Sunday, December 30, 2012

One Year Later: Essen Beer Festival

We've been very busy the past few weeks! We visited Antwerp again. It was the same as I remember: bustling, slightly gritty, and interesting. We've had some really good luck with restaurants during our visits to Antwerp. This time we had dinner at El Warda, a Moroccan restaurant. The atmosphere was relaxed and jovial, service was excellent, and our food was delicious. We began with a sampler of twelve dips for bread. Each one was unique and it was fun to experience all of the different flavors. We both had tagines for our main courses and then finished off with traditional mint tea and a small dessert.
Moroccan Sampler Dish

We spent the next day slogging through Antwerp's rainy streets. We were mainly just wasting time until our afternoon train to Essen, home of the annual Kerstbierfestival. We attended last year (Antwerp and a Beer Festival) and it remains one of the highlights of our travels. We stopped at two of Antwerp's Christmas markets and then settled at a cafe to get a jump-start on our Belgian beer tasting and fill our stomachs with a nice cushion of spaghetti bolognese.

Taking the train from Antwerp Central Station was fun. The station is beautiful and the regional train we took was a classic style that brought to mind scenes of Harry Potter and the Hogwarts Express. After a pleasant 40-minute ride through picturesque Belgian villages, we arrived in Essen and boarded the charter bus to take us to the high school gymnasium that houses the beer festival. 

Pulling into the parking lot was nostalgic and I thought of us at this time last year, fresh to Europe and still confused about lots of things. My sister was visiting and we had a great time sampling beers we'd never heard of and making friends with other festival attendees. 

O.B.E.R. Festival in Essen, Belgium
Our experience this year was mostly the same although we were more informed about the beers this time. Last year was more of a free-for-all because we hadn't had the time to cultivate our repertoire of Belgian beers yet. After getting our first samples, we wandered around searching for a place to sit among the long tables in the center of the gym. Finally someone left and we snagged a prime people-watching position. Before long, we were joined by a Dutchman and several of his friends on one side, and a Belgian and Englishman on the other. 

The usual questions were asked of us: "Are you here on holiday?" "Will you be staying long?" "What brings you to Europe?" "How did you find this festival in the middle of nowhere?"

With undisguised pride, we informed all of them, "Oh, you know, we were here last year. We're staying in Antwerp tonight. Lovely city. Good food."

Beer and cheese. Yes, please.
Once we established that we could hold our own (ground and beer), the conversation shifted easily between topics including other worthy beer festivals in the region, American television, Dutch and Belgian languages, marriage, and American gun laws. Where else but a beer festival in a high school gym could complete strangers discuss such riveting subjects? 

Last year we met some people who lived in the area. They were very kind and invited us to sit with them at their table. We spent several hours talking and laughing. One of the reasons we were excited to return this year is because of the possibility of seeing them again. We were disappointed when we didn't find them at their usual table as soon as we arrived. 

A few hours into it, my husband got up to retrieve a some more beers and he returned with some winter ales and one of our old friends. He had approached my husband and asked if we were the Americans who sat with him and his friends the past year. We were so happy to see him and he immediately joined us. We quickly noticed that he was without his group so we asked about his good friend and their wives. His expression darkened and he said, "Well, that's a very sad thing. He died a few months ago. Heart attack, completely unexpected." His eyes briefly filled with tears and he wiped them away quickly before taking a sip of his beer. 

It was a very sad thing to hear. We couldn't believe such a vibrant man had been taken before his time. It was almost absurd that he was there last year, in the same room, sitting with us and enjoying life and now he was gone. His friend told us it was too painful for their wives to attend this year because it's something they always did together. He had come to honor his memory and have a few beers in his name. It was a sobering reminder of how short life really is, of how you can be here one minute and gone the next. But it wasn't really his style to be mournful. He was soon telling us about his new grandson and how happy he is to be a grandfather-- another reminder, this time of how life goes on and there is joy for every sorrow. I was very happy to see our old friend, and very moved as well.

Soon it was time to bid adieu to the Objective Beer Drinkers of the Essen Region. We shook hands with our friend and told him we'll see him next year. Then we took the train back to Antwerp but this time we weren't alone, as our Belgian and English friends joined us. The ride back went by much faster and we were a little sad to part ways at Antwerp Central. 

We had a wonderful time in Antwerp and at the beer festival. I want to return every year because there are always new beers to try, new friends to meet, and old friends to see. 

You won't hear from me for several days but I hope you have a very Happy New Year! We'll begin 2013 Italian-style, in Milan! 

Frohes Neues Jahr!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Liege Christmas Village

We visited Liege earlier this year ('How do I describe you, Liege?'). We decided to return for the Christmas Village, the oldest and largest in Belgium.

It was a very frigid day. The sun never shone and the wind was biting but all sorts of food and beverage vendors were on hand to warm the cockles of our hearts. In fact, the lasting impression I have of Liege's Christmas Village is the food and drink. We've come to expect delicious vittles and amazing beer when we go to Belgium and we certainly weren't disappointed. There were stalls touting bratwurst, pommes frites slathered in mayonnaise, hot chocolate made with the finest Belgian varieties, foie gras, and delicious winter ales and fruit beers.

Some stalls were conveniently set up outside of the parking garage, on the route to the main Christmas village. The vendors at these stalls were a little more aggressive since they were off the beaten path. My husband's new obsession these days is sausage. He spends a lot of time wending his way from stall to stall, happily plucking samples off the tips of knives and always offering appreciative, "Mmmmms" and, "Wow, this is the best sausage I've ever tasted." After these endorsements, I see the sausage sellers' eyes grow large and they look at us expectantly, practically bursting at the seams and waiting to shout, "The whole lot can be yours! For a million Euros!"

Most of the time we just walk away, leaving behind very disappointed people who probably don't understand why we were so enthusiastic but didn't purchase anything.

So I wasn't surprised when my husband wandered off and tasted a sample from a boisterous man who insisted I also try some. "Yum," I said, as I prepared to continue our stroll. But it was too late. My husband had already began nodding his head enthusiastically and exclaiming, "Delicious! Incredible!"

The salesman quickly began his pitch in rapid-fire French. I could make out a few words but then had to politely say, "Je ne comprends pas." He only slightly paused before he said, "Ahhhhh... d'accord." Then he continued to speak in French as he described the different kinds of meat used to make his sausages. When we failed to nod or feign competency, he resorted to making animal noises. He pointed at one bundle. "Heehaw, heehaw!" he brayed. "Donkey!" I shouted. "Oui, oui!" he said, even though I'm not sure he understood the word donkey. "Baaaah, baaaaah," he yelled. "Sheep!" we cried in unison.

It went on like this for a few more animals before my husband pointed to one and the man said, "Originale!"

"Ok!" exclaimed my husband. "We'll take it!"

I whipped my head toward him and motioned to the sign clearly stating: 37.75 Euros per kilo. I saw the fear pass quickly on his face and he motioned to Monsieur Sausage that we only wanted a small portion of the log.

"Ahhhh... non, non, monsieur. Demi?" I knew demi meant half and I realized that the sausage could only be purchased as a whole or a half.

"That's fine!" said my husband.
I furtively whispered, "Look at it! Half of that is still going to be almost a kilo. This will be nearly 30 Euros."
"Nah, it won't be that much," he said assuredly.

After a lot of fancy cutting, folding, wrapping, and tying with twine, Monsieur produced our package of sausage and the receipt. 27 Euros.

I saw my husband cringe as he handed over 30 Euros. "Au revoir!" called the man, as he gave us our whopping 3 Euros in change.

We vowed to be more conservative with our money for the rest of the day.

A pleasant 5-minute walk brought us to the Christmas Village. It looked much the same as all of the other markets we've been to in the past month. Rows of stalls lined the Place Saint-Lambert. Wafts of street food filled the air and small bands marched through the village blaring holiday tunes from their trumpets and clarinets.

Liege Christmas Village Band
All the sausage talk had whet our appetites and our first snacks were crusty baguettes with four different melted goat cheeses, and homemade garlic pesto topped with sliced tomatoes. It was absolutely divine and provided the perfect cushion for our first beers.

We chose wisely with a sampler from the Brasserie des Geants. My favorite was the Ducassis, a fruity beer made from real blackcurrant berries. I'm not typically a big fan of fruit beers because they're usually too sweet but Ducassis is an exception. This is the best fruit beer I've ever had.

The perfect snack and most delicious fruit beer!
After quenching our appetites and thirst, we made our way around the village. All of the usual suspects were for sale. Candies, ornaments, wind chimes, scarves, and hats beckoned to us as we passed. It was all interesting but I must admit, we were mostly taken by the food and beer. We took a few more cursory laps to justify another stop. This time it was for chocolate-covered marshmallows.

We came to terms with the fact that we were just going to spend the rest of our time in Liege being gluttons. I think the sausage is what started it.

From the chocolate we moved onto more beer. Val-Dieu is an Abbey beer. I enjoyed the brown while my husband had the Christmas beer. We certainly needed them to wash down the cheesy concoction we ordered from the monk inside the Val-Dieu stall. The best way I can describe it is scalloped potatoes with chunks of ham slathered with gooey swiss-type cheese. Healthy, it was not. But we were already long past the point of return.

The sun sets early here during the winter and we only had time for one more stop at the Brasseri des Geants stall for another Ducassis. Why not?

So what did we take away from the Christmas Village in Liege? Full bellies and a nice, clean buzz from all of the delicious Belgian beer. It's certainly worth the trip.

Nearly a week later, we've only managed to make a small dent in that 30-Euro sausage. C'est la vie, as I'm sure Monsieur Sausage would say.

On the menu at the 'American Trip' stall.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Saga of the Snowmen

Winter is officially upon us! Last year it didn't snow here until very late in the season and even then it was just a dusting. I was very surprised when it began snowing last week! I was even more surprised when the snow stayed on the ground and piled up enough to build a snowman!

My husband grew up in the Midwest so he's an expert at skiing, shoveling, and snowmen. I spent all of my life (before Germany) in the South where I became an expert at swatting mosquitoes, driving Four Wheelers, and eating boiled peanuts. To make up for lost time, I was determined to build my first snowman on my own. My husband stood back on the sidewalk and shouted helpful instructions and encouraging words. We even had carrots and coal handy for the nose, eyes, and mouth. I named him Maxwell.

Maxwell, My First Snowman
I was very proud of the finished product and I posed beside it in a photo shoot in front of the house. I patted myself on the back for a job well done and went inside to warm up and email all of my family and friends back home to brag about my accomplishment.

Less than ten minutes later, my husband opened the curtains facing the front yard to look out at Maxwell. He gasped and said in a low voice, "Someone knocked him over."

I thought he was joking and I was still smiling when I reached the window. Then I saw it: a crumpled, snowy mass with the imprint of the perpetrators' boots. Luckily his face was still mostly intact. I was able to identify Maxwell by his carrot.

Maxwell's Crumpled Face
We stood at the window, our shocked faces reflecting back at us. Ridiculously, I felt the urge to cry since I'd waited so long to build my first snowman and it had been viciously murdered in a few moments. My husband comfortingly put his arm around me and said, "Let's rebuild it."

"No," I almost sobbed. "I've already gotten warm and my toes almost fell off the first time because it's so cold. I can't... I don't have the strength."

He nodded sympathetically and turned back to the sight of the massacre. Suddenly his gaze turned from solemnity to anger and he raised one fist in the air and yelled, "WE SHALL REBUILD HIM!!!" Okay, those weren't his exact words but it was definitely a rallying cry.

He bolted from the room, threw on his coat and gloves, and marched outside to begin Maxwell 2.0. It all happened so fast and I was still standing at the window when I saw him emerge from a corner of the house, pushing a huge pile of snow that was quickly becoming the size of a boulder. I got dressed and stepped outside gingerly as he passed me again, the base growing larger and larger. After another push he turned to me and said gravely, "Get another carrot."

I chose the best carrot we had. By the time I made it back outside, the base was up and it was mighty. He was already working on the middle and colorfully narrating.
"Those little punks will learn not to mess with us! They're amateurs! They don't know I grew up in Chicago!!"

We were huffing and puffing with such gusto that several of our neighbors slowed their cars to watch the spectacle. As each car passed, we eyed them suspiciously and wondered if they (or their punk kids) were the culprits.

I cheered and clapped when Maxwell 2.0 was finally finished. My husband wiped a snowy, gloved hand across his sweating brow and said, "I'm not done yet."

Maxwell 2.0

He erected a "pedestal" beside the new snowman and placed Maxwell's head on top of it. As he hoisted the head on top, he said, "When they walk by, I want to make sure they see what they've done!"

As a final touch, he sprinkled everything with water and declared, "I want this to be here when everything else has melted. It will be a testament to our perseverance in this neighborhood!"

We kept vigil for the remainder of the evening. My husband had his running shoes ready at the door and he was prepared to chase down anyone who attempted to sabotage our snowmen. The night passed uneventfully, except for all of the cars slowing down so the passengers could stare.

After living here for over a year, most of our neighbors will acknowledge us. I wouldn't say they're particularly friendly but at least most of them nod as we pass each other while walking or driving. It took over half a year to even reach this point. Everyone keeps their yards meticulously trimmed and landscaped, and we really do try our best. I don't sweep the sidewalks or wash the windows like a good German hausfrau but our little corner of the neighborhood is presentable.

Oftentimes, people allow their dogs to relieve themselves in our yard and we also discover trash tossed into our yard and on the pathway leading to our door. We try to tell ourselves that it isn't because we're American but sometimes it's hard to think of any other reason  because no one else's yard is disrespected in those ways.

I treasure the experience we have in this country and I feel very fortunate to call Germany my host home. But  I know that even if we lived here forever, we would always be "the Americans" in the neighborhood. I must admit that it felt amazing to finally have a way to say, "You can let your dogs poop in our yard and you can even throw your candy wrappers in front of our door, but you WILL NOT tear down our snowman!"

The spirit of America is alive and well within us!

Incidentally, the original Maxwell fell off the pedestal on his own the next day. All of the snow melted a few days later but Maxwell 2.0 lorded over the yard, tall and white... in a blanket of verdant grass.

Perhaps this little stand will put an end to the dogs and litter in our yard. At the very least, the rest of the neighborhood now thinks we're crazy and that kind of thinking can inspire a kind of fear of its own. All I know is that there will now be a dark spot on that grass and it will forever remind us of December 7, 2012: The day the Americans took back their yard.


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Christmas Market Madness

Christmas market season is upon us! I love everything about the markets: the lights, decorations, food, and gluhwein. In fact, I was so excited about the markets that I somehow convinced myself (and then my husband) that the market in Aachen opened Thanksgiving weekend. That Sunday, we drove over to Aachen with visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads.

The streets were mostly empty and we passed a lone vendor selling roasted chestnuts before we came upon the city center. All of the booths were in position but we were a week early. Oops. We stood there in the cold rain as I sheepishly looked at the ground. Suddenly I remembered another market!

"Okay, so maybe I got Aachen wrong. But I know the Valkenburg markets opened today!" I exclaimed proudly.
"What makes you so sure? Did you read about that one, just like you supposedly read about this one?" asked my husband.
"Yes... well, I'm about 78% sure. I was 100% sure but now I don't feel comfortable with my odds. Anyway, we have to pass by the exit on the way home so we might as well check."

With renewed optimism (on my part), we hopped back into the car and made our way to Valkenburg. Signs on the highway pointed toward the Kerstmarkt and I felt as if I'd saved the day!

Peter Pan and Captain Hook made their
way into the decorations.
Inexplicably.
The tiny village's streets were difficult to navigate because of all of the people. At least we knew we were in the right place. After we finally found parking, we paid admission to go into the first cave market. We'd been in the caves before for the guided tours but it was really interesting to see the marlstone walls lit up by Christmas lights and festooned with decorations. I must be honest and admit I wasn't very impressed with most of the wares. I expected handmade Christmas ornaments and unique Dutch items. Instead, there were a lot of vendors offering kitschy jewelry and overpriced (and imported) scarves and hats. Compared to the German markets, it was a little disappointing but the unique setting was a fair compensation.

I certainly never thought I'd be drinking gluhwein in a cave.

Cafe in a cave.
There are two caves in Valkenburg and both have markets for Christmas. We paid to go into the second one to make sure we experienced everything. The second market boasted the same vendors as the first. My advice would be to choose one cave and stick with it, especially since both charge admission. Unless of course you want to continue drinking gluhwein among the marlstone. It's not a bad idea.

The next weekend was the opening of the Aachen Christmas market-- I checked and double-checked to be absolutely sure. We decided to go on Saturday and fight our way through the throngs of people.

Aachen Christmas Market
Everything was exactly as I remembered. The Aachener Dom provided a breathtaking backdrop for the colorful stalls. Handmade ornaments and children's toys, wooden boxes and leather wallets, lace doilies and dainty earrings, a partridge in a pear tree... anything you could possibly imagine was for sale. We spent several hours wandering around and warming ourselves with gluhwein.

Aachen
Even after a year, Aachen is still one of my favorite cities here.

Before we knew it, the next weekend (this past one) was upon us. Because of my market hysteria, I can't let a weekend pass without visiting one. We loved Monschau so much that we decided to return for its market. We were enthralled once again by the half-timbered houses and gurgling creeks. This is what a German village is supposed to look like.

Monschau
We managed to complete most of our Christmas shopping in Monschau. The wares were basically the same as in Aachen-- except for the mustard. I'm not ashamed to say that we greedily re-stocked our supply of Monschau mustard. We bought with abandon, as if we expect a mustard shortage and can't bear the thought of naked bratwursts. Speaking of bratwurst, we stopped at a tiny station with just one man at the helm of the grill. With fanfare, he produced two perfectly-grilled bratwursts carefully decorated with mustard and said, "This is the best bratwurst at the market!" It was the best bratwurst I've ever tasted. Bratwurst are typically served inside a brotchen (roll). I usually don't like the brotchen because it's too hard and difficult to gnaw through, but this brotchen was slightly heated and it crumbled deliciously. That bratwurst alone is almost reason enough to go to the Monschau market.
Roasted Chestnuts!

I also ate my first roasted chestnuts! They were very meaty. Jack Frost was nipping at my nose as I nibbled on the chestnuts roasting on an open fire. My visions of a Bing Crosby Christmas have been fulfilled.

Our next stop on the whirlwind Christmas market tour will be somewhere in Belgium. I feel the need to experience Christmas in the tri-border area thoroughly. And now that we are well into December, I know for sure that all of the markets will be open.

We had our first dusting of snow here on Monday. It didn't stick but it was lovely as it fell. This week the weather has been mostly unpleasant: freezing rain, dark clouds, and cold wind. Fortunately the Christmas markets are lovely despite rain, snow, and clouds. By the end of the season I'll have had my fill of bratwurst and gluhwein. Until then, onto the next market!

Monschau Market, from above.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Rotterdam, Drenched in Wine

A few months ago we purchased some discounted train tickets from Kruidvat (similar to a CVS) in the Netherlands. 12.99 per ticket buys unlimited travel throughout the Netherlands on a Saturday or Sunday. The tickets are good for just a few months and since we purchased three each, we decided to get busy and take ourselves to Rotterdam, host city to one of the largest ports in the world.

The weather was dismal, bleak, dreary, frigid, and gloomy. Mist hung over the city like steam rising from a shower. Except it wasn't steamy; it was freezing.

Misty!

We initially decided to go to Rotterdam for a Swedish Christmas market at the Swedish Seamen's Church. I am overly excited for Christmas markets this year and I thought it would be a great opportunity to get a jump-start on shopping. The church was a 15-minute walk from Rotterdam Centraal and we would normally begin such a short walk with lots of gusto, cameras in hand to take photos of everything we passed. But after exiting the station and entering a massive construction zone, we decided to just take the tram. It was almost impossible to get our bearings because most of the buildings were enveloped by the mist and it was just too cold to be parading around the busy streets of Rotterdam when we didn't really have any idea where we were going.

We took the wrong tram at first but fortunately we realized our mistake after only one stop. Once we found the correct route, the tram ride was just a few minutes and soon we were at the church. Several signs pointed to the market and when we walked in, carolers were singing songs (in English). This gave us false hope because everything else inside was in Swedish or Dutch, which I suppose was to be expected.

We wandered around aimlessly for a few minutes trying to figure out where the actual market was and how we were supposed to purchase items. As we started up a second flight of stairs, my husband looked out of a window and noticed a beautiful garden. Suddenly a man was beside us explaining something in Dutch... or Swedish. We sheepishly replied, "Oh, sorry... we speak English."

"Ah, no problem!" he replied. He began again and told us that it was the largest privately-owned garden in Rotterdam and they were very proud of it. Then he revealed that he was the priest of the church and we followed him the rest of the way upstairs. He stopped at the landing in front of a man with a booth and exclaimed, "This man wants your money!" Then he slapped my husband on the back and left us staring at the booth owner, wondering why he wanted our money and just how much he expected. Eventually he said, "You must buy a ticket and see if you will be lucky to win a prize on this table." So we bought a raffle ticket for a Euro and then the man said, "Open it up! See if you are a winner!" Luck wasn't on our side this time but I can't say I really understood what any of the prizes were anyway.

We continued to the back of the third floor and finally found the "market." It was a sad smattering of tiny booths with a random assortment of goods. Some were selling postcards while others displayed wine glasses. We realized that this market was more of a church fundraiser than a full-blown Christmas market, Germany-style.

Everyone was extremely friendly but overall it was a very confusing experience.

Leaving empty-handed didn't discourage us. We still had lunch to eat and lots of the city to explore. Following our guidebook's suggestion, we chose De Ballentent. It's a waterfront pub-cafe specializing in meatballs. We spent a couple hours there sipping wine and beer and eating meatballs with a pepper and mushroom sauce. They didn't compare to the meatballs we had at Cafe-Lequet in Liege, but they weren't bad.

We planned to go to Delfshaven next. Delfshaven survived the war and is a beautiful area for strolling. We did eventually make it there but not before an unplanned pit stop. A large cardboard cutout of a bottle of wine caught our attention outside of a shop called Jan van Breda. A flurry of activity was going on inside and it drew us in with an invisible vice grip. 

The proprietor greeted us and asked if we were there for the wine tasting. Without hesitation, we said, "Yes. Yes, of course we are." We traded our heavy coats for delicate wine glasses and began our tasting adventure with champagne. After sipping two crisp varieties, we asked the sommelier where he was from in France. He looked at us incredulously and replied, "I come from Champagne, of course!" Of course.

We moved on to Italy, Chile, South Africa, and back to France for a perfect Beaujolias. The tasting ended with some cognac and the only thing I regret about the event is eating some raspberry pate between sips. I just can't get on board with meat paste.

Backpack filled with booty.
Nearly two hours passed while we made our way around the wine shop and we certainly didn't leave empty-handed. My husband had to lug around bottles of champagne, muscat, and one of the most delicious white wines (a Gewurtztraminer) we've had in recent memory.

We spent the next hour walking around Delfshaven. We saw a reconstructed 18th-century windmill and we also learned that Delfshaven is where the Pilgrims tried leaving for America aboard the Speedwell. How appropriate to find this out the weekend before Thanksgiving! The Oude Kerk is where the pilgrims prayed for the last time before departure.

Reconstructed windmill in Delfshaven.
I wish I could tell you more about Rotterdam but the day was quickly darkening and it wasn't getting any warmer so we decided to make our way back to the train station for our two hour ride home. We had been on the train for about an hour when the conductor announced that the next stop would unexpectedly be our last due to one of the trains breaking. A collective sigh went up through the aisles and we all de-boarded. All passengers were immediately shuffled to waiting buses and we continued our journey to Sittard. Despite the setback, I thought the process was very efficient. And other than the clan of pre-adolescent Dutch girls singing along to songs like "Wild Ones" by Flo Rida, it was a pleasant detour.

I wish I could tell you more about Rotterdam. I know there is a lot more to see and do in the "2nd City of the Netherlands" but what can I say? I love wine. Most of the afternoon was over by the time we left Jan van Breda but there is one thing I know for sure in life: Time is never wasted at an impromptu wine tasting.

A fisherman and his bicycle on a dreary day in Rotterdam.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Beautiful Bruges

Life has certainly been hectic the past few months with visitors coming here and our big trip back home, but before we trekked back to the U.S., we made a stop in Bruges.

Bruges is beautiful. People are friendly, the food is tasty, and the sights are amazing. Like Budapest, it was an incredibly photogenic city and I took advantage of my camera as we walked along the cobblestone streets and listened to the ringing church bells.



We stayed at a Bed and Breakfast fittingly called A Dream. It was a quick 15-minute walk from the hotel to the city center. Our host suggested dinner at Den Amand. The tiny, nondescript restaurant is easy to miss because it is slightly off the beaten path. The intimate dining area probably seats less than 30 people and we certainly felt lucky to have secured a table. The menu is imaginative and authentic Belgian fare. The chocolate sampler dessert was heavenly. Portions were large, prices were fair, service was impeccable, and the wine was excellent. Don't miss it if you are looking for a place to dine in Bruges!

The next day was spent walking around the city and taking in the sights. We strolled through the Grote Markt, climbed to the top of the belfry tower, drank some Zot beer at De Halve Maan (The Half Moon) brewery, and gazed upon the sculpture of Madonna and Child by Michelangelo. 

Grote Markt
Bruges from the Belfry
Zot Beer
Madonna and Child in Church of Our Lady
We spent just one full day in Bruges and as we prepared to make the drive back home, we knew that one day isn't enough to devote to this fairy tale city. I'm hoping for a return trip very soon to visit the Christmas market and see all of the things we missed during our brief glance.

So au revoir for now, Bruges. But keep the gluhwein hot for us!



Friday, October 12, 2012

My First Year Abroad

One year ago today we stepped off of the plane in Dusseldorf and into the beginning of a big adventure. Looking back through my blog now is very nostalgic. I can't believe there was a time when I didn't know how to use the appliances in the house, order bread at the bakery, and negotiate a two-lane roundabout. Now all of these things happen just as naturally as if I'd always known what to say and do.

I've learned a lot over the course of a year. The list is endless and covers everything from how to count on your fingers (always start with the thumb) to how to make friends with your German neighbors (mow the yard, sweep the sidewalk, and shovel the snow-- before anyone else on the street).

I've learned how to drink water without ice cubes and, more importantly, to pay exorbitant amounts of money for tiny glass-bottled water because Germans won't drink tap water. I've learned how to flag down waiters and waitresses because if you don't, they will never return to your table after their initial greetings. I've learned to like curry ketchup and I've also been privy to the suspicious glance given when you say you don't like mayonnaise.

Through trial and error, I can now cycle almost as well as a Dutch person. I still can't do the hands-free riding while I text or tie my shoe as I'm gliding down the road, but I know how to use the correct signals and I've also somewhat adopted the Dutch nonchalance-- "Cars can't hit me. I have right-of-way no matter what!" And after having my bike stolen at the train station, I truly feel indoctrinated into the culture.

I love all of the holidays and traditions. Carnival in Germany and the Netherlands is crazy and I'm looking forward to it again this year. Christmastime is enchanting; people are friendlier and the markets are amazing. I loved May Day! I hope the teenage girl across the street has another suitor next year because I'll never get over seeing 6 boys, drunk off Bitburger, trying to situate a giant rose wreath onto the front of her house at 3am. Maybe next year she'll get a birch tree too.

Before we arrived, I couldn't imagine that our new location would be so close to other countries. I remember being perplexed the first time we sat down at a Dutch cafe five minutes away from our house. We didn't even realize we had crossed over a border and when we received our menus we puzzled over them for a few minutes before I declared, "This is another language! It's not even German!" And that's how we found out how close we are to the Netherlands.

To say that I've been to Ireland, Croatia, Mallorca, Hungary, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands in just one year is mind-blowing. They have been experiences I never expected and I'm truly grateful and humbled by how fortunate I am. We have met so many kind people along the way and stumbled upon lots of great little restaurants, pubs, and alleyways.

Everything you've heard about the beer, bread, and chocolate is true. They're all incredible. I don't know if I can ever drink a Bud Light again.

In general, I love it here. After the passage of a year, it's easier to reflect on the things I miss most about home. Some are silly and some are irreplaceable.

I miss my family and friends, of course. I wish they could all be here to experience everything with me.

I miss American college football games. I really do miss ice cubes. I miss Target. I miss some American television. I definitely miss country music. I miss parking spaces large enough to accommodate my mid-sized car. I miss large refrigerators and counter space in kitchens.

Strangely enough, I haven't had any cravings for fast food or chain restaurants. I'm actually pretty terrified to visit home and be faced with endless portions of food and the convenience of a drive-thru. I've become much healthier since being here and I've even stuck with the running-- another thing I never thought I'd be doing on a regular basis. The biking and running trails that exist everywhere here are definitely something America is lacking. Who wouldn't be excited to run if the route took you through perfectly-manicured farm fields, towering stalks of corn, wildflowers, and verdant forests with pine-needle carpets?

Year two promises many more adventures and adjustments. Perhaps this is the year I'll become proficient in German. Maybe I'll improve my French so I can confidently navigate through Paris. It's a possibility that our neighbors might invite us over for their holiday parties! That possibility might be more likely if I washed our windows and swept the sidewalk.... so, no, I don't know for sure if we'll receive any invitations. Oh well. We can always have our own party complete with copious amounts of Bitburger and thumping techno music.

We're beginning the second year here with a bang: Oktoberfest this weekend and our first trip home in over a year!

I originally began this blog in order to bring my family and friends along with me to Germany. Ironically, my highest readership comes from Germany so people back home have a lot of explaining to do. However you found this blog, whether you know me personally or just stumbled across it by chance, thank you so much for reading!

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Germany of My Dreams: Monschau

When I first found out we were moving to Germany, I pictured storybook villages surrounded by mountains and meandering creeks. The area we live in is certainly beautiful, but not in the Hansel-and-Gretel way. Luckily Monschau is less than two hours away and it's the village of my imagination!

The weather has become cold and dreary here again but a few raindrops can't spoil the splendor of Monschau. Original half-timbered houses dot the winding, cobblestone streets. We visited on Germany's Unification Day (marking the reunification of East and West Germany) so some of the attractions were closed.

The rote haus (red house) was built in 1752 by a wealthy cloth merchant. Inside is a self-supporting oak wood staircase that spans three floors. Due to the holiday we were unable to take the tour but it's on the list of things to do when we return in December for the Christmas market!

Rote Haus
Speaking of Christmas, we strolled through a shop entirely devoted to nutcrackers, smokers, and the most beautiful tree ornaments I've ever seen in one place. Commerce is definitely catered for the tourists. Postcard stands and shelves filled with beer steins are commonplace. One Monschau product that lives up to the hype is mustard. It's made between old millstones using traditional craft methods. No preservatives are added (no worries-- it will be eaten long before the year expiration) and it's packaged in authentic clay pots. After taste-testing several varieties, we settled on Original and Honey Mustard.

We grabbed a quick bite for lunch and decided to trek up to the top of the hills to see some ruins from the castle. Unfortunately we didn't make it all the way to Monschau Castle during this visit but the outpost ruins were interesting and hiking to the top rewarded us with magnificent views of the mountains, the River Rur, and the entire village.









We stopped at the Felsenkeller Brewery on the way out of Monschau. Guided tours can be pre-arranged but we just paid the admission (4 Euros each) and walked ourselves through the brewery with an English guidebook. One of the most interesting rooms is devoted to beer bottles from around the world. We were also able to go into the Felsenkeller (rock cellar). It was created in 1830 by a blast into the slate mountain. The brewery operated for over a hundred years before shutting down in 1994.




Monschau was beautiful! The dismal weather couldn't dampen our spirits as we walked back in time through the village. The air smelled of firewood and cozy lights from timber house windows illuminated the narrow streets. I can imagine what it will look like with snow covering the roofs and the lights and sounds from the Christmas market enveloping us as we sip gluhwein.



Next up: Bruges!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Nurburgring

We spent the last day of my brother's visit at the Nurburgring. I'm not much of an automobile enthusiast but even I appreciated all of the fast, fancy cars showboating around the complex. It was mind-blowing to see so many expensive cars in one place.


BMW offers a Ring Taxi service. Up to three people can be chauffeured around the track in an M5 by a professional driver. The other opportunity provided by BMW is co-piloting in an Aston Martin V8 Vantage N24. Without hesitation, my brother decided on the Aston Martin experience.

My Brother's Ride
His lap was scheduled for 2:30 but accidents on the track caused delays. In the event of an accident (frequently), the entire track is shut down for cleaning and maintenance. Loudspeakers announce when the track is ready for drivers again and all of the waiting motorists fist-pump joyfully and rush back out to their cars to enter the line-up when given the all-clear.

Almost ready!
My brother was suited up in race gear and a helmet. Admittedly, I was a bit nervous as I watched him get strapped into the passenger seat. But he was cool as a cucumber, looking as if this was his millionth time soaring through the Eifel Mountains at speeds of almost 300 kilometers.

The ride lasted just 10 minutes but he said it was an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience. After watching the video from the dashboard-camera and seeing how excited my often-stoic brother was after the lap, I must say that I wanted to jump into the next available racing suit and strap myself into the car. And of course my husband wants his turn as well. 

The co-pilot rides are pricey (almost $400) and they require advance registration. If you have the cash to blow and the desire to zip around the Nurburgring Gran Turismo-style, you should definitely consider it. 

Cars waiting for admission to the Ring.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Weekend in Antwerp and Brussels

It was so great to see my brother after almost an entire year. We crammed lots of places and activities into his two weeks here and I was sad to see him go at the end of it. We went to all of the standard places (Aachen, Koln, Brussels, Amsterdam) but we also took the opportunity to see some new things.

We went to Antwerp last winter when my sister visited but it was only a brief stop on our way to a beer festival in a smaller town just outside of the city. I wanted my brother to experience Belgium fully so we decided to spend his first weekend here in Antwerp and Brussels. We rented an apartment in Antwerp for the convenience of having two full bedrooms and more space. The Coco-Mat Residence is on a busy street above the Coco-Mat furniture store. The apartment was large and bright, beautifully furnished with interesting pieces from the store. The kitchen was larger than the one in our home and I spent a few blissful moments opening cabinets and drawers, imagining what I would do with all of the space if we lived there.

The apartment was the perfect location for our wanderings around Antwerp. We went to the train station where the architecture still impressed me even though it was my second time seeing it. Based upon lots of suggestions, we also stopped by the Kulminator. It's a famous bar in Antwerp and is consistently voted as one of the top pubs in the world. We arrived at opening time so we didn't have a chance to see it busy. The owners, a husband and wife team, were cordial. The interior is decorated with lots of lush plants and there is a charming little garden at the rear. Classical music trumpeted through the speakers, giving the place a strangely refined tone. We sipped our beers introspectively and decided we were satisfied after a couple of rounds. Maybe it was just the time of day, but I wouldn't put the Kulminator ahead of Cafe Rembrandt in Tongeren. The offerings were expansive but the prices were astronomical compared to lesser-known pubs. I know the Kulminator didn't begin this way, but it's now become a mecca for tourists-- we weren't the only Americans there that afternoon. If you must, stop by for a drink but move on afterward unless you want to leave with empty pockets.

Next, we strolled along the River Scheldt. We missed this part of Antwerp the first time we were here. We ended up in the Oude Werf, Antwerp's oldest neighborhood. The Steen (stone) is all that remains of the 800-year-old Antwerp Castle.
















Grote Markt
After a look at the lovely Grote Markt, we had a nice dinner at an outdoor cafe. We were lured by sounds of music and laughter to another square. By sheer luck, we had happened upon the Liberation Ball! Antwerp was liberated by Allied troops in September of 1944. The Liberation Ball is a complete recreation of that time. Some people were decked out like American soldiers while others were dressed in their swing-dance best! The performers crooned music of the era while everyone Lindy Hopped around the dance floor. It was amazing! I only wished I'd known so I could have dressed for the occasion.


Swing Dance at the Liberation Ball

We made the 25-minute drive to Brussels the next morning. We showed my brother the Grand Place and the Manneken Pis statue. Then we quenched our thirst with some lambic beers. The boys decided they wanted to go to Autoworld, a huge museum dedicated to the history of the automobile. Admittedly, I wasn't too interested in this attraction but we did manage to walk through the Cinquantenaire Park on the way. It was filled with sunbathers and picnickers and flanked by Brussels' Arc de Triomphe.

After another Belgian beer break, dinner was served and we were on the way back to Germany.

I'm glad we had another look at Antwerp. To me, the highlight of the weekend was the Liberation Ball. Maybe some swing dancing lessons are in my future.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Adventures in Zadar, Croatia

I was searching for sunny, moderately-priced places to visit since we know our summer days here are numbered. Zadar, Croatia was among the choices listed on the Ryanair site. Without too much consideration, I booked the flight, secured a hotel, and packed a bathing suit and some sunscreen.

We stayed in the Villa Ivana hotel just outside of Zadar. It was more like an apartment, with a fully-functional kitchen and an awesome balcony overlooking the Adriatic. The owners were very friendly and helpful and our stay there was really enjoyable.

Many of Zadar's beaches (including the one in front of our hotel), are rocky. We didn't know that you're supposed to wear special shoes in the water to prevent slipping on the rocks. Fortunately, Villa Ivana had some extras on-hand so we were able to swim without injury. The water isn't as clear as Mallorca's but it was still nice and the temperature was perfect.

The walk into the Old City of Zadar from the hotel took about 40 minutes. It was pleasant enough: walking by the sea, listening to the gentle waves splashing against the docked boats. But it was hot. Oh boy, was it hot. Maybe it's because I've been away from Florida for so long, but I don't remember ever experiencing a heat like that. In Florida, it's usually really humid. The heat in Zadar is arid and suffocating. I began imagining myself wandering around lost in a desert, much like Clark Griswold in National Lampoon's Vacation. By the time we reached town I was hallucinating about waterfalls and oases. It was very, very, very hot.


Zadar's history is interesting and dates back to at least the 9th century BC. Some of the city walls and towers built in the 15th century to protect against attacks from the Turks are still standing today. In some ways, Zadar feels like a city time forgot. The streets in the Old Town are made of shiny marble and ancient, crumbling churches provide the backdrop.




One of the biggest draws for tourists to Zadar is the Sea Organ. It's certainly one of the most unique and interesting things I've ever seen. Organ music is produced by the natural lulling of the waves. I didn't know what to expect. I thought it might sound weird and inharmonious, but it was lovely and soothing.

video

Another reason to sit on the steps of the Sea Organ is to watch the sunset. Alfred Hitchcock visited Zadar in 1964. He claimed that the sunset in Zadar was the most beautiful he'd ever seen. I haven't been everywhere in the world yet, but I think he was onto something. It was truly breathtaking.

We spent the first two days relaxing by the sea and walking to the Old Town. During one of our rowboat rides, we met a woman from New York who was traveling with her young grandsons. She told us she was originally born in Croatia but her family moved to New York when she was 11. She met her husband, a fellow Croatian, during college in New York. Every summer they come back to Zadar to spend a few months reconnecting with their roots. She generously paid our fare for the ride and then took photos of us posing with her grandchildren. It's moments like this that remind me how small the world is.

View from Elizabet
For our final full day, we decided to take a boat excursion to the Kornati Islands. There are many companies to choose from for the day trips to islands and national parks. We went with the company recommended to us by our hotel. Our boat was called Elizabet and she was a beauty. There were two decks to lounge on and complimentary coffee, lemonade, and wine to sip on as we cruised over the cerulean waters of the Adriatic.

The Kornati archipelago is comprised of over 120 islands, with many of them declared national parks. The Elizabet was set to dock for two hours, allowing us to swim, hike, and wander around to our hearts' content.

Salt Lake
We first made our way to the Salt Lake, fondly described by many a Zadar native as, "our wonderful, natural phenomenon! You must see!" The walk to the lake wasn't exactly pleasant. The scorching sun beat down upon us as we scurried up a gradually-sloping hill. We were sweating and breathless once we reached the lake. The beach was extremely crowded, with beach towels and suntan lotion bottles littering the rocky ground, and some topless Europeans sunning themselves by the water. We dropped our things off and immediately slathered on the sunscreen for our dip in the lake. The water was surprisingly warm and we decided to get out and go back to the lagoon area for a proper swim.

The water in the lagoon was much more refreshing and less crowded. We swam around for a while, looking at the fish and coral through our goggles. After that, we hiked up to a lookout point for some panoramic views of the sea. The two hours went by surprisingly fast and before we knew it we were walking back to board our boat.


We were walking at a leisurely pace, as we had 20 minutes to spare before departure. Suddenly everyone began getting out of the water. My first irrational thought was that there were sharks. After I realized no one was screaming, I noticed that the water was getting very choppy. We continued on to the docks and saw that Elizabet wasn't parked and waiting with the other boats. She was a little further out and we just figured she'd pull in once one of the other boats left. We perched on some rocks as we were joined by fellow waiting passengers. Suddenly the waves began crashing in earnest. All of the boats were swaying from side to side.

We quickly realized that our boat was the only one un-docked. All of the other boats were filled and their passengers gazed at us from the comfort of their sheltered decks. By now, all of the guests of the Elizabet were sitting on the rocks waiting like shipwrecked castaways. We began glancing and shrugging uneasily at each other as the waves crashed up over the docks splashing us. Some of the other English-speaking passengers began talking about a new reality show they'd cleverly thought of: Survivor: Kornati Islands.

Our departure time came and went. Someone asked one of the park rangers what was happening and he explained that the waves were too choppy for any of the boats to leave and until at least one of them left, our boat couldn't dock.

We watched as all of the passengers on the other boats were served their steaming-hot dinners, wondering what the fate of our meals were. Eventually a few of us decided to go back to one of the restaurants on higher ground to order some food. I was paranoid the entire time that our boat was going to suddenly come back, pick up the waiting passengers, and leave us stranded at the restaurant. It wasn't a very relaxing snack.

As soon as we saw one of the boats leave, we raced back to the shore only to wait another 20 minutes. Apparently the position that was vacated wasn't large enough for Elizabet so we had to wait for one more boat to leave.

Finally she came sailing toward us, our beacon of hope (for a hot meal) and our savior from the uncomfortable rock-seats. We all rushed forward as soon as the door was opened and our lukewarm dinner was served hastily.

Needless to say, the ride back was rather choppy. I've never been seasick and, thankfully, I wasn't this time. But if there was ever an occasion to hang your head off the side of a boat, this would have been it. We were supposed to make another stop at a tiny fishing village but because we were now almost two hours behind schedule, we went straight back to Zadar. I don't think anyone was too disappointed after our brief, unexpected adventure as Swiss Family Robinson.

Our flight home was very early the next morning. The Villa Ivana family graciously stocked our refrigerator with coffee, bread, yogurt, and fruit so we could have breakfast before we left. Our cab driver was gregarious (especially for 6:30am) and knowledgeable. He regaled us with interesting facts about Zadar during our ride. One thing that is very evident about the people of Zadar is how proud they are of their up-and-coming city.

"Zadar is the most beautiful place in the world!" he exclaimed. "You have mountains and sea and lagoons. There is the natural phenomenon of the Salt Lake! You can go snow skiing and then go swimming in the very same day. We have everything here!"

I describe Zadar as up-and-coming because the ravages of war are still glaringly present. It suffered greatly from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. The city was shelled by Serbian forces for a couple years. All of this happened in the early 1990's so it's easy to understand why the people of Zadar are hopeful and proud of their city. As our driver was describing the terrain, he interrupted himself and said, "Oh, and up ahead I will show you a bombed-out house. This is where my friend lost his life in the war." And sure enough, there it was: a building that certainly looked as if it had been hit by a bomb. We somberly gazed out the cab window at the reminder of war's atrocities but we couldn't dwell on it too long because the driver cheerfully said, "And up here-- this is the biggest shopping center for miles around! Isn't it amazing?!"

I think there are lessons to be learned in a place like Zadar. The city and its people have been through countless wars and hard times, but they're all still standing tall and proud. They bond over shared hardships and happier things, like their favorite pastime: basketball. I think the people are remarkable resilient and it was easy to see that from the way our cab driver pointed out a hard reality of the past, but in the same breath, extolled upon the great things happening now in Zadar.

Our time in Zadar was unique and humbling. I can safely say I never really thought about Croatia until I saw it listed on the Ryanair website but I'm so glad we ended up there. I'd do it all over again, just to chat with the locals and see the sunset.