June 19, 2011

Photos from a packed couple months, part 2: Looking back at my Belgian spring

You could say that the summer has "started"-- especially in the U.S.: school is out, the weather's getting nice, and the days are the longest of the year. Here in Belgium, however, school hasn't completely finished, and it's currently the end-of-the-year period of craziness. I'm completely immersed in it-- I have been trying to cram everything I need and want to do here before I leave on July 9th. So, needless to say, there are quite a few things to do.

This spring that I have passed in Belgium has been a spring unlike one I have ever experienced, and unlike I will ever experience again. Describing it in words would be pretty tough, so I will do the majority of the description with a somewhat random assortement of photos. Scroll down the page--the text that is above the photos corresponds with each one, and the asterisks divide ideas and places.


I took a bike ride to the Waterloo lion (about 10 km from my house), passing beautiful old farm houses  on my way down the Chausée d'Alsemberg...

and arriving at the famous Waterloo lion, marking the battlefield where Napoleon was finished.


Tulips on my street....


Each weekday morning, I rode the bus...

Passing the Square des Heros (the monument to the war veterans) in the middle of Uccle, which is in the southern part of the Brussels-Capital region, or about 20 minutes on the bus from my house in Linkebeek.

After getting off the bus, I walked up this street...

Toward my school, Notre Dame des Champs.

Up the creaky wooden stairs...

To the "rassemblement," where the teachers take roll, and then to class...

A classic classroom scene...

The corner where my group of friends and I meet for lunch

Mes amis!


With the English class one day in March, we went to see an exhibition called l'Amerique: c'est aussi notre histoire (America: it's also our story). It told the story of the interactions between Europe and America from the European colonialization up until modern times.

In that exhibition was an old American Field Services ambulance... the American Field Service ambulance drivers during World War I were the ones who started the AFS exchange program.


This year, I particpated in the Belgian scouts-- I helped organize activities for kids ages 5-8. The Belgian scouts aren't at all like American scouts-- it's a bigger deal here, and much less formal. Their final party of the year was in April--here are a few pictures:


 My friend Trey (another American exchange student) and I photographed his AFS backpack in St. James' park while we were in London in April. AFS rocks!


My friends and I at the Bal de Rhetos-- the Belgian equivalent to the senior prom, only a lot more relaxed. No worrying about grand marches, dates, prom king or queen, who drives to the dance....just dressing up European-style (cool yet fashionable) and dancing to a DJ who plays the right music. And--the strangest thing for me as an American-- I bought a (totally legal) beer from my geography teacher.


Odd violins in the Musical Instrument Museum in Brussels-- a collection of musical instruments from all over the world.


Belgian countryside taken from the bus between Libramont and Bastogne. I went to visit the town of Bastogne with some other American exchange students-- Bastogne is where an important part of the Battle of the Bulge was held during World War II.


A couple weekends ago, I took a two-day trip to Amsterdam. On train at 6:20 A.M. Saturday morning from Brussels, and back to my house Sunday night at 11:30. I took around 200 pictures...here are some:

My camera was straight...the buildings were slanted.

I have grown to love bright red flowers with a European city background. 


Recently, I explored a part of Brussels called Ixelles, snapping pictures along the way. 

A classic Brussels street, somewhere near Avenue Louise...

one of the older Brussels trams-- they go all over the city.

One of the Ponds of Ixelles

The streets in this area are lined with houses that look like these...

or these...

and you sometimes find cars like this...

 I wandered around the grounds of the Abbaye de la Cambre, an abbey that dates back to the 13th century...I walked between the hedges and took a look inside the beautiful church.


As I returned back into Linkebeek, the bright red flowers that I passed in the planter in front of the Delhaize supermarket seemed almost flourescent with the sun shining through them. 

The blue, patchy-clouded sky provided a beautiful background for the church in the center of the main square.

I slid down the handrail rather than walking down the stairs toward my house.

It seemed like the right thing to do. 


June 9, 2011

Belgian portraits: Three meals

A few months ago, I wrote about what you can find in Belgian supermarkets. I'd like to continue that idea and describe a very Belgian set of meals. The foods I will talk about here are some of the things that I have eaten the most throughout the time I've been in Belgium. 

Generally, in Belgium, you have three meals a day, plus a goûter, or snack, that you eat after school. Or, that's at least how it goes in my host family (I have three teenage host brothers, so we eat quite a bit). There's also an apero, which isn't really a separate meal, but I'll describe it here as well. 

I have tried many new and different things in Belgium, including duck liver (fois gras) at Christmas, beef bone marrow (it was odd...), and chicon (it's a green, somewhat cabbage-like vegetable). However, for this post, I will discuss some of the most ordinary food I eat here. I'm describing the meals of a weekday, when I go to school. That means the breakfast isn't very leisurely (depending on how late I get up), and the lunch is simple. However, it's normal. So here goes.

Le Petit Déjeuner (Breakfast)

 First thing in the morning, you eat bread. Bread is the base of the Belgian diet-- I don't even know how much bread I've eaten since last August. The bread here, though, is much different than American bread. First of all, it doesn't come in a plastic sack-- you go to either the bakery or the supermarket and get loaves of bread. Secondly, it always has an actual crust, unlike the soft American breadcrusts. And finally, the main difference from American supermarket bread, really, is that it is good, and worth eating daily. 

You buy bread maybe three or four times each week (we do, at least, with six people in the household), each time in loaves that you slice at the supermarket. It comes in paper sacks. After two or three days, your loaf of bread goes stale (it's humid here), so you have to make toast out of it. If you have any left, you put it in the compost.

Along with the bread...Nutella. Like the bread, I don't know how much I've eaten since I've been here. In one week, my host family goes through at least two 1-kilogram jars of Nutella.....that's a lot. For those of you who don't know what Nutella is, it's a chocolate-hazlenut spread-- it tastes almost like chocolate icing. It's very sweet, and delicious. Almost everybody I know eats it. And eating it with bread is very simple-- spread it on with a knife, in as thick of a layer as you like. It's called a tartine-- a word for a sandwich or bread with something on it.

Other things you can put on your bread in the morning...

Dark chocolate spread,

Speculoos spread (Speculoos are little Belgian cookies that taste a bit like a cross between graham crackers and gingerbread-- this is a spread that tastes exactly like the cookies), 

Chocolate sprinkles....you put them on bread with butter. This is a very Benelux breakfast-- from what I've heard, only people in Belgium and the Netherlands eat this.  

Déjuner/Dîner (Lunch) 
So, for breakfast you eat bread, pretty much every morning. For lunch, you eat...more bread.

Generally, for lunch, I pack sandwiches. Belgian sandwiches are very simple-- you don't generally put more than one or two things on them. I often eat bread with a spread on it, such as the ones below. There are lots of different spreads, generally a meat such as chicken, turkey, tuna, or crab mixed with mayonnaise or another sauce. Also, you can put lunch meat, such as ham or salami, or cheese, between two pieces of bread and it tastes perfectly fine, because the bread is so good. 

However, on the day I took this picture, I had bought a sandwich à l'américain. Contrary to its name (américain=American), this is something very Belgian.

Filet américain préparé is raw beef, mixed with mayonnaise, salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and sometimes mustard or egg yolks. The first couple times I tried it, I didn't know what it was (it was the classic exchange student experience, really: me: "what's this?" host mom: "[something I don't understand] American [something I don't understand]" me:  "ok, I'll try it"), but I liked it. It was after a month or so that I learned that it was raw beef. 

de l'américain

But my fellow Americans, don't get grossed out yet. Beef here isn't like the growth-hormone-and-chemical-filled American beef-- it's taken good care of. Each producer of meat has to keep very meticulous records of each cow they get their beef from, and if they don't they're closed down. And the cows come from nearby-- not some feed lot 800 miles away. So, the filet américain préparé is fine. You never hear of people getting ick from eating it.

My sandwich

Funny thing about l'américain: nobody knows why it's called "American." I tell people that most Americans would never think of eating raw beef, and that you could never get it served on a sandwich. They're often surprised. But farther into the conversation, the grim joke about it being the processed meat of my compatriots often comes up....

Goûter (snack)

Usually, in my host family at least, we come home from school and have a snack, generally consisting of a drink and...more bread.

A favorite drink is iced tea... the sweetened Lipton tea is called the same thing in French, actually: de l'ice tea. Here, my host brother Diego models the bottle.

For the goûter, the first choice (of me and my host brothers, at least), is...Nutella! Just like at breakfast. Here, Quentin, Diego's twin, demonstrates making his tartine à Nutella.

Dîner/Souper (Dinner)

Before the dinner, there is a somewhat stronger tradition than in the U.S. of eating a snack-like "apéro." Generally, it consists sometimes of potato chips (the two main flavors here are either salt or paprika), sometimes of olives, sometimes of bruchettas....at least in my host family. I'm sure it depends from family to family.

In this case, we had ketchup-flavored potato chips. I don't remember if you see those often or not in the U.S.

Also, drinks are sometimes served with the apéro. My host brothers generally drink Coke or iced tea or something like that, and I do much of the time as well. However, I'm allowed to drink alcohol here (the minimum drinking age is 16), and I can't easily (or legally) drink Belgian beer in the U.S. So sometimes I have a beer. Below are two basic beers: Jupiler, a pale lager and the beer you see the most often in Belgium, and a kriek, which is a beer brewed with cherries.

The apéro is by no means something formal-- just a time to chat and have something to drink before dinner. It's quite nice.

Here are the ingredients for the dinner we had the night I took these photos:

(My host mom Aude preparing the steak)


(la friteuse)


Steak, Frites, Salade.
Probably my favorite dish here in Belgium. They go very well together-- the meat, the fries, and the salad-- you can eat the fries with mayonnaise if you like, if you want to act very Belgian.

Let me just talk a second about the fries. This is something I, and probably the entire population of Belgium wants to communicate to the U.S.A.:

"French Fries" are NOT French. They are Belgian.

This has been a subject of many conversations I've had here. People know that Americans call them "French" fries, and they remind me (somewhat defensively), that they're Belgian, not French. After living here, I'm quick to agree, and quick to denounce the stupid name that Americans have come up with. In Europe at least, every other country thinks of Belgium as the place where fries were invented, but somehow in the U.S. we've missed that. So, now that i have that cleared up....I return to my original discussion.

This is a very Belgian meal.


Le dessert (dessert)

Fraises Belges! Belgian strawberries! I never knew that they grew strawberries in Belgium, but they do. Tasty ones, at that. And they're quite pretty. So, after a dinner of meat, potatoes, and salad, strawberries finish everything off nicely.

Voila. What you would eat during a normal day in Belgium.

And, just one more thing...

I figure I can't mention the normal food here without mentioning the normal chocolate. Côte d'Or is the chocolate you can find anywhere here. It's delicious, of course-- and I have never seen it in America.
Really, Belgians don't eat much more chocolate in general than Americans. They just eat much better chocolate.

Here is what we had in the cabinent when i took the pictures:

Milk chocolate with chopped hazlenuts,

Dark chocolate with whole hazlenuts,

and 70% intense dark chocolate.

Aaah, la bouffe Belge. Delicious.