Monday, November 30, 2009
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.
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.
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
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
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
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
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.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
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
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
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.