Wednesday, December 30, 2009

How to Make Fondue

What do you picture when you think of cheese fondue? My sister used to imagine it was like a bowl of warmed-up Velveeta: slightly orangey in color, a bit bland, and with the same consistency throughout. Then I made a fondue on Christmas Day the way I learned to make it in Paris, using Swiss cheeses, white wine, and a hint of seasoning, which resulted in a thick/liquidy dish with a taste unlike anything her American tongue had experienced before. After exclaiming, "so that's what fondue is supposed to be like!" she helped me polish off the dish in rather short order.

It's not a complicated recipe, and you don't need a refined technique or a special fondue-heating contraption to succeed in making the most delicious fondue you've ever tasted. Just follow these steps:

1. Start with the right ingredients. You need equal parts Appenzeller and Gruyère cheese, white wine (preferably from Switzerland or the Savoie region of France), a teaspoon of chopped garlic, and freshly ground nutmeg to taste. Cut the cheese into small cubes.

2. Heat the garlic and a splash of wine in a deep pot. Ideally you would use a cast iron pot, such as one from Le Creuset, but if you're like me and only have stainless steel pots from Ikea, don't worry. It works fine.

3. Once the wine is simmering, but not boiling, add half of the cheese with a portion of wine. I used 400 grams of cheese in total, so with 200 grams of cheese I added a half a cup of wine. Stir the wine and cheese mixture until the cheese is melted, then add the second portion of cheese plus more wine and stir. Patience is key.

4. Grate fresh nutmeg into the mix until you reach the desired amount for your taste. My feeling is that there's no such thing as too much nutmeg in cheese fondue.

5. Keep stirring and don't remove from the heat the entire time you're eating the fondue. The consistency will be thick, but with some of the wine remaining separate from the cheese providing a sort of liquid bath. You want the mixture to be hot but not burning at the bottom of the pan. Play with the heat and you'll find the right temperature for your pot and stove.

6. Enjoy with cubes of good French bread, roasted potatoes, or steak. We used all three. Oh, and don't forget to drink the rest of the wine while eating your fondue!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Joyeux Noël

Paris' grands magasins go all out on their Christmas decorations, including mechanical window displays, elaborate exterior lighting, and this giant Christmas tree inside the rotunda of Galleries Lafayette. The picture doesn't really do this incredible sight justice, but I think it's pretty just the same. A very Merry Christmas to all who are celebrating today.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Great European Travel Disaster of 2009

It is not a good time for European travel. The Eurostar has stopped service indefinitely, other rail companies are experiencing major delays, roads are unplowed, accidents abound, and flights now come with many hours spent waiting at the airport. It seems the sudden cold snap followed by decent snowfall has caught a lot of the continent by surprise, upending the holiday plans of thousands of travelers. Add to that the various strikes or threats of strikes that are affecting transportation networks and you've got one big end-of-the-year mess that seems to have left no previously perfectly-timed itinerary untouched.

My sister and I got our own taste of The Great European Travel Disaster of 2009 this weekend. It started with a train reservation on Belgian rail line, Thalys, that was set to leave Brussels' Gare du Midi at 8:50am Saturday morning. Delay after delay found us leaving approximately 20 mintues behind schedule. Not bad, but not ideal either. Unfortunately, it was only a harbinger of things to come. As we kept an eye on the developing Eurostar story and unchanging weather forecasts, we hoped our return to Brussels would not be affected. But upon arrival at Amstedam Centraal Station we quickly heard rumors of no trains coming in and no trains going out. A frantic hour later we somehow managed to learn that our train would be leaving shortly from platform 11a. Running through the station and up to the platform, dragging bags and fellow passengers we passed information to mid-stride, we found our seats and thanked our lucky stars.

The biggest problem we discovered when trying to get back to Brussels was a lack of accurate information. At the Amsterdam station all of the information signs read "no information currently available." Everyone we talked to said "No Thalys." No Thalys right now, or ever? Turns out, it was only delayed by about 40 minutes, a hiccup that should not have caused the uncertainty and panic we witnessed and felt. But without information, the imagination runs wild, usually to the worst-case scenario. Our train had problems on the tracks, and some passengers had to stand for lack of seats, but we finally made it to Brussels, albeit two hours behind schedule. Our next train ride is set for tomorrow, on the Thalys from Brussels to Paris. We're crossing our fingers.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Let it Snow

Airport cancellations, slippery roads, unshoveled sidewalks. Brussels obviously doesn't know how to deal with a little snowstorm. Thankfully, my sister arrived just before the skies opened up, so we spent the day nice and warm in my apartment, catching up over cups of tea and away from the madness. Later in the afternoon we ventured out on foot to enjoy the beauty of a European city under a blanket of snow.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Europe for Newcomers

Less than two days from now my sister will arrive in Brussels. She has never been to Europe, and her only overseas experiences include a family vacation to the Dominican Republic in 1998 and a trip to Mexico a few years after that. I’m thrilled to be the one to introduce her to this continent that has been such a part of my life for the past eight years, but I’m also a little nervous. Will she like it here? What will she think of the people, the food, and the teeny little cars? Will she be as inspired by the history and architectural beauty of Europe as I am and will she thrive as a cultural outsider as I do? Or will she feel shy about communicating with the locals and nervous about being surrounded by the unfamiliar? How, exactly, do you show Europe to a newcomer?

Our siblings-only European tour will start with two nights in Brussels followed by a weekend in Amsterdam. Then it’s back to Brussels for two days before leaving for Paris, where we’ll spend a few days visiting the main sights as well as my favorite hidden haunts. After returning to Brussels in time for Christmas we’ll have five more days to do with what we like. I’m thinking a quick trip to Antwerp or Bruges could be nice. Or maybe a relaxing afternoon spent soaking in the thermal baths of Spa? In addition to all this train-hopping and sightseeing I plan to work in plenty of local cuisine (hello, French cheese!), visiting of markets, and other aspects of daily life in Europe. My hope is that she’ll return to the U.S. with a good idea of what it’s like to live somewhere else. And a newfound love of French cheese.

For all my anxiety about our pending adventure, she seems to be taking things in stride. Sure, there was the conversation where I had to reassure her that the French will not refuse to speak to her in English even if they know how (only the truly dastardly do that), but she was also excitedly adamant about visiting Amsterdam and is looking forward to seeing the Art Nouveau buildings in Brussels as well as some of the art and design sights in Amsterdam in Paris. As a student of graphic design, and an outstanding interior designer, I know she’ll find plenty to love in Europe. I’m probably worrying for nothing, and I definitely don’t want to over-analyze the situation, but I also can’t help but want her to have a good time. During a recent phone conversation I gave her the following advice: sit back and enjoy the ride. Maybe I should try to do the same.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Worst Corkscrew Ever

In all my years of wine bottle opening I had never seen this happen. The screw was in the cork, the cork was starting to dislodge when, snap! The corkscrew broke in two, leaving a good chunk of screw firmly wedged in the cork. Now what? I really, really wanted to drink that wine, which I had purchased only hours earlier at my neighborhood fromagerie in the hopes of pairing it with the evening's dinner. But without a back-up corkscrew, and with all the stores in Brussels already closed for the night, there was nothing I could do but grab a beer out of the fridge and wait for tomorrow.

Tomorrow arrived, I purchased a new corkscrew, and set about salvaging the bottle. With some help from a marvelously capable butter knife, and a lot of patience - I worked on this thing for a good 15 minutes, photography time not included - the screw finally came loose. Wielding the new, and hopefully less breakable, corkscrew I removed what was left of the cork and finally got to sit back and enjoy a glass of chilled white wine. Because I had used the Worst Corkscrew Ever It took me two days to do what normally would take mere seconds. Lesson learned: one corkscrew in the house is never enough. Always have a back-up.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The French, Going on Strike, and Me

Museum-goers in Paris recently had to go without many of the city's most popular art-filled destinations. A museum workers strike that started last week (and has since gotten a little less widespread) temporarily shut such popular destinations at the Musée d’Orsay, Musée Rodin, and even the Musée du Louvre. I wasn’t surprised to hear the news – we all know the French are famous for their use of grèves – but I was surprised when I realized that for all the time I’ve spent in France, I haven’t had much first-hand experience with major French strikes. Not that I’m complaining.

In addition to those that are capable of closing parts of Versailles, the most dramatic strikes in France have to be the ones that involve public transportation. Métro strikes all but bring the city to its knees, with sights like this instilling the fear of God into travelers like me. Air France strikes are also known for their elevated pain-in-the-neck factor, and while I have had experience with being barred from an Air France flight, it was not as the result of a strike. Then there was the garbage collectors strike in Cannes that I missed by mere hours because of a weekend trip to Strasbourg, and which involved the workers throwing garbage all over the city streets (quelle classe), and while I did encounter a museum strike last year in Paris, it was on a much smaller scale as the current. Just the Musée d’Orsay and one utterly annoyed American student.

I have a difficult time understanding the strike mentality in France. I recognize the importance of strikes in French society and the right of workers to assert their wants and needs, but in the end, I simply don’t get it. Maybe it’s because I have no information on whether or not all this societal disruption actually brings tangible results, or because I’ve never myself gone on strike and therefore am unable to empathize with the strikers. Or maybe, it's because I'm not meant to understand it. It's quite possible that the frequency and regularity with which the the French are en grève is simply meant to remain one of those eternal French mysteries, like how they don't get fat, and why on Earth they refuse to clean up after their dogs.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Christmas Market: Cologne

The thought that immediately came to mind when I saw one of the Christmas markets in Cologne was, "It's a good thing I went to Lille first." If I had done it the other way around, Lille would have been a major disappointment. In addition to having only a single Christmas market versus the seven that are in Cologne, Lille's festivities seemed half-hearted after witnessing the great lengths Germany goes to when celebrating the holiday season. Everyone from my colleagues to the commenters on this blog told me that the German markets make everything else look like child's play, but I was still surprised at just how right they turned out to be.

If you go Christmas market shopping in Cologne, the first thing you should do is pick up a free Christmas market guide. This brochure will give you a map of the city with directions and descriptions for each of the seven markets. I went to four of them, including the "Home of the Gnomes" and the "Christmas Market at the Cologne Cathedral," while I unfortunately missed out on the city's only floating market, held on a boat on the Rhine. Next, find the nourishment you'll need to get you through a day of intense shopping by eating and drinking at one of the many food plazas within the markets. I recommend the friend potato pancakes, grilled bratwurst, and mulled wine that comes in a collectible Christmas martket mug. Enjoy amongst fellow revelers under the roof of an outdoor dining pavillion. Now you're ready to hit the stalls. I liked the "Angel's Market" the best, and I suggest multiple visits to the indoor ornament shop you'll find there, which is filled to the brim with delightful little handcrafted wooden decorations.

The Cologne Christmas markets are a major tourist destination - we heard a lot of British accents and a considerable amount of French - but you can't help but notice how many Germans are getting in on the fun as well. Die Weihnachtsmärkte are truly a part of the local culture, and the friendly Germans are easy to talk to and happy to offer information about the markets if you need it. Where Lille's market gives me a "been there, done that" kind of feeling, Cologne is a place I would gladly return to over and over again for all my holiday decoration and getting-into-the-spirit needs. Everyone was right: the Germans know how to do Christmas.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Cheap Stuff in Brussels

For an American who earns her paycheck in dollars, living in Belgium is a financial nightmare. The exchange rate being what it is ($1.50 to the euro as of today), every single purchase is a losing proposition. Thankfully, there are a few things in Brussels that are so inexpensive to begin with that even changing dollars into euros doesn't render them sticker-shock worthy. Here are some of my favorites, otherwise known as the exhaustive list of cheap stuff in Brussels:

1. Fresh Flowers

At my neighborhood's weekend market I can purchase an enormous, perfectly arranged bouquet of colorful fresh flowers for €10, or about $15. I recently bought 20 yellow roses for €6.90, which is roughly $10.35. The cost of fresh flowers in the U.S. usually keeps me away from them, but here in Brussels the Saturday shopping isn't done unless I have my weekly bouquet in hand.

2. Breakfast

It's not hard to find an expresso and a croissant for around €2, total. While not quite the breakfast of champions, it's delicious, filling, and only sets me back about $3. Sold.

3. French Wine

A good Côtes du Rône can be had for around €4.50. I found a white Gascogne that goes well with everything for €3.75. A really good bottle - one that makes you swear off non-French wines forever - can be had for less than €15. Impeccable vins de France for as little as $7 a bottle? Try finding that in the U.S.

4. Health Care

My American health insurance doesn't cover anything short of a life-or-death situation while I'm overseas. Big deal: visiting a specialist in Brussels cost me €40, or about $60. The prescription she wrote me cost €5.25. At around $8, that prescription cost me less out-of-pocket than my prescription copay costs me in the U.S. Thank you, government negotiated drug prices!

5. Train Tickets

Within-country travel - say, from Brussels to Antwerp - is not only cheap, it's also easy. Just go to the station, hand over a few small euros, and hop one of the dozens of daily trains that service your route. If you plan to travel to another country, you'll have to do a bit more planning, but your patience will be rewarded with amazing deals. I just booked a round-trip ticket to Paris for €40, and last weekend I traveled first class on a high-speed train to Cologne, Germany for only €50.

6. Beer

There's no need to pay more than €2 for .25 liters of decent Belgian brew, to be enjoyed this time of year while cozily bundled up under the heated terrace of a café in Brussels. Yes, la vie est belle.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Sneak Attack

And so came and went another Thanksgiving in Europe. The first time I spent Thanksgiving overseas was in 2001. My professor found a restaurant in Cannes that would serve a group of 17 American students turkey and mashed potatoes on what is just another Thursday in France. Next up was 2003 near St. Tropez, without a plate of stuffing in sight. Now it's Brussels 2009, where most of my colleagues are Americans, and where I had no shortage of invitations to join them in downing a full, traditional, over the top meal. It was a very happy Thanksgiving.

I think the strangest holidays to celebrate overseas are the ones that are uniquely American. July 4th and Thanksgiving are the biggies, with Halloween a distant third as it becomes more common abroad. But it's not really the day itself that is strange. That day is fine because you can make it what you want. Need to grill some burgers and hot dogs? There are a lot of places around the world where you can do just that. Need to find a whole turkey? It can be tricky, but you might pull it off. And if you can't get any of the traditional things, well, you can still use non-traditional substitutes and celebrate in spirit.

The real strangeness comes before the big day because there's absolutely no build-up to a holiday like Thanksgiving when you're not in the U.S. No paper turkeys and harvest scenes in store windows, no towers of canned cranberries and gravy mixes in the grocery store, no talk of Black Friday sales. Thanksgiving just magically appears one day and it gone without a trace the next. Did it even really happen? With holidays, as with many things in life, the anticipation is sometimes more exciting than the event itself. So, while there was no Thanksgiving anticipation for me this year, I did get to enjoy some delicious Belgian chocolates with my perfect slice of pumpkin pie. It doesn't make up for what I missed, but it doesn't hurt either.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Christmas Market: Lille

Christmas market season is officially underway. Mulled wine, cookies, cakes and breads, and seasonal decorations galore will be available for purchase and for filling one with the holiday spirit in cities all over Europe from now until after the New Year. I decided early on that as long as I had a home base in Brussels I might as well make a point to visit as many such markets as I could. Who knows when or if I will ever be so strategically placed again? And really, who can turn down multiple tastings of mulled wine and cookies? So began my quest for Christmas overload. First stop: Lille, France.

Lille is an easy 30 minute Eurostar ride away from Brussels. A former industrial center that is known for being a bit rough around the edges, the city has worked hard in recent years to clean up its image. While Lille has what is quite possibly the ugliest cathedral in all of Europe (what happened to this thing?), it also has a nice old town and a lot of high-end shopping. We found the Christmas market in the Place Charles de Gaulle lined with little wooden stands and bustling with shoppers. A good mix of Christmas decorations, gift possibilities and edible treats abounded. Between me and my friend we bought an amber ring, a sterling silver ring, a colorful star-shaped paper lantern, a sign for the kitchen that says la cuisine, and an enormous warm beignet stuffed with whipped cream that didn’t last very long in our hungry hands.

I went to the Lille Christmas market hoping to return to Brussels bearing Christmasy stuff for my apartment. A few ornaments for my little store-bought Charlie Brown Christmas tree, an advent calendar and maybe a hand-carved nativity scene if I found just the right one. But we came home with none of those things. There just wasn’t anything along those lines that caught my eye enough to make me part with my hard-earned euros. The market was well worth the trip, and I enjoyed visiting a French city I had never visited before, but I’ll have to hope that another European Christmas market will have the Christmas paraphernalia I seek. Up next: Cologne, Germany.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Parrots of Brussels

The first time I saw them I thought my eyes were playing tricks on my jet-lagged mind. Parrots in Brussels? But then when I told an acquaintence where I lived she said, "Oh, the parrot neighborhood!" I don't know the story of how it happened (pets who got loose and adapted well to freedom?), but huge colonies of green parrots do live in the Belgian captial. Here's a shot of them in one of their enormous nests.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Ruminations on the Musical Instruments Museum

Brussels is known more for its waffles and beer (not necessariyly in that order) than for its arts and culture, but look closely and you'll see that the Capital of Europe is brimming with intellectual/creative/thought-provoking stimulation. Bruxellois and tourists alike have everything from a theater that specializes in Shakespeare to a comic strip museum at their disposal. If you're traveling to Brussels and you want to do something other than see what costume the Mannekin Pis is wearing, might I suggest a visit to the Musical Instruments Museum? Housed in a striking Art Nouveau building, and often refered to as the MIM, this interactive museum is the perfect first stop on your cultural tour of Brussels.

When I visited the MIM with my friend The Cupcake Avenger back in September, we didn't really know what to expect. So, we were pleasantly surprised to discover that for the relatively small price of 5 euros we would receive entrance to the museum and a set of headphones that would allow us to listen to the instruments. With the MIM to ourselves (it was early Saturday morning in Europe, after all) we wandered through three different galleries while dancing to the beats, rhythms and songs that automatically began each time we would step in front of a display. The gallery that is dedicated to traditional instruments from around the world was my favorite, and I happily tapped my toes to the old French accordians in particular. In addition to increasing our knowledge of musical history, visiting the MIM gave us an opportunity to enjoy some good old fashioned fun.

After listening to everything from bagpipes to a mariachi band we headed up to the MIM's rooftop café for a couple of lattés and a gorgeous panoramic view of the city. I thought about everything we had just seen and heard and was reminded of the universality of music. The audio guides of most museums ask you to select your language: French? English? Spanish? Japanese? But not the MIM. When you put on those clunky headphones you listen to the same sounds as everyone else, no translation needed. It was a nice realization; one that made me feel all warm and fuzzy about the world around us. And hungry for some waffles and beer.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Warning Sign

The first thing I thought when I saw this little guy was, "How cute! He looks like he's ice skating!"

The second thing I thought was, "Wait. It's going to get cold enough in Brussels for this lake to freeze over?"


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Armistice Day

Ever wonder why poppies have come to symbolize Armistice Day? It's all because of Belgium, or more specifically, a Canadian physician serving in Belgium during WWI. As the story goes, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae wrote a poem in 1915 called In Flanders Fields after witnessing the death of his friend. The first line and second to last lines of his poem mention the poppies that grew in droves on the battlefields of Flanders, some say as a result of the thousands of corpses that fertilized the soil. Published in England while The Great War was still being fought, In Flanders Fields became a symbol of WWI and quite possibly that war's most famous poem, and the poppy became the war's symbol of remembrance.

In Flanders Fields By: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918) Canadian Army

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Armistice Day (also known as Rememberance Day, and known as Veterans Day in the United States) is celebrated on November 11th by much of Western Europe. It marks the day in 1918 when the WWI Allies and Germany signed an agreement to end hostilities on the Western Front. Sadly, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae never lived to see the end of the war that killed his friend and inspired him to write his famous poem. He died on January 28th, 1918 of pneumonia.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Brunch in Brussels

A lazy Sunday brunch is surely one of life's little pleasures. It's not rushed and utilitarian like breakfast before a day at the office. You can take your time, have a second coffee, and expand your choices beyond cereal. I'm a big fan of brunching, so I was delighted to find a cozy little spot in the square just behind my apartment building that's perfect for a drawn-out weekend mid-morning meal.

As its name would suggest, Village du Pain puts a heavy emphasis on bread, offering a wide range of tartines and an excellent bread basket. they also have what looked like heavenly homemade lasagna and cannelloni, oeuf à la coque, and a fair number of salads. I ordered the "petit village" meal of a hot drink and either bread or pastries accompanied by multiple jams and spreads. What you don't see in this picture is the crêpe I ordered as well. It didn't last long on the plate.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Le Louvre Visits Minnesota

Dear Minnesota-based Parisian Spring readers, Did you know that for a few short months (and without having to lose money on the exchange rate), you have the chance to see some of the Louvre’s most celebrated works of art in an exhibition entitled, “The Louvre and the Masterpiece?” The exhibition is being held at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and they’re calling it a once-in-a-lifetime event. Tout le monde au musée!

If I was living in DC instead of Brussels I would seriously consider flying home to see this little bit of Paris in the Twin Cities. The chance to contemplate Georges de La Tour’s captivating piece, “The Card-Sharp with Ace of Diamonds,” is not one that can easily be passed up. There’s also a Vermeer, which, I mean, it’s a Vermeer! But that’s not all: the exhibition features works from each of the museum’s collection areas, in an attempt to decode what makes some works masterpieces and others not. You can even see how science helped the staff at the Louvre spot a forgery. How cool is that?

The exhibition is runs from now until January 10, 2010. A full price ticket costs $14, but entrance is free if you’re a member of museum. So, you can’t make it to Paris this winter. So what? Put on your best when-in-Paris outfit, go and peruse the exhibition, then discuss over dinner (in French, if possible) while enjoying a fine Bordeaux. I only wish I could join you.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Sister Cities

Belgium is not France, but Brussels might be Washington, D.C. There are so many similarities between these capital cities that I’m starting to think the only things separating them are the Atlantic Ocean and approximately 800 years of history. Granted, those are big separations, but here are a few of the many reasons why Brussels and Washington, D.C. could be long lost twins:

1. Both are relatively small. Compared to the massive urban centers of New York, Los Angeles, Paris, and London, Washington D.C. and Brussels are practially villages, with respective populations of roughly 590,000 and 1,000,000. New York City alone houses more than 8 million people. When you count both captials' surrounding areas their populations increase, but Brussels and DC proper remain small in size and in number of habitants.

2. Both are government towns. Washington is home to the United States Federal Government while Belgium hosts the European Union. A large government presence sets the tone in both of the cities, with much of the population working in public service.

3. Both have excellent public transportation networks...sometimes. In DC it's a never-ending cycle of track maintenance, single-tracking, and frustratingly poor night and weekend service on Metro. In Brussels, it's bus routes that change without notice and tram drivers who will exit the tram when their shift has ended, even if it's in the middle of the route. Both cities are lucky to have what they have. Both sets of citizens have a right to turn complaining about public transportation into a local sport.

4. Both go overboard with security. It's impossible not to know the president is nearby when you're in DC. Whether he's visiting the Department of the Treasury or his favorite burger joint he is always flanked by a massive entourage of black SUVs, cops on motorcyles and sometimes even a circling helicopter. Big shot EU types also have escorted motorcades and the metro station that sits underneath the major EU institutions is often crawling with security guards.

5. Both get a bad rap. Many Europeans consider Brussels to be a dull, drab, and soulless bureaucratic town filled with dull, drab, and soulless bureaucratic people. Washington, D.C. is sometimes refered to as "Hollywood for ugly people." Ouch.

6. Both have no native inhabitants. Ok, that's not entirely true, but let's just say that as a result of the U.S. Federal Government, the EU, and NATO attracting workers from far and wide, you could spend a long time living in both cities before ever meeting a true Bruxellois or Washingtonian.

7. Both attract protesters. From dairy famers blocking the streets in Brussels with cows and tractors, to gay rights advocates marching in front of the White House, if there's a cause to be championed you can bet these capital cities will hear about it.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween in Brussels

I wasn't sure what to expect this Halloween. Back home it seems the jack o' lanterns, costumes and orange and black decorations make an appearance immediately after Labor Day. But Brussels? Would I even be able to find a pumpkin with suitable enough seeds for baking? I should have known better. The commercialism that is October 31st had already started to creep into France way back in 2003.

Neighboring Belgium had no where to hide.

I'm not a big fan of Halloween, but as an American I'm used to having it around to mark the peak of the fall season. Part of me was glad to see all things spooky starting to materialize around my neighborhood, and I've gotten into the spirit of the holiday as best I can by eating a lot of candy and accepting an invitation to a pumpkin-carving party. I also took a few pictures, demonstrating that Halloween in Belgium looks pretty much like Halloween everywhere else.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

An Ice Cream for All Seasons

We're not exactly coming up on the traditional ice cream season here in Brussels. Leaves are falling, the wind is getting brisker, and Daylight Savings Time just ended, plunging us into total darkness before the evening commute gets us home. Ugh. Most people probably want to curl up with a cup of hot cocoa more than a pint of vanilla. But maybe that's just because we Bruxellois don't have a Berthillon.

Berthillon is a famous Parisian glacier, or ice cream shop. Actually, it's the famous Parisian glacier; the place anyone who has done even the slightest bit of culinary research has heard of. In the summer, the line of devotees clamoring to get their next boule spills out the door and down the street from this Ile Saint Louis landmark. And who can blame them? Using only the simple ingrdients of milk, fresh cream, sugar, eggs and natural flavors, Berthillon manages to create sublimely delicious frozen treats. Their ice cream and sorbets are so good that even a crisp fall breeze or cold autumn rain wouldn't keep me - an admitted freeze baby - from eating a cone or two. And with seasonal flavors always on the menu (woodland strawberry just arrived!), Berthillon is an ice cream experience that knows no weather limitations.

Despite being located on the tiny Ile Saint Louis, the real Berthillon shop can be difficult to locate. That's because there are countless establishments nearby (and scattered throughout Paris) that are not Berthillon but that serve Berthillon ice cream and proudly display signs and awnings emblazoned with the name. To find the real Maison Berthillon, head down the main road that cuts through the island the long way, with your back to Notre Dame. You'll find the take-away counter and its accompanying line on your right. Next door is the Salon du Thé, where the prices are more expensive but where your ice cream comes with a cute dish, an almond toffee crisp, and the use of a clean restroom. I recommend both the pistachio, which tastes so vibrant you'll think you're eating a real pistachio nut, and the caramel au beurre salé, which is a French specialty and simply heavenly. Even in the cold.

Maison Berthillon
29-31 rue Saint Louis en l'ile
75004 Paris
métro: Pont Marie

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Chez Moi

According to multiple sources, I live on the prettiest street in Brussels. After snapping a few photos of our little tree-lined avenue yesterday, as well as some shots from the back balcony, I'm starting to think my sources might be right.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Dos and Donts of Train Travel

There's something simplistically thrilling about riding a train. You zip along, gaze at the changing landscapes that fly by, and pull into a grand, airy, bustling station when you reach your destination. It has an air of old-fashionedness to it, which makes it fun and filled with nostalgia. Not to mention the lack of hassles that come with other forms of transportation (I'm talking to you, airplanes). Of course, there are plenty of ways a train ride can go terribly wrong. It's not all comfort and romance, and great adventure. Eight years of European train rides have gifted me a laundry list of horror stories, from puking in a tiny, sideways-rocking bathroom to not sleeping in a cramped, sweaty sleeping car. Luckily, practice makes perfect, and with a few tips and tricks I've picked up along the way, I think I'm pretty close to having train travel down to an art. Here are my dos and don'ts for how to ride the rails - in style - in Europe.

Do pack light. Other than a few luggage racks at the end of each car, there's usually only room for your suitcase on the shelf above your seat.

Do dress comfortably chic. Riding a train, especially a high-speed one like the TGV in France, has a bit of glamour to it. I enjoy the trip most when I'm wearing something between a business casual and pajamas.

Do be prepared for scary bathrooms. They're different everytime, but I've seen bathrooms with no running water, with toilets that open up to the tracks, and with smells so bad I had to Febreeze my entire body to get them off. The high-speed trains tend to be nicer, but take care with the regional ones. A bottle of Purell and some toilet paper in your suitcase helps.

Do visit the train bar, but Don't buy anything. The bar is a great place to stetch your legs and people-watch. Too bad the food and drink are sub-par and exhorbitantly expensive. Pack your own snack, saddle up to a table in front of the expansive windows, and daydream as you watch the countryside roll by.

Do keep yourself open to conversations with your neighbors. I'm usually the bury-my-nose-in-my-book type, but I've had a number of wonderful conversations with strangers on trains. Something about that form of transportation just begs for friendly chit-chat.

Do get your hands on some metro tickets in advance if your destination city in Paris. When a train full of people tries to use the scarce ticket machines at the same time, the line becomes unbearable. Have one already tucked away so you can arrive like the locals and not like the tourists.

Don't go to the station early. Train stations can be beautiful and exciting, but they're often not very pleasant places for just hanging around. And if you arrive too early, your train likely won't be at the platform yet. Unless you're taking Eurostar, there won't be any security or lines. 15 - 20 minutes in advance is plenty.

Don't lose your ticket. You might not have to show your ticket to board the train, but the controllers almost always come around. I was once berated by a Spanish controller and came this close to paying a hefty fine. For goodness' sake, hold on to that thing.

Don't travel by "sleeper" train. Buying a bed in an overnight train gets you an impossibly tiny bunk in a six bunk car that shakes and rattles all night. It's uncomfortable, and depending on who you share a car with, a bit creepy. Avoid.

Bon Voyage!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Best Brasserie in Paris

Whether you live in Paris or are just passing through, you have to eat at my favorite brasserie. This particular eatery is so good, so perfect, so Parisian, that I'm willing to put myself out on a limb and call it the best brasserie in all of Paris. It's a big claim to make for a city that has a brasserie on nearly every corner, but Le Bouquet Saint Paul, tucked into a busy corner just a short walk from Notre Dame, La Bastille, and the heart of the Marais district, is simply that good.

A French friend first introduced me to Le Bouquet Saint Paul in the spring of 2008, and I soon realized is has everything you want in a Parisian bistro. It's small, but not too small. It has a real bar, cozy lighting, and lots of window-side tables for people-watching. The wait staff is friendly, but not overbearing. The crowd is heavily local. And the food, oh, the food! From a simple croque monsieur (on pain poilâne, bien sûr), to a juicy entrecôte, to lasagna fait maison, to a hearty boeuf bourguignon, I have never eaten a bad meal at Le Bouquet Saint Paul. What's more, the prices remain very reasonable, with a recent meal of two drinks, two main dishes, two desserts and two espressos costing €52, which includes tax and tip. And, ladies, the bathroom is clean. That in itself, in Paris, is nothing short of a miracle.

In my experience, finding a good meal while traveling - one that is delicious, reasonably priced, and eaten in good company - can be a terribly frustrating endeavor. Especially in a city as large as Paris, where the sheer number of options threatens to leave you overwhelmed and disappointed if you make the wrong choice. So while I always like to try new places, I also like to have a few sure things in my back pocket. Le Bouquet Saint Paul has become one of my favorite go-to Parisian addresses. What are yours?

Le Bouquet Saint Paul
85, rue Saint Antoine
Paris 75004
Open 7 days a week, 6am to 2am
Metro: Saint Paul

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Portobello Market

To prepare for a long weekend in London, I asked a friend who has lived in the city two questions:

1. Where can I get the best fish and chips in town?


2. What weekend market do you recommend I visit?

Portobello Market was the enthusiastic answer to the latter. Trusting his seasoned advice I did some pre-tip research on the Internet and discovered that Portobello Market is known mainly for its antiques, its hordes of tourists, and the fact that Notting Hill was partially shot along its namesake road. I love antiquing, I’m neutral about Notting Hill, and I generally try to avoid hordes of anything (except maybe French pastries) if at all possible. So, I did the only thing someone in my position could do: I mapped my route, and planned to arrive early to beat the crowds.

Portobello Market is big. Really big. According to what I read, it’s the largest antiques market in the world. And you know what? I believe it. If you start at the end of the road closest to Notting Hill Gate Underground station, walk the length of the market, and take in the side street off-shoots, you’ll have spent the better part of the day at Portobello. First you see the antiques: stall after stall of old tennis raquets, cameras, printing blocks, maps, electronics, children’s toys, jewelry and furniture. Then there are the fruit, vegetable, and street food stands. I drooled over barrels of fresh olives and ethnic plates from Thailand and Gabon. Next, you’ll see stands for new clothing, old clothing, house wares, and arts and crafts. I bought six bags of homemade tea and a blue frosting cupcake from a lovely woman who rightly sold both. Lastly, there are the permanent shops and boutiques that line Portobello Road, a few of which I managed to squeeze in. I could have shopped Portobello Market all day long, but my stomach had other ideas.

I started to retrace my steps back through the market in search of my friend’s fish and chips receommendatio when I was suddenly faced with the aforementioned hordes of tourists. Getting to the market early (8 a.m.) had clearly been the smart thing to do. While I was able to peacefully wander the stands, chat with the antiques dealers, and navigate the narrow arcades with ease, these new arrivals would find nothing but crowded tables and obscured vision. When I finally emerged from the crush of humanity, I was relieved to find the fish and chips place tucked away in a quiet corner of the neighborhood. The battered cod was amazing.

If you go to London, go to Portobello Market. Get there early, leave by noon, and enjoy lunch at Geales while thanking your lucky stars you’re no longer at Portobello Market.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Scotland, 20 Meters

If only it were that easy.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Fear and Travel

Have you ever been afraid to travel abroad? It’s a common story: someone wants to take a trip overseas, but fear is holding him or her back. Fear of not being able to speak the language, fear of getting lost, and even fear of crime or bodily harm. I’m not afraid to travel abroad in general, but for as much traveling as I’ve done, I have to admit that I am still not immune from occasionally fearing the travel unknowns. Every once in awhile I find myself in a situation that I know isn’t particularly dangerous, or even scary, logically speaking, but that deeply worries me, nonetheless. And whether crippling or situational, fear is not a pleasant travel partner.

I was recently reminded of my capacity to be afraid on the road during a weekend trip to Riga, Latvia. Sunday morning, we decided to take a train from Riga to a small, coastal town on the Baltic Sea. I definitely wanted to explore something other than the capital city, but my mind was busy conjuring up all kinds of disaster situations. What if we buy the wrong ticket? What if we go to the wrong town? What if we’re detained by the Latvian train authorities? What if there is an incident on the train and we can’t understand what’s going on? What if we get on the wrong train and don’t realize it until we reach the border with Estonia? These fears might sound irrational, but with nothing in the train system written in English, and with my French skills not offering any help whatsoever in trying to make an educated guess, the entire process required a little hope, faith, and dumb luck to go smoothly. Luckily, we had all three.

After a lovely day looking out over the dark, cold, and enchanting waters of the Baltic Sea, I started to reflect on my earlier bout of fear. I hadn’t felt that way in a long time, probably because I’ve done most of my recent traveling to countries I’ve become familiar with, and I felt a little silly for having worried so much when I know from experience that things generally work out fine. Taking the train out of Riga was a nice reminder that traveling is nothing to be fearful about. Fear should never keep you from seeking adventure overseas, it should only be used in small doses to keep you smart and safe. It has no business trying to ruin a perfectly enjoyable trip to the Latvian seaside.

Monday, October 5, 2009

La Nuit Blanche

I am not a night owl. So when I heard Paris was going to have its Nuit Blanche on the Saturday I had planned to be in town, I wasn't sure what to think. To do a "nuit blanche" in French means to pull an all-nighter, and La Nuit Blanche is a once-a-year celebration where the entire city does just that. There are parties, dances, and artistic performances until the wee hours of the morning in neighborhoods across Paris. As someone who likes to keep reasonable bedtimes, and who would much prefer getting up early to sleeping in, I was doubful of my ability to partake in the festivities. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a try. I'd like to think I did myself proud.

There are a number of different ways to experience Paris' La Nuit Blanche. You could throw a late/early party chez toi, attend the outdoor dance under a gigantic disco ball at the Jardin du Luxembourg, dine at an unusual hour, or just wander the streets taking it all in. After dinner at a normal hour at my favorite Parisian bistro, I took the latter approach. Leaving the Marais, I crossed the Seine to the Ile Saint-Louis, made my way through a light display on a bridge, saw a street performance in front of Notre Dame, snaked through Saint-Michel, fought the crowds past the Jardin du Luxembourg, wandered around St. Germain de Prés, and hung out in front of the Louvre before catching the metro back to my hotel near the Arc de Triomphe. I didn't make it until dawn, but these days, anytime after midnight is something to be celebrated.

Simply wandering the streets was a perfectly enjoyable way to get a feel for La Nuit Blanche. In some areas there was revelry, and in others it was relatively quiet, but everywhere I went offered something different to see, hear and explore. And with a full moon on a cloudless (rainless!) night, every part of the city was marvelously aglow. Even an early bird can enjoy herself on a sleepless night, especially when she's in Paris.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Latvian Meat Market

No, the title of this entry doesn’t refer to the dating scene in Riga. I’m talking about a place that actually sells fleshy edibles like pork, chicken, beef, and lamb; a place I stumbled across during last weekend’s trip to the middle child of the Baltics. As an adoring fan of European markets, I’m no stranger to seeing whole (as in, not headless) dead birds, various types of hooves, and other animal proteins displayed in ways that are foreign to most American shoppers. But nothing, nothing, could have prepared me for what I saw in Riga.

After perusing the fruit and vegetable stands of an open-air market just outside of the city’s Old Town, I made a left at the watermelons to find myself in an expansive, barn-like building filled with nothing but meat products. Entire skinned pigs hung on hooks behind the counters, animal heads were casually displayed, and refrigerated glass cases were filled to the brim with all manner of chops, loin, tongue, and steak. Butchers methodically did their work in the open as sellers packaged up the finished products. Shoppers filled their baskets with a week’s worth of dinners. The smells, sights and sounds were overwhelming.

I wandered the market’s never-ending aisles in a semi state of shock, mouth agape, breakfast barely staying down. A vegetarian I am not, but even the enthusiastic omnivore in me left Riga’s meat market with an uncomfortable, unsettled feeling in my stomach. I had never before seen so many dead animals in one place. But hey, that's what traveling is all about: seeing things you've never seen before. And although my gag reflex might not have appreciated the visit, the part of me that enjoys exploring different cultures definitely did.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Salad Surprise

I once found bugs in a head of lettuce I had purchased at a Parisian grocery store. As I started to tear apart the lettuce so it could be washed, there they were – tiny black crawling things that made me shriek and throw the leafy greens to the floor. “What are bugs doing in my lunch?!” I later learned from a Frenchman that bugs in the lettuce was a good sign. It meant the produce was high quality, since the bugs only like the best. I didn’t buy that, and from then on I scrupulously checked every single head of French lettuce for any sign of insect life before buying that either. All purchases were triple washed before consumption.

Belgium brought its own lettuce discovery, though, thankfully, this one did not include living creatures. After eying a beautiful looking head that seemed to be a perfect fit for the warm goat cheese salad I had in mind, I was surprised to discover it still had roots. It also still had soil. In fact, a perfectly square chunk of earth had been cut out of the ground along with the head of lettuce and put into a bag, ready to be sold as is. I have no idea what that’s all about, but the lettuce did indeed make a lovely base for what became a crave-worthy salade au chèvre chaud, sans dirt.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Move Blues

Moving overseas sucks. There, I said it. I know, I know, that is definitely not the impression you get from reading any one of the many blogs or articles that espouse the virtues of life lived abroad. The way we all talk you’d think it was nothing but rainbows and butterflies from sun-up to sundown over here. Moving overseas gives you enriching cultural discoveries, a chance at fulfilling self-discovery, and excitement and adventure at every turn! What a load of crap. Sometimes, it just plain sucks, with a large part of the suckiness coming from the frustration of trying to accomplish seemingly simple tasks in a culture/societal structure/system/language you’re unfamiliar with.

Take buying public transportation tickets in Belgium, for example. Unless you have a Belgian bank card, the only way to get tickets out of the machines or from the drivers is with coins. First of all, a system that only accepts Belgian cards in a city that is home to people from all EU and NATO countries is utterly ridiculous. But secondly, if you don’t know right away that you have to hoard your change like Uncle Scrooge just to get around this place, you will at some point find yourself stranded.

Like the woman on the bus the other morning who was trying to get to the airport. She only had a 50 euro bill. As she stood pleading with the bus driver in broken English, almost in tears, with no one helping her, all of my own frustrations from the past month rose to the surface. I approached the driver who proceeded to rant at me about her needing correct change. In an annoyed, but calm, tone I replied, “Je l’ai,” “I have it,” plopped down four euros in coins, gave the bus driver my best evil eye, gave the girl a look that I think said “It sucks, but we’ll live,” and turned around to the stares of an entire busload of groggy morning commuters. It was a small victory, and it felt good.

My own frustrations about moving to Belgium have largely centered on trying to get Internet access. One month in and I still don’t have it at home, despite giving constant effort to the pursuit. It’s a long story, but all you need to know is that trying to get Internet in Brussels has resulted in paying for a year when I only need six months, a modem lost in the mail, a land line that no longer works, and phone calls in vain (and in French, Dutch AND English) to the local company’s technical team.

Ok, so obviously I was a bit harsh at the beginning; moving overseas doesn’t actually suck. I love it, others love it, and I wouldn’t give up the experience for anything in the world, especially not Internet access. Moving overseas does give you enriching cultural discoveries, a chance at fulfilling self-discovery, and excitement and adventure at every turn, but sometimes the whole runaround that inevitably accompanies such a move just makes you want to crawl under the covers and never come back out. Sometimes, you just want things to be easy again. Moving overseas is not all rainbows and butterflies, and it doesn’t always have a four euro solution.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Making Crêpes

Is it weird that crêpes scare me? They don’t scare me enough to keep me from eating them. Oh no, I have absolutely no qualms about devouring crêpes au sucre, crêpes au nutella, and crêpes au anything-else-you-can-think-of. What scares me is making crêpes. A most unfortunate incident in the fall of 2003 scarred me so deeply that for six years I refused to even attempt making France’s thin version of the pancake. Until now.

With the memory of 2003’s Crêpe Crisis fading ever so slightly, I set out to conquer my fear and redeem myself in the kitchen. The first thing I did was purchase a real crêpe pan. This is key: The French know how to make crêpes like Americans know how to make cheeseburgers, so follow their lead and get yourself a nice, flat, T-fal (made in France!) crêpe pan. After staring at my crêpe pan for a few weeks, I finally got the nerve to look up the recipe online, gather my ingredients (eggs, milk, flour, water, salt), and take a leap of faith. French friends have often told me that the first crêpe of the batch always turns out looking deformed. Shrug it off, throw it out, and try it again, they say. So I didn’t panic when my own first attempt came out looking as such:

The next three tries turned out to be totally edible – even round! – and I was particularly proud of my success at flipping the crêpes without sending them flying halfway across the kitchen. Sure, they came out a little thick, but all in all it was not a traumatizing experience. And it only took me six years to get there.

Should you decide to tackle crêpe-making yourself, here are my tips for helping you avoid disaster:

1. Use the correct pan. Get a flat, T-fal pan or a crêpe maker like this one

2. Grease the pan well with butter. This will help when it comes time to flip. And butter is yummy.
3. Chill the batter for at least 5-6 hours before using. Overnight is better. This will keep your crêpes from getting too thick as mine did.

4. Use quality toppings: good butter, fresh fruit, etc.

5. Be creative! The French have crêpes of all kinds. Salty, sugary, for breakfast, for dinner, and more. Experiment. After all, how can you mess up crêpes? Wait…

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Manneken Pis Day

You've probably heard of Brussels' Manneken Pis, or "Little Man Urinating," statue. He's the miniature boy who's not ashamed to do his business on a perch in the corner of a quaint Belgian street. But did you know that he has costumes? Yes, costumes. The Bruxellois love their peeing statue so much that they've bestowed upon him a wardrobe whose options outshine my own. Manneken Pis has an outfit for every occasion: a red Santa Claus suit and hat for Christmas, country-specific clothing to celebrate national holidays, and a white, bejeweled getup to honor Elvis Presley's birthday. There's even a website that maintains a photo gallery of his costumes, including a calendar of the days he can be expected to be wearing them.

I recently paid a visit to the world's most famous peeing boy and happily discovered he had gotten dressed up for the occasion. In fact, the crowd of beer-drinking, instrument-playing and anthem-singing Belgians who stood around him had also gotten dressed up. What's more, they were all wearing identical (full-sized) versions of his red and blue cape/hat ensemble. I didn't completely understand what I had stumbled across until I spotted a menu chalkboard declaring it to be Manneken Pis Day. I knew they gave him costumes, but I had no idea they also gave him his own day. That's one luckly little statue.