Thursday, September 24, 2009

Visit to the Orval Monastary & Brewery

Hello loyal blog readers,

We have had no internet at home for six days. After reading nearly all the books in the house (I highly recommend Zeitoun, by the way), all we have left is In Search of Lost Time and Tristram Shandy. Thus I've gone out and found an internet cafe.

Last weekend, we visited the Orval monastery and brewery with Aaron's lab. Orval is one of the seven Trappist beers in the world (the others are Chimay, Rochfort, Achel, Westmalle, Westvleteren, and La Trappe, all but La Trappe are brewed in Belgium). In order to be an official Trappist beer, the beer must be brewed by trappist monks in a monastery, and the profits from the beer (minus the monks' living expenses) go to charity.

Chimay and Orval, if my memory's right, are the easiest of these beers to find in the states. Those cartons behind Aaron in the picture are destined for Canada.

Westvleteren, by contrast, can only be purchased at the monastery where it is brewed, and only after Kafkaesque bureaucratic acrobatics. To buy some, you must call the monastery and give them the license plate of the car in which you plan to arrive. They will then tell you the day (but not the time) on which you are allowed to come and get your beer. On the given date, they will call you, at which point you have one hour to get to the monastery, or you lose the right to buy the beer.

It's widely regarded as the best beer in the world (see below), but since we haven't managed to taste it yet, we can't yet disregard the influence of supply and demand on its reputation.

Monday, April 27, 2009

More of the Antwerp Train Station

This apparently is a viral marketing event for a TV show, not an 'improv everywhere' style stunt, but still pretty cool, and the video has some nice shots of the Antwerp train station:


This weekend, Aaron and I stayed home and relaxed, and attended to some long-neglected laundry (some magical and glorious day, we will actually live in a place with a washing machine ...). But most Sundays, when everything in Leuven is closed, we've been taking day trips.

Here are some photos from our recent trip to Antwerp:

We were very impressed by the train station.

We toured the Begijnhof, natuurlijk!
(I still think Leuven's is the nicest so far. Our next stop: Mechelen)

Mary in the Begijnhof, where she seems right at home...

...Mary on a streetcorner, why not I suppose ...

... and Mary next to a podiatrist's office, for which I have no explanation.

We spent a good part of the afternoon in the antique shops on Kloosterstraat ...

... which had more taxidermied critters than I would have expected.

We had some lunch right near the groot market...

... which is quite nice.

This castle has a highway for a moat!

Churches are everywhere.

We did not buy these, so we are no closer to knowing what an 'American style' chocolate chip cookie actually is.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Explaining American things to Belgians

One interesting part of moving here to Belgium is that I've had to explain some American things that I've always taken for granted, or never thought about too deeply.

Back in November, one of the professors had us all over for Thanksgiving - we had turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce, and it was great. While we were eating, someone around the table looked at John (a fellow New Englander over here) and me and asked us to explain the origin of Thanksgiving. So we started explaining, and realized we were giving the 'pilgrims and indians sat down and were friends' story from the era of hand-outline turkey drawings and paper pilgrim hats.

The other day in lab, we ordered pizza, and one of the secretaries asked me what American pizza was like. After I got the most stark difference out of the way (American pizza is a lot bigger - here, one pizza is for one person) I started sort of rambling about New York vs Chicago pizza and told them about having to mop the grease off of Greek pizza with a napkin (though I didn't make as many grease/Greece puns as I probably should have).

Then of course American idioms are always fun to explain - 'the early bird gets the worm' for example (my labmate: "why do they want a worm?"), or 'catch-22' or 'petered out' (I explained that one to my friend Elseline, and the next day it had morphed in her head into "Jaspered away').

Of course, they've had to explain a lot to me as well, like why the word for "lawyer" and "egg custard" are the same (advocaat - but actually no one could really explain why) or why people always walk into each other on the sidewalk (it's because the sidewalks are narrow, or because people are aggressive, depending on who you ask).

Luckily when it comes to beer we all speak the same language (being "Chimay alsjeblieft"), and no one's asked me to explain NASCAR yet.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Our Begijnhof

Here are some sunny pictures from around the Groot Begijnhof, where we live:

This is the outside of our apartment.

This, too, is right outside our place.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ink tube?

We've started taking a Flemish class, and we've been practicing with gusto ("Ik kom uit Boston! Ik woon in Leuven, waar woon jij?" "Alsjeblieft, alsjeblieft, alsjeblieft" etc).

Each class is two hours, and we get a 10-minute break in the middle of each class, so we've been doing a little socializing too. Aaron and I are the only Americans out of about 25 students, and here are some of the questions we were asked at break today:

"Why do the political parties have colors?"

"What do you call the tube in the middle of a ball point pen with the ink in it?"

"America is very politically correct; if a man holds a door for a woman, will he get yelled at or sued?"

We also learned that in Russia, roller coasters are called "American mountains" while in Spain they are called "Russian mountains" Moreover, in Russia, the word for "uranium tube" and the word for "tube in the middle of a ball point pen that holds ink" are in fact the same word (upon learning this, I did not crack any cold war jokes, but it took a lot of willpower).

In Australia, are they Spanish Mountains?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

bug in google translate

For some reason, google translates "nederlands" the Dutch word for "Dutch," to "English..."

My contributions so far have not changed anything.

I guess they're still working the bugs out.

It's just as well - I'm already noticing that I'm less dependent on google translate. I just began a class a week ago, but just being in an immersion class lets you pick up on (simple, slowly spoken) conversations and a lot of written material.

Monday, February 2, 2009

garderobe defect

The heartbeat of America.

Sadly, this year Katie and I aren't enjoying the Super Bowl in the company of friends who care more about football than us. There is a university holiday tomorrow, so in theory we could stay up until 5:00 AM watching at a bar, but honestly, without the friends (and chicken wings) ... meh.

We have been able to track Super Bowl's prestige on Google trends, though.

The top 100 searches on google now. Mmmm... chicken wings.

Looking at the peaks for searches for the term "Super Bowl" over the past four years (screenshot up top), notice the huge surge around 2004. Perhaps the game was 4X more interesting that year, but Katie's probably right that the peak related more to Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction.

Alas we'll have to live memorable moments in American popular media history from afar, days after they happen, via web-clips.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

uitgezonderd fietsen (except bikes)

Signage and Cycling In Leuven

Belgium is known for perennially wet streets, and though the buses are free for students and run often, the most common mode of transportation for Leuven students is by bike. Because of the heavy non-motorized traffic, there are a good number of signs and special road markings just for bikes and pedestrians. Trained to walk in the "pedestrian is always right" walkways of the US, it's taken a little adjusting to heed street signage. And though I don't have a bike yet, it will be important to learn what the signage means as the rules strictly enforced by the "stadpolitie" -- a friend of Katie's recently received a 150 euro fine for riding his bike the wrong way on a one-way street.

To help incoming international students get acquainted with the rules and regulations that apply to cyclists, An Goedefroy, a Leuven "Police-Inspector and Studentcop" wrote a simple (6 mb, 88-page .pdf!) guide to biking. Fortunately, the rules aren't really that complicated -- this guide is full of white space and (sometimes funny) pictures -- a quick read that is a helpful introduction to the general rules of the road.

Road rules are basically the same as in the states -- drive on the right, stop at red lights, yield to pedestrians -- and for the most part, the signage is easy to interpret. That said...

I would not have guessed the meaning of these signs a priori.

This does not mean that pedestrians are not allowed, it means that the pedestrian-only zone is now ending.

Signs are modified by special cases, which hang on a sign below. Here, the stop sign is clear enough, but it only applies to bikes.

Once you learn that uitgezonderd means "except for" these signs are pretty clear.

One difference in rules between the States and Belgium is at at four way intersections without street signs, where you don't need to stop unless someone is approaching, then "yield to the right" rules come into play.

Sign B15 would let you know that you had right of way. Without it, even if you think you are on a more "main road," you still must yield.

My suspicion is that these intersections really only happen in rural areas or in low-speed-limit neighborhoods, where any reasonable person would slow down no matter where they learned to drive.

Another difference between Belgium and the US is that white lines down the middle of the road means that traffic goes two ways. On the first day I arrived in Leuven I did not realize this, and there were a few occasions where in my jet lagged state of awareness, I accidentally stepped out into oncoming traffic without looking.

The best part about the guide, though, are the funny pictures.

Re: lower left, I could see a bike going down, but up ... ?

Road-painters' scrap paper?

"They'll get the idea"

Saturday, January 31, 2009


Romanesco is cauliflower's better-looking, cooler cousin. We've been ogling it at the market for a while, so today we decided to pick up a head.

Check it out - an edible fractal!!
(click picture for big version)

We are psyched.

We've been too busy taking pictures of it to cook it yet, but supposedly one cooks it the same way one would make cauliflower or broccoli (ie steam).

Thursday, January 29, 2009

In Europe...

... this would have been mayonnaise.  And no haz-mat would be required:

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Re: Flemish vs Dutch.

Katie and I live in the Flemish part of Belgium, so that means we have to learn Dutch. This is confusing because a savvy foreigner will know that the Flemish speak Flemish (or "Vlaams" as they say). So I asked my boss what was up. As an authoritative scholar and expert on everything Flemish (by virtue of his being an actual Flemish guy), he said that the Flemish will definitely get offended if you confuse them culturally with their northerly neighbors, but since Vlaams is not an official language, it can only be considered a dialect of Nederlands, and so it's fine to call it Dutch.

Other things had also led me to this conclusion. First of all, I keep calling the Flemish people's language Dutch, and nobody (except my savvy American friends) has corrected me yet. Moreover, in a couple of weeks Katie and I are going to begin a course subsidized by the Flemish government, and taught by a native Flemish speaker, called "Dutch for foreigners." Other governmental documents and signs refer to the language as Nederlands or in English translations, Dutch.

That said, there are big vocabulary and pronunciation differences between the Flemish and Dutch. Even between Flemish townships you end up with dialects that make the language sound completely different -- news programs on the Belgian public TV often have to translate what someone is saying because their dialect is so strong.

More about Beguinages:

For those of you who are curious, the NYTimes has a good article all about the "remarkable women" that lived in beguinages.  Our groot begijnhof in Leuven isn't mentioned, but we get enough tourists anyway.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

kooky playground

To do stuff on Sundays in Belgium you have to be resourceful -- everything, save churches and a few restaurants and bars, is closed. So this past Sunday we decided to check out the Klein Begijnhof in Leuven.

As we live in an old beguinage, Katie and I are generally interested in Belgian beguinages (begijnhofs, in Dutch). Our previous beguinage tour in Brussels was kind of anticlimactic for us -- there was no clear line saying "you're at the beguinage," and after a few walks around the block we weren't sure whether we should think of the place as a beguinage or just "a place that was built on what was once a beguinage."

In Leuven, the situation is better. There are two beguinages: the Groot Begijnhof, where we are fortunate enough to live, and the Klein Begijnhof, on the other side of town center. For those without background in the Germanic languages, the former means "big beguinage" and the latter "small beguinage," and their names reflect both their size and celebrity.

However, the Klein Begijnhof and surrounding area is nothing to sneeze at. At the center is a large church -- nothing new to Belgium, but pretty. Across from the entrance to the church is a cute little bar / brasserie place that was closed but Katie and I will definitely re-visit. And there is an abbey-turned-university housing, with a secluded common garden in the center -- definitely would be sweet to get one of these apartments.

The church -- like many medieval buildings, is made of a limestone-like material that weathers rather ungracefully in the sootty Belgian rain.

The one road of the Klein Begijnhof, looking toward the church.

At the end of "beguinage row," there is a beguinage-shaped hole in a brick building. Not visible, below the view of the camera in the footprint of the last unit of the beguinage, is a parking lot. Reminds me of that Joni Mitchell song...

The small beguinage itself is really just one road lined with the entrances to the beguines' old homes -- cute but if you were walking by and didn't know the history of the buildings you wouldn't think much of it.

Of note though, is the kooky playground. On the left, as you're walking down the beguinage street away from the church, a break in the beguinage apartments form a little alley. From the street looking down the alley, you see what appears to be a garden. And there is a garden, surrounded by a short brick wall, with a few benches, sparse shrubbery, the mossy gound typical of an unkempt Belgian lawn.

Outside the garden is the kooky part. There is a steel frame of what looks like a two-story building-in-progress. However, it turns out it's a playground!... With just two swings. And the playground has this crazy sign, with weird numbered pictures that (according to google's translation) don't correspond at all to the numbered warnings below it. Nor do they seem to depict situations that could ever happen in reality...

The sign, letting you know that the steel contraption around you is a playground...

Upon close examination, the cartoons are kind of strange. For instance #2, above here, is un-possible. Look back at the full sign, and you can see that the girl in #3 is also doing the un-possible -- hitting her head on the moon and a star.

This is un-likely. Yet a hilarious concept.

Also unlikely...

... And here we see the playground itself, two swings in all (short brick wall of the garden in the background).

All in all, considering the few shopping / travel / cuisine options we had, it was a delightful outing.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Saturday in Brussels

My American labmate lives in Brussels, and after a few beers at the Blauwe Kater on Friday, we all spontaneously decided to accompany him back there for the night. We had a great time wandering around in the city; we saw a whole clan of Scotsmen in kilts (in fact, due to the kilt-wearing, Aaron even saw more of one of them than one might wish), sampled the alleged best mojito in Brussels, and were actually told "c'est la vie" when we tried to go into a bar that was too full.

The best part, though, was waking up the next morning at 9am and being in Brussels so early! We went to the grote market first, and enjoyed the lack of tourists:

No tourists! Only pigeons!

Ok, a few tourists.

It was early.

We were still a little sleepy.

Then we headed to the Moroccan market, where you can get all sorts of basic things for a whole lot cheaper than in Leuven. It's not in the greatest neighborhood...

... but well worth the trip - we got a food processor for half of what they cost in Leuven, but the big story is the Persian rug, which we bought for less than the price of an Ikea rug in the states!

The apartment feels cozier already.

We also went to a cheese shop and bought a sizeable wedge of brie for only 2 euro - I would post a picture of that, but it didn't stick around long enough to have the opportunity to be photographed!