years told me you could get some amazing deals on books (in English too!), greeting cards, wrapping paper, etc., so despite it being on the other side of town, Carl and I decided to check it out.

Boy, am I glad we did! We got a total of 9 books (a mix of hardcover and paperback), a box of holiday greeting cards and some fancy holiday ribbon, all for about €39! What a steal!! These weren't obscure titles that no one wants to read either - there were lots of newer books from best-selling authors available, along with cookbooks, reference books, travel books, you name it! Sometimes the books are what they called "slightly damaged", but when we found that to be the case the damage was so minor that it was a complete non-issue. They said some can be previous editions as well, though I perused the travel section and never noticed anything out-of-date.

Anyway, we are now huge fans of Het Boekenfestijn, and can't wait to visit it again when it comes to town! They won't be back in Brussels for a while, but they'll be in Ghent in December and Leuven in February, so we might just have to hop a train and make a day of it!!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

We Have Finally Arrived!

After approximately 14 months, I believe that we can finally declare ourselves legitimate residents of Belgium, and for a couple of reasons. Firstly, we are now contributing to the tax revenue of the State (and generously I might add - Belgium has one of the highest income tax rates in the world!). Secondly, thanks to the friendliness - hopefully out of sincerity and not pity - of a couple of Carl's new colleagues, we can now count two born-and-raised, bonafide Belgians among our circle of friends! I know for sure that one of them reads this blog - yes, I mean you, Marc - so feel free to comment here if you wish, either to make fun of me or to say something witty, whatever you choose! :-)

Anyway, after a bit of a lull in my blogging activity I also wanted to let everyone know that we're doing well. Carl's job is going great, my job search is, well, going, and we've been enjoying the visit of our friend Erica along with her travel companion Riya, who has stopped off to visit us here in the midst of her 3 month European travel adventure. We're enjoying Belgium as much as ever, and on almost a daily basis we feel both thrilled and thankful to have had the opportunity to continue on this adventure...hopefully there's much more to come!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Loaded Interview Questions

Since I've been looking for a job here I've had a few interviews, one of which was about 10 days ago. In general I'd say interviews aren't that much different here than they are in the US, though Europeans aren't much into asking those classic "behavioral" types of questions - you know the ones - "Tell me about a time when...". I'm glad for that too, because I never cared for those types of questions anyway!

There is however, definitely one BIG difference, and my recent interview highlights it perfectly. Here was how the interview started:
Question 1: "So we have your date of birth as XX/XX/XXXX - is that correct?"
Question 2: "Are you married?"
Question 3: "Any children?"

So while my American readers pick their jaws up off the floor, let me explain to any European readers that all three of those questions are simply not allowed to be asked at any stage of the interview process in the US - it's meant to protect job seekers from discrimination. Right now, as a married but childless woman in my early-mid 30's I'm not likely to face much discrimination, but what if I had three young children and was going through a divorce? If an employer knew that because they were allowed to ask it in an interview, isn't it possible that they might think twice about hiring me out of concern that I might be unstable or unreliable? From my understanding they're not supposed to consider things like that (out of concern for discrimination), but let's face it, in reality I think there's a good chance that they might, regardless of what they're supposed to do.

I'd love to hear the insight of one of my non-American readers on this topic. Do you think I and my fellow Americans are being overly concerned about nothing, or do you agree that asking these questions in an interview is unnecessary at best, and potentially discriminatory at worst?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A Weighty Issue

My recent trip back to the US highlighted one of the big differences between Americans and Europeans - waistlines. Though it upsets me a bit to say it, I have to admit that both Carl and I noticed it almost immediately. It's a difficult and sensitive subject to address, and up until now I've mostly avoided it because I didn't want to sound rude or preachy. I'm going to try to address it now though, because after living here a year and then visiting the States I believe I've gained some new perspective on the topic. It's also a serious issue facing not just the US but the whole world, so while my readers are few I thought it couldn't hurt to bring a little extra attention to the subject.

The Statistics
They're pretty startling, and confirm that the difference I noted wasn't just a matter of skewed perception on my part. As of 2004 (the last year for which data from both countries was available here from the World Health Organization), 44.1% of Belgians and 66.3% of Americans had a body mass index (BMI) over 25, which is categorized as overweight. Additionally, 12.7% of Belgians and 32.2% of Americans had a BMI of over 30 and were considered obese. For more information about BMI from the US Centers for Disease Control click here, and to calculate yours click here for English units and here for metric units.

The Reasons
Here's where things get more difficult. The prevalence of weight problems is rising just about everywhere, but given the cultural similarities, why is it so much worse in the US as compared to Europe, and specifically Belgium? There's no one simple answer, but from the articles and discussion I've reviewed it generally seems to come down to food choices (what we eat), portion sizes (how much we eat) and activity levels, and all three likely contribute to the disparity.

My Two Cents
Okay, before I start throwing my opinion around, let me state the obvious: I am no scientist or health expert, and my opinion on this subject is just that - one person's opinion. That said, here are my thoughts...

Food Choices - the US is really into offering low-fat/fat-free/low-carb/low-calorie options of just about everything, but to state it quite simply, Belgium is not. You can get reduced fat (but not fat-free) milk, yogurt and sometimes cheese in grocery stores, but that's about it. Other observations: the famous American creation of the processed, frozen "TV dinner" (low cal or otherwise) is nonexistent in grocery stores here, and fast food restaurants (while present) are nowhere near as numerous as they are in the States. Produce is also a bit cheaper and meat a bit more expensive here, even after accounting for currency differences, so that makes it easier to buy healthy foods on a budget. Last point: soft drinks are VERY expensive to buy either in the store or restaurants - easily twice the cost of the US - so people tend to drink less of it.

Portion Sizes - I notice some differences here, again particularly when it comes to sodas/soft drinks. From my experience, the concept of large glasses of fountain drinks with free refills is nonexistent in Belgium, and I was completely overwhelmed when I went to the US and felt like I was constantly being asked if I wanted a refill of my huge, 20-oz soda that I'd barely half finished...I never wanted a refill but almost said 'yes' a few times just to make the servers leave me alone! When it comes to restaurant meals I wouldn't say there's a huge difference in portion size...but every meal in Belgium, even the pub burger & fries, comes with a small salad. As a result the portion of fries may be a bit smaller than what you'd get in the US, but I wouldn't say the difference is striking.

Activity Levels - Belgium wins pretty clearly when it comes to incorporating physical activity into daily life, at least from my perspective. To put it simply, Belgians walk more and drive less on average than Americans. Some people say that Americans are 'lazy' and reluctant to get up and move or walk instead of drive, but I think that conclusion is a bit oversimplified and certainly unfair. I think it has more to do with the design of American neighborhoods, especially in the suburbs. I recently tried to explain to a friend from France who has not been to the US before, that even if your suburban US home is less than a mile from stores and restaurants, walking to these places often involves busy multi-lane roads with few or no sidewalks or crosswalks - a decidedly unpleasant experience. In return I got a shocked stare and a response that was something along the lines of "are you serious?". Even in the more suburban Belgian neighborhoods, the design of the streets is more walker-friendly and public transit is much more convenient, encouraging people to walk instead of drive...and in my humble opinion, that makes all the difference.

So unfortunately I think us Americans, while hard-working and deserving of credit for building a prosperous country, could learn a thing or two from Europeans about taking care of our health. Awareness of the problem is growing however, and design movements such as New Urbanism are catching on, so perhaps change is underway. What do you think? Feel free to agree, disagree or share your perspective in the Comments section!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Home Again

Well it's been a very busy three weeks or so, but we're now settled back into our apartment in Brussels, and Carl starts his new job tomorrow!! We had a blast seeing everyone, shopping and indulging in our favorite foods, but we're also glad to be back. We're also looking forward to getting back into more of a routine, after a very fun but hectic summer of visitors, travel, job hunting, English teaching and dissertation writing!

My job search continues as well...one job I interviewed for didn't come through (which was okay because I wasn't sure I wanted it anyway), but I have a meeting with a recruiter this Friday so hopefully something will materialize soon. In the meantime I'm doing great, Carl is excited to start his new job and we're both very happy that we've been so fortunate to be able to stay here!!

Quick summary of our visit to the USA:
US states visited: 4 (CA, OR, MD, VA) + Washington DC
Stores shopped: at least a dozen!
Furniture moved: all of it (from one storage unit to another, and some of it sold - whew!)
Sushi meals eaten: 3
Burritos consumed: 4 each
Microbrews consumed: I lost count
Runs completed: only one - yikes!
Pounds/kilos gained: I ain't tellin'!!

Pic: me and the Ervin's (Tosh, Bree, yours truly, Carl, Bill - didn't I marry into a nice looking bunch??)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Dreaming of burritos and sushi

An odd combination I know, but those are the two things I'm most looking forward to eating when we land in the US later this week. Burritos are pretty hard to find here, and when you can find them they're either not very good, or decent but EXPENSIVE!! See last fall's post titled "Pablo the Belgian Mexican" for more on the $27 chicken burritos of Brussels. After a year of living on our own homemade versions of it, I'm thrilled at the idea of savoring one of my favorites, the big honkin' $6 burritos from Chipotle!!

Sushi, while not hard to find here and of generally good quality, is also quite expensive, so I've only had it three times in the past year...once just the other day actually, courtesy of Yoko and Nanako, the greatest English students ever! :-) I can hardly wait to visit Mio, my favorite sushi haunt in Portland, and also the fabulous lunch buffet at a place in Herndon, VA - the name of which escapes me at the moment, but we know where to find it!!

Apart from burritos and sushi, I'm also looking forward to enjoying my mother-in-law's fabulous cooking (I'm told she's already bought huge quantities of sukiyaki meat - YUM!!), and lots of other places that serve some of our favorite things. Geez, with all this eating we'd better schedule a few runs into our visit, or I'll come back here with some unwanted extra baggage!! :-)

So in case it isn't obvious, I'm very excited for this trip, and can't wait to see family and friends, do some shopping and enjoy a bit of Americana!!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The elusive Belgian friend

Before we came to Belgium I remember reading that the Belgians were rather reserved (maybe not the perfect term, but the best I can come up with), and hard to befriend if you are an outsider/foreigner. Well after over a year here in Brussels I think I can say with some sense of authority that that statement is VERY TRUE!! Just last night an English friend and I were discussing just how hard it is to get to know a real 'local' here. We agreed that we aren't sure what it is exactly, but it seems that there's something that gives the Belgians this 'elusive' quality when it comes to forming friendships.

I'm not terribly bothered by it because we have plenty of friends here from lots of different countries, and I know in part it's because we've mostly been associating with expats connected with the University of Kent...but when I stop to think about it, it does seem a bit odd that I can't count a single Belgian citizen among my circle of friends, even after living here for over a year. So I guess when we finally do form our first bonafide Belgian friendship, we'll really feel like we belong!! :-)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The "B" towns of the Belgian Ardennes

While my Dad and his wife Cathryn were in town, we made a few excursions to places Carl and I hadn't been before, particularly in the southern regions of Belgium, referred to as the Ardennes. We spent most of our time in two particular towns, Bastogne and Bouillon - hence the post title.

Bastogne was our first stop. This town is famous among World War II buffs as being the center of the December 1944-January 1945 "Battle of the Bulge". Here's the gist of the story: the Nazis, in a last ditch effort to turn the tide of the war in Europe, began a large offensive into SE Belgium and Luxembourg, in an attempt to reach Antwerp and split the Allied forces. This incursion created a "bulge" of German forces on the war map, which is where the common name of the battle came from. The battle covered a large region, but much of what has made it famous happened around the town of Bastogne, where the American 101st Airborne found themselves surrounded. Outnumbered, undersupplied and in freezing, snowy conditions, the 101st held off the Nazi assault on the town until the weather cleared and the Allied air forces could attack and drop critical supplies and ammunition. They continued to defend the town, never allowing the Nazis to capture it and take control of the important roads leading through the town into the rest of the region. Elsewhere along the battle lines, fighting raged for nearly a month before the Nazis were finally forced to withdraw. Before that happened however, more than 85,000 troops on each side were either killed, wounded, captured or missing.

The people of Bastogne were incredibly grateful to the American soldiers who protected the town from recapture by the Nazis, and as a result they built the Mardasson Memorial (inaugurated 1950) and later the Bastogne Historical Center (a museum) next to it in 1976. The museum and memorial were both very well done, and it's interesting to walk around the town and see streets, cafés and even menu items named after American commanders. Aside from the history it's also an attractive town in a very pretty area of rolling hills, trees and farmland, as you'll see in one of the photos taken from atop the memorial.

Picture #1: Looking up at the Mardasson Memorial
Picture #2: The view from the Memorial, looking towards the town.

Bouillon was the second town we visited, and it is medieval to the core. It's set is a picturesque valley at a sharp bend in the Semois River very close to the French border, and it's topped by the castle of Godfrey of Bouillon, a medieval knight and a leader of the first Crusade. Interestingly, he actually put the castle into hock in order to finance the Crusade! The first mention of a castle on that spot was in 988, but it is known to have existed much longer than that. We did a self-guided tour of the castle, and it was all you'd expect - old, dark, and creepy, but also beautiful and with some gorgeous views! The town itself is also really charming, though it was definitely crowded on this summer weekend. I'd like to go back another time and perhaps enjoy some of the outdoor attractions of the area, such as hiking and kayaking on the Semois. Anyone interested? :-)

Picture #3: view over the town from the castle
Picture #4: another view of the town, looking in a different direction

Saturday, August 23, 2008

It's been a YEAR!

Today is the one year anniversary of our arrival in Brussels - WOW!! It's amazing to think of how the time has flown - it really doesn't seem like it was an entire year ago that we were arriving here and getting settled. It's also hard to believe that we've known all of our friends here for only about 11 months or so. Many of those in Carl's program talk about how unusual it is that so many close friendships have been formed during this short period. It's true too; Carl and I have both moved around a lot in the last 10 years or so of our lives, and the friendships we've made here are definitely among the closest we've ever formed in such a short period of time. I guess the shared experience of being far away from home and in an unfamiliar place is a unique one, so we all tend to stick together and support one another more than usual. We still love and miss our friends and family in Portland and elsewhere (of course!), but we've definitely formed some great, hopefully lifelong friendships in our time here so far.

In other news, we've definitely been busy lately. Carl turned in his dissertation on the 11th so that's a big weight off of his shoulders (and mine to a point as well, as I was his Editor-in-Chief!). My dad and stepmother arrived the very next day and were here until just this morning. We had a great time showing them around Belgium, including some new places in southern Belgium that we'd never visited...so look for a trip report on Bouillon and Bastogne in the next few days!

On the employment front, Carl will be signing his contract with Proximus/Belgacom on Monday. I also have a few prospects, one resulting from my meeting with the Proximus recruiter that I mentioned before. There aren't any specific opportunities with them yet, but I am in their database and several hiring managers have seen my CV (résumé) and have said I would be a strong candidate should a position open up. The other prospect involves a US company that will at the moment remain unnamed; I applied for a position there this week, and got a phone message about it the very next day! Thus far I've only traded voicemails with them, but the fact that they called so quickly HAS to be good! So there is definitely some activity happening on the job front, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that something will happen before we fly to the US.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Travel plans

Carl recently confirmed that the start date for his job will be October 1st, so we are taking advantage of the opportunity to travel back to the States now, before it involves using vacation time. We also got a great deal on a three-city sequence of flights, so it just made sense to do it now. So for family and friends in San Diego, Portland and Maryland/Virginia, here is our itinerary:
San Diego: 12-18 September
Portland: 19-22 September
MD/VA: 23-28 September

For those in Florida, I'm sorry that we won't be making it there on this trip. For some reason going to FL inflated the airfare beyond affordability, so we'll have to do that at a later date - perhaps in winter, when it's cold and dark here, but still warm and sunny there!

We're really excited to see everyone, visit favorite restaurants and stock up on clothing and other items that are either unavailable or more expensive here. We will also be sure to bring as much good beer and chocolate as we can safely transport! See you soon!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Drum roll please...

So it's been almost two weeks since my last post...I had decided that I would wait to write again until we received some word about our status here in Belgium, but that took much longer than expected. So what should have been a break of about six days turned into much longer; sorry about that! Anyway, there is finally news to report, so here goes...
Last month I said we needed a miracle - I guess miracles do happen after all!!

Carl was just offered a position today with Belgacom, which is the main telecom/cable service provider here in Belgium - they're actually the largest private employer in the country, so it's a very established company, and from what we've heard it also has a very good reputation. He'll be working in the Marketing department for their mobile service division, which is called Proximus. He's very excited! There's even a little bit of extra good news to go with it - evidently Belgacom likes to hire couples, even entire families, and the recruiter who first contacted Carl about his job also wants to talk to me! So I now have an interview on Monday, and it's therefore possible that both of us could end up working there!

So there you have it - our heads are completely spinning right now, from both this news and the stress of finishing Carl's dissertation - as I write this he's typing madly, making last minute edits and additions, hoping to have it finished by lunchtime tomorrow so we can print it, get it bound, and just relax for the rest of the weekend!! Not that there's really time for that - my Dad & Cathryn arrive Monday morning, and we have lots to do to get ready for their visit - not to mention the things we need to take care of now that we know we're staying, like hopefully securing our apartment for another year. More on all that later though, for now we're just enjoying the news that our year overseas won't be just ONE year, but perhaps many!!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Provence et Le Côte d'Azur - ç'est magnifique!

In case the translation of my title isn't apparent, I'll state in English that our first visit to the south of France was wonderful, and I wasn't ready to leave!! It's a big region with so much to offer, and the five days we spent there barely felt like enough to scratch the surface. I'll try to sum it up by day so I don't forget anything, because we really did see a lot.

Day 1: We arrived in Nîmes late Thursday night, so Friday was our first day in the region, and that was the day the Tour de France passed through town. I'll post some stuff about the tour tomorrow, but before the tour events we had the first part of the day to explore the city. Nîmes was an important city in ancient Rome, and as a result it has some very old and well-preserved Roman ruins. We visited two of the three big sites (Maison Carée and Tour Magne, pictured), but unfortunately we ran out of time and didn't get to go into the Arena. It was quite a hike to the Tour Magne, but the view over the town, and the gardens we saw on the way there were well worth the effort!

Day 2: We picked up the car first thing in the morning and drove to Pont du Gard (pictured), the site of one of the largest and best preserved Roman aqueduct bridges in the world. It's a popular site (translation: touristy!) and gets crowded during the day, but we arrived just before 10 AM and left just as the crowds were arriving - smart move!
After that we headed towards Antibes/Juan-les-Pins, twin coastal towns a few miles west of Nice and our home base for the next three nights. We arrived in mid-afternoon, got settled into our lodging and headed for the beach in Juan-les-Pins, followed by a leisurely evening in town. It's a nice beach town with good dining and nightlife, but the beach left a little bit to be desired - it was sandy and attractive, but also narrow and crowded.

Day 3: This day we walked over the hill to Antibes, and checked out its cool Old Town, Picasso Museum (we had no idea at the time, but it was the first day it reopened after being closed for well over a year for renovations - as a result we got in free!), and a great little uncrowded beach tucked into a corner of the Old Town. The weather wasn't ideal this day, with clouds and a few showers, but we still got some sun and enjoyed a bit of R&R. (Pictures: beach in Old Town, looking into Old Town from the beach)

Friday, July 25, 2008

Provence et Le Côte d'Azur - ç'est magnifique! (Part 2)

Day 4: "Drive the coast day". In a single day, we visited Nice, Monaco, Ventimiglia (Italy) and Cannes, and drove every stretch of coast in between! I don't know whether I'd recommend doing this to others or not - for us it was okay because we had a limited amount of time and didn't mind spending a decent part of the day driving. However, the amount of distance we covered meant that we only got to spend about 1 1/2 hours in each place (except for Cannes, where we went for dinner followed by a fireworks display that was part of a competition - it was cool!), and it was a long day. Still, it was a great way to get a small flavor of each place, so that if we go back we'll know which places we'll really want to linger and spend some time (more on my thoughts there in a moment). (Pictures: rocky beach in Nice, view from the drive from Nice to Monaco, Cannes sunset view)

Day 5: We checked out of our lodging in Juan-les-Pins and spent the day driving back to Nîmes. We headed west, past Cannes and into the smaller beach communities that lie between Cannes and Saint Tropez. The drive along the coast is slow going, with windy roads that go through the center of towns with their accompanying pedestrians and local traffic, so we only made it part of the way to Saint Tropez before we headed inland and caught the Autoroute (highway) so we could get back to Nîmes in time to return the car. We stopped in a great little town called Anthéor (pictured), a beautiful spot with red cliffs, sandy beach and low-key atmosphere, where we spent our last few hours on the beach and had a nice lunch. We arrived back in Nîmes around 6:30 PM, and our train back to Brussels was the next morning. (Pictures: two views of Anthéor)

-The French Riviera has a little bit of everthing; beaches (sandy and rocky), hills, modern cities, old towns, high fashion and a lot of seriously rich people!
-As a general rule, most of the beaches east of Antibes (Nice to the Italian border) are rocky, so if you're looking for fine sand, look to the west!
-The well-known towns/cities in the region (meaning practically every inch of land in between Cannes and the Italian border) are CROWDED!! If you know that going in you'll enjoy all the different flavors of each city, but if you go there expecting an idyllic, relaxing beach vacation you'll probably be disappointed.
-If you ARE looking for said idyllic, relaxing beach vacation, head for one of the small, lesser-known communities west of Cannes. After all the hustle and bustle of Nice, Monaco, etc., this part of the coast was refreshing, and was a surprise favorite for me. The air and water are clearer too, as a result of less people and traffic!
-Ventimiglia (just across the Italian border) was unfortunately a dissapointment. The town wasn't terribly attractive, the beach was super rocky (killed our feet to go in the water!) and absolutely crawling with hawkers trying to sell you stuff. Seriously, we were on the beach for maybe 30 minutes, and we had at least six different people trying to sell us hats, jewelry, sunglasses, you name it...really annoying. The water also got deep REALLY fast, with relatively strong currents to go with it. Ayzsha had some gelato which she said was great, but other than that it was not worth the drive.
-Off the beach, the inland towns and cities of the region have a lot to offer as well. We only had time to visit Nîmes and the Pont du Gard aqueduct, but there are innumerable cities, hill towns and natural sites, enough that I'm not even sure a few months would allow time to see it all!
-If you like good food and wine, you will LOVE it here! We had some awesome meals, and I tried some of the local wines, which were very good as well. The inland area around the city of Grasse (just north of Antibes) is also famous for fragrances and perfumes.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

We need a miracle!!!

We got back from the south of France yesterday (which was GREAT by the way - more on that tomorrow, including pictures - I promise!), and Carl's niece Ayzsha flew home this morning, so we are at home and by ourselves again, with the due date for Carl's dissertation quickly approaching. Seventeen days and counting!!

I haven't mentioned much lately about our status here in Belgium, partly because I didn't have anything definitive to report, but also because I didn't want to jinx an opportunity that had recently presented itself. Carl had a job interview a few weeks ago, with a trade association here in Brussels, much like the one he worked for in his internship. We just found out today that he he did not get the position (their loss!), and although both of us have applied for a number of other jobs, we don't currently have any other imminent prospects. That means that we must now begin making preparations to return to the United States in a little over a month's time. We can legally remain in Belgium until the end of October, but our dwindling resources make it rather imprudent to do so. We're disappointed for sure, but by no means does that mean we're giving up on our hopes of remaining in (or perhaps coming back to) Europe. We're continuing to think positively, but we're also prepared to accept that perhaps it just wasn't meant to be...and if that's the case, that'll be okay. Still, keep your fingers crossed, pray, think happy thoughts - whatever you do to bring good things, maybe send a little bit of it our way!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Latest Happenings

I gave my first "on my own" English lessons today - three of them to be exact. They went very well; teaching is actually easier than I thought it would be! Obviously I know the subject matter, but knowing something and knowing how to teach it to someone are two different things. I'll admit that I was a bit nervous about whether I'd be able to explain things clearly, come up with good examples to practice with the students, and generally think on my feet. I feel pretty confident now though, and I think I'm going to enjoy the experience.

It's interesting, the perspective you gain on your own language when you teach it to someone else. You start to notice all the idiosyncratic, non-intuitive things in English that you've never really thought about, because you just take them for granted as obvious...for instance, why is the plural form of knife 'knives' and not just 'knifes'? Anyway, its interesting to see the things that people find difficult about learning English as a second language, and did I mention the money's not bad either?

So on to other happenings...Carl's niece has been with us since Saturday, and we've been having a great time showing her around the country (we even took her into Germany a bit on Sunday!) and introducing to some of our friends here. Tomorrow evening we're off to France, first to Nîmes and then Antibes/Nice. I couldn't be more excited to get some warm weather and water, and also just to get back to France! We'll be there until next Wednesday, so look for a trip report by next Thursday at the latest. Au revoir!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Bad News for Belgium

Hi everyone! I'll write more tomorrow about what's going on with us, but for now I wanted to tell you about some big (and unfortunately not good) political news out of Belgium today. I copied the following article from the BBC website...

Belgian PM offers his resignation

Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme has tendered his government's resignation to the king after failing to carry out political reforms. Mr Leterme had set a 15 July deadline to push through measures to devolve more power to the regions. He took office in March - after nine months of political deadlock - as the head of a coalition of Dutch and French-speaking parties.
King Albert II has yet to decide whether to accept the resignation. The government coalition includes Mr Leterme's Flemish Christian Democrats from the north as well as Socialists from the French-speaking region of Wallonia in the south.

The prime minister was due to present a state reform deal in a speech to parliament on Tuesday. Before last June's general election, Mr Leterme had promised his supporters even more devolved powers for regional governments in a country that is already Europe's most decentralised state. In French-speaking Wallonia - where unemployment is higher and the economy sluggish - there are fears this would leave their region worse off. "It appears that the communities' conflicting visions of how to give a new equilibrium to our state have become incompatible," Mr Leterme said in a statement. He added that "state reform remains essential".

His French-speaking coalition partners said they hoped the government could be kept together. "I think we still have time to find a solution in the hours and next few days within the framework of what we already have," said Deputy Prime Minister Didier Reynders. "Otherwise we'll have to look for something else." "The king now has to be given time to consult a number of people. It's far too early to say what will happen next." The newspapers reflected the atmosphere under headlines like "Total Chaos". "No one can predict what is going to happen now," said the centre-left daily De Morgen.

Belgium's Dutch and French-speaking communities seem to exist side-by-side, but with little interaction, says the BBC's Dominic Hughes in Brussels. No single party bridges the linguistic and geographic gulf between Belgium's two regions. Traditionally, the prime minister comes from one of the majority Flemish parties.

-Three federal regions: Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north; French-speaking Wallonia in the south (which has a German-speaking minority); Brussels, the capital, officially bilingual
-Federal state has national responsibility for justice, defence, federal police, social security, nuclear energy, monetary policy
-Regional governments oversee education, employment, agriculture, transport, environment

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Summer Runnin'...

had us a blast!! :-)

We did have a good time actually, as the pictures kinda show. We went to Bruges/Brugge on Sunday afternoon, to run in the "Guldensporen 10 Mijl van Vlaanderen" (sorry but the link is in French and Dutch only). The race was at 3:00 PM, which was nice because it's an hour long train ride to get there, so we fortunately didn't have to get up really early! Our friend Margaret ran as well, and we did pretty well - all three of us finished in the 95-97 minute range, which means we ran between 9:30 and 9:45 per mile. Not very fast, but respectable, and we're pretty happy with it!
Our running "calendar" is now empty as we wait to figure out where we're going to be come September. If we stay here we have our eyes on an early November marathon that runs along the coast from Nice to Cannes in France...I know, another one already?!?! I was a little reluctant to do another so soon, but the opportunity to run in such a beautiful place isn't one I can turn down easily!
Oh, and a follow-up on the 4th of July party last Friday. It went well, we had a group of about 20 turn out and there was lots of food, beer and Wii Guitar Hero (yes, thanks to the generosity of Carl's sister we now have a Wii - more on that in a later post). I was a total lame-o of course and took only a couple of photos, none of which really turned out. Sorry to have fallen down on the job there!!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

We're having a...


(you didn't think I was going to say "baby", did ya??) :-)

In honor of American Independence Day tomorrow we are hosting our first party here in Brussels! It seemed appropriate since we've attended quite a few get-togethers hosted by others...we figured it's our turn to host! Our place isn't large but I think it'll be fine for the 18-25 people we're expecting. Everyone is bringing something so I don't have to do too much cooking, and we also have a good-sized balcony on which we'll be able to cook with a borrowed hibachi grill. Should be fun!!

So between prepping the apartment, buying all the stuff we need and going to our three-hour French class tomorrow morning, the next 24 hours are going to be VERY busy! We're also attending a birthday picnic on Saturday afternoon, and running in a 10-mile race in Bruges on Sunday afternoon...what were we thinking when we scheduled that?!?!

Other upcoming events: Carl's niece Ayzsha arrives next Saturday! She'll be here in Brussels with us until Thursday, when the three of us board a train to Nîmes, in the south of France. We'll be there two nights, then we're off to Antibes (just west of Nice) for three nights, then one more night in Nîmes before taking the train back here on the 23rd. We're so excited, especially because one of the nights we're in Nîmes the Tour de France will be stopping there! So if you watch the coverage, look for us in the crowd at the end of the stage on July 18th!!

Carl's internship ends on the 17th (the day we head to France), so when we get back and Ayzsha departs, it'll be time for him to focus, FOCUS, FOCUS on finishing his dissertation! It's due August 11th and he's got a decent start on it already, so it shouldn't be a problem...it's still a lot of work though! During that time I'll have several students going with my English teaching as well, so it will be a busy month. My dad and his wife Cathryn arrive the same day that Carl's dissertation is due too, so it'll be nice to celebrate this milestone with them!

Needless to say we've got a busy two months ahead of us...it's exciting though, and we're enjoying every minute of it!!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Spain wins

Well we've just finished enjoying our first Euro football (soccer) tournament - it came down to Germany and Spain in the end, but much to the sadness of our German friends, Spain managed to win the Final. It was fun to get involved and get caught up in the excitement - and believe me, despite the fact that all the matches were held in Austria and Switzerland there was plenty of excitement here! This tournament only happens once every four years, staggered vs. the World Cup so that Europe has a major international football tournament every two years.

This was also the first time I've worn another country's flag on my face - we joined our German friends at the pub to watch two of the games, and both times I ended up with the German flag painted on my cheeks! I figured what the heck, I like Germany, and Belgium didn't qualify so why not support Deutschland? There is photographic evidence but it's not on my camera, so I'll have to see if I can get a copy to post here later.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Happy (slightly belated) Solstice!

We've never lived this far north before, so the extremely pronounced differences in daylight between summer and winter have been very noticeable here! We're at approximately 50°50' N, which is about the same latitude as Calgary, Alberta. So when the summer solstice came around yesterday, we marveled at the over 17 hours (!) between sunrise and sunset.

Unfortunately yesterday was overcast so I couldn't get a good picture of the sunset, but tonight I got a pretty decent photo of it from our bedroom window. I couldn't figure out how to get the time to display on the photo so you'll just have to trust me when I say that I took it at exactly 9:55 PM, about five minutes BEFORE sunset! You can't see the sun because it had already passed behind the church down the street, but from the color of the sky you can definitely tell that the sun is still around! It's 10:27 PM as I write this, and there's still light enough to see. It's really nice in summertime, but after experiencing the flip side in winter I can tell you that that end of the pendulum isn't nearly as pleasant!

Anyway, we're very much enjoying summertime here in northwestern Europe, and we hope all of you are having a great summer as well! Happy barbecuing!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Working for a living

Recently I met the wife of one of the PhD students at Carl's school, and she asked me if I would be interested in helping her out with some of her English students. She's taught English for years and has a thriving "practice" of teaching to individuals here in Brussels, generally on a one-on-one basis. I think she's getting a little burned out and wanted to reduce her schedule for the Summer, and since it pays €25 per hour I am happy to help!

I met the first student yesterday afternoon, a six-year-old Japanese boy who does quite well with English considering how young he is. I'm taking over a half-dozen or so students of hers, but only a couple of them are kids - ALL of them are Japanese however! I guess she started out with a couple of Japanese students in the beginning, and her name quickly circulated through the Japanese community here, to the point where she had all the students she could handle!

Anyway, she's going with me the first time I visit each of the students, to make the introductions and fill me in with regards to where they are in terms of ability, what materials they're using, etc. They all have their own books and other materials, so basically all I'm there to do is to make sure they understand the concepts being introduced in their books and help them conversationally - basically just talk to them, ask questions, stuff like that. I was a little nervous at first at the idea of doing this because I don't have a teaching background, but I think one-on-one instruction is a great way to start out, and I'm definitely excited at the prospect of having a little money coming in! I start teaching in earnest in early July, so I'll let you know how it goes!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The fun and fabulous pub quiz!

I've been meaning to mention this for a long time, but somehow I keep forgetting! Since late last Fall we've been taking part in a weekly pub quiz, every Monday night. It's mainly a British phenomenon and has been around for some time, but while I'm told it's catching on in the U.S., I don't recall seeing it there before we left last year.

So for those of you who aren't familiar with the concept, here's a quick overview: it's a team game, with teams of up to five permitted. There are eight rounds in total. The first is a "picture" round, with photos, drawings or cartoons that must be identified. In this category we've seen everything from celebrity mugshots to album covers to serial killers to cartoon ducks! Rounds 2-6 and round 8 are standard trivia questions (general knowledge), while round 7 is music. Generally this means that a short clip of a song is played, and teams must identify the artist and song title (though there are sometimes variations on this, such as identifying movie theme songs or guitar soloists). Each participant pays €2.50 to play, and the top three teams win prizes. In the case of our venue (De Valera's Irish Pub) that means free dinner for the winners, a bottle of champagne for 2nd place, and a free drink for 3rd. I am proud to say that we have assembled a formidable team, and in addition to a number of 2nd and 3rd place finishes, we have also won 3 times!

The reason I finally remembered to write about pub quiz is because we've been missing it lately - with the Euro 2008 football (soccer) tournament in full swing, the pub is packed every night with football fans. As a result the pub quiz was cancelled last week, and will be cancelled again tomorrow. Strangely enough though, we will be at the same pub tomorrow night, watching the Germany-Austria match with our German friends - Geh Deutschland!!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Protests at the Commission

Carl spent a good part of this past week at the European Commission, working an exhibit booth for his employer at the "Green Week" event. It was a good experience for him as he got to meet a number of interesting people, but there was some unanticipated excitement when on Wednesday a protest outside the Commission building (a number of European fishermen were protesting high fuel prices that threaten to put many of them out of business) turned a bit violent. You may have even seen news coverage of the protests - I'm not sure if it was mentioned in the US or not, but our CNN International edition here covered it quite a bit.

He and the other event attendees were safe inside so there was never any danger, but as you can see from the photos he was very close to the "action" and could see everything. Fortunately he arrived before the bulk of the protests began and didn't need to leave until after things calmed down. Even if he had been planning to leave he couldn't have, because they had the building secured and the transit routes in and out of the area were shut down completely! Brussels definitely has its share of demonstrations; we're on the US Embassy's e-mail list so we get a message from them alerting us whenever a protest is planned, and there's usually one every week or so, particularly now that we're getting into the Summer months. We usually steer clear of them for safety reasons, so this was something unusual that we thought we'd share with you. Democracy at work!

Sidenote: the first picture is of Carl and his boss at their Green Week booth. Also, the banner being held up in one of the pictures translates to: "0.40 at the pump and nothing else" - referring to the maximum price the fishermen are willing to pay