Wednesday, September 3, 2014

July-August 2014

Summer always approaches too quickly. And then it passes too quickly. And then September rolls around and the same conversation rolls off our baffled tongues: "whoa, what happened?"

This was a markedly different summer, though. No music festivals (sacrilege, I know...), no international visitors, no major hiatuses from work (also sacrilege in Europe...). The sun shone, the walking pace slowed, aperos were drunk and after just a few blinks the summer was gone- all in the traditional fashion- but nonetheless, this summer was exceptional.

(click on photos for full size)
Cafe du Mundial

Football, of course, kicked off the summer season. The World Cup line up created a monotonous June and July: wake up, work, workout, watch football, repeat.  No negative undertones there- in my book, those are beautiful days, even more so when World Cup fever spreads and the city comes alive with patriotism and venerable respect for the game that unites the masses. Special cafes (in an old Chaquita Banana Factory, no less!) opened for the tournament, and any cafe, pub or restaurant hoping for business installed projectors.

So June and July slipped through my fingers and next thing I knew, I was to celebrate a birthday and leave for a short Grecian escape (before another exursion to "summer school", AKA math camp).

 Oostende, on the Belgian seaside

 Biking back from Beersel

Beersel Castle

What made for a banner summer was the surplus of unplanned, unexpected beauty and surprises. And oddly, this summer I felt more American than I have in the last five years. First, with nationalistic pride, gushing over the inspired play of the US men's football team in the international arena; later in more quotidian moments. A country-side bike ride sounds rather commonplace for Belgians, but the picnics in a field of tall grasses, a pace of donkeys along the kasseien road,  stops at castles and fortresses built in the 1600s are, for me, still foreign and special. The trip to Greece was to be a trip to the sun, an escape from the banal late-July rain that seems to coat Brussels with Lana's summertime sadness each year. It was just that, but also a historical lesson on Alex the Great's family, political lessons on tensions in the Balkans, lessons on cultural identities. It was a chance to touch and smell and taste things we read about between art projects and typing lessons in 5th grade.  Surprises like seeing friends I met five years back, the friends with whom I stumbled over cobblestone-lined markets and squares, who joined for my first bike adventures, who joined for my first beers in Belgium.  Surprises like finding new corners in cities I already love, or a running path lined with wildflowers and sailboats in an otherwise dreary countryside, like crossing an Orthodox priest who by chance speaks enough English to tell you secrets of the monastery's 1000+ years....

Ruins of an ancient city in Pella, Northern Greece

Seaside in Thessaloniki, Greece

 Cliff top monasteries in Meteora, Central Greece

Whiskey club in Meteora

Meteora, Greece

Kassandrino, Halkidiki, Greece

Trying to lure a vegetarian into trying the local roasted lamb...

Commemorating WWI's commencement at Tower of London

Tower Bridge

Sneaky midday Spritz behind Boroughs Market

Entering Philip's tomb, Vergina, Greece

Sunrise in Halkidiki, Greece

Seaside eats = whole fish plucked out of an ice chest

Post-Monsoon in Covent Garden, London

My non-EU citizen status is largely the bane of my European existence (time spent at city hall this year to date: 67.35 hours), but perhaps the silver lining is the unabashed and overwhelming admiration for the beauty, obvious or mundane, in the collective experience here. Certainly not lost on these Ameripean eyes.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Spring Get Aways- April and May 2014

The work-life ledger for spring weighs a heavy balance on the work end of the scale. Maintaining  weekly commitments and a healthy workout schedule (it is not normal for humans to sit at desks for 8+ hours per day) has further complicated the notion of "free time," too. So when the odd moment arose for a stealthy escape, I packed my RyanAir approved bag and bolted. As a small disclaimer, more than 50% of my getaways were prompted by work opportunities, but these conferences and meetings serve up incentive for highly concentrated and productive weeks and a greater appreciation for any resulting play time in the city where meetings are convened. 

Each getaway packed an unsuspected element. In Paris, it was a food-driven parcourse. Previous visits consigned me to the extreme budget tourist track, which relegates meal times to cheap street food and hostels with free breakfasts. This go about was different: it was a short stay and the first days outside of Belgium  in months, so meals were to be relished. We did our research, too, and devoted a few late hours (after responsible adult stuff, of course) scouring food blogs and drooling over Lebovitz's list of Parisian favorites. We bookended the trip with dinners at Le Mary Celeste and Lazare, two ends of the spectrum (one with copious amounts of urban outfitters "vintage finds" and oversized 1980's computer tech glasses, one with copious amounts of Vuitton and Dior, both with staff and scenery to mitigate the uncomfortableness created by the clientele), but both extraordinarily delicious in their unique ways. Elegant but unpretentious, quite the welcome finds in a city ingloriously renowned for its aires. Spliced together with traditional favorites from pastry shops and a cheesemongers, it was a real taste of the cuisine long touted as Parisienne and was as wonderful as I'd built it up in my mind (even if there was no duck confit or steak tartare this go around). 

Outside the Pompidou Center in the 3eme Arrondissement

 a secret carpet vendor in an old cloister

les moulins de Montmartre

Like the food route, the sightseeing blended iconic stops and new discoveries. Long strolls through the Marais and Rue Mouffetard were a nice change- the typical schedule usually doesn't afford leisurely store perusing or meandering lazily through the 5th- but I demanded an evening climb through Montmartre and up to the Sacre Coeur for what always results in an entertaining aperitif on the stairs overlooking the Paris city center (expert tip: make sure to grab your wine, cheese, treats and pack a corkscrew before hauling up the hill...). Though the trip ended rather ungracefully on my end- asking the kind guards at Paris Nord station about the violently ill 20-something trying to board a train back to Bruxelles will likely conjure some disgusted faces and serious looks of concern- it was a relaxed trip with a heavy focus on enjoying, a welcomed departure from previous overloaded attempts to digest the best of the iconic city in a paltry number of hours. 

Easter holidays promise two class-free weeks for students, but PhD candidates better know this period as "conference alley." Conferences, annual meetings, workshops, and seminars take place during these two weeks, and the rotating locations add extra incentive to develop a paper, apply, and digest the overwhelming amount of scholarship and nerd talk that is part and parcel of any academic get-together. This year brought the opportunity to head south- Salamanca, Spain was home to an impressive meeting in my field, one that promised both a challenging academic agenda and social schedule. Like Paris, I'd visited Salamanca before; my memories, however, were less than romantic. Rain, cold, wind, self-indulgent Italians with sexual egos that would make Zeus quiver (and who shared their conquests with all sleeping members in the 10 person hostel room), swerving and dangerous bus rides, aimless wandering/shelter seeking- these were the images emblazoned on my mind from a 2006 trip to Salamanca organized for exchange students during my studies in Madrid.

Needless to say, Salamanca redeemed herself the second go about. The conference was extraordinarily fruitful. Receptions and social events toured us through the city's medieval glory. The colleagues convened were engaging and equally interested in stuffing bellies and minds. The weather was dry and sunny, at most with hints of whispy clouds on the horizon. We had the chance to discuss political change and comparative cases with tinto de verano on the Plaza Mayor, and to mull over geopolitical upheaval with pincho moruno at tapas bars tucked underneath 16th century buildings. We discussed systems of global governance while watching Atletico Madrid win its way into the Champions League final on terraces tucked under the shadows of the cathedrals. And although my travel companions and I were awoken on two consecutive nights by loud, drunk, Spanish teenagers (and one lad so drunk he'd misplaced his clothes and dignity, broke into our room at 5am, and crawled naked into bed with my colleague, Niels), I have to say, Salamanca, I retract my previous grievances- you are a gem in the paisaje de Castilla y Leon.

Belfry in the Catedral Nueva

Easter processions in Salamanca

Plaza Mayor, Salamanca after an evening mist.

After a week of geeking out at NerdFest 2014, my brain needed a different sort of stimulation. And given that the closest airport necessitated a trip through town anyway, I decided the time was ripe for a return to my first love: Madrid.  Lucky for me, a few favorite friends call Madrid home, so as the train crossed the Sierra, swooped by the Palacio Escorial, and continued downhill into Madrid, I slid into full on guiri mode, ready to enjoy the city I called home some years ago. So much and so little has changed. Granted, I severely profited from local-grown guides and perhaps I was still running on the fumes of an academic energy rush, but Madrid felt more beautiful, more mature, and more confident. To sum it up, the only negative reaction that registered during my five day stay was a repulsion to the trend English and Spanish women have so lovingly embraced: the jean diaper.

 sneaky reading at the Matadero Madrid

 terraze del circulo de bellas artes, Madrid


Art installation at Palacio de Correos (the wedding cake building)

Burgers with the Black Keys

Madrid is the capital of a horrific, structural economic meltdown. Unemployment, political corruption, imbalanced development and misallocation of public funds- they've run the gamut of political and economic mismanagement for many years. But something is going right in Madrid. There is a renewed investment in public spaces. For all the exposed butt cheeks, there seems to be a sort of artistic revolution happening, or at least rumblings of a society more appreciative of its cultural endowment. Case in point is the Matedero de Madrid, the former abattoir-cum-cultural center that transformed vacant space and a seedy neighborhood into an idyllic creative crossing for Madrilenos of all ages. Couple that with its strategic location on the finally-finished Madrid Rio park and this place becomes the epitome of excellent public investments. Again thanks to the definitive awesomeness of Marta and Curro, we spent a balmy morning/afternoon biking our way through Casa de Campo, Parque del Oeste and southbound along the former eyesore of a highway-turned-diverse and sprawling parkway and bike path called Madrid Rio. 

 Sunny and warm in early April- Zonian Woud, Brussel

Back in Belgium, a few day-long excursions helped stretch the legs and fill the lungs with non-exhaust tainted air. Even when only able to sneak away for a few hours, hopping the metro out to the Zonian Forest means endless hiking/running/biking trails, and if you're clever with maps, a few stops at cloisters converted into art galleries and cafes.  The forest demarcates Brussels' southeastern border but stretches for kilometers further south and east- even if arriving/departing via public transport, you're quickly transported into an Emersonian-worthy world. Its easy to get lost- physically and mentally: trees tower over the pathways, creating allies that look remarkably similar to one another; and if height is a marker of age, its mind boggling to think that Allied forces were sneaking injured army capitans through these woods and down into the covers of the underground hospital at Porte de Hall.  Better yet, and when the number of free hours are multiplied, an hour-long train journey dumps you in the neighborhood of Dinant and a short walk away from innumerable trailheads that spiderweb up through the tree-covered and cattle roaming hillsides. Where the Meuse River carves its path, the banks slope upward and the trees stay a rich green all year thanks to Belgium's "damp" climate. Every once in a while the trees give way to a meadow, too- the perfect spot for a lunch, a whiskey, a break from academia, and a bit of contact with the real world.

Meadow above the Meus River near Dinant

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Deep in the Heart of Texas

Texas has this funny place in America. Or maybe its me that feels funny about Texas. Its this over confident, grossly huge state that dotes on gun ownership, purchases of massive, fuel-guzzling vehicles, and sees American football as something next to godliness (but praise Jesus! this is God's country, brim full of Christians, Amen!). This kind of labeling on the package doesn't really pique my appetite, and I'm not one to shy away from new or varied tastes. In all honesty, I'd have been more quickly sold on the state had the original Texans not been escorted across the Rio Grande, if only for the culinary traditions....

But Texas is the current home of a best and beautiful friend of mine and it was due time to pay a visit.   Plus, the native Texans left something of a stamp on local culinary traditions and I was promised glimpses of sun and warmer weather (not too difficult to beat the soaring -30C temps Chicago was registering around the holidays...), live music, and drool-worthy BBQ .  And Lyle Lovett told me many years ago I'd always be welcome in the land of big oil, big trucks, and big bucks.

I hopped a flight two hours south of Chicago and landed in Austin, quickly finding myself elbow-deep in home smoked ribs and glass of local beer. Not bad. Annette's tallied four years in Austin, and much in the way I followed lingering dreams of small streets, cozy bars, and high-speed trains, she was lured south by sunshine and a strong local economy.  It was her turn to show me her local haunts and daily jaunts, and I was all too happy to ride shotgun. Lucky for us, another partner joined our rodeo, and four short days turned into a mini-reunion for a few best friends from college.

We spent more time in a car than I had in the last year combined, but the agenda was deep and, quite frankly, Texas is ridiculously enormous.  Texas, namely Austin, surprised me. I fell for that southern charm. People are polite. Life is affordable.  There are nooks and crannies to be uncovered in the city, but there are quiet corners tucked away, too. Life is diverse, both in terms of cultural makeup and the activities on hand to satisfy the masses. Even the geographical landscape was more varied than expected- a sort of gateway to Texas Hill Country, Austin is nestled along the Colorado River and a strand of land dot the countryside in the surrounding area. A guy- nee, a gentleman- bought me a drink for the first time in seven years (a whiskey, at that! good man!).  And of course, I will always be floored by any locale boasting a 3 meter-wide, wood-fired BBQ pit that serves up the most succulent turkey, sausages, beef ribs, and brisket known to man kind (<-- an="" are="" dreams="" exaggeration="" is="" made="" nbsp="" not="" of="" p="" sorry="" stuff="" the="" this="" vegetarians="">

Leaving your home (if you're lucky enough to have a place you know to be home) is difficult to explain to others. Each reason is unique and special and meaningful. And sometimes, its unfathomable for anyone else to understand the rationale behind the decision. And that's okay. I never expect my decision to stay in Belgium- gray, rainy, cold Belgium- to sound logical, and frankly, moving here and staying here just kind of happened. I try to spin see Brussels' bureaucratic nightmares as lessons in patience, diligence, and communication, for example, but in the end, I've made a life for myself here and I want visitors- especially best friends and family members- to see a city for what its taught me, how its enriched my life, and (hopefully) helped me settle into this funny little thing called adulthood. Annette could call Austin or Atlanta or Albuquerque or Azerbaijan home, it wouldn't matter. She's made a home for herself, built a life, and that's hard work. Seeing that first hand was worth its weight in gold- I couldn't be more proud or impressed by all she's accomplished. And that makes any place more special, Chuck Norris connotations or not. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Concentric Circles- Lille, Paris, Leuven, Bruxelles

Belgium has a privileged location. Ask any Belgian- they'll quickly tell you how the country's geographical position attracted the Spanish, Austrians, French, Germans, Dutch, Vikings, Romans, etc., each of whom claimed the country as their own at one point in history. Or maybe it was the beer that drew them here, whose to say (or to judge)?

Location has a been a focal point in my selling strategy, meaning the sales pitch I use to coax friends and family to visit. Why just visit Brussels when you can visit Paris, London, Amsterdam and six other cities all in one fell swoop? A travel itinerary of this nature is certainly for the ambitious traveler, but US vacation days are limited as are the paychecks to pay for leisurely global galavanting. 

If we adjust the map so Brussels lies in the center,  we stumble upon myriad cities and sites within concentric circles of one hour, 1.5 hour, and 2 hour train or car journeys. Big names top that list- Paris and Amsterdam fall in the 1.5 hour circle, Cologne and London lie in the 2 hour ring- and these are certainly the most appealing for multi-city, once in a lifetime ocean skippers. These are also the places friends and family back in Chicago imagine me sipping wine and eating pain au chocolates each weekend. 

The thing is that, much like friends back in the US, a weekend trip of any distance is often difficult to sandwich in. The life more settled comes with responsibilities or commitments and free time is a precious-but-scarce luxury (yes, even in Europe). And that's a weird prescription for travelers, expats, anyone outside their city or country for an extended period of time: when do we stop traveling and start living somewhere? When does a place become your home? And if it does become your home, does adventure take on a new meaning?

About two and half years into these Transatlantic escapades, I started longing for engagement, a sense of connection to Belgium and Brussels. In all reality, the place was arbitrary- I'm sure the same sentiment would have prevailed irrespective of the locale (though Brussels really tugs on my heartstrings). I needed engagement, I needed a meaningful use of nights and weekends, I needed people that helped the city come alive, people that were more than circumstantial friends.  

Plaisirs d'Hiver- Christmas Market in Brussels

 Museum Night Fever - Brussels

The internal debate wages between traveling more often and digging the roots a bit deeper. With Brussels, in particular, the latter is a finicky thing. A large cohort of expats here are the fair-weather type: tied to the idea of international careers or the promise of something better back home post-international experience, most stay but two years on Belgian soil. Most of  that time is spent with mates from the motherland- no need to hunt down the allusive Belgian to fill in the friendship gap! And though my Belgian-tracking skills are more refined (hint: don't start in Brussels), natives are usually quite engrained in their hometown  and most add few friends to the mix post-high school. But the  backpack rife with patches from the 37 countries visited during a two week Eurotrip has been retired and my hostel-hopping, over-night-busing-to-squeeze-in-one-more-country trips are in the rearview mirror now.  I want places to cull memories beyond exhaustion and missed flights and I don't want to struggle to remember routes of daily treks. I want to remember strategically analyzing the best way to order cakes at Meert in Lille, deciding between squeezing in with the locals early morning or holding out till end of day, when crowds and selection dwindles; that we sat for two hours below the Sacre Cour watching an acrobat control a football on a platform (and sometimes a lamppost), hanging above Montmartre. 

Cakes from Meert- Lille, France

Notre Dame, Paris

 Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris

Above Montmartre, Paris

I'm wielding the brush on this #FOMO picture better than Rubens on a Biblical scene - so glad to call myself a Gen Y-er!- the point is that making a life and making the most of that life is complicated no matter the location. But as I sink later into my twenties and longer into my stay abroad, I'm realizing that these are not inherently conflicting realities.  Being settled is a boon for knowing and loving Brussels; its here that weeks are peppered with football games, attempts to find new or clandestine restaurants, whiskey clubs, concerts, races, and an (un?)healthy dose of meaningful work. It also means that long weekends or random days off (thank you, Catholic Church, for diffusing your social culture across Western Europe!) often mean train tickets or Ryan Air reservations. If it also means Sunday  jazz and people watching at La Brocante instead of Sundays sipping exotic brews in more exotic locales, that's ok, too. 

When it comes down to it though, its not just geographical circles that surround us, but these are concentric circles of a life we build and are building. Think Wilder's Our Town: why speculate about life or life after death when there is so much value to be found in daily life. Shooting for the outer rims of the proverbial dart board will score points and help win the game, but the places and things and people worth the greatest value are those right in the center.  

Ladeuzeplein, Leuven

Beurse, Brussel