Monday, January 30, 2012

It's Snowing!

I've been waiting for it to snow for weeks. It goes in and out of the forecast and I was beginning to think that the meteorologists must just throw a chance of it in every few days, just to be sure they "predicted" it if it does happen. Yesterday we went for a bike ride around 2pm. Our adventure lasted all of five minutes because we couldn't bear the frigid wind and wet air. We were the only fools outside and my husband said he could see tiny snowflakes falling.

I checked the forecast before I went to sleep last night and snow was a 20% possibility. I didn't get my hopes up too much because it was also supposed to snow Friday night and, as usual, nothing happened except a regular cold day. 

This morning, it finally happened!

I hope eventually there will be enough snow for me to build a German snowman.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Trying to Stay Classy in Luxembourg

We have crossed a fourth country off the list! So far, one word comes to mind when I think of Europe in the winter: wet. I know I sound like a broken record, but I'll begin by saying that the weather was rainy, cold, and windy. Our 2.5 hour drive was very scenic (even through the mist). We drove through Liege alongside picturesque canals. We entered the Province of Luxembourg and passed by the Ardennes, a mountainous region of extensive, dense forests. Most notably, the Ardennes is where the Battle of the Bulge took place. We did not have time to stop for a visit but it is definitely one of our must-sees.

We knew Luxembourg would be expensive so we didn't have any grand delusions about dining in Michelin-rated restaurants or sleeping in a luxurious 5-star hotel. We chose humble accomodations close to the train station. At only 79 Euros and a 10-minute walk from the city center, it was a steal. Though we miss the sidewalk cafes and sunshine, the major benefit to traveling during winter is price. The same room we paid 79 Euros for yesterday will be 145 Euros during the peak of tourist season. And knowing we are fortunate enough to make return trips, seeing the city less crowded is a nice way to get our bearings and make solid plans for the next visit.

We arrived around 1pm and found our hotel, the All Seasons, easily. We grabbed our map and headed for the Place d'Armes. The weather worsened during our walk so we took several photos of the square and hurriedly found a cafe.
Place d'Armes
Having been fed, warmed, and dried, we began our tour in earnest. The Grand Ducal Palace was built in 1572 and originally intended for the city's town hall. I was hoping that the Grand Ducal Family would wave to us from a balcony. They must have been on vacation.

By the time we finished lunch and saw the Place d'Armes and palace, we decided it was too rainy and windy to take a lift down to the Grund quarter. Instead we amused ourselves by turning down little side streets and playing our favorite game: Which House Should We Buy in (expensive European city)? We found lots of options and I'm excited for the time we become billionaires so we can make these purchases.

We found a cluster of tiny restaurants tucked away and decided on a moderately-priced but still elegant place for dinner. Satisfied with our attempt to brave the soggy streets of Luxembourg, we went back to the hotel to get ready for our night on the town.

Thankfully the rain stopped while we were inside so our journey back to the center wasn't uncomfortable. We found our little restaurant and hoped for the best since we didn't have a reservation. I'm going to offer you some valuable advice now. When in Europe-- anywhere-- make a reservation for dinner. Restaurant kitchens typically do not stay open past 10pm. Most patrons arrive around 7 and stay until closing. By making a reservation, you are usually booking a table for at least three hours. We should obviously know better by now, and of course you know where I'm going with this; our perfect little restaurant was full for the evening.

We shuffled back into the street, muttering to ourselves how foolish we are to continue to barge into restaurants without a reservation.

We began to canvas the area for more options. One of them was a Michelin-rated restaurant with a prix fixe menu of 135 Euros each. As previously mentioned, we have not reached billionaire-status at this juncture in our lives so we decided to pass. We began looking at every menu posted outside of restaurants, pubs, bistros, cafes, and hotels. All of them were out of our price range and just as we were preparing to bite the bullet, eat, and then declare bankruptcy, we saw a corner establishment with a prix fixe selection of 36 Euros each. We quietly high-fived and made our way into the Caves Gourmandes.

The host immediately informed us that there was no room without a reservation. But suddenly the Dinner Angel descended from the sky (or the chef came out of the kitchen) and in his booming voice said, "There is room for two. Let them eat!"

We were led to a tiny table in what looked like a grotto. Tealight candles flickered on the beautiful stone walls. Wine glasses clinked together gaily. Couples quietly murmured sweet nothings in French. Just when I thought it couldn't get any better, our refined waiter told us we were dining in one of Luxembourg's finest Michelin restaurants! What luck!

We began our three-course menu with a bottle of Luxembourg Pinot Noir. Our first courses were a fish stew and Coquilles St. Jacques. Both dishes were flavorful and amazing. For the main course we both chose the pork dish. I loved the salad and whipped potatoes with scallions but the pork was a little strange. It seemed to be ground pork mixed with herbs and spices and then deep fried. We were politely chewing and commenting to each other about the unique taste and then I had an epiphany.

"I know what it tastes like," I exclaimed.
"Yes, it is familiar," replied my husband.
"Corn dog."
He hesitated, not wanting to spoil the Michelin atmosphere and then he leaned toward me and whispered, "Yes, the outside does taste like a corn dog."

We were both slightly ashamed to have arrived at this conclusion. There was nothing bad about the pork but once your mind settles on corn dogs, all you can think about are ferris wheels, bumper cars, and carnies.

Thankfully, dessert was masterful. Flambeed bananas with pure vanilla bean ice cream topped with a decadent rum sauce. This was certainly not a snack you'll find at any state fairground.

We were ready for the check so my husband got the waiter's attention. What followed was the beginning of the end to our fancy dinner. You know those moments when you anticipate your response to a question before it's even asked? The waiter approached and said, "Monsieur, are you ready for the check now?" For some reason my husband imagined that the waiter would say bill instead of check. This flustered him and he absurdly combined the two words, slightly shook his head and replied, "No just the chill, please."

The waiter cocked his head to the side, smiled strangely, and retrieved our 'chill.' As we walked away, the waiter deliberately said to me, "Have a good night, Monsieur." And then he called my husband madame. The whole thing was odd and I still don't understand what happened.

We approached the door and the host, another waiter, and the chef were standing in front of it, talking and smoking. They asked about our dinner and we told them it was fabulous. For reasons I don't know, I can hardly ever manage to open a door here without either pushing or pulling the wrong way, or trying to open it from the wrong side entirely. As all three men stood by, I pushed on the right side of the door. Nothing happened. Then I pulled. Again, nothing happened. By now the men had halted their conversation and were taking long drags of their cigarettes as I smiled sheepishly, pushing and tugging. I focused my attention on the left side of the door and pushed gingerly.

Suddenly one of the men reached in front of me and exasperatedly said, "No, NO, Madame! Like THIS!" He pulled the door open with ease and I'm fairly certain we were shoved into the street, a chorus of French laughter echoing behind us. It made me feel very American.

Despite some faux pas, I would consider our first trip to Luxembourg a success. I'm looking forward to returning when the wineries and sidewalk cafes are open. It's too bad that the weather hampers some activities but we always manage to have a good time and lots of laughs. Things to remember for next time: 1.) Make a dinner reservation. 2.) Don't call the check a chill. 3.) Pull instead of push.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Weather is Weird

Weather is strange here. On Tuesday it was 27 degrees and sunny. Snow was in the forecast for this weekend and I thought it would definitely happen this time. Yesterday was overcast with higher temperatures, but very windy. Gusts of wind almost blew me over while I was riding my bike. Today the temperature is 47. It's extremely wet and snowflakes won't be falling any time soon.


We've been finding lots of fun things to do and it seems like we're finally settling into a nice schedule. Most Thursdays I go to a farmer's market in Sittard. Vendors sell everything from watches and underwear, to fresh seafood and cheese. The produce and baked goods are amazing. It's a nice way to end the week, even if it's rainy and cold outside.

We went to Maastricht on Tuesday for trivia night at an Irish pub. The crowd is international and all of the clues are given in Dutch and English. I heard that some Dutch people like to go there to practice their English. Once again it amazes me that everyone we meet speaks at least two languages. I definitely think American children should begin learning a second language in primary school. Our team didn't win first place (or even close) but we had a great time. Sometimes I wish we lived in Maastricht but I think we will appreciate having a big yard when the summer comes.

Luxembourg is the plan for the weekend and the snow that was forecast has been replaced by rain. I'm excited to see every new place we go but I'll be truly ecstatic when the grays and blacks in the sky are finally blue.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Three Months

We've been living in Germany for three months. Sometimes it seems like we just arrived yesterday, and other days it feels like we've been here much longer. I'd like to be able to say that I'm able to understand lots of Dutch and German by now, but it just isn't true. My interactions are still limited to saying hello and goodbye, smiling and nodding, and uttering the occasional, "Excuse me."

When we found out we were moving here, neither of us knew just how close we would be to the Netherlands. We actually spend most of our time there rather than Germany. During our first week, one of my husband's co-workers mentioned that he liked Holland very much. I responded by widening my eyes in awe and exclaiming, "Wow! Holland is close by?" I'm embarrassed to admit it, but for some reason I thought that Holland and the Netherlands were two different places.

I know I'm fortunate to be able to experience other countries so fully, but I still miss home sometimes. I miss being able to approach a random person and begin a conversation with them. I miss small talk with cashiers. I miss bookstores filled with the smells of coffee and paper, and of course books written in English. I miss American television and yes, even American commercials. I miss college football and tailgating. I miss Publix. I miss sharing a time zone with my family and friends. I miss karaoke. I miss ice cubes (rarely used here for some reason). I miss Atlanta, Savannah, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, St. Augustine, and the field behind my parent's house.

There are still so many things we don't understand. Our doorbell buzzed this past Saturday and my husband was greeted by several children dressed as wizards. One of the older children spoke a little English and my husband ascertained that they were soliciting donations for their church. He gave them 5 Euro and sent them on their way. What a funny thing to happen! I can't imagine little wizards walking around an American neighborhood on behalf of their church.

I frequently arrive home to find our mail slot stuffed with fliers and brochures delivered by unknown neighborhood messengers. Before moving here, I was never daunted by a simple piece of paper. It's a funny and helpless feeling when you can't understand your community's propaganda.

The brochure on the left has something to do with the wizards. I think the flier on the right may be asking for clothing and shoe donations. 
We are trying our best to integrate and learn how to live out of our comfort zone. Some days are harder and more stressful than others. I know everything will be fine as long as we continue to laugh at our misadventures. Thanks for laughing with me so far!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Valkenburg Castle and Velvet Cave

We didn't have any big plans for this past weekend so we decided to take in some sights close to home. Valkenburg originally came to my attention because of its Christmas markets. Apparently one of them is underground in the caves! We didn't get a chance to go this year but I'm looking forward to it next year. In the meantime, there is still a lot to see in this picturesque city. We decided to tour the Valkenburg Castle ruins and the Fluweelengrot (Velvet Cave).

The drive from our house took only 35 minutes. It was a typical rainy, dreary day but green rolling hills dotted with lovely houses and church steeples brightened our moods.

Valkenburg is small and very easy to navigate on foot. We arrived almost an hour ahead of the next tour of the Velvet Cave so we amused ourselves with our new favorite hobby. It's a little game we like to call How Can We Afford to Live Here Permanently One Day. We wandered around aimlessly down main roads and quiet side streets marveling at homes and making guesses about the families who live there.
"I bet the dad is an architect and the mom is a professor."
"No... the house is probably hundreds of years old and they've inherited it. They probably have two children, a boy and girl of course, and they are perfect and cherubic."
"Wait! I bet they're both doctors. And they have a nanny and a chef. And a vegetable garden in the back."
"Of course! What an idyllic life the Dutch do lead."

2pm quickly arrived and it was time for the tour. When we bought our tickets, we were told the tour was in Dutch. We were given a sheet of paper with an English description of what the tour guide would say, and then we ignored a bit of crucial advice. The woman in the ticket booth told us to be sure to read the descriptions before the tour. Instead of reading, we spent the next 45 minutes walking around town imagining what Dutch people do for a living.

There were probably forty people in our group. We were taken to the entrance of the Velvet Cave and when the doors opened, we were greeted by darkness. "Oh," I thought. "This is why we were supposed to read the description beforehand. It's obviously dark in a cave."

Before I continue with the tour, here's a brief description of the Velvet Cave: It dates back to the 11th or 12th century and is the oldest cave in southern Limburg. Marl was mined there for use in the construction of the castle. The tunnel system is the result of the marl extraction. 

Our bubbly Dutch tour guide took his place at the front of the crowd and began leading us down into the labyrinth. We blindly (literally) followed everyone. Our guide stopped at various points along the way and animatedly told stories. I can only imagine how entertaining he was. I assume this was a delightful tour because everyone was laughing and participating heartily. We took our cues from the crowd. If everyone laughed, we laughed. When the crowd gasped with delight, so did we. This worked well for the duration of the tour.

I took lots of photos for us to reference later and even though we couldn't understand what the guide was saying, it was still incredible to be in the cave and to learn (later) about its extensive history.

In 1853, Valkenburg made the caves more attractive to a new influx of tourists. Some walls were smoothed  and then blackened with charcoal. Drawings illustrating Valkenburg's history were etched into the wall.
America also has its place in the history of the Velvet Cave. In September of 1944, the American army entered South Limburg. Heavy fighting in Valkenburg only took place during the last six days before the liberation on September 17th. Luckily Valkenburg itself didn't suffer much, but the people of the city did seek shelter in the local caves. About 600 locals stayed inside the Velvet Cave.

After the liberation, some of the soldiers received a few days of leave and stayed in Valkenburg to visit the Velvet Cave. The guide in those days, Willy van Akker, made several silhouettes of these soldiers.  

Etchings by American soldiers
In 1794, South Limburg became part of the French Republic. A new law required subjects to swear opposition to the French Royal House. Catholic priests who refused to take this oath could no longer serve as priests and many were captured and imprisoned. Those who wished to continue working were forced into hiding. Some sought refuge in the caves. The following photos are of the chapel.

After our underground journey and accidental immersion in the Dutch language, we made our way up to the castle ruins. Interestingly, Valkenburg Castle is the only elevated castle in the Netherlands. The first fortifications were probably built around 1115. Its story is like any you would imagine of a European castle. There were sieges that destroyed the castle, reconstructions, and takeovers. 

What's left today are beautiful ruins that transport you back in time to days of draw bridges and dungeons.

We ended the day with dinner in Maastricht, one of our favorite cities. There are several other places for us to visit in Valkenburg and I can't wait to return. I can imagine what it will look like when the weather is nicer and the sidewalk cafes are crowded. Perhaps by then I will also be able to understand Dutch. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

New Year's Eve in Brussels

We spent the last day of 2011 in Brussels! Our hotel reservation wasn't made until the last minute but we still managed to get an affordable rate at a nice place in the heart of the city. Dinner reservations were more difficult to obtain. All of our first choices were already booked or too expensive. After several hours of emailing and calling restaurants in the vicinity of the Grand Place, we finally reached a friendly host who penciled us in for 7:30.

The drive to Brussels from our house is only about an hour and a half. Unfortunately the weather forecast for the day was rainy, windy, and chilly. The good news is that I think I'm becoming accustomed to this. Back home, I would never usually venture out if it was gloomy and raining. Here, that is so often the case that you might as well get your umbrella and go outside or risk being trapped in your house for days.

We arrived around 2pm and immediately found our hotel. Impressed with ourselves, we decided to continue driving just to see some parts of the city we wouldn't have time for during this trip. We planned on just going a little further down the road and turning around so we could keep our bearings. This little side-trip was a mistake. Six confusing roundabouts, a couple tunnels, and 30 minutes later, we finally made it back to our hotel. Thankfully, we were able to check in with little fanfare.

Our room was very nice! Windows filling an entire wall looked out upon a little park that was lovely even in the rain. I made my way over to the bathroom to check it out and when I tried the lights, they didn't work. I pressed the switch several more times and blindly felt my way around the dark room, still unable to determine how to use the lights. I called my husband in for reinforcement and he proceeded to do the same things, shrugging his shoulders at the end of his futile attempt.

He went into the bedroom and tried the television and other lights. They also did not work. "Someone must have blown a fuse," he said.

He called the front desk and was advised to place a room key in a slot by the door. Once we did this, all of the lights blinked to life and we remarked how efficient this hotel must be regarding energy savings. I haven't yet encountered a hotel like this in America.

We set out to begin our rainy walk to the Grand Place. I loved the narrow side streets filled with tiny cafes!

Finally we arrived at the Grand Place (Grote Markt) and it was breathtaking! I think it's the most beautiful square I've seen so far.

Standing in the middle of this square made me feel small and very young. The earliest known written reference to the Grand Place dates back to 1174. 

After walking around and taking lots of photos, we decided it was time for the magical combination of pommes frites and Belgian beer. We went to a quaint pub off the beaten path and my husband tried a traditional lambic while I had a Hoegaarden Grand Cru. I've certainly had Hoegaarden in America but this was not the regular kind. It is much tastier, as all of the beer in Belgium is. And it boasts an ABV of 8.5%. I certainly needed some pommes frites afterward. Sadly, the kitchen at this pub was already closed so we found another place and had mussels.

We spent some more time walking around the city and then went back to our room to get ready for the evening's festivities. We were very excited for dinner and it did not disappoint. The menu was prixe fixe, with three choices for three courses. At just 59 Euro each, it was a steal. Better yet, it was delicious! The location was also perfect, at just a minute's walk from the Grand Place.

Our Restaurant for New Year's Eve Dinner
By the time we left, it was nearly 10pm and we only had two hours to wait until the countdown. We stopped into several more places, toasted each other with champagne, and ended up back at the square for the fireworks. 

After standing around for several minutes, my husband consulted his watch and noticed we were only a minute away from the stroke of midnight. Hearing no official countdown, we began to wonder if we were in the right spot. Suddenly fireworks began bursting and lighting up the sky but our view was blocked by buildings. The crowd rushed forward and began pushing and shoving toward the display. We were herded along with everyone else and I tripped, fell, and scraped my knee. Luckily no one ran over me as I dramatically crumpled on the cobblestone. My husband pulled me up and dragged me to safety. In our champagne-induced euphoria, we kept moving and managed to catch the tail-end of some fireworks.

Despite missing the majority of the fireworks show and a bloody, scraped knee, it was a very happy new year for us in Brussels. We are already wondering where we'll spend our second New Year's Eve in Europe!

Here is one more photo of the crowd. This is my favorite because of the kissing couple. 

Hello, 2012!