Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Visitors Galore- Brussels, Summer 2013

For all its oddities, 2013 has been a banner year for visits. Scots, Spaniards, Germans, Frenchies, Greeks, and Americans descendant of all these nationalities have cozied up on our sofas. Amazingly, four waves of family visitors have also endured my infamous "death marches" in and around Brussels. My roommate and I, come to think of it, have hosted someone nearly every week since we returned from the holidays last January. Its been an impressive run. 

Some friends here dread visitors, fearing the bane of touring Brussels’ most famous (or ridiculous) landmarks, beer venues, and chocolate shops for the umpteenth time. Sure, Mannekin Pis looses its luster after the first visit and the Brussels Cathedral pales in comparison to more impressive gothic structures scattered about Flanders and northern France. But for me, traipsing around my adopted (temporary?) hometown is a chance to rebalance. 

three things i love: sues, tj and mer du nord

justice palace, place poelaert brussel

aliens a la magritte

Turns out that traveling or living abroad is a complicated, emotional experience. Some say you're running away from something when you leave, some say you're running towards something or running down a dream or love or whatever. Personally, I like to save my running for the trails (yes, there is lots of green space in and near Brussels- and hills, too!) and the football pitch. But the more compelling thing, the thing less present in our mind but more emotionally taxing, is that we compartmentalize certain parts of who we are to adapt to the new place, the new culture, the new life. Reconciling all these pieces of who we are is sometimes burdensome and on both ends- for the people who knew us longer or longer ago, and for the people who more recently came into our lives. Not to say that we change who we are to adapt, but that locations, events, the unknown bring specific elements of us to the fore and suppress other traits.

three more beautiful things: matt, leah and mussels

When visitors come, though, pieces come together. Parts of what I was in Chicago or in Madrid or in Murcia meld with what's here, what my life is now. It's bizarre, but thats Belgium in a word- the  place you visit a 5 meter tall bug on a needle100 meter tall metal balls, more than 100 animated and grafittied pencils, and a collection of child-sized statues sculpted in a "business position."  But the point is that all these pieces are not for naught, and when friends and family cross continents and oceans, we bring out our best selves to match this beautiful and strange place and we have a forum to share what we're becoming that maybe doesn't make sense in any other context. After all, aren't we just pieces of the people/places we love?


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Rovijn, Croatia August 2013

Having tasted Balkan BBQ in Ljubljana, we followed our stomachs further south and joined the 1.45624526 bazillion Italians on the Croatian coast. The proximity of Istria to both Slovenia and Italy means the stoney, sun-baked towns are brimming with tourists come August, but we swapped the mountain solitude of the Julien Alps for the promise of diving into the much warmer waters of the Dalmatian sea. And the promise of ćevapčići was also fairly persuasive (warning: not for vegetarians. ćevapčići= meat + meat + meat + garlic + onions) ...

Rovijn at night, with the church propped up in the historic city center

Just an hour and a half from Ljubliana, Rovijn sits on the Istrian peninsula and wears the marks of Italian, Balkan and even Spanish civilizations. Tour books promote it as a "town where people fall in love" and a "photographer's dream come true." All this romanticizing is largely warranted- the streets are small and narrow, the buildings are painted calming yellow and pink pastels, green shutters close off the windows of those lucky enough to take midday naps, a stoic church provides a peak from which you can watch the sunset over the sea. A small bay harbors ships and an odd forest/park provides overheated visitors shallow spots to wade into the sea. These characteristics prove a potent combination, and the easy to access/lovely town/beautiful sea/places to swim and sail factors lure  in overwhelming numbers of vacationing families. 

Houses fall into the sea and cafes double as swim spots

Nonetheless and for all its laid-back, easy summer vibes, Rovijn (and I imagine the whole Croatian coast) is plagued by tourists that just need an exorbitant amount of space. Think Jersey Shore attitude (and style)- pumped up lads wearing Marcellekes and looking like Oh Oh Cherzo extras- but in a more charming seaside town. Our objectives for the trip were relatively simple: find delicious food and a quite place for embarrassing jumps off the craggy rocks into the sea. In the end, the trip was rather ironic:  that perfect place for swimming was in the most densely populated part of the town: right underneath the church at the heart of the historic city center and a true Mexican caballero (with the words "Libertad" and "Patria" embroidered down the legs of  his vaqueros and on the brim of his sombrero) beaconed us into a restaurant serving some of the most delicious and authentic Yucutan cuisine. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Slovenia Pt. 2- The Julien Alps

The suburbs of Chicago, with strip mall and chain restaurant-lined boulevards connecting shopping center to residential subdivision, hardly constitute cities. But despite spending my formidable years in the suburbs, my blood has always pulsed to the beat of the big city. Yes, I was that annoying (naive?) kid, who, at 12, thought she was old enough to individually navigate a major metropolis and savvy enough to understand the inner-workings and demands of those choosing skyscrapers over subdivisions. 

The luxury of Europe, though, is that city life is easily complimented by quiet countryside. The suburban sprawl lamented in moody, nostalgic songs is still existent, but undoubtedly takes a different shape; the smaller distances between crisscrossing, traffic-filled streets and crisscrossing, mud-filled hiking trails make weekend escapes or adventures into natural landscapes much easier to come by.

Ljubljana is the perfect example. A two hour drive north west and you're standing on peaks in the Alps yoddeling into Italy and Austria. A one to two hour drive south and you're jumping off the craggy Croatian shoreline into the Dalmatian Sea. 

climbing through Triglav national park

mountaintop footie
steps from the monastery to the shoreline on Lake Bled's island

"Nerd Camp"'s convenient location allowed us to exploit non-study hours and to profit from such a choice of landscapes. We took day trips to eat vanilla cakes on the shores of Lake Bled and to paddle the inefficient traditional boats to lake's central island/monastary. We hiked to the source of the Sava River and watched water cascade over white rocks, falling down the mountains of Triglav National Park and into Lake Bohinj. We drank big beers and jumped off bridges into the water, still cool from the springs a few kilometers up into the mountains- quite the respite at 4pm when the sun is battering you with 35 degree heat. 

source of the sava river


After courses ended, though, we hopped in the car and drove past Bled, past Bohijn, and deeper into Triglav, over the mountain ridges, finally following the perfectly turquoise Soča River towards the Italian border. We were largely alone in this incredible valley, save for Italian motorcyclists constantly passing me on the narrow, winding roads. Never mind the harrowing drive- we counted 12 switch backs/hair pin turns in the 3km uphill from the main road to the house we rented-  this place is the essence of perfect, natural beauty. Peaks hang overhead and in the distance. White rocks and boulders line the shores of the river. The water runs clear, cold and impossibly blue. Scrabbling over the rocky river bank towards its source, with the quietness of great mountains surrounding us, a weighty thought kept crossing my mind: perhaps I'd be quite content to trade my metro pass and city flat for a pair of hiking boots and rustic Alpine cabin. But for now, I'll make peace with myself knowing that the quiet found in the nook where two peaks meet the valley is just a short journey away. 

Soča River valley 

 wading the soča's ice cold waters

Monday, August 26, 2013

Slovenia July-August 2013

Belgium has been testing me this year. Weather, relationships, work- each compartment of daily life has been its own choose-your-own adventure novel. I seemingly chose only the dead-end routes, the routes that send you back to the beginning, or paths that lead to some sort of bandaged mummy or toothless goblin and an inevitable sequestering in a damp and rotting cave. 

Sure, I have a flair for the dramatic- I'm the proverbial magnet for ridiculous or absurd situations (cognac with Buddy Guy? hitchhiking in Harley parades?). And I by no means advocate a comfortable existence- that would run against the grain of my DNA- but, damn Belgium, that was a tumultuous six months. You kicked me in the pants and left me lying at Place Annesseens in a pool of post-Tuesday market fish water. July, for all its warmer days and brief adventures (hiking in the forests, Bruce Springsteen concerts, Brussels aperos and a new wave of US visitors), left me in dire need of an escape. Or a whiskey. Or both.

escaping the camper-lined Ortho near La Roche en Ardennes

Luckily, a nerdy profession has its benefits: summer school. So off to Ljubljana I went for three weeks of mathematics courses. The hectic June and July schedule provided no time for preparation; I genuinely had no idea what to expect nor was I cognizant enough to realize I was relocating to a Yugoslav-Italian-Hungarian-Austrian mashup of history, culture, and food. Talk about sensory overload: reading Slovenian history is like reading the who's who list of conquers and empires. Charlemagne, The Habsburgs and their architects (those regal real estate moguls!), the Austro-Hungarians, the Nazis- all had their way with Slovenia. But the Yugoslav empire post World War II, led by a man with a boxer's name (Tito) and an uncomfortable coziness for Russian-style socialist dictatorship, etched the greatest mark in the Slovene history. 

As a slight aside, Tito's second name was Broz- wasn't that any indication that this lad was perhaps working with a frat house moral code? 

Anyway, the point is that the colors of Slovene history are tattooed all over the country, most obviously in Ljubljana. I mean that literally, not metaphorically- the buildings are genuinely multicolored, the city is painted pastel and capped in orange tiled roofs you'd expect from the Tuscan countryside.

More impressive is the country's calm coolness. Ljubljana is the poster child for acceptance (historical and cultural) and creative outlets, proof that if everyone just relaxed a little, all would be good and right with the world. There's a squat-cum alternative arts center where you're as likely to rub shoulders with a local politician as you are to be offered a free history lesson by some pierced, head half shaved teenager (who will follow up the conversation with an offer of something less savory and slightly more illegal). There's a cafe-lined river dotted with retired American tourists and up and coming Slovene fashion designers. Boats float down the Ljubljanica river every evening at 7pm decked with jazz or pop or rock bands. Graffiti-covered walls are omni-present but compliment the hodgepodge assortment of architecture. The Alps butt up to the city, their shadows peeking down the end of the main boulevards and lingering beyond rooftops. And like a wise, weathered older sister who's already been to college, a castle/former war time hospital is perched on top of a hill, keeping a careful eye on the emerald river that wanders through the historic center below (and offering free movies under the stars in her courtyard every summer evening).  

st. nicholas cathedral under the shadows of ljubljana castle

st. george and the dragon- two local legends cum statues

eyes on the alps- view from the castle

True to form, I let myself be absorbed by this city, this country. I was already feeling lifeless and rundown, so a few pivo's, vino's and kava 'z melkoms (beers, wines and coffees) proved welcomed medicine and fuel for mentally demanding academic work. I followed Girl Scout protocol, as well:  a friend and classmate from Leuven, lovingly nicknamed "Slovenian Princess",  and a new friend/"housemate" aided my endeavors, sharing favorite cafes, nights out, and friends.

The takeaway? That understated and underestimated- whether city, country, person, place or thing- are usually more wise and more spiritual than the more obvious. That a quite humbleness leaves a bit of mystery and enchantment, creates an air of cool and appreciation. Good lessons for those feeling a bit defeated.

artwork in metelkova, a squat/alternative art center 

lovelocks on bronzed fish over the ljubljanica river

Monday, August 19, 2013

Summer Visits

A second wave of visitors made their way from the US to Belgium in the last few months. Granted, I've been advertising Brussels, Belgium, and the area in general to anyone within earshot, but I've been extraordinarily lucky to show off (one of) my adopted country (countries?) to people I adore. Here's what we've been up to:

We've explored Brussels...

Grand Place

Portuguese BBQ at Stadhuis St. Gilles

We've made short journeys to Leuven and to Antwerpen...

We sampled some of the country's finest products...

We celebrated holidays and birthdays...

We even made it to the Ardennes...

We're nearly four years into this Europeanization and after three years in Belgium, my list of favorite restaurants, bars, museums, pleins (squares), parks, shops, etc, is ever expanding. There is nothing better than being accompanied by friends and family from home to these local gems- these visits transform even the most tedious locations like Grand Place and the Mannekin Pis from average tourist attractions to meaningful, beautiful spots.   Now I just need to coax my parents into (finally!!) planning a fall tour to the lowlands- it will be a quiet and cold autumn with no visitors...