Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Culture Shock: U.S. Observations

When you move back home after living in a foreign country, you're bound to experience culture shock. For me, this often involves weeks of remarking on the simple pleasures, maddening differences, and random realities of my old new home. Everything has a certain novelty to it - I can pay for things in dollars! The sidewalks are dog poo-free! - and I start rediscovering my home country the way I previously discovered my adoptive one. Freshly back from Brussels, here are some of the things I'm noticing about life in the U.S.

1. Friendly people are everywhere.

It started with the Customs and Border Protection Officer who chatted me up while stamping my passport. Then there was the cab driver who asked me about my trip and talked to me about everything from the recent snowstorms to the pros and cons of a GPS system. The cashier at Target gave me a beaming smile and asked if I found everything alright. Not to mention the woman I sat next to on the plane who became my best friend in a little under eight hours. After six months of living with guarded Belgians, I'm in awe of the openness and friendly nature of Americans.

2. Where are all the boots?

Belgian women wear boots. French women too, for that matter. In fact, once summer turned to fall it was hard to spot women who weren't wearing ankle, mid-calf or knee-high versions of les bottes. But in Washington, DC, such footwear is few and far between.

3. I'm no longer a human pinball.

In addition to generally being a friendly bunch, Americans have the incredible ability to walk without running into each other. Wandering the streets of Brussels should be considered a contact sport, as people who could easily alter their path to avoid bowling you over simply choose not to. Here in the U.S., this morning's crowded rush hour commute on metro didn't result in me getting hip-checked by random strangers. Amazing!

4. American television commercials are obnoxious.

Ok, so I didn't have to move overseas to figure this one out. However, renewed exposure to U.S. advertising only reinforces my belief that the best thing to do during a commerical break is to hit "mute."

5. Everything is big, new, and clean.

After living in Brussels, with its narrow, winding streets, dirty sidewalks, and buildings that date back to the 1600s, everything here feels spacious, fresh, and modern. I love Europe's historic atmosphere, but I think U.S. modernity is pretty cool as well.

6. There is this thing called "the sun."

The amount of cloud cover Brussels receives is truly impressive. I'm still not quite sure what to make of that shiny thing up in the DC sky, but I think I like it.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Belated Birthday

Quelle horreur! I've been so busy with the move and the robbery aftermath and the seeing of friends for the last time for a long time that I completely missed Parisian Spring's birthday. Yesterday was the two year anniversary of this little project in blogging; a project that started in Paris but grew to include Minnesota, Washington, DC, Brussels, and a pretty decent collection of other places in between. I never thought it would last this long.

Thank you to everyone who takes the time to read Parisian Spring. We're all so busy and have so many blogs, hobbies, and activities vying for our time that I'm honored you think to stop by Parisian Spring from time to time. If you've been here from the beginning, you might remember my very first post, dated February 20, 2008. If you're a newcomer, here's your chance to see how it all started. Of all the hundreds of posts I've written in the past two years, that one might be my favorite. It's so simple yet so full of promise.

Thanks again for reading, and I hope to see you here this time next year. Bon anniversaire, Parisian Spring!

Friday, February 19, 2010


Sometime on Wednesday, between the hours of 7:10am and 6:05pm, someone chipped away the wood around the lock on my apartment door, busted out the lock, entered my apartment, trashed the place, wrote on two walls with my favorite lipstick, and stole cash and a few other personal items. As if the process of moving wasn't stressing me out enough, I now had a forced entry burglary on my hands. A few panicked phone calls later and the police were on there way. All I could do was wait and take stock of the damage.

They didn't get much: 20 euros, 60 dollars, some euro coins from my coin jar, a bottle of perfume, the nice Belgian chocolates I was going to bring home as gifts, a few items of clothing and two different colors of nail polish. If there is a silver lining in all of this it's that for some reason the criminals weren't interested in my laptop, digital camera, ipod, credit cards, two passports, or any other items of value. In that sense, I feel lucky in my unluckiness. Less than a week before an international flight the last thing you want to be doing is going through the hassle of replacing big-ticket items. Not to mention trying to get a rush passport.

It's a terrible feeling knowing that strangers invited themselves into the private sanctuary of your home and took the opportunity to rummage through your life. The only other time I've personally been a victim of crime while overseas was in Nice, France in 2003 when a man tried to mug me, but I fought him off. This time was far worse, as they robbed me not only of my cash and a few small, but not entirely unmeaningful items, but also of my sense of home and security. Belgium's little way of saying, "And don't let the door hit you on the way out!"

Monday, February 15, 2010

Leaving Brussels

As mentioned in an earlier post, the countdown has officially begun: I leave Brussels and move back to Washington, DC in only eight days. Like many of you, I've been here before. I've reached the end of numerous long-term stays overseas, and have fought through the hassles of packing, unpacking, and reorganizing a life somewhere else so often I practially have it down to an art. So I know that this is normally the time when I start to get a little sad - sometimes even a little distraught - about having to leave my current home, even if I'm excited about the new one that awaits. But this time feels different. There's no sadness here, and certainly no distress. This time, I'm ready to move on.

I don't mean to say I don't enjoy living in Brussels, or that this hasn't been as amazing of an experience as any other time I've lived abroad. I do enjoy Brussels, and how could six months in the Capital of Europe be anything but an awesome experience? Between the mouth-watering local specialties (chocolate, French fries, beer), the weekend trips to nearby cities (London, Amsterdam, Paris), meeting new people (including a fellow Minnesotan!), and simply living life in my adorable neighborhood (the cheese shop down the block is pure heaven), I couldn't have asked for a better trip. So what's with the ambivalence towards it all coming to an end?

Maybe it has something to do with my attachment to this city. I enjoy Brussels, but I don't love it like I love Paris. If I never lived in Brussels again it wouldn't bother me in the least, whereas I'm constantly thinking of ways to get back to my beloved City of Light. It could also be that I don't see such an enormous difference between living in Brussels and living in DC. When it was time to leave Cannes, France for St. Joseph, Minnesota, I knew I'd be in for a shock. But going from one government city with crappy weather to another government city with crappy weather? Piece of cake. Or maybe it's precisely because I've been here before. Maybe after you have so many moves under your belt you become immune to their more drastic emotional effects. Yes, there are plenty of things I'll miss about my life in Brussels, and I'm sure the day I fly to DC will be more than a little bittersweet, but history has taught me that life will go on. And that my next international adventure is probably just around the corner.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

An Interview with Author Joe Stange, Belgian Beer Expert

What could be better than living in a city that's world famous for its delicious beer? How about living in the same apartment building as someone who is an expert on where best to procure said delicious beer?

One of the first things I learned about my neighbor, Joe Stange, is that he co-wrote a book called Around Brussels in 80 Beers. As a brand new arrival in town who was overwhelmed with unpacking and settling in, I hadn't yet had a chance to sample the local wares. When we met, Joe shook my hand, handed me two different beers he was testing at the time, and asked me to give them a try. Welcome to Brussels!

Joe moved to Belgium a few years back and promptly took his appreciation for a good brew to another level. Partnering up with local beer aficionado, Yvan de Baets, he set out on the wholly enviable task of finding the best places to drink the best pours (or bottles). I simply had to ask him a few questions about this amazing gig:

What made you decide to write this book?

At first, boredom. I had a freelance contract that ended, so I needed something to do. Meanwhile my wife and I had been filling up Moleskines with beer notes, visiting cafés and breweries. A few people suggested I write a book about beer before I took the idea seriously. Once I came around, I knew I wanted to write a book about the best places to drink the best beer in Brussels — mainly because nobody had done it yet. Local enthusiast Stephen D'Arcy had been updating a really excellent pamphlet, but it wasn't well known and not officially published.

Soon I connected with Tim Webb, author of the Good Beer Guide Belgium. He was looking to publish a Brussels guide essentially just plugged me into the project.

You wrote this book with a co-author, Yvan de Baets. How did you two meet up and begin working together?

It was all Tim's idea, and I think it turned out to be a really good one. Tim's initial plan was to have Yvan write the book. Yvan and I had met a couple of times at Cantillon, where he was working, and at the Bruxellensis festival that he organizes with Bernard Leboucq — who's also his partner at the Brasserie de la Senne. So right away you can see we're dealing with a busy guy. Part of my role was to organize the research and keep the project moving.

But I think the best thing about the match was our complementary perspectives. I'm the wide-eyed beer geek foreigner, while Yvan is the savvy connoisseur bruxellois brewer. It's a more complete and useful book because we were able to consider things though each other's eyes.

How long did it take you to explore all of the bars in your book?

Depends on how you look at it. I'd been going to several of them for two years, and Yvan obviously for much longer than that. But once we started on the book, it still took more than a year. Someone with determination, a strong liver, and nothing else to do could do it much faster, but we were thorough with it. There were about 40 other places that didn't make the cut. A brief flurry of new places opened just before deadline, making things interesting. And even after deadline we kept checking on places, opening hours, phone numbers and so on, to make sure it was as accurate as possible when it went to press.

Were you always a beer fan or did moving to Brussels influence your interest in brews?

I've loved beer for most of my life, including craft beer, but I wasn't always discriminating. I took pride in not being a beer snob. Then I moved here. What happened next could happen anywhere, though: I accidentally educated my palate by taking notes. Amazing what you can learn about what you like and don't like. The real reward is in putting down the pen and just enjoying your new favorites, over and over. I still believe in "to each their own," but my "own" is better now.

If someone only had time to visit one bar in Brussels, which one should it be?

Moeder Lambic in St-Gilles (especially now that it's non-smoking!). Incredible selection, friendly locals, knowledgeable staff, welcoming atmosphere... The new Moeder Lambic Fontainas (at Place Fontainas 8) is great too, with the best draft beer selection in Belgium. But the ambiance is more cool and chic, whereas I think most beer tourists prefer more warm and kitschy. So I vote for St-Gilles.

If you were stranded on an island and could only have one Belgian beer with you, which one would it be?

Easy. Saison Dupont. It's the one that works for me in any mood, any weather, with any food. Close second is Taras Boulba.

What about bars outside of Brussels? Any recommendations for other Belgian cities?

Bruges has an unusually high concentration of great beer cafés — the Brugs Beertje being top among them. I'd also recommend getting out of the cities into the country and villages... the Fourquet tavern at the Brasserie de Blaugies — a great farmhouse brewery — is near the French border and one of our favorite places. Terrific beer and meat grilled on an open flame in the middle of the tavern.

Why does Belgium have such good beer? Can you give us a little history lesson?

In short, it's because small craft breweries survive and do their thing. This despite various invasions, wars, and corporate takeovers. The beers from the small, artisanal places are not always great, but they're never boring. The strength of Belgian beer lies in its diversity. There is nothing about Belgian beer that's better than British or German or American beer, frankly, but there is an unusual combination of tradition and creativity here. And plain old stubbornness. Some villages still cling to their own beer styles, although giant companies like A-B InBev have swallowed many and made them less fun.

Also, growth of exports to countries like the U.S. and U.K. has allowed the smaller breweries to survive and occasionally thrive. Many Belgians know that Belgian beer is famous worldwide, but they might be pointing to a drab commercial pils when they say so. But its the small breweries and their stunning array of flavors that put Belgian beer on the map in the first place.

Buy Joe's book

Read Joe's blog

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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Paris Super Bowl Commercial

J'adore! In case you haven't seen it yet:

Friday, February 5, 2010

Bye, Bye Chocolate Cake

The countdown to Brussels Departure has begun. In less than three weeks - February 23rd, to be exact - I'll be headed back to Washington, DC; back to my old apartment, my old job, and my old stateside life. Already wondering how I'm going to live without readily available gâteau au chocolat such as this:

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Beer Exploration at Délirium

If you come to Brussels looking for Belgian beer you won't have to look far. Whether trappist, lambic, blonde, brune, bottled or tapped, beer is everywhere - everywhere! - in this city. But one of the more, shall we say, unique places to get beer the Belgian way is Délirium Café, which is nothing short of a multi-level beer lover's Mecca. Sure, it's a bit of a tourist trap, but it's quite possibly the best tourist trap in Brussels, and definitely worth a visit. After you check out the cultured sights such as the Grande Place and the Musée des Beaux-Arts, your post-sightseeing liquid award awaits at the place that's so famous its patrons refer to it by its first name only: Délirium.

Délerium is tucked away on a narrow street (actually an "impasse") in the old part of central Brussels, not far from the Grande Place. Head downstairs and pull up a chair at one of the barrel tables. Take a minute to admire the decoration, which consists of keg tops and beer signs from around the world, then belly up to the bar, look at the beer menu, and make your choice. Don't be intimidated by the list whose 2000+ options could in fact make you a bit nervous. The names don't come with descriptions, but you can't go wrong by ordering one that sounds nice and enjoying whatever it is you get served. Better yet, go with a group and take turns buying rounds of beers based on name interest alone, which is a lot of fun and will allow you to get an overview of the bar's wares at the same time. Or, if you like to be more strategic in your beer drinking, they do post descriptions on their website.

A warning: Belgian beer is strong. It's not unusual to see anywhere from 8-10% (or higher!) alcohol content marked on the label, which is much more than what you're used to if you're used to drinking American beer. Depending on what kind of night you're looking to have, this can be a good thing or a bad thing. Either way, it doesn't hurt to remember that Délirium's mascot is a pink elephant. If you start seeing them, it might be time to head home.