Thursday, March 22, 2007


Since arriving in Antwerp, we've all seen a lot more movies than we would have at home. John's and my work hours are more flexible, and the girls are in school several days til 3:30, which allows for the occasional 11am matinee. Just a 10-minute walk from the apartment (like everything else) is UGC Cinemas, a multiplex with a great selection of films.

Only thing that's a bit of a bummer is, we can't see foreign films (even Letters from Iwo Jima) because the on-screen language is not English and the subtitles aren't either. Other than that though, there are all kinds of good movies out right now and we've gotten to see a few.

John and I have seen two together: The Illusionist and Blood Diamond. Illusionist was GREAT, love Edward Norton, loved the story and soundtrack. It's my kind of movie, and John thought it was one of the best he'd ever seen. A bit of love story, a bit of mystery and magic, a bit of Hapsburg-era royal glamour...very cool.

Blood Diamond was interesting to see since Antwerp is the diamond capital of the world, and UGC cinemas is just a few blocks from the very sorting tables mentioned in the film, which is a first-rate presentation of some of the issues surrounding "conflict diamonds," diamonds sold to finance weapons purchases by corrupt governments and revolutionary insurgent groups in Africa. I'm interested in the claims of some diamond merchants that they can "certify" their diamonds, when the fundamental point the movie makes is that once the diamonds hit the sorting tables in Antwerp, the stones with a tainted past can be tossed in with the others and who in the world would ever know? After seeing the movie, I became much less interested in the thought of taking home a diamond as a souvenir of our time here.

By myself, I went to see The Painted Veil, again with Edward Norton, which I guess I liked...I had read a critical review that took the movie to task for using the Chinese actors/characters almost like scenery, that the supporting characters were not as three-dimensional. While I absolutely agree with that criticism, the book itself is not about China at all. It's about two people from England whose experience traveling in a third-world country in the 1920's transforms their relationship and perspective. The setting could have been any locale in the world experiencing political turmoil and a cholera epidemic at that time. Take your pick. The story itself is good, but the locale, and thus the people who inhabit it, are a device, fundamentally.

Finally JieJie and MeiMei and I saw Happy Feet but I didn't know to look at the schedule to find the magic letters "OV" for "Original Version. We ended up seeing the movie in Flemish, which is no big deal for a kids' movie, and they understood some of it, having been in a Flemish-speaking school for two months now. The movie was cute, fun, had a nice message, but after a while lost a bit of its spunk. Anyway, if there are other kids' movies to see before we go, I'll know to look for "OV" on the schedule.

D & D are probably wondering whether we've gone to Metropolis yet, the gigantic Lollapallooza of movie palaces in Antwerp. No, not yet, but we'll get there.

Brussels, With & Without Sprouts

Ok, so I couldn't resist. And actually, they're just called "spruiten," or sprouts, this close to the source. You don't need to specify the Brussels part.

A couple of weekends ago, we had a Saturday free and decided to use it to go to Brussels just to wander around and see what there was to see. It's only 45 minutes by train, no big deal at all.

Having learned from experience, I packed some juice boxes and cereal bars and we headed to the train station with the girls in the Stroller. Once we got to Brussels, we found the Grand Place quickly enough. I hadn't been there since John and I went on a trip together in 2003 when we were still dating. The Grand Place seemed immense then, and I remembered so many shop windows filled with huge speculaas cookies and lots of chocolates. Fourteen years later, it seemed smaller somehow, and I never did see a single giant speculaas in any of the shop windows, on or off the Grand Place. I guess cookies don't pay the rent like they used to.

We sat at an outdoor table of one of the many eateries on the Grand Place that cater to the tourist who throng the area. We were expecting high prices and an ok, not fantastic, lunch but the girls were antsy to sit down somewhere. The place we chose, whose name I've forgotten already, was short-staffed at best, either that or our waiter saw the kids and decided to frustrate us into leaving. I packed the girls back into the stroller and we started looking for another place. We found one on a street of Greek and Turkish sidewalk dining places, and had a very nice lunch of calamari, salads, pita slices, tsatziki sauce, some sausages, that sort of thing. I packed the girls' uneaten pita slices in a napkin in my purse for later.

We walked all over Brussels, a really nice walking city. The signage is great too - every so often there's a map for tourists to orient themselves, and lots of signposts at street corners direct you tot he major landmarks. We walked through the Galeries St. Hubert, the world's first indoor shopping area, and the girls loved looking at the displays in the windows of the chocolatiers and curiosity shops. We saw some Chinese characters on signs down one street and the girls demanded to see Brussels' Chinatown, so we did that, then found our way past an ongoing archeological dig one can view through windows, then back to the Grand Place area.

The girls wanted to run and play. Luckily there's a big huge park (Parc Royal) in Brussels, up behind the art museum and cathedral. It has a wonderful playground in it, with see-saws, swings, spring-rockers, play structures and slides. We parked the stroller and just let them run for a good hour or so until the sun started to dip a bit lower in the sky and it was time to head back to the train station.

That's the nice thing about getting to live here for an extended period of time. We can just say "let's go to Brussels today" and wander around once we get there. We don't have to Accomplish Something.

The following Tuesday, we decided to go back to Brussels to the art museum while the girls were in school. We hopped a train on the way back from dropping them off and were in Brussels just as the museum opened for the day. It's an extensive museum, with both traditional and modern wings, far too much to see in one visit. We chose the old works, specifically the 16th and 17th century exhibit. The collection contains works by Memling, Brueghel, Bosch and others, and an extensive collection of tryptichs and diptychs that were originally painted for use in private family worship. It's funny--the tryptichs so often are a scene of the Annunciation or the Passion in the center, flanked by portraits of a wealthy man and woman on either side, their hands piously folded. "Look at us," they seem to say, "we're rich!...AND we pray regularly."

The other thing that really struck me were the paintings depicting the martyrdom of various female saints. One in particular depicts Mary, her mother, and Mary Magdalene flanked by eight female martyrs who died in the most horrific ways. One ripped out her own eyeballs so she could escape from the experience of being raped to death. One was shot with arrows for refusing a marriage proposal. One had her breast cut off for refusing a marriage proposal but her breast was magically restored through prayer, and so on and so on. Not that St. Bartholomew had it any easier or anything. As someone who grew up in the Lutheran church, where the focus seems far more on God the Loving Father and a plain, symbolic cross, I was surprised at how jarring it was to confront the difference in emphasis, on suffering rather than redemption, on the crucifix rather than the stone rolled away. Was this emphasis in part because life was so much more difficult and uncertain back then? Or have we just decided that we'd rather hear the happy ending?

The exhibits were really fantastic though--certainly plenty of food for thought--and the audio guide was definitely worth the couple of euro surcharge. After two hours of Contemplating Art, it was time for a bite to eat. We decided on the museum cafe, which has been recently refurbished. It's very high-style, as most museum cafes are, and the food lived up to the designers' promise. I had a lovely tomato soup with balletjes, little meatballs, and a glass of wine. John had a sandwich and a Hoegaarden beer. The terrace was open, the weather was nice, and we enjoyed this little lunchtime tete a tete overlooking the courtyards of Brussels.

We hopped on the train and in no time were back in Antwerpen-Centraal. I'll miss having a train station close by that can take us to so many great destinations.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Birthdays Abroad

The first week of March was a festive week indeed! Our friends T&K were here, and their visit coincided with JieJie's much-anticipated fifth birthday, which she has been talking about since the day after she turned four.

Partway through the week, K and I boarded the 32 bus which goes out to the 'burbs and stops in the Oosterveld neighborhood near Grare, the American food store. We were there in search of some of JieJie's favorite food from home as a special treat for her birthday. It was so funny to see all of the familiar packages, and realize that most of what we can't get here we shouldn't be eating anyway. Partially hydrogenated high fructose reconstituted crap--admit it, you eat it too. We got three boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, a box of Life Cereal which I wrapped and put on the table for her to open the morning of her birthday, and a Funfetti cake mix, which I planned to make and bring to her class. We also got a little package of Hershey's Kissables candy-coated kisses, some Jelly Bellies for Easter, and I think that's it. The store also has lots of Tex-Mex stuff, and things like beef jerky, microwave popcorn, instant oatmeal, etc. Honestly I don't miss anything enough to bother going back to Grare and paying exorbitant prices for it, but it's nice to know that the option is there for special occasions.

On the way home, K & I sat across from a man on the bus who asked if we were British. I said "no, American." He smirked and said "I don't like Americans. They always like everything to be so big." I said "well, I suppose..." or something noncommittal (you never know who you're talking to, best not to get into a silly argument). He said again "I don't like America." I smiled a bit and said "well, I guess I'm stuck then." He asked why I was here and I explained that my family and I were living here through a university affiliation and that we very much liked Belgium, and living in Antwerp (and I wondered if the man had ever been to the U.S.--after all, at least I can speak about Belgium from some experience!). I pointed out a beautiful Art Nouveau townhouse to K and she and I chatted quietly to one another about the lovely houses we were passing on the bus. Before the man got off the bus, he must've realized he was being a jerk because he actually said "well, I hope you enjoy your time in Antwerp" before he got off the bus. Hunh? K and I just looked at one another and shook our heads. What is one to do? The guy struck me as just grumpy in general and it certainly has not been our experience that people here are aggressively anti-American at all. You hear it over and over, people in other countries distinguish between our government and our people. They may hate the former but they don't mind the latter so much. Having said that, we try as much as possible to fit in and keep our American-accented voices down in public. For me it's not so much about avoiding trouble as about not disturbing what's going on around me so I can really be a part of it.

So we got back to the apartment (yes somehow I went from groceries to anti-Americanism, but there you are) and I put the cake mix together. The girls helped and got all excited about cracking the eggs, mixing the batter, and of course licking the bowl. I baked the cake until it was pulling away from the pan, browned around the edges. Perfect.

We all went to dinner and when I came home I started cutting the cake into small pieces to bring for JieJie's class (teacher asked that I not frost it because of the mess & the kids' uniforms) and to my horror, the cake was not done in the center AT ALL. I tried unsuccessfully to bake it a bit longer but the whole middle was just like pudding. Barf. Now what to do?! I ended up taking JieJie to school and then running back to Goossens Bakkerij to ask if they had any of their famous apple cakes, which are shaped like a loaf (pound cake-like). They had two of them, and also an orange cake, so I bought all three, raced back to the school, borrowed a knife from the teachers' lounge, cut the cakes into 8 pieces each, and I somehow managed to catch JieJie's teacher's eye without JJ herself noticing that I was there so I could give her the cakes. She gave me a knowing smile - she's a mom too. She also said the book we gave the class in honor of JJ's birthday was perfect (it was a book of craft projects for kids to do) and that they had already planned to make one of the Father's Day crafts. Yesterday was Vaderdag in Belgium, by the way, so Gelukkige Vaderdag to all the dads.

The evening of JieJie's birthday, we had a nice dinner in our apartment with special guests T&K and a lovely chocolate cake from Bastin Chocolatier (, plus Macaroni & Cheese and fruit salad for the girls, and scallops for the adults. She got some Ramona books from T&K (we've already finished Beezus and Ramona and are halfway through Ramona the Pest) and we gave her a custom made princess outfit from, the company my friend's friend started in her home which is destined to become a big business if the proprietor so desires. The dresses are GREAT, very "foofy" as we say. MeiMei got a dress too...after all, what fun is it to play dress-up all by yourself?! She also had presents to open from grandparents and aunts and uncles, and family friends who made sure to send things in time for the big day (M, the makeup kit is a huge hit!). She got several phone calls too--she seemed so excited that everyone was thinking of her on her birthday. What a beautiful, radiant smile she has when she is genuinely happy.

So it may not have been the kind of birthday party JieJie envisioned, with school friends all around a big cake in some party-themed room somewhere in the Harrisonburg area, but I think she had a nice birthday just the same.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Time for a Brain Dump

I finally realized this morning that even when John has to use the computer in our apartment (which he has been doing a whole lot more than usual due to some book editing projects) I can still use the computer downstairs in the extra apartment. The heat's not on since nobody's using it these days, but I brought my jacket, no big deal. The speakers are connected to this computer, so I get to listen to my favorite internet radio show, The Morning Show from Minnesota Public Radio via's The Current. I grew up in the Twin Cities, and worked for a time in public radio, and I still think of all the stations I've heard or heard about in the entire good ole U.S. of A., Minnesota Public Radio's offerings are the best, bar none.

It's time to get you all caught up. We had some company, we had JieJie's birthday, and then I got bumped from the computer, hence the relative silence on the FTJ.

M and R and their boys visited from Mijdrecht the first weekend in March, and we were able to do a lot of the things we hoped to do together here in Antwerp. They stayed at the Holiday Inn Express up by the port area and said it was nice, affordable, and that the boys liked the breakfast. It's also not too far a walk from our neighborhood. The first night we ate a light supper at 't Injaske, where the food is always reliably good, always a great price for what you get, and they have coloring books and stuff for kids to do while they wait for dinner. The next morning we went to Aquatopia. The kids all liked the different exhibits, especially the shark tank where you can walk under the tank through a tunnel and look up to see sharks and rays swimming right over your head. We had lunch, came back to the apartment for a bit of rest, and the boys watched an Asterix movie that we happened to have while MeiMei took a mini-nap.

One other thing we'd hoped to do together was go through the Sint-Annatunnel under the River Schelde, and indeed we found the entrance. It's a bit hidden on the Antwerp side. It was easy to identify once we were nearby, since the ventilation tower matches the one on the other side. It's got a huge elevator, big enough for people with bicycles to use. The tunnel itself is pretty amazing - straight as a particle accelerator all the way to the other side, but you can't see the end from the beginning. Something about the straightness and the length inspired the kids (and the parents as well) to take off running and laughing as we raced toward the other end. We spent some time playing in the park on the other side of the river, then John and R headed to the Holiday Inn to check them out and get their car, while M and I took the kids back to the apartment. It's just so great to be able to spend time together over several months like this, rather than our usual every-five-years cramming all our catching up into a week or so. We hope to visit Amsterdam one more time before we have to head back, and I would also like to meet M in Delft for a daytrip at some point. Phrases like "at some point" scare me though--those are always the things that end up not happening, aren't they?

We hugged M&R goodbye and stayed in that night with the girls, chilling out before the next round of company arrived the next day, our friends T&K from Harrisonburg. They were to arrive Sunday around lunchtime, so Sunday morning was free to do whatever. We decided to head out to Fort Merksem, which at one time was a working fort (not so long ago actually!) which has become a community park with soccer fields, playgrounds, trails and even some peacocks and deer in a little enclosure. It's at the end of one of the tram lines (the 3, I think) and then just a short walk to the park. The girls really liked seeing the peacocks display those amazing tailfeathers, and the park was nice, though muddy.

T&K arrived from the train station by taxi and we settled them into the apartment downstairs. T just had foot surgery and K was coming down with the Flemish Gack (bad congestion--we've all had bouts with it since coming here) so we didn't do a whole lot the first few days, though we got to spend lots of time together, which was the point. We ate out at a few restaurants, one great, one not so fantastic. Dock's Cafe down by the waterfront had been recommended by a chef whose daughter is in JieJie's class, and it definitely lived up to its recommendation. Fantastic seafood, an oyster bar, great decor/ambience, good service, and an enormous wine list, perhaps the most comprehensive I've ever seen - they even had a wine from China! We had a Gewurtztraminer and some kind of red I can't remember. Then later in the week we ate at Persepolis, an Iranian restaurant, where the food was good but not out of this world. Grilled fish, rice, grilled vegetables, bread and dipping sauces, that sort of thing. I had to leave early with two tired girls, and my stomach was bothering me, so I'm sure that tainted my experience.

Coming up: Brain Dump Part II, The Birthday Extravaganza...(gotta go pick up the girls!)

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Happy St. Patrick's Day

Whew! What a party! Last night John and I went to Celtic Ireland, a huge Irish pub on the Groenplats, to meet a couple I first met at the PTA Rave Party in February. He's of Irish descent, she's Belgian, they're both a lot of fun.

The pub was crowded by 7pm when we got there and only got more crowded from then til we left about 11:30. The musical selections ranged from BeeGees to U2 to The Police and random party tunes ("God is a DJ"). John had Guinness and I had something called Adam's Apple Cider, but forgot to alternate ciders with bottled water so I'm moving a little slowly this morning.

The bar food was good--fantastic wings and sauce, and we also got a mixed warm platter that had meat skewers, cheese croquettes, and some other things to dip in the two tangy sauces.

Every so often the music changed to an Irish jig and some step dancers would do their thing on a raised area of the pub, and there was much cheering and toasting.

We walked home (nice that everything's so close to our apartment, eh?) and the babysitter got a fistful of euros to use wherever she spent last night. The college students' night is only beginning at 11:30...those days are gone for this thirtysomething mom. And good riddance! Waking up to cartoons and cereal with my husband and two lovely girlies is heaven.

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