Thursday, February 22, 2007

A Real Olympic Pool, Now Public

Click on the title of this post and you can read (albeit in Flemish) about the Zwembad Wezenberg, or Wezenberg Pool, which the girls and I splashed around in on Wednesday.

It was time for a kid-focused day, and we had a great one on Wednesday. The weather was dreary and rainy, limiting us to indoor options. Knowing how much JieJie and MeiMei love swimming pools, I asked the assistant program director, here in Antwerp for the week, how to get to the pool he'd mentioned. He gave me great, detailed directions, we packed our suits and towels and were on our way.

I might remind you that we have those wonderful DeLijn passes, so we never have to worry about finding pocket money for bus or tram fare. We just go! We took the tram to the Centraal Station where the #17 bus stops, but didn't see any signs indicating a #17 stop. Luckily I'd peeked at the map and had a hunch that if we went down a road called DeKeyserlei, we might find something. It wasn't there, but we caught sight of a #17 turning a corner up ahead and found the stop on the Quellinstraat, where the school uniform store is also located.

We waited at the stop, the girls asking about the different buses, and a woman asked if we wanted the #17. I said yes, and she advised us to go a bit further up the block. There's a lot of construction around the train station right now, so things are a bit out of usual. She asked where we were from and I said Virginia. She smiled and said she was from North Carolina and that her daughter was at a military base in Virginia right now. Her accent was not North Carolinian in the least, so I asked her what brought her to Antwerp. She said she married a Belgian man 30 years ago and had been here ever since.

We caught the bus and got off at the perfect stop, walked only a block and saw the swimming pool complex. Antwerp hosted the Olympics in the 20's, and this pool complex was built for those games. The whole facility was renovated in 2002 and it's really beautiful and clean and bright.

It was only 2 euro to get in, kids under 6 free (yay!). We paid and got a card that made the entry turnstile work. I was looking for the women's locker room entrance but there was only one door. I wasn't sure whether to go in because I saw men inside...but then I saw women too. Okay, be cool, co-ed locker rooms. Jeez, I keep coming up against how Puritannical we Americans are about these things...ironic when we export the likes of Madonna and Britney Spears (who I hear has checked herself into rehab...are we surprised?!). Anyway. We rented a locker for a refundable 2 euro coin and closed the doors of our little changing room. JieJie and MeiMei were SO EXCITED to be going to a swimming pool!!! We joined one a few summers ago and spend half the summer splashing around, so it's a familiar and fun place for them to be.

After getting our suits on and running through a quick shower, we found the kids' pool and it was perfect. MeiMei is only a yard high but the pool was up to her shoulders for most of it. For a good hour, we splashed, chased, laughed and talked about how great it will be to go to our pool with its mountain views this summer. It was such a great escape from all the unusual situations the girls have adjusted so well to. They deserved a fun day just for them.

After swimming,, we rinsed off (co-ed showers too, swimsuits on...everyone is just so NORMAL about this--why does nudity always equal lust in our culture?! It's really sick.) and went to our changing room. A nice grandfatherly man in his suit and towel stopped to ask the girls how their swim was and they eagerly told him that they aren't scared to go under water and that they take swimming lessons. Again, my American Mom habit of mind was "who is this man and what kind of a perv is he?" and again I realized, here was a nice man who just wanted to be friendly.

We got dressed and headed across the parking lot to a restaurant that I think must have been a cafeteria for the athletes during the Olympics. It's called Colmar and it's part of a chain. The kids menu was 6 euro and included a dessert bar. They both chose meatballs and fries, and for dessert JieJie had rice pudding with berry topping, and MeiMei had a pancake with chocolate mousse and whipped cream on top. They both got a toy to take home and there was a coloring page menu. It was kid-friendly, definitely, but what I had was nice too: Norwegian salmon en croute with Bearnaise sauce and a salad bar with a wonderful selection of toppings. I'd go back, definitely, but only with the kids as a treat for them. It's not a date restaurant, at least on par with the places that are on John's and my list for the nights when we can get away.

We had a wonderful rest-of-the-day at the apartment, just hanging out, coloring, watching tv, whatever, and the girls fell asleep just after 7. Perfect timing, as we had a sitter over so we could take a student group to City Palace Restaurant in Chinatown. Best Chinese food I've had outside of China--AMAZING dim sum!

G. Bastin Chocolate Factory Tour

Click on the title of this post and you will see the website of a 100 year old Belgian chocolate maker named G. Bastin, which is a few blocks from the University of Antwerp neighborhood where we live.

On Tuesday morning, our family accompanied a group of 15 JMU students as we toured their factory, and it was a delicious morning! We went through the showroom to a back room where we watched a preliminary video about the cocoa bean growers in Ghana whose beans are processed and shipped all over the world. Our tour guide, Raymond, told us that different companies' chocolates have a distinctive taste because they select from over 1200 possible varieties, depending on type of bean, how it's roasted and processed, and combinations of beans that give a unique flavor. They have been using the same combination of flavors in their chocolate for fifty years, and don't plan to change. They feel that their market chooses them, and they want to remain faithful to the niche they've created.

Next, we got into an elevator that smelled strongly of chocolate. We went down to the chocolate dungeon, ha ha ha, and got a two-hour demonstration of chocolate making. There was a vat of melted chocolate being constantly stirred, there was a conveyor belt that could carry fillings under a chocolate spout to be covered in delicious dark, milk, or white chocolate. There was a machine that automatically filled shell molds to make the filled chocolates that Belgium is famous for. On racks by the wall were empty chocolate eggs the size of honeydew melons, waiting to be filled and decorated for Easter.

We watched as one of the founder's grandsons made "Antwerp hands" (see references to the Brabo Fountain earlier in the blog) with a filling flavored with a secret recipe liqueur called Elixir d'Anvers (Elixir of Antwerp). We got to try writing with warm dark chocolate, and the college students even helped JieJie and MeiMei try their hand at writing their names in chocolate. JieJie can actually write her name, so when she finished, she got a round of applause that put a twinkle in her eyes.

Then we got a marzipan lesson. We had already been told by the Chateau Blanc chocolate guy that what most Americans think is marzipan is either partly or sometimes entirely coconut, not almonds at all. What we learned at G. Bastin is that there are different grades of marzipan. They use a 50/50 marzipan, meaning half almond paste, half sugar. They said the sugar content can go up to 70% (ew!). I have to admit, the marzipan decorations on our Valentines' Day cake from Goossens were much more flavorful than I was expecting. You really can taste the difference.

After these demonstrations, Raymond stopped talkign chocolate and started talking business (our students are all business majors). He made a crucial point: if you mechanize your business, insist that the machine work with the product, and not vice versa. Apparently, they had ordered some machines custom made some years ago, and the machines didn't make chocolates of the quality the company expected. The machine company suggested a recipe change. The Bastins suggested a machine change, and the new equipment arrived a few months later. 'Nuff said!

After the business lesson, it was time to eat! We got to try the Antwerp hands, the chocolate covered marzipan, and the chocolate writing, which had set by that time. Finally we got to have something to drink--you know how chocolate makes you thirsty--and there was more chocolate to have with the water or milk or orange juice. It was all so good, and we ate so much!

On the way out, we each got a pretty box of 20 or so pralines (the word for Belgian filled chocolates) to take home. We are slowly working our way through our two boxes, savoring every nibble.

Monday, February 19, 2007

New Year in Chinatown

Today we saw the big celebration in Antwerp's Chinatown to ring in the Year of the Pig according to the 12-year cycle of Chinese zodiac animals. For the record, I'm a Dog, JieJie is a Horse (and how!) and MeiMei and John are both Sheep.

Jiejie and MeiMei loved their new Chinese dresses, which of course look fantastic on them. I tied my Chinese silk scarf around my neck and we headed out. About 2:20 or so, the girls and I headed down to Van Wesenbekestraat on the tram so we could get a good spot for the 3pm Lion Dance parade and ceremonies. I'd never been to one before so wasn't sure what to expect, but there was a big arch by the Sun Wah Supermarket so we just parked there so we could get a good view of whatever was about to happen. VanWesenbekestraat has a tram line running right down the middle, so every so often we all had to pause to let the trams through, which was kind of funny. They went very slowly, thank goodness!

As we waited, we saw several families that look like ours, presumably adoptive families. It's always so great just to make eye contact with the parents and get that knowing smile, that we've been through the same thing and we know how blessed we are. International adoption from China is common in Belgium. There's a little girl from Hunan Province at the girls' school, so that's 3 girls out of a 200-student population.

Just as the girls were getting antsy, the last tram passed by and then I heard cymbals from the other end of the street. I could see red and black banners and people were stepping out into the street to get a look, which meant that we lost our good spot unless we stepped out too, so we did. The arch by the supermarket had cabbages hanging from it and also a rolled up banner, so I knew something was going to happen there.

When the lion dance parade got to our end of the street, the dancers crouched down in front of a long rope of firecrackers, and crowd control people urged us to back up. There was no way the girls would be able to see with all the commotion, and I didn't want to lose hold of them or have them get trampled, so I put MeiMei on my shoulders and held JieJie as high as I could so they could see (it's ok, my back didn't go out this time...).
What a great explosion of color and movement ensued! You can see in this photo that about half of the firecrackers have popped (that's the red paper all over the street), and the rest of the string has yet to go. They were SO loud! MeiMei was crying a bit but clapped by the end. The lion dancers were very skilled, jumping at the firecrackers and shimmying in the smoky street. They climbed ladders, "ate" the cabbages that were hanging from the archway (an offering?) and unveiled a Happy New Year sign before going into the supermarket to bring it good luck for the next year. "Gong Xi Fa Cai" is the happy new year greeting, but it actually means "Hope you make more money next year" so it's an appropriate thing to say to a store owner, eh?
After the lions went into the store, I thought maybe things were over and a lot of people were leaving. The girls said they were hungry so we popped into Bakkerij De Kort, one of the few non-Chinese businesses on that street, and got chocolate croissants. I was hoping there would be some Chinese food being sold from carts or something, but not today.
We were about to leave when we realized that the procession was coming right toward us. I looked at the business next door to us, a Chinese Dim Sum restaurant, and noticed a suspicious cabbage hanging from above the doorway. And framing either side of the property, a long string of firecrackers! The noise of the firecrackers is supposed to scare away bad luck and/or evil spirits, so that's where that tradition comes from. The lions ate the offering, the firecrackers blasted away, and the lions went into that business to bring good luck. As I looked down the street, I saw several more sets of cabbages and firecrackers, but realized that we should probably head home. You know how it is with kids - best to leave while nobody's having a fit!
If you are reading this as a real aficionado of lion dancing, my advice would be not to worry about the big introductory dance as far as fighting to get close in. The longer the ceremonies go on, the fewer people were left, so you can probably get closest to the action by being patient.
As for me, I'm more determined than ever to spend Lunar New Year in China someday. It must be something spectacular. And speaking of spectacle, I can't wait til the 2008 Olympics opening ceremonies in Beijing. We're going to get Chinese satellite tv channels so we don't have to have Bob Costas interrupting us to tell us what we're seeing (shut up, Bob! Please! If you want to describe everything to your audience, that's called RADIO. You should check into it.) We will be in China next summer, but we'll be leaving just before the Olympics begin, though it would be tempting to stay.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Aalst Carnaval

Click on the title bar of this post, and you will see three onions dancing to a bad cover of Meatloaf's "Paradise by the Dashboard Light." It's the 2007 Aalst Carnaval website, and it gives you a teensy tiny sense of the gargantuan party we dropped in on this afternoon.

We had come to understand, over the past few days, that Carnaval is a Big Deal in Belgium.


1. JieJie's classmates wore funny hats throughout their studies this week.

2. I saw a "Carnaval Kit" while shopping at the Carrefour, which contained confetti, a mask, noisemakers, streamers and silly string.

3. On tv lately, there have been shows on the local station that feature a strange hybrid of the Big Joe Polka Show and a crazy Halloween party.

4. The schools are all out this coming week, and Friday afternoon there was a party-like atmosphere in the public squares as people began the late winter holiday.

5. BIG CLUE: While walking around Thursday, John and I saw an entire school group in costumes (one teacher was Minnie Mouse) parading toward the town center. If we'd been in the US, I would've said "oh, they're all going trick-or-treating."

So we were starting to get the picture. We had our choice of two places to go for Carnaval festivities today. Aalst is west of Brussels, and about 1.5 hours by public transportation. Binche, whose Carnaval celebration is on the UNESCO world heritage list for notable cultural events, is further south of Brussels, getting close to the French border. At first we were leaning toward Binche, but The Green Guide (a very helpful series of travel guides, I must say) said that Sunday's events begin at 10pm, so that was out and Aalst was in.

Caught the 11:40 train to Brussels-Zuid (south) but it was delayed, so we missed the direct train to Aalst. We found an alternate, though it was a local. It stopped everywhere on its way so we didn't get to Aalst until almost 2. On top of that, Genius Mom forgot to pack food because I assumed all the trains had snack carts rolling down the aisles, but this is not so. Lesson learned--no train travel without just-in-case food & water. You'd think I would know this by now. Anyway.

We were wondering whether we would know where to go from the train station to see all the festivities. THAT IS A REALLY FUNNY THING TO WONDER WHEN GOING TO THE AALST CARNAVAL because before we even got off the train, we heard the raucous music and crowds and we could see the parade, already underway, from the train overpasses. All the streets were closed, and this town was kicking off a three-day binge that culminates on Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras). But it was a family-friendly binge. Of course. Just like the beer on tap at Pirateneiland Fun Park.

So we started to zigzag through the crowds and follow the giant floats that depict Belgian politicians in caricature through huge groteque statues. That's the hallmark of this parade: it's a chance for the hoi polloi to make fun of the movers and shakers, and they take their job very seriously! There were lots of song parodies with tunes I recognized, like "Love and Marriage," "Downtown" and "Jailhouse Rock" to name a few, but all sung in Flemish with lyrics that I'm sure were skewering the local politicians. One of the Belgian princes is in a bit of trouble right now over the financing of the large addition he's putting on his home, or something like that. His picture was upside down on a mirror being manipulated by a skeleton on one float. That one seemed the most serious of the floats we saw though...the rest of them had certain features in common:
1. Cross-dressing men, bonus points for a huge "bumsie" as we call it. Faux breasts optional, but if you use them, bare them!
2. Depict the politician in question in some phase of using the toilet. Bonus points for flushing noises.
3. Choreographed dances that spotlight huge bumsies emitting huge flatulations are sure to please.
4. The louder the music, the better the float!
We watched the parade (which lasts 5 hours if you want to see the whole thing!!!) from several different vantage points, and the work that goes into the floats and costumes is just amazing. It's like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Tournament of Roses Parade and whatever parade you can think of all rolled into one and multiplied by fifty. And it's not just a holiday for performers! Many of the spectators are all dressed up in detailed colorful costumes, and they have huge bags of confetti to throw. Lots of the men we saw today were in hilarious drag outfits...latex groteque breasts seem to be a cottage industry somewhere - we saw so many today, we got blase about them after a while.
The girls had a blast today! I wish we'd gotten there earlier. If you're reading this wondering whether to take the kids, definitely go. We saw people of all ages today and it was a totally kid-friendly event. There are food booths everywhere, rides, games, and of course the main event, and people are in this great festive mood, throwing confetti on complete strangers and laughing together. The girls didn't want to leave when we had to head for the train (which we had to approach several times by different roads because the crowds were too thick to navigate with The Stroller). They loved the parade, had great fun throwing confetti on each other and on us, and even got to ride on a carousel with REAL PONIES - whoa! We were so busy watching the parade and festivities that we barely ate, just hot dogs and bratwursts, with plenty of onions.
What's the deal with the onions? Well, I don't know why, but tomorrow's festivities in Aalst include throwing onions from the tops of buildings. I'll see if I can find the story behind that one, but this carnaval is an old tradition, so who knows if anyone can even explain it anymore.
Tuesday there's another parade there, with more cross-dressing hilarity. And probably more beer drinking. Of course people along the parade route were drinking. I saw cans of Jupiler (the Budweiser of Belgium) in many hands today, and people on the balconies along the parade route were toasting mightily while their kids threw confetti on the merrymakers below. But what's more, there were floats in this parade specifically designed to dispense beer from not-so-concealed taps as the costumed participants went down the 5-hour parade route. Party on, Garth!
Three days of Bacchanalia and rule-breaking, and on Wednesday we will be reminded: you are dust, and to dust you shall return. In the meantime, to quote the Mary Tyler Moore show, "a little song, a little dance, a little selzer down your pants." Or Jupiler, in this case.

Holiday Pileup

As many families do, we have layers of holidays to celebrate through the year. There's a layer of church-based holidays, national holidays, personal holidays like birthdays and anniversaries, "Hallmark Holidays" as my dad likes to call Mother's Day and Father's Day, and on and on.

When we adopted our daughters from China, we added Chinese holidays. Now in the fall, we mark the Moon Festival and the Lunar New Year, and added two personal holidays, our daughters' adoption days (aka Gotcha Day).

Now that we're in Belgium, we have yet another holiday festivity to add: Carnival, the crazy few days before Ash Wednesday begins the more sober, contemplative Lent season.

I wonder how JieJie and MeiMei are taking all of this in, because it's all happening simultaneously! Wednesday was Valentines Day. Last night at midnight the Chinese community here rang in the Year of the Pig with fireworks down in Chinatown. Our apartment is decorated with hearts (thanks Mom - your beautiful handmade mobile got here all in one piece) and red and gold Lunar New Year decorations, and now there's Carnival confetti spilled all over the carpet from when we got back from a Carnival parade and took our coats off (I have a feeling there will be more confetti on the floor when we change into our pj's - lots of confetti in the air!).

And after this all dies down, it will be JieJie's 5th birthday!

Saturday Market in Antwerp

Saturday morning, John had some errands to run for the university, so I took the girls to the Saturday market, also called the Bird Market. One of the things we love to do back in Harrisonburg is walk down to the local farmers' market on Tuesdays and Saturdays, so I figured once they saw where we were, they'd know just what to do.

What I hadn't anticipated was just how amazing this market would be! The best market by far that I've ever been to, just for the size and sumptuous food, is the Mercato Centrale in Florence, Italy, but it was as though about 1/8 of that market was flown to Antwerp and arranged outside in a beautiful plaza. We walked all through the market, intending to purchase our choices on the way back. I wanted to make sure I didn't spend all my money at the first stall only to see even better things later.

There were so many varieties of fruits, vegetables, meats, cheese, nuts, breads, and other specialty items...and then the regional specialties: food wagons for Italian, Greek, and Spanish cooking, and then we found a little cafe area in one corner where there was an ESCARGOT WAGON!!! I kid you not. Hey, it's just like Harrisonburg, right? (not).

I paid 2 euro for a small bowl of escargots in broth. The broth was chicken broth with lots of pepper and also some celery chunks cooked in there. The escargots were firm and delicious. I let each of the girls try one, and they really liked them, so I just crouched down next to the stroller and we shared, taking turns. I figured out how to put the escargots in their mouths in just the right way so I could grab the little remnant of shell before they ate it. It was getting chilly, and the broth was still steaming as we took turns sipping it to warm ourselves. Yum! I notice you can get a glass of white wine there, and you can also get escargot already coated with herbed butter in the shell for preparation at home. I wanted to mention that none of the foods being served at the market were served in throwaway containers. Besides being more ecologially sound, the more important message seemed to be Sit Down and Enjoy...What's Your Hurry?!

So we did. After the girls chose their raspberries, we sat down at some tables near what I thought was a Greek place, since there were several varieties of baklava. We got some different kinds (almond, hazelnut, mixed nut) and then got hot mint tea in a glass, not a mug. That was when I realized, this was Moroccan food. It's so neat to see all the different places the vendors come from.

The girls loved the tea, and we went home to tell John about the market. He went back later in the afternoon and said it was just mobbed with people, so much that he couldn't possibly have bought anything, but now we know: if we're here on Saturday mornings, we will be doing our shopping first at the Bird Market, and filling in from the SuperGB, not backwards.

Oh--and remember the PTA Rave Party? While we were at the market, I heard "Hey!" and ignored it, because who the heck knows me here, anyway?! I felt a tap on my shoulder and it was the husband of the couple who so nicely drove me home that night. He does some marketing on Saturday mornings while his daughter is in ballet. It was nice to see him, and just nice to have the very familiar feeling of running into someone I know at the farmers' market. Next time we go, I promise to take pictures.

Thanks to the F family

A quick note of thanks to D&D F (they know who they are) for the microwave popcorn from home for us and the Hershey Kisses for the girls, since they were yearning for familiar chocolate (hey, more of the good stuff for us!). It was very thoughtful of you to bring the treats.

You can search FTJ for past posts, e.g. China info...