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.