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.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Come Thirsty

Just in case I had forgotten that I now live in the Land of Beer, Brussels was nice enough to hold its 11th annual beer festival last weekend. For three days, over 40 Belgian breweries poured dozens of their finest pils, amber, lambiek and trappist creations, right in the middle of the city's famous Grande Place. The tents and tables were already bursting at the seams with merry revelers when we passed through the square at noon. A few short hours later and you could barely walk from one end to the other without getting bowled over by the crowd. Musicians entertained the drinkers, vendors sold food to the hungry, and just in case you had forgotten how beer is made, the Belgians were nice enough to post this informative reminder.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Best Frites in Brussels

As the story goes, French fries aren’t really French, they’re Belgian. Accounts differ on where and when fried slices of potatoes first entered the human diet, but since the French themselves think of fries and Belgian, and since fries are undoubtedly the country’s national snack, I’m happy to give this one to les Belges. Friteries (take-away French fry stands) are everywhere in Brussels, but most people will tell you that the city’s best frites (the French word for "fries") are at Maison Antoine. In the name of travel research, and because I have a weakness for anything fried and salty, I decided to see for myself what everyone was raving about.

Maison Antoine is located in the middle of Place Jourdan, a small square surrounded by bars and restaurants that is just east of the city center. The first thing you notice when you arrive is the line. Be prepared: at night, it’s not unusual to have to wait in line for 20-30 minutes for your chance to order a petites or grandes frites. But don’t let that stop you; the wait is more than worth it. Part of the reason why Maison Antoine’s fries are so good is that they’re double-cooked. First the fries are blanched at a low temperature. This ensures that the inside of the thick-cut potatoes will be soft and cooked all the way through. Then, when you place your order, they're deep fried at a high temperature which gives them a crispy, golden-brown exterior. Add just a dash of salt, dip them in one of Maison Antoine’s fry sauces (I recommend “curry”), and eat what I think truly are the best fries you’ll ever had.

Of course, nothing washes down a cone of salty fries quite like a glass of cold beer, but don’t worry about having to plan ahead to BYOB. Some of the bars that surround Place Jourdan know a lucrative combination when they see one, declaring themselves “partenaires,” or partners, of Maison Antoine. This means you’re welcome to bring your fries into the bar, order a delicious Belgian beer, and enjoy the two together. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Timing is Everything

It’s a conundrum all travelers will eventually have to face: book early, or wait to the last minute? Which form of trip planning will give you the best deals? There are those who swear it’s the early bird who catches the worm, while others will tell you it’s the last minute purchases that offer the biggest travel savings. As far as I’m concerned, both options can work to your advantage. You just have to know when to use them.

I recently got burned by waiting until the last minute to make important travel arrangements. When a friend told me she would be in Paris the weekend of September 12-13 I said, “Great! I’ll meet you there,” thinking I could wait until I was settled into life in Brussels before looking at ticket options and making my decision. By the time I got around to researching prices, round-trips were already too pricey for my weekend travel budget. To make matters worse, the train reservation sites were all advertising great Brussels – Paris deals…if you booked a month or more in advance. Nevertheless, there are travel websites out there that consistently offer great last minute deals. For example I’ve had success finding impressively low prices on normally out-of-range hotels with’s French site.

The Parisian weekend disappointment taught me a good lesson: if you have your heart set on a certain trip, book early. Start looking more than a month out, and if you see a price your comfortable with, go for it. What’s more, from what I can tell, booking early for train travel in Europe is almost always the way to get a good deal. On the other hand, if the mood to get out of town tomorrow strikes you, and you’re less concerned with the location than with the price, booking last minute doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll pay a fortune for your impulses. Have a few go-to discount travel sites on hand, be flexible, and get excited when you book a fabulous weekend jaunt without breaking the bank.

What’s your preferred travel style: book early, or buy last minute?