The big weekend started when we went with my Mom on Thursday, and
By Saturday morning things were starting to reach a fever pitch, and we worried that
After that, it was party time, and the reception was awesome. There was great food, and an open bar, and talented DJ, and everyone, including the 80+ year old grandmothers, was out on the dance floor, shakin' it up. Everyone had a wonderful time, and the only thing wrong was it didn't last long enough. That's the best thing you can say about a party, and we have always had as our goal for a party that everyone says when they leave, "That was the best party we went to all year." I am sure it was true this time!
As the genial host, it was my job to welcome everyone, and I took the opportunity to toast the happy couple. For the benefit of my sister, who somehow missed it ("
we have been preparing for this great day, it has been a time of reflection and
remembering. And one thing we of course remember is when Lena came home
from her sailing trip to the
And I thought, “This is good.”
And since then, we have come to know Steve, and she was right, of course: he is fun, and funny, and smart, and he has skills. And we are just thrilled that he is now joining our family.
And more recently, we have had a chance to get to know his family: his charming and well travelled parents, and his lovely, and generous, and gracious sisters. And we are delighted to be able to join their family, too.
As we enjoy this wonderful day together, I am reminded of the saying that, “Parents find joy when their children find love.” So let’s raise a toast to
So, it was all a smashing success, and a great time
was had by one and all as we joined
September 27, 2009
A busy month has gone by since the last post. Lena and her Travel Buddy, Claire, came for a too brief visit. They spent a few days with us, then took off on their own for a few, then we met up for a trip to Switzerland. It is great when visitors come and shake us out of our groove!
Claire was Lena's room mate at App, and they had travelled in Europe together before. They met up and flew to Frankfurt, then took the train to Cologne, where we met them. They said the train ride was wild, as it was full of soccer fans coming for a big match. The train was full of bottles, and met by squads of police. We had a nice drink in a small square and lunch in a garden cafe, then climbed to the top of the cathedral. If there is a tower, we will climb it! It was a beautiful day, and the views over the city were excellent. We took off the next day to the Ducasse, a parade of giant puppets in Ath, south of Brussels, that has been going on for about 500 years. The parade had a nice feel to it, and in addition to the bands and old (and old time) soldiers, had great floats on wagons, drawn by beautiful, sturdy Belgian draft horses. Everyone was in good spirits, and it was fun being with two such cute girls, as everyone turned an eye and wanted to chat them up. We went on to Tournai, one of the great old cities of Belgium. Despite having suffered a lot in the various wars, it has an outstanding cathedral and a famous bell tower. We sat in the square and watched the passers-by, had dinner in a nice little place run by a hard working young couple, and made the long drive home.
The girls went into Brussels for some siteseeing and shopping. The day got off to a poor start in Leuven when they made the mistake of addressing the man at the train ticket counter in tourist French. Now, here are two sweet girls, obviously not Belgian, just being nice, and he said "Do not speak French to me. That is an insult here." Wow. Leuven is where, in the late '60s, the Dutch speaking faculty declared that the Catholic University, one of the earliest established in Europe, was henceforth a Flemish institution, and threw out the French faculty. They went a few kilometers over the border to Wallonia, and chartered the first new Belgian city in 500 years, called Louvain-la-Neuve, or New Leuven, and set up their own Catholic University of Louvain. I am told the library was divided by taking alternate books, so one has volumes A, C, and E, and in the other University, volumes B, D, and F. For the girls, the rest of the day got better, and they returned tired but loaded with booty.
The next day, we delivered them to the train station, with tickets to go down into Alsace, in France. They boarded fine, but the train was delayed in leaving, and they arrived in Namur late, with just seconds to jump onto the train to.....Brussels! Oh, no, totally the wrong way. This meant they ended up taking the whole day to get to Strasburg, and they missed out on a planned castle, but it was raining anyway, so it was good day to be indoors on a train. A few days later, Steph and I drove down to Colmar to meet them. The first thing you see driving into town is a 40 foot Statue of Liberty, since this was the home of its sculptor, Bertholdi. The houses in town are all timber frame with the (usually white) parts in between painted various shades of pastel. A nice and very pretty city, bursting with flowers. From there we went down to Switzerland, and spent a few days in Interlaken. We took cable cars, and walked all day on trails high above, and then down in, a perfect U-shaped glacial valley. We went to Trummelbach Falls, where a gushing river of icy glacial melt water works its way, in a series of falls, through a cave in the mountain. You climb up past thundering water and spray, going inside and out of the mountain. Very dramatic! There were perfect snow capped mountains all around, and the whole effect was as cute and Heidi-licious as could be. The next day we walked through the woods above the lakes, and while the weather was cloudier, it made for dramatic views. We toured around Thun, and its castle, and after a refreshing lunch by the icy river, we made our way to our hotel near Frankfurt.. The girls are hardy and hearty travellers, and were a joy to have with us. Thanks for the memories!
August 18, 2009
We visited last weekend with our friends Diederik and Karin Engbersen in the Dutch city of Breda. They lived in Durham for a few years, then in France for a while, before settling back in the Netherlands for their boys' teen years. We biked around town, had a great dinner and a lovely visit. While sitting at a sidewalk cafe, we saw an entirely new sort of biker bar, that you can see here. A short drive away was an interesting little place at the end of a narrow, winding lane, on top of a dyke - a combination art gallery and farm preserve, filled with outdoor statuary of all sorts and old, heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables. It was run by a garrulous eccentric with a great mop of white curls. We wandered about, and had a glass of juice and chatted for a bit, enjoying a different sort of place. Afterwards, we went to Leerdam, which is a small town famous for its glassmakers. We poked our heads into a bunch of little shops, and saw some totally amazing pieces. They were beautiful, but expensive, and to be honest, I would be afraid to have something so precious and fragile about the house. Here are some pictures from the weekend.
On the way home, we stopped in the towns of Baarle-Hertog and Baarle-Nassau. This is a funny relic, a bit of history echoing down to the present day. Baarle-Hertog is a Belgian town, but it is about 5 km inside of the Netherlands, and completely surrounded by its neighbor, the Dutch town of Baarle-Nassau. Within its boundries are also isolated bits of Baarle-Nassau, making for islands inside of islands, and even I think an island inside of that. There are a few other places along this bit of the border, with a few similar islands of Holland inside of Belgium. Today this is a curiosity, but it used to be more of a bother. Before the Euro, you would always need to have some Belgian and Dutch currency in your pocket, and there were differences about whether stores were open on the weekend, and the closing times of restaurants and bars. This meant that at a certain time of night, everyone would get up and go across the street to keep drinking. Because many homes and businesses straddled the border, it was decided that the front door would determine whether a building was in Holland or Belgium. This would often change along with the tax laws, as people decided it was better to have their property in one country or another.
All this relates back to the Middle Ages when part of the land was given by one nobleman to another and then loaned back again, in a classic lease back deal. But the lease didn't include all the land, and some bits were kept aside. Ever since then it was a patchwork of claims that somehow never was consoidated. When it came time to create a border between Belgium and Holland it was drawn based on these ancient claims, with historic lands of the Duke of Brabant going to Belgium and those of the Count of Breda and Nassau going to the Netherlands. The land holdings of the nobles were particularly intermingled in this area, and it was impossible to draw a clean border between them. So, more than 5000 parcels of land were examined and put into countries individually, resulting in the puzzle pieces still seen today. There have been various attempts through the years to sort it out more sensibly, but these have always failed, and now everyone is so used to the idea that it will stay the way it is. They have sorted out services, with one country handling the mail, another the post, one the water system, etc. An interesting side effect of all this is that, because the area has always been under multiple jurisdictions, it has been hard to organize big projects. As a result, it contains some of the least disturbed ecosystems in the country, and a great and unusual diversity of wildlife. Though more united now than ever, Baarle is still an interesting town.
August 12, 2009
People here don't do Halloween, but they still enjoy getting into costume. While Buff was visiting there was a medieval fair in the nearby town of Comblain, and off we went. Sure enough, in a meadow above the town, under some rocky cliffs, a little tent village appeared, and lots of folks took the opportunity to get in touch with their roots. There were a variety of vendors and tradespeople, and assorted odd-balls, more or less in character. One funny, round jester always drew a crowd as he waved his very anachronistic toilet plunger, and another was constantly berating the passersby for not addressing him with the proper titles and respect he was due as the local Seigneur. There was a battery of archers who loosed flight after flight of arrows into a nearby field. They did not show the 250 yard range of the English as Agincourt ("We few, we happy few, we band of brothers") but they did rain down some destruction on the grass. The highlight of the day was the tournament of mounted knights. These people took it to the max, and were in full knightly regalia, including the horses. They thundered about with their lances and slicing off heads to the delight of the crowd. It all looked like great fun, and I guess the Middle Ages weren't so bad, as long as you overlook the cold, filth, hunger and disease! You can see some pictures here.
August 3, 2009
Such a long time without an update! We’ve been busy with visitors and the usual at work, but have been trying hard to catch up. So, here’s a few highlights.
Just after our last post, we went up into
Gibson came to see us for a few weeks, and part of that time
overlapped with a visit with Patz.
this stuff will be a bit jumbled, and we’ve grouped some pictures
together. The first
big expedition was a
trip to northern
What a dream vacation I've just enjoyed. My two closest friends over here and the open road ahead. I couldn't resist the call and we three, Buff Gibson and Patz Laniak and I, left on Sunday evening and drove to Lubeck in northern Germany. Lubeck is a lovely old town, once queen of the Hanseatic League and now recognized by UNESCO as a cultural treasure. Today it is a bustling German metropolis. We had a lovely evening stroll about the old town and enjoyed our dinner on the quay by the river. Ah, what a lovely night as you'll see. After doing some shopping and sight-seeing the next morning, we hit the road north into Denmark adn up the peninsula to the northern port of Aarhus. The following morning we visited the second of our UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These are places that have contributed in an important way to the cultural history of the world.
Jelling is the site of a stone ship
grave site with two large mounds placed within the stone outline of a
ship. Sprinkled between the mounds are great carved stones which are
eloquent in their praises to King Gorm and his wife Thyra, parents of
Bluetooth,direct ancestors of Denmark's current monarch. The
mounds and stones date from mid-900's but the stone
ship burial ground is far older.
We headed east and south toward Copenhagen stopping at the third of the sites: the cathedral at Roskilde. This striking red church houses the tombs of most of the kings and queens of Denmark beginning with said Harald of the blue tooth, many in ornate crypts glommed on the the ancient Gothic brick edifice. It sits on a small rise looking out over the fingers of water from which the Vikings began their voyages to far horizons. We wished we'd had more time there, it was a lovely and interesting church.
We drove on to Copenhagen where we spent a couple of days. Copenhagen is a small city which is easy to walk around in or bike, with most of the sights within walking distance, a perfect place for a cruise excursion which it is for thousands of people.The photos show it best so I'll let them speak. We turned south and left Denmark the Viking way, by ship. I have great admiration for those brave explorers who fanned out across the globe in little wooden boats. On our way home we got caught in the gravitational pull of Amsterdam and so we met up with Jim at the end of his work week and the end of our 4 day Daneland adventure. I had a great time, relaxing, fun and invigorating. I certainly hope my friends enjoyed themselves as much as I did. Thanks Ladies!
So, we all met up and enjoyed a day in
The girls also walked around Maastricht in southern Netherlands one
while waiting for me to get in on the train. It is a lovely
city, with an odd red-stone church tower. We also took the
opportunity while Buff was here to go to
Mixed into all this were some hikes in the countryside, a big medieval fair with mounted knights and outings to great chateaux. More on that later. All in all, a fun visit that flew right by. Thanks for coming to see us Buff!
May 31, 2009
It's been a busy month, and so we are way behind on the updates, but I know May has been sweeps month on TV, so the millions dependent on this site for entertainment have had an alternative. Where to begin? We were in the States for a few weeks in May, and spent most of our time trying to jam 6 months' worth of lawn and garden upkeep, home repairs and auto maintenance into just a few weekends. A lot to do, but nothing was in terrible shape; just the inevitable input of energy necessary to keep entropy at bay. It was nice to enjoy the flowers that were in bloom, and spring is always a lovely time to be in NC. My Mom made her semi-annual visit, on her way to Colorado. It's always a pleasure, and this time things didn't get heated as we had nothing to complain about regarding the president, as we have for some years. We had a few opportunities to play bridge and catch up with the crowd, and special thanks to all those who put on some sort of affair while we were there. And of course, we always love seeing the little angels. John was through with school for the year, and Lena came up two weekends, so we had a good dose of familial bliss while we were there.
I went into work while in Durham, and got to enjoy the cool vibe of OncoMethylome West. While there I got this link from my pal Joe Bigley. At last, all is revealed about Joe Cocker's famous rendition of "A little help from my friends." Remember: "Hoggify!" That says it all. It reminded us that we had seen the touring show of "Lemmings" many years ago. This was a National Lampoon satire of the music business, and featured Chevy Chase and others before they were famous, including John Belushi doing his take on Joe Cocker. Ah, the good old days.
Finally, or rather firstly, we took a trip to
From there we went to Domremy-la-Pucelle, birthplace of Joan of Arc. It was a rather unremarkable village, except for the many large and dramatic statues of the Maid of Orleans. Hers is a sad story, as she did all she could for her country and its king, and in the end was captured by the Burgundians and turned over to the English, who then burned her. The point all this brought home was that while we think of Burgandy today as part of France, at the time it was a completely independent and adversarial state, and aligned with the English, who were trying to assert their dominion over the whole place. It all makes you appreciate the brevity and simplicity of our history. I am reminded of the joke when I told someone my kid was studying American History in school: he asked what they did after the first few weeks.
We stayed in a nice little hotel in Dijon, capital of Burgundy, former seat of the powerful Dukes of Burgandy, and of course, center of the mustard universe. Dijon had lots of old timber frame buildings, and a huge palace, with a tower we just had to climb. Also, lots of the roofs had shiney glazed colored tiles, all in geometric patterns. We had a lovely dinner in a restaurant named "La Chouette," which is the name of a little owl who is the mascot of Dijon. She is carved into a corner of the wall of the church, and if you fit your hand in just so, your wish will come true. Sadly, she was smashed by vandals a few years ago, but has since been repaired. In the countryside, you drive through endless vineyards, and each little vine has been meticulously pruned and left with a single shoot tied to a wire. A huge amount of hand labor, expended in the exercise of the vintner's art. Unfortunately, the glory of the product is largely lost on me, as I have, let's just say, an untrained palate. But, of course, we did enjoy a drop or two with our meals.
We made an excursion to the site of Vercingetorix's last stand. He was a great leader of the Gauls, and raised an army to fight the Romans, led by Julius Caesar. This was all the more remarkable since his father had been killed by the Gauls themselves because they thought he was getting too powerful. Since Caesar's history of the wars in Gaul includes "I came, I saw, I conquered," you can guess how it turned out. After a back and forth campaign that could have gone either way, Vercingetorix retreated with 80,000 men to a walled town and the nearby hills. Caesar surrounded him with 40,000 men, built miles of fortifications to hold them in, and laid seige. Meanwhile, an even bigger army of Gauls came to lift the siege, so the Romans built a second set of fortifications to keep them out. They were able to keep both sides of this double ring intact, and eventually the Gauls were starved into submission. It was a great example of the strength of the Romans through superior engineering, organization and discipline. Vercingetorix rode out of camp to surrender, and was taken off to be paraded about in Rome, and eventually killed. Bad for him, but he now joins Joan of Arc as a great hero and founder of the nation of France, and there is a colossal statue erected in his honor here.
Our one disappointment came when we went to the hilltop town of Vézelay. It is renowned for having a ancient and impressive basilica, which was a principle stopping point for pilgrims going to Santiago de Compostela. To get there, you have to climb up steep streets to the top of the hill, and we were joined by women in their high heels, families pushing strollers, little old ladies - a regular motley crew of pilgrims. But when we got to the top, the basilica was closed, for a concert! So, we were turned away, on Easter. Honestly! We poked around in several more towns, and took in lots of beautiful, rolling farmland. Finally, since it was Easter, we went looking for a lamb dinner. But this quest was also in vain, and it was getting late and we had a long way to drive, so we settled on a kabab from a little shop. In the end, it was good, and it was lamb.
May 3, 2009
Stephen Gibson had some business in
Friday was very pretty, and we took a drive to Annevoie, a chateau that had been in the same family for 10 generations. Since the 17th C they have been working on the gardens there, and they are beautiful. There are fountains all over, and since they are fed by natural springs, they run all the time, and have for centuries. Besides the flower gardens, there were some great ancient trees to admire, too. We were surprised to see the parking lot full of great old cars, and realized there was a road rally that day. A little later, we stopped for lunch at a curve in the road, and enjoyed the show as we ate. We also headed off to another chateau, at Spontin, but despite the indications in the tourist guides, it was closed up tight.
Steve and I have an interest in geology, and Steph likes to hike through the woods, so we followed a marked Geology Walk in nearby Comblain-au-Pont. One thing this area has in spades is geology. The low countries are formed from the delta of the Rhine, and there were successive layers of sand (if it was at the mouth of the river), clay (if it was further out from the mouth) or plankton bodies (if it was sea floor) deposited, which eventually became sandstone, slate or limestone. These layers were then all folded up, and exposed by the rivers as the land uplifted. Or it was all laid down during the Great Flood, your choice. In either event, there are cliffs showing the twisted layers, and you can find lots of fossils and various sorts of rock, and there are quarries everywhere. All this was well explained with "didactic panels" along the walk, and there were even some odd features like a deposit of sand that never formed into rock. Interspersed were random bits of art, carved from the local stone, and using iron as seen in the quarries. We ended up on the rolling plateau above, strolling though the bucolic farmland. We paid a visit to our favorite local site in Anthines, and had some refreshment in the cellers and a look about the towers. We finished off the day with a stroll (OK, climb) up to the hilltop of Esneux, before a typical Belgian dinner of mussels and frites.
On Sunday, we went to a medieval fair in Grez-Doiceau. We have seen others that were more active, and the grey weather didn't help, but it was a nice enough little town. The highlight was a shot of "bee pee," a honey flavoured liqueur, served up by a cute young lad in full bee regalia. Later we continued our geology theme with a visit to the coal mine museum in Blegny, just north of Liege. Coal mining was a huge industry in the area, and although all the mines have since closed, you can see the hills formed by the discarded rock all around. The museum is on the site of the last big mine to close, and it still has all its machinery in place, left like everyone just walked away one day. Our tour guide was a "Mario," one of thousands of Italians who came to work in the mine in the '50's. The only problem was that he spoke heavily accented French, mixed with local dialect, and we could hardly understand him as he constantly teased Steph with jokes we didn't get. Even though the work was incredibly difficult and dangerous, men cried when the mines closed.
Finally, we stopped in Liege and took a turn around the city center. After a final burst of tourism, we settled in at the "House of Peket" for a taste of the traditional drink of the city, a cool fruit flavored gin, at a sidewalk cafe. Could be worse!
May 2, 2009
Last spring we went to see the tulips in Holland, and this year we have enjoyed a beautiful variety of flowers of all sorts in
While the gardens were beautiful, a really nice surprise this spring has been the vast drifts of white flowering trees on the hills around our house, and also the rolling fields of flowering fruit trees just to the north. Those in the forest seem more natural, but of course, nearly every tree we see was planted by someone.
For a few weeks each spring, the King of the Belgians (that's right; he is not the King of Belgium, but of the Belgians) opens the gates of the palace at Laken in Brussels and lets the hoi polloi wander in to see the greenhouses and a bit of the grounds. The Palace is not particularly noteworthy, but the greenhouses are. They were built in the 1890's by Leopold II, designed by a pioneer of Art Nouveau, and his young assistant, Victor Horta, who went on the be a great name in design and architecture. They consist of several huge domes, connected by great long tunnels of glass. The domes are filled with enormous palms and ferns, and all sorts of exotic tropical plants. This was all started when the King ruled the Congo, and people wanted to show off the mysteries of the "dark continent." The scale of these old specimens, especially the ferns, was impressive. Apparently the King was a great fan of fuschia, and there were scores of varieties, each more brilliant than the last. The whole thing was a riot of color, in high contrast to the greyness of Brussels on a typical day. As usual, you can see some pictures here.
April 24, 2009
Our friend Steve has come to visit for a few days. Today the weather was beautiful, and we went to visit the gardens of the Chateau Annevoie. More on that later. While we were walking around Esneux I was reminded that I had not posted some pictures I have of the village. I found some old postcards of the area, and then found a lot more old photos on the internet. It is fun to look at the scenes and figure out what is still there and what has changed. I have put together a few pairs to compare. You can see a few of the changes to Esneux since its hey-day at the turn of the 20th century.
April 18, 2009
Our kids are often amazed at the incredibly fun and exciting things we do here in Belgium. For example, sometimes we go out and look for......piles of dirt. No, really. The southern part of Belgium was part of the Roman Empire, and that boundary between the Latin and Germanic world is still reflected in the Walloon/Flanders division of the country. Anyway, if you were a big shot Roman your tomb could be a big pile of dirt along the road. And I mean big: some of these are 30 feet high and 50 feet across. I am not sure if that made up for the fact that these poor bastards were posted to the grey, rainy north while dreaming of sunny Italy. It is amazing that they are still here, in the middle of some field, or behind a store, and they have not been eroded away by the rain, or plowed under by successive generations of farmers. We first saw one along the road to Brussels, and looked into it further.
They can be found all over the flat country at the edge of the Ardennes, and also around eastern France, and were made between about 100 BC and 300 AD. Some have been excavated, and you can find relics in the local museums. Before the Romans, around 3000-3500 BC, the local tribes also made burial mounds for their leaders. These were walls of big stones, typically capped with a massive stone slab, and originally covered by dirt. Now they can be found scattered about the countryside, often part of larger arrangements of tombs and standing stones. It may not be Stonehenge, but they are pretty cool anyway. A nice bonus when out looking is finding herds of cattle that also look positively pre-historic. I am not sure if they have a special quality of meat, or if they are just kept as heirloom strains, but they would look right at home being chased by the hunters who built the ancient stone dolmen.
April 4, 2009
When we first moved in, we could see that there was something built into the bank across from our house. You couldn't really tell what it was, since it was all overgrown and full of trash and leaves, but I decided to take it on as a project. I needed this, since as renters there is nothing to do around the house except planting a few flowers in the garden. Some clearing away revealed a stone fountain providing water to the few people living along the road, but also to people heading out of town. I cleared away the plants, dug out all the dirt and trash, and cleaned off a lot of moss and mold. Then you could see that there was an inscription carved in the stone, and that it was dated October 1895. Meanwhile, I have repainted the lettering and kept the brush cut back. The neighbors think it's a pretty odd thing to do, and we occasionally see someone stop and take a photo. It turns out this fountain was part of a bigger project by the chatelaine of the local chateau to bring fresh drinking water to the people. Besides a scattering of fountains in Esneux, she commissioned 25 cast bronze fountains for the streets of Liege. She also established an orphanage and hospital, and the Commune of Esneux showed its appreciation by erecting a great stone and metal statue of Charity mothering her infants in her memory.
March 8, 2009
We have been taking walks every weekend, and sometimes during the week, now that the light has started to return to
And here is a link to a great website with panoramic views from all over Liege. Sent by our friend Patz, and worth a look.
February 28, 2009
It's Carnaval time again in Europe, and we had two rather different experiences last weekend. On Saturday we went up into southern Holland (they don't celebrate at all in the Protestant north) to the village of Neunen to visit with Chris and Liesbeth van Eekelen. They came to see the Leek Parade in Tilff last year, and wanted to show how it was done in Brabant. They were gracious hosts, and we had a great time. Carnaval was a funny and raucous event, that's for sure. On Saturday night, there was a big party in the community center, which spilled out into all the local bars. It was like a giant version of our Halloween party: everyone was in costume, the music was loud, and plenty of beer was flowing. There were local brass bands everywhere, wandering from place to place, and playing these funny Dutch songs that everyone (except us, of course) knew the words to and they all sang along with, shall we say, enthusiasm. All the songs fell into one of two groups: one you swayed from side to side, and the other you bopped up and down, and everyone knew which was which from the very first note. It was as if you had a wild costume party, and the whole town came.
A few notes on Neunen: we had been there before, in 1976, when we were biking in Holland, and visited with the parents of people we knew, which was pretty coincidental. It was the home of Vincent van Gogh, when he was a young man with two ears, painting somber pictures of peasants. The problem for him was that this is a very Catholic area, and he was a Protestant, so he was harassed and outcast, and unable to woo the local girl he had his eye on, and eventually left. Ironically, now the town is all "favorite son" about him, with a statue in the square and guided walks to see his house, etc. I guess all is forgiven, at least on the town's side. Another item: inside the big hall in the community center was the 30 foot high trunk of a giant tree. Apparently it was the tree in the town center where the judges held court over the centuries. When it finally died of old age, they cut it down and hauled it inside, for old time's sake. Anyway, we threw ourselves into the festivities, and of course, were in costume. We wanted to go as something related to Liege, so dressed up as the mythical mascots of the city, Tchantchès and his wife Nanesse. He sprang from the paving stones of the village on the other side of the river, was a friend of Charlemagne, and is a common character in marionette plays that are very popular here. He is always shown with a distinctive little hat, red kerchief, work coat and with a red nose and cheeks from overindulging. His wife, who is the real boss of the family, is wearing a shawl and matching kerchief, and also red cheeked. We don't know if anyone there knew us from any other Dutch farmer, but we knew.
The next day was the town parade. The theme was Bankrupt and Ice Cold, since a lot of people in Holland had invested their money in Icelandic banks. All the groups and their floats were full of puns and word play on banks and money. Chris and Liesbeth had the difficult task of not just translating, but trying to explain why something was a joke. It was amazing how many things people came up with. Everything was presided over by the Prince of the Carnaval, who afterwards will return to his previous role as manager of the local supermarket. It was all very charming and fun, full of local flavor.
On Tuesday, actual Mardi Gras, we went to the Belgian town of Binche. This claims the most famous and traditional of Carnaval festivities, with roots back at least to the 14th century, and the whole event has been named part of the World Heritage by UNESCO. Binche is otherwise a rather drab and run-down industrial town, that has lost much of its industry, so this is the big event of the year for them. The main characters are the Gilles, who have to be born and raised in the town, and who join the groups that their great-great-greats belonged to centuries before. They have certain strict rules: never go out without an accompanying drummer, never sit in public, never get drunk. That last sums up the difference between the two parades, I guess. During the big Mardi Gras parade, the Gilles don enormous ostrich feather hats, and I do mean enormous, and march, or rather creep, down the streets, throwing oranges at the crowd, and I do mean at. All in all, we can't recommend it. Every group was dressed essentially the same, all the bands seemed to be playing the same song, is was way too self important and not enough fun, and it got ugly as these guys were throwing oranges as hard as they could right into the crowd. As we walked about town before the parade we had noticed all the windows covered with protective screens, and then we understood why. People were getting hurt, mothers were trying to protect their children, and it seemed rather joyless and mean spirited. Halfway through we left, figuring it was just a matter of time before getting a broken nose or black eye. So, if you are in Europe at Carnaval, our advice is: go to Holland, or at least to Stavelot or Malmedy, or even Tilff. Either way, here's some pics.
February 7, 2009
We have been through the whole circle of the year, and watched the seasons from our house in Belgium. Besides the rise and fall of the river, we see the changing hillside across the way. At the crest of the slope is a distinctive stand of trees, and here's a set of pictures taken of it during the past year.
Today we braved the chilly weather and went to the Val Saint Lambert. Just up the Meuse from Liege, this was the site of a great abbey, closed down following the French revolution and sold off to industry. It became what was the world's largest and most renowned maker of crystal and glassware. In the early 20th century as many as 5000 people were employed making 120,000 vases, glasses, and decorative artifacts of all sorts every day. One odd tid-bit: when they wanted to make a small number of pieces, they could be formed using a wooden mold rather than one of steel. But, it was important to use only pear wood. Go figure. Early in the 19th century it was developed into almost a city of its own, with generations of workers living in company houses, buying at the company store, and with the children in company schools. It was progressive for its time, although we can see the workers were thereby completely dependent on their jobs. Today, what's left of the houses is now subsidized housing and there are fewer than 100 workers. In the face of intense competition from Asia and eastern Europe (remember all the crystal in Prague), they depend on tourism and support from the region. A remnant of the factory is operational, there's an historical show, demonstrations of glassblowing and an exhibit of beautiful glass and crystal objects, large and small. We bought a small vase, but for us the real treasures were found in a big trash heap out back where we found a lot of interesting bits of broken glass. A few pictures from Val St. Lambert can be found here.
This was also a big social weekend for us. On Friday night we went to hear a band in the ancient Chateau Avourie in Anthines. The venue was fun, to think of all the people who had listened to music in that hall before us. Unfortunately, the band's sound system was poor, and it was hard to listen to, and we didn't stay very long. But, we did take the opportunity to wander around a bit and wonder at the marvelous (marvel at the wondrous?) great oak staircase in the big tower. Then, on Saturday, we went to the housewarming of a colleague in Antwerp. She moved into a town house that she described as being in the "Belgian Brutal" style. Her husband is an architect, so that makes sense. I guess I would call it austere, rather than brutal, but it was all straight lines, and no frou-frou. We have never lived in a city, and it would be weird for us to be so tight with so many people. But, it was a good party, and we got to visit with the spouses of some co-workers, and eat some good, catered in, Moroccan food.
January 25, 2009
Well, everyone is all abuzz with Obama mania. It's Obamapalooza, the Barackolypse! People here are very excited. We, and it seemed everyone else, watched the ceremony live. Mark told me I got an invitation in the mail, and I could have gone up for some sharing time with 2 million of my closest friends, but I just couldn't squeeze in a trip for that. We were talking at work about what we would do first thing if we were president - my favorite answer was to demand to see the alien. "I know there is one!" We have been getting congratulatory e-mails from people here, and everyone wants to know if he's going to be up to the (mighty big) task. Let's all hope so.
I know it was cold in Durham in the last weeks, but Belgium just went through 2 weeks of some of the coldest weather in ages. It steadily reached between -20 and -15°C at night, which is right around 0°F, and any way you look at it, that's cold! It snowed a few times, too, and that stayed around, so it was really pretty and a nice change from the usual grey of winter. The coolest part was watching the river freeze. It never froze across, which would be amazing, considering how fast it moves, but the banks started to ice up, there was a steady stream of ice floes, and the old canal froze over solid. Needless to say, we did not go skating. The Dutch were all excited, since canal skating is a major traditional activity. The amazing part to me was how many people spoke casually about the times they had fallen through the ice. Just the thought of that is enough to keep me away! Here's a few pictures from around Esneux.
Once the weather warmed up a bit, we were back to the usual: cold, grey, rainy, windy and just downright nasty. OK, so no one visits Belgium for the weather. Yesterday it cleared off a bit, but wasn't really nice, so we made an outing to the Royal Museum of Central Africa near Brussels. It is a big, dusty, old fashioned museum, established around 1910 to display some of the exotic human and animal life in the Congo, and to celebrate Belgium's bringing the light of civilization to darkest Africa. In fact, the history itself is pretty dark. From the 1870's to 1908, the Congo was the private possession of the Belgian king, Leopold II, and it is always at the top of the list of examples of the brutal abuse of a colony by rapacious Europeans, carried out under the guise of helping the savages. Millions died, and vast wealth made its way north, leaving ruin behind. To their credit, the Belgian government eventually took the colony away from the king and tried to offer some actual aid. By the time independence was declared in 1960, half the people could read and write, but there were still almost no Africans with any real experience in running the country, government or private. Recently, of course, the Congo is in the news again, and still suffering.
Anyway, the museum had lots of stuffed animals and scary masks, and had a new, though rather small, section inserted to show some of the history and admit some of the sins. They are planning a big renovation in the next few years, and I am sure they will make it much more PC. It was interesting to learn more of the life of Henry Stanley, of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" fame. He was a Welsh bastard, moved to New Orleans at 18, fought on both sides in the American Civil War, reported on the Indian Wars in Missouri, and then headed off to Africa as a reporter, eventually being the first (white) person to traverse across Africa, through the jungles of the Congo basin. He was then hired by Leopold to go up the Congo River and make "treaties" with the local chiefs, which of course were then used to take everything for the king. I do bring this up when any smug Europeans mention how the US treated the Indians. You can read more here and here, and it's pretty interesting, but grim. And the creepiest part about the museum: When I told people we had been there, a common reaction was an expression of disgust, and talk about how there used to be stuffed people on display as well.
January 10, 2009 Happy Birthday, Mark!
Happy New Year, all! We are easing back into our routine, after a few weeks of Holiday festivities. Our little Angels came to visit, for a way too short time. Typically, we piled into the (way too small) car and did some touring in Brussels, Amsterdam and Munich. We went to Munich looking for a White Christmas, and weren't disappointed. We went up to the top of the Zugspitz, which was like going to the ice planet Hoth, and had a totally Bavarian evening in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. A couple of boys came out to do the liederhosen slappy dance, and looked rather embarrassed, and our boys had to agree that this exceeded anything we had every asked of them. The highlight of the trip was a visit to the Deutsches Museum, a fantastic science and technology palace in Munich. This place is filled with entire ships, planes, coal mines, you name it. At night we enjoyed extreme mugs of beer and plenty of roasted pig knuckles and the quiet of the city at Christmas. Back in Esneux we played games, getting schooled by Mark, sampled some of the stranger Belgian ales, and visited some of the local sights. The time went by too quickly, but we were happy they could come to see us, and we'll miss them until we get back to Durham for a visit.
December 19, 2008
We are into the Christmas season here as everywhere, and there are few interesting similarities and differences. The Season starts in earnest here on Dec 5th, Sinterklaas Eve. More on that in a minute. Especially in Holland and Flanders, that's when presents are given and parties had. Also, on Sinterklaas Day people get chocolate letters with their initials like these: deluxe, like this gift from our friends Diederik and Karin, or plain, from the grocery store, each decorated with a grinning, chocolaty likeness. This early gift giving means there is less emphasis on Christmas Day itself, and so people work right up to Christmas Eve, and then have a quiet time with family.
We recently found an actual mall in
For ourselves, we have put up the little tree we took to
December 13, 2008
I talked about how I am spending so much time in the car, going back and forth to Amsterdam, for instance. Well, Lena has been giving me a hard time, asking "If you're so Euro, why don't you take the train?" She is absolutely right, and so I have been. It's safer, should be easy, healthier, better for my carbon footprint, etc. That's the Good. I have also had a few other experiences, that I could call the Bad and the Crazy. First, more on the Good. It is quicker than driving, in most cases, and certainly more predictable, and probably cheaper, except that having the company pay for my car and fuel makes that less visible. And, yes, it can give you that righteous feeling that is the pay-off for doing the right thing. And the Bad? I took the EuroStar from Esneux to Nottingham (yes, England, where the city streets have names like Maid Marion Way, Friar Lane and Robin Hood Road), and it was easy and smooth and made all my connections easily. It is a little weird, but not a problem, to realize you are spending almost an hour deep under the water of the English Channel. The newly refurbished station at St. Pancras in London is a beautiful work of architecture, too. I know, that still sounds like Good. On the return, we were in the middle of the tunnel, and we stopped. And sat. For 2 hours. Seems the train ahead had a breakdown, and we were blocked. Finally, they announced the other train was out of the way, and we would be going. We moved a little, and lurched a bit, and stopped again. This time we are told there was "a traction problem." The next several hours were spent trying to get the train out of the tunnel, and then re-assembling the whole thing, since I think they had to uncouple cars and pull them out a few at a time to get enough oomph to get out. I guess normally they just coast up the slope from the bottom of the tunnel. All in all, about 5 hours of delay. If I wanted to sit on board for hours before getting going, I could fly.
And the Crazy? I know that if you grow up using the trains it probably all seems logical, but it's been a learning experience. For instance, in Brussels one of the big stations is called Midi, if you speak French, and Zuid if Flemish. So, it is not enough that there is a translated pair of names for everything. In this case, there are two entirely different names: Mid (or maybe Noon) in French, and South in Flemish. And there are usually bus and train stations near each other, with the same name. And this is the best part: Since both the French and Flemish words for train start with T, the train stations are indicated on the schedules with a B. And, naturally, since the French and Flemish words for bus start with B, the bus stations are indicated with a T. A secret anti-tourist device, perhaps?
Going to Amsterdam, it is hard to make a connection from Liege, so Steph drove me to Maastricht, just over the border in Holland. I rush into the station, late as usual, and look to buy a ticket. There are these nice yellow machines, ready to go. We key in the destination, it says "give me 30 Euro." There is a card slot, so I put in my Belgian credit card. No, it does not take credit cards. I try my Belgian debit card. It is just spat back out. I try feeding cash into the card slot, also rejected. So I go and stand at the ticket window, where again no credit cards are taken, only cash. I ask about the machines: turns out they only take Dutch debit cards or coins (30 Euro coins would weigh about a pound!). So much for the concept of One Europe. Coming back, I am in the station, and there is a window with a sign over it saying "tickets and information." So, I stand in line, only to be told dismissively that they don't sell train tickets, only metro, and I have to go outside the station to the little handy shop to get a train ticket. Hmm. So, that worked OK that time, and I got my ticket for Maastricht. The next time, I asked for a ticket to Liege. The girl asks, "Where?" so I give her the Dutch name, Luik. She still has a blank look, and asks can I spell it. She looks some more on her computer, but nothing. So it seems you can only buy tickets within the Netherlands, and not outside, except at a larger station. And you can't buy a return ticket when you go, unless you are coming back the same day. And you can't buy them in advance. And you can't buy them on line. And online, after some learning, you can find schedules, but no prices. All of which is paradoxical, since they really do want people to ride the trains instead of clogging up all the roads. But it seems that the elusive concept of customer service is still a little out of reach for the public servants of the train bureaucracy. So, as one must, I try to learn and adapt, and it gets easier and easier.
November 23, 2008
Steph has returned, and life is back to what passes for normal here. Just as in Durham, she appreciated that an effort had been made to clean the place up, while being forced to admit that things were not really up to the highest standards. The week was mostly spent restocking the larder and actually cleaning up and doing wash, while outside it was dark and rainy; you see what an exotic lifestyle we have here. We woke up Saturday to a few inches of snow, and did the sensible thing to curl up and stay inside all day. The forecast for Sunday was, and I quote, "Cold; snow showers in the morning followed by snow, sleet, and freezing rain in the afternoon." But despite fair warning, we thought we would drive up to the Hautes Fagnes (High Fens) and look for some more snow. This is in the south east of Belgium, on the border with Germany, and gets lots of rain, and is really a high, flat, swampy grassland. We went up to the highest point in Belgium (694 meters), where we had been in the fall. Then it was a beautiful blue sky day, and all the grasslands were golden. Today, everything was in black and white, with snow stuck tight to all the trees. We walked about a bit, but it was in the low 20's and the wind was blowing like crazy. Needless to say, we retreated to the warmth of the car pretty soon. You can see some pictures of the snow and fall here. By this time, it was snowing again in earnest, and the drive back reminded us of driving in Colorado - lots of billowing plumes of snow sweeping across the road and the icy wipers slapping. This cold weather and the ever earlier darkness signal winter is here, and the contrast to the endless days and evenings of summer is dramatic. By the time we got home, it was dark and the roads were slick, and we were glad to be back safe and sound, and enjoying the soothing richness of a creamy Belgian ale.
November 8, 2008
I am back in Belgium after two weeks on the home turf. It was good to be in the US for the last weeks of the election. It was great to see all the mates, and everyone was very sweet and we had drinks, or lunch, or dinner, or played cards, or just hung out. Thank you all for not forgetting us!
Everyone's first question, also on my return to Belgium, was "How was the house?" I can say that all was fine. I am sure there was some intense cleaning up that went on just before our arrival, but all was in order and there was no permanent damage. Thanks, Boys! The only problem was that the lawn mower broke in the middle of the summer, and it was a rainy one, so it looked a bit like the African savannah, but that was finally beaten back into submission. It was an intense two weeks of lawn and garden care, car maintenance and home repair, but nothing out of the ordinary, only compressed in time.
This being the first time in a long time that North Carolina was in play, I got a good dose of campaign ads. In previous elections, we hardly saw any. I am glad that I got a taste, but am also glad that I missed most of the previous year's. And the phone calls! You could not be in the house for 5 minutes before the phone rang again with "please give money, please give time, please vote." And for some reason, John was besieged with calls from the McCain camp. Perhaps the demographic of NC State student? On returning to Europe, it seems people here were just as excited about the result as at home. They realize of course that he is our president, and not theirs, but what happens in the US effects everyone, so their interest is understandable. And the Belgians are jealous that we can even elect a government at all, something they have been having trouble with for the last year.
My Mom was also there to visit, and a pleasure as always. There were, as usual, some spirited discussions on politics and the economy: liberal pinko Euro-socialist vs. reactionary tool of the running dog capitalists, but I hope all in a good spirit. And speaking of spirits, it was weird to not be gearing up for Halloween. I would be outside in the evening, and getting all the cues from the weather, and the turning trees, and that special fall light, and thinking "I should be mixing paper-mâché!" We went to some friends' on Halloween night, and we had to dress up. We went as the scariest thing we could think of, but were the only ones in costume (except for Chris's devil tail, but I think he wears that all the time). And Mark continued his incredible pumpkin carving, with another great pair, each really scary, but to different people. Lena came home to let the Moms have at least a bit of costume making time, and went as a dream girl for dirty old men. Here are some pics and I will add one of
In an effort to make this more of a Blog, I thought I would plug a few things and add some links. I am listening to podcasts all the time, mostly since I am in the car a lot. Here are a few, including a favorite topic: the economy! First, This American Life is a great radio show that has been on for years, and basically tells stories about people's experiences of all sorts. I recommend it highly. If you go to the site, search for Squirrel Cop and listen to it. That story is a funny one, and the rest of the episode can make us glad for the lives we have. This year they have done two shows about the economy, and they both really help to understand some of the actions and their consequences. The first (the Giant Pool of Money) is the best and talks about how we got into the mortgage defaults. The second (Another Frightening Show About the Economy) is more about the credit crisis itself. The second series that I have been enjoying is the Planet Money podcasts, which can be found here, and there is also a blog here. They work hard to make all the arcana in the news understandable to the beneficiaries of all this crap, namely you and me. So, if you want to know more about ted-spreads and credit default swaps or why there is a problem at all, give it a try. And for a briefer tutorial in more graphic form, here is another view of the mortgage crisis.
And finally, a pitch for a different sort of series: The TED Talks. This is a conference on Technology, Entertainment, Design held every year, with speakers of all sorts invited to give 10-20 minute talks on an incredible variety of topics. So, if you want to hear accomplished and interesting persons discoursing on subjects they are knowledgeable and passionate about, tune in to TED.
Well, that's it for now. Stephanie returns in a week; in the meantime, I am living a rude and bestial existence, sleeping on rags in the corner, and snuffling in the garden for grubs. Such periods only reinforce for me the profoundly beneficial and civilizing effect that women have on the human condition. Or at least on mine.
Lots of updates! Happy Birthday, John!
October 12, 2008
This weekend was "Wallonie Welcome" in Esneux. We had gotten a great brochure, and a letter inviting us to share a "glass of friendship" at the kick-off, which we did, of course. There were lots of artists holding open house, and some chateaux that are usually closed were open to the public. We took a guided walk around the Loop of the Ourthe, and got a tour of (again, I know you are jealous!) the water treatment plant. The guide was pretty good, talking about "villages of bacteria" that purify the water. It was a challenge, all in French. There was a look around some old charcoal and lime kilns, but the best part was a good look into the traces of the old canal. We talk about this on the page about Locks, and it was interesting to see the remains in town that can still be found. We realized we had been walking right over clear signs, and totally ignorant of them. We found some locks and lock-keeper's houses, and could see the bed of the canal and the tow path in lots of places. Now we know what to look for! There was a great exhibit of old pictures, and it is amazing how much Esneux has changed, and also not changed, in the last century.
We met up with Jodi and Thierry, and a friend of hers from Mexico. We had North America covered, that's for sure. We visited a man making beautiful fused glass creations, and who also restored old stained glass, and had a nice tour of the atelier of a Spaniard making painted tiles of all sorts. That was good for us, since the only people we can really understand speaking French are others for whom it is also a second language, so we could follow him well.
On Sunday, we were able to go into the grounds of the Chateau le Fy, the fairy tale castle above Esneux. It was a perfectly beautiful fall day, and we visited the chateau with Katja and Horst. The view sitting on the terrace high above the river and the village was breathtaking. After, we went up to Rond Chene, and this time could walk about without getting yelled at by the keeper. A nice weekend of local culture, all in all.
October 6, 2008
A few bits and pieces: we visited some outrageous engineering works here a while ago. This link will fill you in about (yes, hold your excitement!) locks.
This weekend was the annual "Nocturne on the Slopes" in Liege. It is fall and the days are getting shorter, so a nighttime event is organized, where luminaries are set up in all the streets in the old heart of the city, and also lighting up the narrow, twisting paths and alleyways up the hills that rise up to the old fortress above. Many people came out to wander about, eat and drink and enjoy some street entertainers. The most spectacular was the huge stairs (406 steps) rising up to the Citadel, covered with patterns of candles.
And if you recall, in Tilff in the spring is the Leek Festival. A part of that is a parade with "giants," 12 foot tall paper mache creatures both realistic and imaginary. In the fall, there is the "Reassembly of the Giants," where they are brought out in the square and paraded about again. The only reason seems to be that they have them, and might as well use them more than once a year. It was a pretty day, and we went down to watch and down a few, and had a nice visit with a couple we met in the foreigner's office at the local town hall. Jodi is Canadian, and partnered with Thierry, a Belgian, and living in Tilff, and we were both in the commune office taking care of bureaucratic paperwork. Total coincidence: they are post-docs in Neuroscience, and know people Steph knew at Duke, including Peter Holland. A nice couple, and I am sure we will see them again.
October 4, 2008
Lots of catching up to do, that's for sure. September was taken up with a big visit from Stephanie's parents, and her cousin Doug and his wife Alice. They enjoyed a typical American two and a half week whirlwind tour of the continent, all masterfully arranged by Steph. They got a taste of 4 great cities: Brussels, Amsterdam, Paris and Rome. They rented a van with nice big windows, and when not driving to Amsterdam or Paris, headed off to explore Belgium, and even took a quick side trip to Germany, via Luxembourg. A few highlights: we took a rainy afternoon to explore an open-air museum not far from us, where houses and farms from all over Belgium have been dismantled, moved and re-assembled; there were nice boat rides through both Paris and Amsterdam, giving a different perspective for those cities; the tourist experience was completed in Paris by a classic run-in with a snooty Parisian waiter; a random stop in Germany led to a surprisingly nice visit to Vianden, with a great castle and medieval city; a poke around the hotel room in Amsterdam uncovered a leafy souvenir of that city - there were no takers in the party, so it went to the front desk; the weather in Brussels cooperated wonderfully, and the day there was probably the favorite of the city trips; in Rome, summer was still in full swing, and everyone wished they had brought cooler clothes; a troupe of local players put on a re-enactment (of sorts!) of a famous murder in a nearby chateau; a visit to a local cemetery for American soldiers and fliers from WW II was very moving; and there was good eating all round, as lots of great Belgian bread, beer, pastries and chocolate went down, along with carbonades, boulettes de Liege, mussels, lots of fries, and even an Indonesian rice table.
It went by fast, and a good time was had by all, and it was especially nice to get to spend some time with Doug and Alice and get re-acquainted with them. Some slides are here. It's a big file, as you might imagine.
August 23, 2008
We took a trip to Prague for a few days, in the Czech Republic. It's a little hard to remember it is not Czechoslovakia, which has gone the way of Yugoslavia. People in Belgium cite Czechoslovakia as a country that was formed not too long ago, and has since split up, with no real ill effects, as a possible model for the future of Belgium. Anyway, we have to say we did not have a great trip, but I am not sure it was the fault of Prague. From the minute we arrived, we got a bad vibe from the feeling that it was incredibly crowded and touristic. Now, we appreciate the irony that we want to be tourists without having to deal with all those other tourists, but they should all stay home when we are out. Prague gave the impression that the city had no existence outside of pandering to tourists. The only other place we had that feeling was Venice, and it does put us off. I don't think it is as true for Prague, since it is a city of ~1.5 million people, and a major center of commerce and culture, but getting called to by touts in front of every restaurant gets old. On top of that, it poured rain after the first evening we got there, plus we had some domestic issues distracting us as well.
But what about the city? Prague escaped most of the destruction visited on many other European cities, and also went into decline soon after its hey-day, so there is a wealth of beautiful, and beautifully preserved, architecture. This ranges from the medieval, through the baroque, to the 20th century. There are many squares filled with brightly painted and highly decorated buildings. On one tower, there is an amazingly complicated astronomical clock, started in 1410, that shows the phases of the moon, the zodiacal signs, hours after sun-set, and has statues moving and ringing the hours (click here for a demonstration).
Our favorite is the Art Nouveau (yes, again) from the early 20th century, and there was a great museum of the works of Alphonse Mucha, who made beautiful, flowing posters and illustrations. Above the city sits Prague Castle, not so much a castle as a collection of buildings, mostly churches. In the Cathedral, there is a Mucha designed stained glass window, which was really different from the usual. Another oddity in the cathedral is a huge and ornate shrine to a priest who was drowned in the river for refusing to divulge something said in confession. His body was exhumed some years later, and his tongue was seen to be as fresh and pink as a baby's, so he and the tongue got a special place in the church. One night we went to a Prague tradition: Black Theater, where the stage is black and only lit with blacklights and the performers wear fluorescent outfits and fly through the air with their props. The one we saw was rather silly, with a burlesque theme to tie the skits together, but some parts were fun. Afterwards, we strolled through the lit-up city, finally thinking we needed to come back sometime in the off season and give it another try.
August 16, 2008
A few random observations:
- As part of my French reading program, I got a copy of "Little Red Riding Hood" (free at the grocery store, with the right purchase). You know how in our version, in the end the woodsman comes and saves everyone, and even cuts open the wolf to save Grandma? Well, in this one, at the end the wolf jumps out of bed and eats Red. The moral is, "Don't talk to strangers, because they might kill you."
- Speaking of the grocery store, our local is DelHaze, which also owns Food Lion. And the logo is the same lion we are used to seeing in Durham. Ah, a touch of home.
- And speaking of groceries, there is more emphasis on natural foods here. Eggs in the regular grocery store are arranged according to whether the hens were "on the ground" or "raised off the ground," and there is lots of "Biologic" (organic, to us) food. But even the ones from tortured chickens living in cages cost about 40¢ each. We got some jam recently that was a bit extreme though, since it had several pieces of wood (bits of branches, 2" long and 1/2" around) in it. Hmmm, crunchy goodness.
- We saw a little of the Olympics in a hotel recently, but that was it. A major bite is that there are tons of internet sites that stream all sorts of stuff that is on TV. All the networks in the US have sites, and you can watch lots of shows the day after they are broadcast....provided you live where you could have watched it on TV. But, they are all blocked from streaming outside the US. So, like the shows we used to watch, we can't watch the Olympics either. So, you can watch as long as you chose not to when broadcast. I am baffled that this is thought to be a good idea. I guess we will miss the excitement of the conventions, too.
- We went to see the new Batman movie in Liege. This was in the newest theater, and it was like a smallish mall cineplex, but stacked into a multi-story building. The biggest difference: no concessions. How can you watch a movie without popcorn? It's just so wrong. And more interesting, how do they stay in business without selling something with a 99% profit margin? Regarding the movie, I didn't like it. It was very scattered, and seemed to rely on explosions rather than dialogue or other action to advance the "plot." And I was left with the creepy image of Dick Cheney sitting alone in the dark, wearing his mask, watching the movie over and over, and muttering to himself, "I am the Batman....oh, yes....I am the Batman." This and "24" are the best synopses of our current foreign and domestic policy, without all the messy consequences. The difference is that Bruce Wayne and Jack Bauer acknowledge that what they are doing is wrong, even if they believe it's necessary, and are willing to take the penalty for it. They don't have a squadron of lawyers and lawmakers lining up to be sure they never have a price to pay. OK, enough liberal Euro-ranting!
- I have been reading some books by Georges Simenon, a local boy who made good. He wrote a series of short detective novels featuring Inspector Maigret, a Frenchman, and not to be confused with Rene Magritte, the Belgian painter, nor Detective Poirot, who was also Belgian, though written by an Englishwoman. Simenon wrote hundreds of books, lived in dozens of cities, in scores of houses, and supposedly bedded thousands of women. Busy guy, and I can recommend him, though of course not his lifestyle!
- We decided to do a little grilling on the bar-b-que, and bought some charcoal at the grocery. Another surprise! It was really charcoal, chunks of actual wood, made into charcoal some old-fashioned way. It was weird, since it was hard and clinky, like ceramic almost. And then this disappointment: the starter you get is a gel which is so totally safe it's no fun at all. You can squirt it right onto the flames and it doesn't even flare up and risk total conflagration. Oh, well. Although this charcoal is more natural and all, I have to say, briquettes are a technological improvement - the real stuff is much harder to start, burns slower, and is hard to keep going. But, it does help me get in touch with my caveman roots - I want to go kill a giant sloth or something and just throw it on the coals.
July 13, 2008
Last weekend we took a great road trip to Berlin. It was about a 6 hour drive across Germany, although we took a good bit longer. After so many days sitting in traffic in Holland, it was great to be able to just enjoy the open road. And yes, they do drive fast in Germany. If there is a limit, there are signs every kilometer or so, and people do obey the speed limit. But most of the time there is no limit except your common sense. For me that was cruising about 90-100 miles per hour, and I was by no means going faster than most. Even at that speed, you get passed by a lot of people going way faster, so you don't spend any more time in the fast lane than you need to. We had not gone very far when we came on a group whose trip had taken a severe turn for the worse. There was a big plume of smoke up ahead, and when we got to it, there was a full size tour bus totally in flames, and all the passengers standing out along the road. It was intense, and you could feel the heat clear on the other side of the road. The fire brigade had just arrived, and was applying some pretty sad streams of water, but this thing was just going to burn itself out. Fortunately for us, it was in the other lane, or we would have joined miles of parked cars with a long wait ahead.
We stopped for lunch in a little town, and went up to a huge monument to Kaiser Wilhelm. It is high above the town on one side of a gap in the mountains where the river flows through. It gave a nice view over the countryside, beneath the benevolent gaze and outstretched hand of the Kaiser.
Going into Berlin, I was surprised at the amount of wooded, and undeveloped, land. I would have thought by being hemmed in for 40 years the city would have been bursting at the seams, but it was rather suburban until right into the city. We found our hotel, in a typical creaky old building, and set out exploring. General impressions: Berlin is a very attractive city, rather low in profile, with wide boulevards and a clean and airy feel, and a lot of 20th century Modern buildings. The people were nice, and several times when we were lost with perplexed looks on our faces, folks stopped and asked if they could help. We bought passes for the public transport, and rode subways, trains and buses all over. We found a couple of restaurants that featured local cuisine, and none featured sausages and wursts, as we were far from Bavaria. One typical Berlin dish, though, is curry wurst, which is just a plain sausage with ketchup on it. These we saw everywhere as a snack. And we went into a few pastry shops, and are still perplexed why JFK would declare, "I am a doughnut!"
The first night (July 5th) we strolled out to get our bearings and went to the Brandenburg Gate, right in the center of the city. We heard music and saw crowds milling about, and stumbled onto the Grand Opening party for the new US Embassy. It had been on this location before WWII, but was destroyed, and then the property was on the Eastern side, and anyway the seat of government moved to Bonn. Now that Berlin is again the capitol, the property was reclaimed and a new embassy built. I can't say it is very attractive, and of course fits the new, post-9/11 fortress model. But the party was fun, and we listened to a German Elvis and a German Rock-a-billy band, and enjoyed the crowd. One interesting item: there were tents around with various groups promoting German-American relations. One was shared between the Democrats Abroad and the Republicans Abroad. On the Democrat side, there were crowds of people clamoring for info on absentee voting and wanting buttons, etc. On the Republican side, one lonely and bored guy smoking a cigarette. It is clear which way the ex-pat vote is leaning.
We spent part of our days in various museums, several of which are together on the aptly named Museum Island in the Spree. Two interesting bits: The Pergamon Museum houses the greater part of an entire Greek temple from a site in Turkey. It is bizarre to come into an enormous room and see this thing installed inside. There was also a very interesting exhibit on Babylon, in present day Iraq. The centerpiece is the Ishtar Gate, covered in beautiful rich blue tiles, with giant images of lions, dragons and bulls. Again, a huge bit of architecture picked up, transported and rebuilt in a museum in Berlin. The theme was that we are still living in the Babylonian Era, and that all the principle elements of our current world view and social order were in place 4000 years ago. We also soaked up a good bit of Egyptian and Greek artifacts, including an entire room of randy Greek pottery. Jumping to more modern times, we went to a great museum full of the most beautiful Art Nouveau and Deco creations. The central theme of that movement was that art should not be separated from everyday life, so it was all about architecture, furniture, decorations, utensils, etc., all in a flowing style reflecting nature, or opposing that, with a decorative and geometric look. It's amazing to think of living in a house bursting with chairs, coffeepots, windows and lamps like these.
The signs of East Berlin are fading fast. It was impressive to see photos of both the destruction from WWII, and that resulting from the Wall, and how much it has changed in 20 years. Vast areas that had been wasteland in 1989 were now filled with new office towers. We went to a small part of the wall that was in its original form. This meant a 10 high foot concrete wall, a barren dead zone that would have been filled with barriers and barbed wire, illuminated day and night, and then a second wall. All this to keep their own people from leaving. There was a nice exhibit showing how this had developed over the years, and especially the impact when it was built, splitting parts of the city right down the middle of the street. What was most amazing was that it was being updated and made more impassable right up until the end. There are still some parts of the city in the East where you can see the grey, stolid buildings, but today they don't look so grim, since they are leavened with color and activity. It is hard for a building to be so imposing with a group of multi-colored, spiky-headed punks walking by.
The highlight of the trip, and our reason for going at this time, was to see Radiohead in concert. They played in a small outdoor amphitheater in the woods, similar to the Hooverphonic show in venue, and of course it rained, but still a great show by a great band. It was worth the price of admission just to see the Thom Yorke Crazy Dance. I swear, if I waggled my head that much, it would fly completely off. A high point was everyone singing along with the words, "Rain down, rain down, come on rain down on me," during a break in the weather, defying the rain to start up again. Getting back into town took a while, as we joined 1000's and 1000's trying to get back on the trains, but a great time was had by all.
Finally, we stopped in Potsdam on the way home. Besides the post-war conference that divided up Germany, it is the site of Sans Souci (No Worries), a huge collection of palaces, parks and gardens built during the 18th and 19th centuries by the Kings of Prussia, who eventually became the rulers of Germany. The gardens and parkland were beautiful, and it was a lovely day exploring, with some palace, grand or small, always around the corner. The ride home was uneventful, and we delighted to get home and see that the landlord had (largely) fixed the leaking roof. There was a huge thunderstorm the next day, and only a few drops in the house, so things are looking good on that front.
June 30, 2008
One way we spend our weekends is visiting the local countryside, and especially the many chateaux. There are some slides posted for two: Jehay and Freyr. Both are renaissance fortified castles/mansions in the valley of the Meuse. This part of Belgium is very industrialized, and as you get near Liege it gets rather grim, but up off the river, or in quiet stretches, there are all these beautiful places. These two had wonderful gardens, where we mostly spent our time. One featured extremely perky bronze statuary, while other had lots of highly manicured hedges, best seen from high on the cliffs across the river. Also in the area we came upon an exceptional set of 4 townhouses decorated with floral themed Art Nouveau tiles. Enjoy!
June 24, 2008
We're right at the longest days of the year, and it's amazing how long they are here. You can walk around at 10:30 at night and there is pink in the sky and no stars to speak of. It only gets dark about 12, and it seems so strange. I see that Esneux is about on the latitude of Calgary, Alberta. We would think of that as being so far north. And people here are surprised to realize that Durham is about even with Gibraltar.
We took advantage of the longest days last weekend, and had three really fun days. Friday we went to a concert in a little town on the other side of the plateau, to see Hooverphonic. Belgian band, cute blond singer, dreamy alt-rock. To get there we walked street after street, and then past a tent city on a soccer field, then through dense woods, and finally out in a glade filled with drunken Belgian youth. Great show, cooled by a light misty rain. On Monday, Stephanie was talking about the weekend with a girl in the lab. She said she had wanted to go, but didn't because of the weather. Steph had to mock her, if only lightly. Saturday night Holland was playing Russia in the Euro 2008 football tourney. I may be exaggerating, but it seems like there are several 'Big Cup Competition' a year. Anyway, this was a big event, so we put on the stylish orange-wear we picked up on Queen's Day, and went up to Maastricht, the closest Dutch city. We had a lovely Turkish dinner on the market square, watching the evening fall (very slowly!), then watched the match on TVs set up outside a bar. It was fun, but Holland didn't do very well, lost, and was out of the running, so not as exciting as it could have been. At least they didn't get to a shootout to decide the winner. Finally, on Sunday we walked about Liege, way up on the Citadel. This meant climbing all 373 steps of this grand staircase that goes right up to the top. Needless to say, we took our time. By Monday, I was ready to get back to work and get some rest.
June 14, 2008
Every town in Belgium has at least one memorial to those who died in the World Wars. Just in Esneux there are many. What is striking is how many are not the usual "To our fallen heroes." Rather, they are are pointed and explicit in their condemnation of the enemy. After seeing these, it is amazing that the survivors have been able to offer as much forgiveness as they have, or at the least, been able to live together. These also serve as reminders that any nation, no matter how advanced or civilized they may consider themselves, can plunge into darkness and perform acts of unimaginable destruction and cruelty.
June 10, 2008
It's been such a long time, but it's gone by so fast. We are back now in Esneux, after being in Durham for a month. We were proud to see our son Mark graduate (in 4 years!) from UNC (top 10 public university!). Two down, one to go. We had our first wedding of the next generation in our family, too. It was so nice to see everybody, and you all were so sweet to make us feel remembered and missed. We miss you all already. We are now embarking on the next phase of our adventure. Stephanie has started working in the lab, just as she started coming down with a cold caught on her travels. Not the best re-introduction to the work force. She has been pipetting phlegm (not hers!), which is totally disgusting. As a mother of three, she is hard to gross out, but this could do it! Maybe next it's on to Amsterdam, where they spend days processing poop.
April 28, 2008
Our friend Patz stayed with us for a few days last weekend. Her mom was from Liege, and she has cousins and aunts in the area. She really wanted to go to Holland to see the flowers and the Bloemencorso, a fantastic flower parade, and, against our better judgment, we went. Years ago we had gotten stuck in an eternal traffic jam on the road to the gardens as millions of Europeans converged on the gardens at their peak. Well, our better judgment was wrong, and we are so glad we went! Steph arranged a hotel right in the area, and we came up the night before with no problem. The floats for the parade were all lined up in town, and we could walk all around and gawk. Later the parade started up and wound its way through town. The next morning we rode bikes to the fabulous gardens at Keukenhof. It was a beautiful day, and words cannot describe the flowers. It was simply stunning. And then the ride back through the fields of tulips and hyacinths and pastures with cows, horses and sheep was just magical. It was fun riding bikes, and while I expected we would get passed by all the Dutch who ride every day, I did feel a little bad when these dumpy old ladies rang their little bells going by. But it was downright depressing when we were passed by a lady on a motorized wheelchair. We need to exercise more.
April 20, 2008
Lena and Steve came to visit with us for a few days. Lena is an experienced tourist, and always good to travel with, and for Steve it was his first trip to Europe. They planned a very American visit, spending a few days in London, then a few in Belgium (West Flanders to the southern Ardenne), then on to Germany to finish out the week, touching the ground in France and Luxembourg on the way. We're all about the same kind of trips ourselves. There is so much to see and do, and you can rest at home. We picked them up from the Chunnel Train in Lille, giving us a chance to walk around that city for a bit. We spent a day or so visiting the battle sites and cemeteries of Flanders from the First World War. There are cemeteries everywhere, and many of those include mass graves in addition to the rows of headstones. It was the policy of the British Empire to bury their dead where they fell and so there are 185,000 dead either buried in the area or listed among the missing. And that was just the Allied dead! We visited a German cemetery which held nearly 50,000 young cadets. So very sad. You can hardly grasp the scale of the death and destruction that went on here. After a difficult search, we found a bit of excavated trenches, which included passageways that extended 10 meters below ground. This is incredible, since the water table is about 2 feet below the surface. We met a "digger," a weekend enthusiast who hunts for, and finds, relics and bodies. He let us into his little storage hut, and gave us samples from the bags of bottles and bullets he had stashed there. No bones, though bodies are found regularly and there is still one cemetery accepting new graves. We walked around Ypres, which was right in the middle of the fighting, and was pretty much leveled. You would never know it to look today, as they have tried to build everything back as it was. Every evening in Ypres, there is a memorial service to remember the fallen, and it can't but move you to tears.
From Ypres we went to the beautiful medieval city of Brugge. Continuing our quest to climb up every tall thing around, we went up into the bell tower, and had a beautiful view over the city. At the other extreme, we took a boat ride through the canals, looking up at all the tall buildings. In one church there is a crystal vial containing actual blood of Christ, brought back from the Crusades. Remarkable.
After a little rest in Esneux, and a walk along the cliffs of the Falcon Rocks over the loop of the Ourthe, we drove south to Bastogne, where, during December of 1944, General McAuliffe's airborne troops were surrounded during the Battle of the Bulge. Again, very moving to think of the heroism and tragedy that unfolded around there. Also amazing to think about these two wars, with so much loss, being fought in such a short time. Whatever else it has brought, the EU has kept Germany and France off each other's necks for 50 years now. We then passed through Luxembourg and spent the night in Trier. Trier is one of the oldest cities in northern Europe, although it is pretty certain that it was not there 1300 years before Rome, as one inscription on a medieval building asserts. It was a major Roman city though, and one of the old gates is still standing. You can imagine how impressive that must have been when most people were living in mud huts. After Trier we split up, with Lena and Steve going on into Germany, and we headed back to Esneux.
March 23, 2008
The celebrations around Easter here go on for about 6 weeks, and have lots of ancient sorts of elements. They kick off with the Carnaval parades, like in Malmedy, and then have more action in the middle of Lent, and then wrap up with a bang at Easter. A few weeks ago, our friends Chris and Liesbeth came to see us. We had a nice visit, and went into Tilff for their parade/festival, which was all built around Leeks! There was a parade, with lots of costumes and dancing groups, but most of all, lots of confetti! I am talking tons. It was thick in the streets, like snow, and got into everything. We were picking bits of confetti out of the car, our clothes, the camera, my cell phone, and of course, our hair, for days. Well, OK, it took Steph days to get it out of her hair, not me. The theme for the celebration is leeks, and bars and streets were renamed with "Porai", the local dialect version of the French "Poireau." The climax of the festivities was the arrival of the Leek People. There were dozens, young and old, all dressed up as leeks. They arrived in the square, and did a big dance, and waited the arrival of the farmer, who was 20 feet tall at least. As he did his whirling dance, the leeks popped up out of the ground and they all twirled about together. A rich and fertile year lies ahead, no doubt!
The finale for us was the Big Fire, in Esneux. Down near the river, a mountain of brush and trees was built, much bigger than anything I put up in the yard, with an effigy hanging at the top, representing Judas. After dark on Easter Saturday, everyone came down to drink beer and hot wine, and torch it off. Now, I was expecting conflagration, as I would have cut the wood in the summer, and kept it under a tarp to dry to a hazardous, tinderbox state. Sadly, these folks were more prudent, and the wood was green. Plus, it started snowing, sleeting and raining as evening came, so it was only a Grand Feu, and not Apocolypse. But it was big, and fun, and the next day there were still lots of smouldering coals. All in all, a nice way to celebrate the coming of spring, both religious and pagan.
March 21, 2008
We had our first long range visitors here, with the arrival of Stephanie's sister Susan, her husband Mark, and her boys, Miles and Ben. They arrived at dawn in Brussels, and Steph was there to pick them up. Wasting not a moment, they went in for a brief tour of the capital. This included the Cathedral, the Music Museum (in a great Art Nouveau building), the Beer Museum and lunch in the Grand Place. They came back and slept for about 14 hours (until Steph woke them!) to reset their clocks. The next day they all went for some walks in the town and countryside of Esneux. This was probably their favorite part, as they all love the outdoors, and liked comparing the hills and valleys of Tennessee with the Ardenne. And there was the first of several stops at the store to get a few of the many varieties of Belgian Beer. On the weekend, we up and drove to Paris,where Notre Dame Cathedral, with its gargoyls and chimera was a big hit. They got a nice feel for the city, but even in the off season, line-standing takes up a lot of time.
Back in Belgium, Steph took them to Ghent, which is a really beautiful old city, with a university and lots of activity. Finally, we took a drive down into the Ardenne, through many of the little towns that saw the Battle of the Bulge. Our destination was Boullion, home of Godefroid of Boullion. He is noted as the leader of the first crusade (1095 AD) and inventor of the boullion cube. I am not so sure about the last part, but he had an excellent medieval castle, perched high on a ridge in a sharp loop of the river. You really got a feel for how dark and damp these places were, and how hard it would be to take one before cannons. The most noted time it fell was because the Bishop brought the relics (read "dead body parts") of St. Lambert to threaten them with. The castle put on a nice show of birds of prey, including a condor, and of falcon training. This was met by squeals of delight from the herd of little school kids there, and the parents enjoyed the in-joke of his naming the snowy owls Bill and Monica. (Snowy? Really!). Susan et al then left to visit a friend in Lucern, Switzerland, spend a few days in Germany, and head home. All in all, it went well, and we were glad to see them here.
February 22, 2008
We have taken a lot of drives or walks around the French part of Belgium recently, so we decided to head north instead, and visit Flanders. Just a few miles north of Liege, but on the other side of the "border," is Tongeren, which prides itself on being the oldest town in Belgium. In 56 BC, a local warrior king inflicted some defeats on the Romans, who were subduing Gaul. A Roman town was founded, to house the army that eventually brought them to heel, and that was the beginning of Tongeren. The king, Ambiorix, was never captured, and gained the respect of the Romans for his bravery and warcraft. He became a symbol of Belgian pride and unity after the country was established, and there is a noble looking statue of him in the square. The town has now put together a nice walk, marked by disks on the sidewalk with his image.
Tongeren has an excellent example of a begijnhof. This is a little "town within a town," enclosed by its own walls, and home to unmarried women, often with children. They were part of the church, and almost like a nun's cloister, but without taking the vows. This arrangment grew up in the medieval time, and flourished throughout Flanders and Holland, allowing these widows and spinsters to take care of their own affairs, run businesses, and generally get along without having to find a suitable husband. The one here is among the oldest, founded in 1250, and it flourished through the 17th century.
Tongeren stayed within its early town walls until quite late, and much of the Roman and medieval walls can be seen today. These enclose a nice center, with twisty narrow streets. It was cold, and the moat along the wall was frozen in places, giving the ducks no place to paddle about. Dominating the town is the Church of Our Dear Lady, and there are many interesting buildings of various styles through the years, right up to some great Art Nouveau town homes from the early 20th century.
We people watched for a while on the patio of a brasserie on the square, and enjoyed the last of the sun on the church tower. Just at dusk, there was a little ceremony at the war memorial on the square. A group of old men, proudly wearing their medals and ribbons and presenting their colors, gathered for a few words from the mayor, and the playing of the national anthem. It was very moving to see these survivors, and reflect on the events of their youth. Like Ambiorix, they fought hard to protect what was theirs, and in the end survived to see a world that was changed, but still their home.
February 15, 2008
We are now official! After waiting for the requisite 3 weeks we went back to City Hall. In the office were the same two ladies, and they recognized us and knew what we needed. But, alas, it was a Thursday, and they don't open the drawer for foreign registration except on Tuesday and Wednesday, so we had to go back the next Tuesday and try again. This time all was good, and we are now the proud possessors of Belgian ID cards. Two nice bits: Several days after we closed the process, we got a postcard telling us to report to the office and pick up our cards. Plus, they are good until November, so I guess we start up the renewal process in a few months.
Mardi Gras, or Carnaval, is a big deal in the Low Countries, and there are parades and festivities from the beginning of February 'til the beginning of March. We went to the parade in Malmedy, near the German border. It was getting up into the highlands, and it was cold, especially to stand in one spot on a stone wall for hours. There were thousands of watchers, and probably 1000 marchers. Everyone in the parade was in costume, but the choices were limited to only a few. I don't know whether you have to join a crew to wear a certain outfit, or a club, or it is passed down through generations, or if it is just a free choice, but almost everyone was either: a Savage (African or American), a long nose (Le Long-Né), a long armed clown (Le Longès-Brèsses), a Big Hat (Le Soté), a harlequin (Le Piérot), an ostrich feathered Austrian (La Haguète), a carrot topped cobbler, a long stick sweeper (Le Long Ramon, and nothing to do with lacrosse!), a Big Ear, or an animal. There was a scattering of other costumes, but these made up about 90%.
These all came through in big mobs, or in mixed groups, all very chaotic. Some of the characters had special activities they did, too. For instance, the African savages wore shifts made of wooden plaques, and would make a clacking noise as they hopped up and down. The Sweeps would brush the faces of the crown while casually looking in the other direction, and the harlequins would throw oranges. The clowns would rub people's heads, or move their hats to the next person, and the Feather People would use their accordian leg clampers to grab a spectator by the ankle and make them kneel and swear fealty. My favorites were the Long Noses, who would play follow the leader, either among themselves or with a leader plucked from the crowd. That person would then walk along the parade route, or run, or kiss the ladies, or get half undressed, and a string of Long Noses would follow along and mimic everything. They showed real dedication, especially when one guy took off his shoes and socks and headed off down the road on the 30° pavement, with a whole barefoot troop in tow.
Mixed into these groups were marching bands, each from some exotic part of the world. There were Russians, Turks, Arabs, Chinese, Scots, Persians, Mongols, and English Red Coats. And all playing what could only be described as Community Marching Band Pop. Add a few parade floats à la Homecoming Game, and the effect was complete. What this all has to do with Easter, or Lent, remains a mystery.
When the parade was over, we skipped the most vital part of the festivities, which was heading into the bars and drinking all night. For us, we made it back to the car and turned up the heat, and headed home through the rolling hills of the Ardenne.
January 25, 2008
After sending off our pile of very official documents, we were summoned to the Consulate in Atlanta to get our visas. This was a low efficiency activity: 6 hours drive - 6 minutes of transaction - and then 6 hours back. Why they have to hand them over in person remains a mystery. But, we did have a nice visit with Steph's brother, so not a complete waste. And we had lunch in the Varsity - a fitting farewell to the finest in US cuisine! With our newly pasted passports, we loaded up our suitcases with all sorts of stuff from home and headed back across the big water. We had curtains and a coatrack and stuff for the kitchen. And of course, as we are heading out through the airport, the customs lady beckons us over. But when she realized we were not Belgians returning with bags full of iPods, she just sent us on.
Once here, you have to register with the local town, so the bureaucrats can always know where everyone is. After a few false starts we found the right office and had a lovely time with two ladies who I am pretty sure had never done this before, at least for non-EU foreigners. They kept checking a big book, and conferring among themselves, then saying they needed this or that. But we were up to the task, and seemed to have everything they were after, including our ceremonial marriage license, complete with apostile. They sent us off, to return in three weeks, so we will see. A few days later, there was a knock on the door, and it's a policeman, here to check if we really lived here, and that our kids weren't with us, etc. He filled out some more paper and welcomed us to Esneux. The process continues!
On Saturday we tried to soak up a little culture, and went to a Rubens exhibition in Brussels. I don't know if any of the culture made it in, but it was a lovely day, and we trekked the city a bit. In the area we were, you could really get a feel for the terrain of the city, and I was surprised at the steepness of the ridge that runs across it. There were a few places where you had really nice prospects out over the lower city. We saw excellent examples of Art Nouveau architecture, including the entrance to the Fine Arts Museum, which goes through an old English insurance building, with the various offices indicated in the lobby by mosaics on the wall. Clearly they were not planning any reorganizations when they did that! A stop off in a little brasserie for a couple of excellent beers, another round of IKEA on the way home, and we called it a day. Other than that, we are just trying to settle back in and get a little routine going.
December 15, 2007
We have wrapped up the feasibility study for our time in Belgium. After a month in Esneux we are back in the US. On the whole, it's gone well. The only thing I am down on is the traffic, and I have been driving a lot. One task for the new year will be to organize my time better, to be more efficient in the trips. In the last few weeks we went up to Amsterdam a few times, and Steph is getting well aquainted with the city. She also came along to spend the day in Leuven, which is a beautiful small city in the Flemish part of the country. In between those, I had a nice visit to Geneva, but was only there for a few days. While I am at work, Steph is still hiking all over the area, and really getting to know the local country. It really is a beautiful area, and although it rains a bit every day, it is usually nice and sunny part of each day, too. On the weekends, she hauls me out as well. We took a very nice, and vigorous, walk up to the top of the hills behind us. We went up through a really verdant forest, working our way up through the mud, along a rushing creek full of mossy trunks. At the top, was the chateau Rond Chêne, which is now a youth retreat or education center. We went on to a totally cool 13th century village, the center of which is wonderfully well preserved around an old oak. Coming back to town we ended up sliding down a really steep embankment, back into another deep little valley. I ended up flat on my back, but figured it was just good practice for this week.
We came back to Durham on the weekend, and were happy to see the house was still standing. We got to visit with the locals a little, and are now in Denver, visitng my siblings and the nieces and nephews, and will go up into the mountains to ski tomorrow. Thus, the need to practice falling. We will stay in the US for a month, and then come back to Esneux in January, ready to start our Phase I trial. I sent everything off to the consulate for my Visa, and am full of hope that it will get done and in hand before we plan to return. We will see!
November 27, 2007
The weather was nice again on Saturday, and we took a trip up the Meuse to the cities of Huy and Namur. To get to Huy ((pronounced like We) we drove up out of our valley, across the highlands, and down into the valley of the Meuse. That's the most interesting part of the terrain here: the heights are almost flat, and gently rolling, and cut by deep and steep valleys. Huy is an ancient city, first being mentioned in the 7th century. It is dominated by a citadel, which was closed for the winter, and one of the best high Gothic churches in Belgium. We strolled about the town and the main square, and enjoyed the sunshine.
Namur is further up the river, and built where a huge chunk of rock rises over the river. Here the river is turned 90°, and after heading north out of France, goes east toward Liege. Also here, another river, the Sambre, joins the Meuse. All this makes for a key strategic spot, and a fort, or castle or citadel of some sort has been here since forever. Namur is a bustling place, and is now the capital of Wallonia. In the middle of town is a tower, with lots of chunks taken out by shrapnel, but I couldn't tell from when. Of course, when there is something high up in a town we can't resist climbing up, and we headed up to the citadel. It started as a rather modest castle, and over the years was built up more and more, and stretched further up the hill. What was nice was that you couldn't tell from the bottom how much there was, and new bits kept unfolding before us, with more to climb, and wider views. All this building culminated in a mass of brickwork at the top. While it was impressive, the key event here was a siege in 1692, when it failed to keep the French out of the city. At the very top, of all things, was a perfume shop, with lovely wooden statues, and fragrances we could not afford.
November 25, 2007
It's been a busy week for us here. Steph has pretty much unpacked everything, and we are stabilized at a tolerable level of disorder. On Sunday we went to the market at La Batte, in Liege. La Batte generally means the embankmant along a river, but specifically it's one stretch of the Muese through the city. There has been a market there since 1549, and it's still going strong. It's at least a mile long, and thronged with people. There's lots of clothes, and food of all sorts. You could even get a peacock for that extra special dinner. It was a beautiful sunny day and we strolled about for a few hours and picked up a few things for the house.
Sunday we went to Amsterdam for 2 nights. We stayed in a pleasantly ratty and laughably small hotel room, and Steph went to Rembrandt house, and the botanical gardens, while Jim went to work. The highlight of the visit was a very pleasent bar just around the corner. Prices in restaurants are so high! We ended up eating at some pretty greasy spoons, 'cause we couldn't bear to pay for nicer. The tragedy of the falling dollar. But the weather was nice and we had pleasant strolls about the city.
Toward the end of the week, Steph walked to the next village, Poulseur. It has a good example of a kind of castle having a single square, fortified tower in the middle, called a donjon. These are common in France. Her eyewitness account:
Thanksgiving day I went with some co-workers to a little
town in Germany,
to visit a company. It was a nice drive, but we got lost
while the GPS
tried to get us to go straight on a road that was blocked with concrete
barricades. It was a bit like Winnie the Pooh and the sand pit, but in
we made it. We had a nice lunch, but it was not turkey
November 17, 2007
So here we are! We both got where we needed to go, and our luggage, too. I felt so conspicuous and odd hauling 2 huge suitcases and a big carry-on. I usually pack light and have everything right at hand, and this was way out of character for me. But then I looked around and saw that this was just the norm-- I can't say I prefer it.
Steph got here on Wednesday, and Thursday at 8:00 the movers were at the door, with all of our stuff in that little green box. They were done in a few hours, and we've been unpacking and sorting since. The house has some idiosyncrasies we will have to thrash with, but that's right in our game.
The coolest thing is the river. It is big and powerful, and just rushes by. We go out every night and sit on the deck under blankets and watch the water go by. We call it riding the Titanic.
Today was clear and cold and we walked around Esneux, and went to look at the tourist info office. It was closed, but a sign said that you can get the goods at the butcher's shop. Sure enough, a few minutes later and a few euros lighter, and after a rather foggy chat with the butcher, we had maps and brochures galore. We walked up into Esneux, and around the Chateau. It is in perfect shape, and all closed, and looks like it is lived in. I'm going to mention to the boss that I found another house we should consider. We'll see. We walked on to the next village, Ham. It was really nice, most of the way through the woods, with vistas out over the river, which here takes an extreme loop. Ham is right in the middle of the loop, and is a hard little stone farming village.
November 7, 2007
On Saturday everyone was asking the same question: Well, when are you going? We finally decided to stop waiting and just go. We can stay for 3 months on our passports, so we will leave and come back and file for a visa at Christmas. I have to be in Belgium next week, so I am taking off on Saturday, and Steph will follow next week. Our stuff is scheduled to be delivered next Thursday, and we aim to be there to take it. So we are going for the quick cut, with the idea that this way we only have a few days to frantically prepare, instead of the weeks or months of hysteria the process really deserves.
November 4, 2007
The party has come and gone, and we are reassured in our decision to call this the last one. We are unable to control our urge to compete with Disney. My vision of the future is cities made of paper mache. It was a ton of fun, and lots of people came to see us off, and the tradition of great costumes continued. We reprised our roles of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn from 10 years ago. I am proud to say that I could still fit into my costume, although this time I left out the pillows. We took a moment to reflect on 10 great parties, and to recognize 3 people/couples who made it to every one: Buffy, Lew and Sally, and Sandra and Kent. We also sang Happy Birthday and had cake for my Mom, whose ??th birthday will be in a few weeks. You can follow the link to the left to see some pictures.
October 12, 2007
will be 4 weeks on Monday, and no
word. It is looking like I will have to wait until after my
next trip to
September 29, 2007
It's been two weeks, and no word, so we will take a "No news is good news" approach. We are steaming ahead with moving, and have scheduled the movers to come on October 8, and are making tentative plans to leave around November 8. We'll see!
September 24, 2007
Last week a major milestone was met: the application for a work permit for Jim was submitted to the Belgian authorities. It has been a long process to get there. I am working with Deloitte, and they certainly know what they are up to, but they are used to working with big companies that routinely send people out of the country. In that case, there is an HR department, and usually a person our group who does this all the time. For OMS, of course, it’s just me. So I am becoming much more knowledgeable than I ever thought I would.
The process is something like this: first a work permit is applied for. This requires submission of:
Before I could submit the medical form, it had to be stamped by the doctor, notarized here, then sent to the consulate for their special seal. All very proper, you know.
So that is in the hands of the bureaucracy, and we will see how they do. Once that is in hand, a visa is next.