Monday, January 28, 2013

Bruxelles, Cinquième [Bruges and Trips]

Friday, the 25th, was fantastic.  The thing that I like about student discounts? There are plenty of them.  My roommate and I bought round trip train tickets to Bruges for 13 euros.  We're going to get a GO Pass, which gives us 10 trips to anywhere in Belgium for 50 euros.

Back to Bruges.  It was beautiful, but I'm going to have to go back in the spring.  My impressions... So, maybe it was -2 degrees Celsius, maybe the wind was a bit nippy, and maybe I was feeling a bit under the weather.  But still, it was amazing, to be able to day trip to Bruges.

Arriving at the stationsplein (train station), you see Bruges, or Brugge.

In the middle of town square, I just thought this would be a pretty picture!

Talk about an imposing organ in a church!

Cathedrals with sunlight streaming through stained glass windows are an essential part to Europe.

While the snow stopped falling, it still looked beautiful.

Once the sunlight came out, it looked like a postcard.

Some of the canals had frozen enough that birds could hop around on top of them!

I'm not sure what a carved hummingbird is doing on a window shutter...

...or why there are drunken chocolate snowmen in a display case.

This is the infamous beer wall in Bruges.  Look for it at 2BE , a shop on Wollenstraat.

In between having a moka (basically, espresso) that fit in the palm of my hand, feeling sharp gusts of wind, and wandering around town, Rach and I decided that we weren't feeling up to climbing the belfry.  Or, as Rach said, "I can already feel the muscle cramps!"  We'll go back in spring, when the canals have unfrozen, to take a boat ride around, and to finally climb that belfry.

But this weekend, I might go to the Black Forest (even though it's a six-hour train ride), run off to Gent, or see diamonds in Antwerp. Luxembourg's definitely a possibility later on.

And I'm looking forward to Saint Patrick's Day in Dublin!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Bruxelles, Quatrième [Orientation, Pub Crawl, Travel Plans]

"Every memory was valuable, even the bad ones."
- Cassandra Clare

It's hard for me to explain this. Most other study abroad people know what I mean: that feeling that somehow, you're in a dream.  If you push too hard, pinch yourself a little too often, or embarrass yourself one times too many, then you'll wake up in your bed back at uni or college, five months later.

And that's kind where I'm at.  Orientation is terrifying.  For some awful reason, every single orientation reminds me of being in seventh grade, tenth grade, the new kid in a neighborhood.

Oh, I survived just fine, survived the first few days of confusion, staring at maps, and wondering how a campus of two (maybe three) blocks and eight buildings could seem so disconcertingly large.

And then it was Friday. Allow me to put forth a disclaimer: I've never (officially) been to a pub crawl before.

My lovely college that I attend in Brussels is a wealth of information.  Rumors and stories of the last pub crawl (someone chipped a tooth, another passed out in a stranger's house, there was even mention of an ambulance), a few drinks, and a confused metro ride later (several people were locked inside the ticket booth, because those things didn't come with instructions), we ended up at our second bar.

Les Halles Saint-Gery. A former marketplace, that is the biggest vintage market on the first Sunday of every month, that is the occasional site of raves, that is next to a fantastic bar that I will go back to (Mezzo, a darkly lit bar, with a crowded dance floor, and blue lights), it serves up some good drinks.

At some point, we went to Delirium.  Oh Delirium, what a fantastic place.  With a tequila bar next door, and an absinthe bar right across, where else do you need to go for your night of heavy boozing?

And there were embarrassing moments too.  At some point in time, I tripped down stairs. when my heel caught on the stair (I know, wearing heels on a pub crawl is a bad idea). Everyone thought I was a drunk exchange student, from America who couldn't speak French.

They started talking about me.  I could understand them.  That was awkward.

And it made me want to run away, to go somewhere far away.

This now brings me to my next point.  I'm in Europe.  I want to sit on trains and watch places fly by.  I want to eat curry-wurst and learn German.  I want to sit on a RyanAir trip, be delighted over the cost, and then wonder why I thought a discount airline was a good idea.  I want.

But my already bruised and heartbroken wallet says NO.  It's the sort of no that you stayed away from as a kid, the kind of no that guarantees you a grounding. And maybe extra chores.

That doesn't mean I'm not going to travel. I mean, I'm goiing to Bruges tomorrow!  You know, Bruges, as in that dark comedy called In Bruges, with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson?  I'm planning on climbing the belfry there, the one that cost Gleeson a few good euros.  Hopefully, the negative-seven-degree-Celsius weather won't make it too horrible.

At last, I have a STIB metro card! 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Bruxelles, Troisième [O, These Pretty Things]

I'm literally exploding at the seams.  I love being in Europe, but my toes freeze when I walk in the snow, and the wind chaps my face.  Classrooms are such a huge change after working in the field and my fingers twitch from the sharp incline in prices.  I'm also having fun taking pictures!

The Brooding Soldier is an interesting monument.

It reads as unknown Cheshire, Australian, Yorkshire and Leicester soldiers.

Madame Dufrasne's delicious apple and raisin tart.

Louis, the cat, believes that the heaters were installed just for him.

There's a little "Oriental Pastry" store, that sells sweets like those I had in Morocco.

Speculos ice cream is delicious. I'll have to buy currant sauce for when I go back.

Madame Dufrasne made croquettes du frommage, with a fryer she bought just for us!

It's dreadfully foggy and overcast today, but still, I love the view.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Bruxelles, Deuxième. [The First Five Days]

The air is still, except for sudden gusts of wind that blow snowflakes into my face.  My toes are numb, I can barely feel my nose, and all I want to do is stop shivering.  I'm standing in a graveyard, unable to hear anyone else.  The sky is gray, the land is white, and there is an eerie silence everywhere.

It's been a whirlwind couple of days, five days to be exact.

Friday, 11 January

Arrival.  My plane is ten minutes early, despite the fact that I landed at my last connection in London 30 minutes late and then had to run to make it to my gate.  I got there just as they call out all passengers, final boarding.

The cab driver, Morvan, is very nice.  He and I talk: he is Belgium, speaks no Dutch, has lived in Brussels all his life.  He talks about the weather, how people can't drive in the snow and how accidents pile up on the street.  He tells me about the NATO construction, how the area around BRU airport is all business building and no suburbs.

When I arrive, Madame Dufrasne is there.  And so is my housemate, Rach, a sophomore girl from Los Angeles who could pass for a Swedish model, maybe Swiss.  We chat a bit, eat a bit, and then exhaustion hits me.

I lay in bed, looking out of my window until I fall asleep.


Saturday, 12 January


The morning terrifies me.  I woke up at 3am, fell back asleep for a bit and then laid awake until 7am.  I fall back asleep, only to bolt upright at 9:16am and realize that I NEED to pack.  The schedule is to meet the rest of the group at the Central Station, in less than an hour.  I speed through it and Rach comes with me.

We take a city bus tour of Brussels, passing the Atomium, several churches, botanical gardens and the Royal Palace.

We meander through the Grote Markt, watch a boy pee while dressed in festive red (also known as a statue called Mannekin Pis), and stop at Delirium Tremens pub.  Right across the street is Jannekin Pis (Mannekin's sister).

The pub is infamous for the world record of over 2500 beers. 

Our lunch is another Belgian classic: mussels, fries and beer.  The place is Chez Leone, which we're told is a tourist institution (one MUST eat there as a tourist, otherwise, people ask what you've been doing with your time).

For dessert, I enjoy a Belgian waffle with speculos, a type of cookie based spread (think Biscoff spread).  We have a talk about safety and then, well, we vanish.

Brussels gets tossed into the distance as we head to Ypres, Ieper, Vypers.  The French spell it Ypres; the Dutch say Ieper; and when the Brits fought there, it became Vypers.

The first snowfall of the year starts on our drive north, and it continues well into the night.

Ieper at night, with snow against bright lights.

Sunday, 13 January

The hotel we're staying at is unique.  Everything is based on World Wars I and II, from the trunk holding army blankets to the posters of war, and somehow, that makes it even more unsettling when we head to our tour.

We went to the Last Post at 8pm the night before, a very intense five minutes involving the dedication of a wreath and a moment of silence for those who fought in the wars.

And now, we're off to visit different sites.  Salient Tours Ypres is well thought out, but a bit intense on a cold, dreary morning.  For four hours, we think of war, talk of war, and take pictures of war.  I tear up when I'm asked to read In Flanders Fields, because of the line "Short days ago/we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow/loved and were loved, and now we lie/in Flanders Fields."

Taken at Essex Farm: Their name liveth for evermore.
Once the four hours are up, we demand to be fed.  We're taken to the Ramparts Museum for croques (ham-and-cheese sandwiches) with violently hot mustard.

We decide to walk the ramparts, the one that's left, all the way back to the Menin Gate.  The sunshine takes the sting out of a morbid past.

Once the snow settled, a sculptor got busy.
Monday, 14 January

I am in love.  We've left Ypres to head even further north, to visit Newport.  The beach town is different, but still so beautiful.  

The six of us gather around to make lunch: spaghetti, salad, garlic bread, and put up our feet for a few hours of relaxation.

We even try to take a walk around the beach, but more snow and wind makes it difficult to even stay at the beach for five minutes.

We head back to our host families for dinner.  Madame Dufrasne spoils Rach and me: soup that tastes creamy and divine, a dish with endives and salmon covered in cheese, a thick cake-like chocolate mousse.

Louie, the fat-black-and-white cat that reminds me of Sylvester, is very much content to let me come to him and pet him.

Tuesday, 15 January

I am so very tempted to laze about.  Oh, I try to get registered at my commune, try to go buy a monthly transportation pass, try to withdraw money.  The operative word is "TRY" as I end up spending a day just relaxing with everyone.  

We meet a few new people, who are housemates but will also attend Vesalius.  We take them around, feeling oh so proud of the few hours that we spent in Brussels before we left.

In the evening, we head to a scheduled event: a dinner and movie showing at a home.  The home is five stories of beautiful, historic property, across from a lake, in an area that reminds me of Manhattan or maybe Greenwich Village.  Between quiche, thick chocolate cake and red wine, we talk.  We also sit down to watch War Horse.  I cry (even though I've seen this movie before).


Tomorrow, I go to orientation for Vesalius.  Tomorrow, I cross my fingers, hoping that my boots won't continue to leak and let water in.  Tomorrow, I'll have to get over jet lag.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Belgium: Bruxelles, Premier [Je Commence Sans Doute. Ou Sans Regret.].

"When in doubt, do not."
-- Benjamin Franklin

I'm about to go to Belgium.  I'm sitting on my butt, torn between being terrified and completely excited.  I've heard the whispers from my family: what sane university senior would spend the last semester abroad, risking her future, instead of staying at school?  Here's the thing: yes, I am worried about my future, but I'm more worried about what will happen if I don't go.

I can see my last semester in my mind: if I stayed on campus, I'd be commiserating with other seniors over open GRE books, late-night food runs, and graduate school deadlines.  And then I would be whisked into more schooling and more textbooks.

Instead, I'm going to take advantage of my full-ride scholarship and go abroad for a final hurrah.  I've been to Morocco in a field studies program and now I'm launching myself into a classroom seating with polished Europeans.  If that isn't a (g)rounding experience, then I don't know what is.

Anthony Bourdain, that blessedly crass, but honest man, even mentioned the joys of travel.

I found this image on Buzzfeed, but it's highly apropos.

I get that studying abroad isn't for everyone, that some people can't afford it, that some people don't want to go.

But I have the means and I have this yearning to go.  I need to feel miniscule in comparison to a country's history, to try to communicate with a Vlemmish (Flemmish person), to eat mussels and to re-experience French.

I'll land in Belgium around 15:40 (or 3:40 in the afternoon) on January 11th (including time changes), in approximately 40 degree rainy weather, and then rest with my host for the night.  I'm excited to meet her face to face, and to see her pet cat.  The next day, I'll meet with the rest of the study abroad students and we'll tour Brussels and Ypers.

Later on, I still have graduate school to attend, maybe even medical school.   But for now, I start my trip. Without doubt. Without regret.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

China Moments [第四册]

Here is a small smattering of images from my trip in China.  For 54 days, I took pictures, pointed out weird things, and generally was bemused.  The videos may come up later, or never at all.  Enjoy!  

This was inside the Bird's Nest.  The stadium is actually quite intrinsic. And amazing if you don't have a fear of heights.

Black currant-hibiscus tea, black sesame-walnut cookies, and red bean scones. Starbucks in China is by far my favorite.

Oh come on, aren't they cute?  Sorta?

Some of Tianjin's best statues and sculptures are also very curious.  They have over 21 bridges, and neither one is the same...

And of course, NBA is big no matter what.

There's something striking about a traditional Bai painting next to modern cotton candy.  Ask me about significance later.

A Hero's Tale, or rather 'Brave.'

For the Torch Festival, people will build their own torches and find ways to make the offering bigger and bigger, so that the smoke will bring their wishes to the gods.

Buttered tea is a traditional minority drink.  It just depends on what minority.

They were having a feast, so they decided to eat some pigs.

When they cook a feast in a village, they really do go all out.

Durian, peaches, kiwis, lychees.  And creamy vanilla.

Steamed shrimp dumplings, when perfectly done, are heavenly.

Pure decadence: black pudding-chocolate milquetoast (that's how it's spelled, blame the Taiwanese), Pocky in dark chocolate sauce with chocolate whipped cream, and kiwi sauce.

Spicy green bean curd. Don't knock it until you try it.

It's a pun: have a long and happy life. But the sound for 'year' and 'to break something' are the same... Hence, break a bottle for a year of prosperity!

Lake fish and shrimp, fried up in a doughy mix of potatoes and eggs.

At the temple I visited near Jizushan (or Chicken Foot Mountain), they go through thousands of the red candles a week.

There's something endless about a pagoda on a foggy day, especially when the sky suddenly opens.

P.S. Brownie points if anyone can figure out where a couple of these places are!

China Moments [第三册]

Here's a very important thing you HAVE to realize: China is filled with people.  There are days when you are going to stand on a subway and mutter under your breath, feeling like canned sardines, squished and compressed against each other, with little air conditioning.  There are days when you see a single seat on a bus and want to dive, throw yourself onto it, even if you just sit for one stop.

Outdoor concerts in China are ridiculously packed with people, trash, mosquitoes...

And then, there are days, hours even, where you get lucky and get to feel ridiculously free from the human constraint.

There are lakes that are empty and clear, with nothing on the horizon but the sun...

The thing that I actually love the most about being surrounded by people in China is the madness that seems to erupt.  I'm not talking about tempers that get too short, and burn everyone in the vicinity.  I'm talking about the creative powers that no one seems to really tap until they can't help themselves.

In Beijing, there's an area called 七九八, which means 'Seven Eight Nine.'  It's also called 79Bar. It's an artist haven, getaway, forever place.  There's graffiti, sculptures, art exhibits.

Hey Che!  First China, then Morocco... Where next?

Alright, yes, Bumblebee was there.

It wasn't just this side of the bus that was painted.

The face freaked me out.  And the mug was actually tall enough to reach my waist.

79Bar is so full of art and beauty.  A friend I know would also say it's full of hipsters.  And he's right.

They're Chinese hipsters who smoke French import Gauloise cigarettes and talk about Europeans in the south.