Monday, April 27, 2015

You Are What You Eat...... And Others Want To Be Us???

What does it mean to be American? I guess it all depends upon who you ask or even where you are. Here in Europe the common perception of Americans seems to be that we are loud, brash and like our things big--big vehicles, big houses, big food portions covered in ketchup and big egos. As frustrating as it may be at times, I can't say that these stereotypes are all that off target. But there are other perceptions and notions about Americans that I am flummoxed by and simply find kind of amusing.

When we lived in Albania it often felt as though the American flag and symbols of the country were everywhere. The flag was found on clothing, waving from flagpoles that weren't associated with the U.S. Embassy or American owned businesses and generally just about everywhere you looked. American pop music from the 1980s (particularly Michael Jackson and MaDonna) seemed to be the most popular songs played in cafes. At first it felt odd but on some days it felt like a little retro piece of home. On more than one occasion while we were out and about, upon hearing our speaking English with an American accent youth would shout the words "we love Obama" and "we love America" in our direction. I'm sure they would have been saying this regardless of who was sitting in the White House. But then again, in all of my traveling with the exception of being in Albania and neighboring Kosovo, I have yet to have an exuberant love of my home country shouted out in my direction. But that doesn't mean that America's influence has escaped the rest of Europe.

Take food for example. Long before John Kerry became Secretary of State the Heinz brand was spreading their Americanism to all parts of the world. (John Kerry is married to Heinz heiress Teresa Heinz). And their condiment business is so much more than ketchup; the most peculiar topping of all is an orangey-gold colored concoction called "American sauce". I have never seen such a thing in the United States but here in Europe it is everywhere with small squeeze bottles lining grocery store shelves to gallon sized vats of it being dolloped out from frite carts. I personally never tasted the sauce but found its name slightly amusing. But when I was gifted with a bottle by a fellow American I took a closer look at it. From the ingredient list that I translated from German to English it appears to be a combination of ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise and pickle relish along the lines of a thicker Thousand Island dressing (another combination that I find less than appetizing). Looking at it with humor I guess it does sum up America's fixation with ketchup and related condiments but just the same I'll let my European friends enjoy this great American export.

But this isn't the only oddly American monikered food item found in Europe. Steak Americain or filet American is a popular menu item in many Belgian restaurants. I'm sure more than one American has sat down at the table, ordered and expected to cut into a thick steak. That isn't what they will be eating, though. Rather, Steak Americain is actually what much of the world calls steak tartare, a mound of finely chopped raw beef that more often than not (in Belgium anyway) is topped with a runny egg. I don't have the faintest idea how this dish came to have the word American tacked onto it; yes, many Americans may prefer their steaks bloody but raw is a whole other category. And I've seen other Americanized menu items as well; American pizza is dotted with chopped up hotdogs; the same goes for the omelette American. American style beers have a color so pale they look more like colored water and American chicken is oddly fried and coated in the afore mentioned ketchup. I once saw a menu where food portions were served in "petite", "normal" and "America" sizes. I kid you not.

Countries and cultures are often associated with their foods but are the above examples really what others think of America? Maybe. After all our local Carrefour has an "American" aisle filled with Hershey's syrup, Old El Paso taco kits and "American style" over stuffed Oreo cookies. And of course ketchup. Big bottles of ketchup. And it isn't just the Americans who are shopping here.

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Windmills of Kinderdijk

Every country has at least one cultural icon that is immediately recognized as belonging to their heritage. For the Netherlands, there are several. Cheese, tulips and clogs immediately come to mind as do windmills. And although they are increasingly being replaced by modern soaring metal ones, the stout wooden buildings with thatched roofs are about as iconic as they come. You still see them dotting the canals and lowlands of the country but if you want to walk amongst them and through them, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Kinderdijk Mills is the place to visit.

Located in the southeast Alblasserwaard region of Zuid-Holland, three separate rivers meet the village of Kinderdijk. The area is marshy, flat and windswept. The convergence of the rivers in an area that is already below sea level, thus making the region susceptible to flooding. To combat the drainage issues a series dykes, a steam powered pumping station and 19 mills were erected along the banks of the rivers. Two additional pumping stations were later built and the entire pumping system switched to an electrical operation in 1924.

Much like the lighthouses of the coastal regions, these windmills were vital to the safety of the entire area. Each mill was operated by a miller who was responsible for keeping his particular mill running smoothly. Needing to be available twenty four hours a day, millers lived in the mills with their families. The quarters were by no means spacious and some larger families, including one with twelve children who resided in the Nederwaard for many years, were quite cramped. But in addition to being working mills they were also full fledge homes complete with kitchen, bedrooms and living quarters, albeit with a giant gear in their center and large blades spinning outside of their windows. And as I learned during my visit, a single mill does little on its own. Instead, the mills--in this case all 19--- worked together in unison to pump the water at whatever speed and in which ever direction was required at a moment's notice. The large blades, which almost sweep the ground as they go around but their power is unmistakable.

The mills joined the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1997. Today visitors can walk or bicycle along the canals and catch a glimpse of mill life. Alternatively, or in combination with, you can tour the canal via a ho-on -- hop-ff boat and view the windmills from the water. A ticket provides admission to the visitors center as well as the interiors of two windmills. At the visitors center located in the modern pumping station, a multi-screen video provides an overview of the history of the area and the building and operation of the windmills and water management. The inside of the Nederwaard mill is trapped in time and depicts the way a mill family lived in the mid 1700s. This mill was built in 1738 and here the more agile can climb up a series of steep and narrow stairs to the top of the mill, passing through a small kitchen and living area, several sleeping nooks and the gears that propel the windmill blades as you go. The second mill, Blokweer, is still occupied by a miller who explains the milling process to inquisitive visitors. In between these mills are other privately occupied mills that are meticulously maintained yet closed to the public.

It is quite amazing to walk along the canal and amongst the mills and marvel at both the power of water and the impressive Dutch approach to managing and controlling it. It is even more amazing to stand under the shadows of the turning mill blades and hear the wind whipping through their frames. Plus this entire area of the Netherlands is absolutely beautiful. So if you get a chance, go visit. You won't regret it.

If you go:

Kinderdijk Mills
Nederwaard 1
2961 AS Kinderdijk, Netherlands
Open daily from mid-February to 31 December; hours vary
Adults 7.5 Euro; ages 6-12 5.5 Euro, under 6 free
Boat tours 2.50-5 Euro

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Mean Girls

Mean girls. In the extreme form they are female bullies who resort to rumor spreading, nasty comments and deceit to exclude and manipulate others. But not everyone is a full fledge mean girl; there are the queen bees, the wannabees and the girls who fall somewhere in between. Collectively they can make one's life pretty miserable.
It sounds a lot like tween drama or the makings of a bad made for television movie but in reality they exist in real life and even more tragically, they exist at all ages. Mean girls span the generations and can be young girls, grown women and even senior citizens. Little mean girls are often the offspring of mean mammas and mean mammas are often raising their own little mean girls in the making. You would hope that mean girls are just a passing trend but they aren't. I met my first mean girl when I was in junior high, encountered even more though high school and college and sadly have continued to encounter them throughout my adult life. Sadly enough, mean girls seem to be timeless.

As an adult woman I've seem my peers acting as mean girls and was actually "mean girled" recently by another mother. Her barbed comments followed by her actions then subsequent snubbing of me initially left me speechless. But rather than be hurt---the way I was in earlier mean girl encounters--I was more irritated. I no longer feel a need to fit in or to be accepted by the masses. I also realize that while on the outside these girls may appear to have inflated egos and senses of self esteem, the opposite is more likely the case. All of the bluster and meanness is really a facade covering up one's insecurities. When one tries too hard to fit in and be accepted, more often than not, the opposite takes place. So after watching this mother's actions from afar I can honestly say that I don't have any desire to be a part of her crowd. I don't like what I see and I don't have time for those antics. I've been there and done that years ago. Now, we are grown women who should be acting as positive role models for our children instead of acting like children ourselves. Or perpetuating the cycle of bullying and being mean girls.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Everything Is Blooming At Keukenhof Gardens

My last post provided a peek of the flowers at Keukenhof Gardens. But no matter how good the pictures, they simply can't do justice to the acres upon acres of intricately planted blooming gardens, meticulously manicured lawns and whimsical displays that are Keukenhof. And it is their beauty that draws millions of visitors for eight short weeks each spring.

Keukenhof traces its roots back to the 15th century when Countess Jacqueline of Bavaria gathered fruits and vegetables from the gardens surrounding the area. Keukenhof Castle was built in 1641 and encompassed a total of 200 hectares but it wasn't until 1949 that the gardens became a permanent exhibition of spring flowering blooms. The gardens may only be open for a few short weeks each spring but maintaining the gardens is a year around operation. Starting each September, 30 gardeners spend three months hand planting over 7 million flower bulbs. But these aren't just any bulbs that are planted. Close to 100 suppliers provide their best bulbs to the garden each year and the garden designers work to create unique gardens and displays that best highlight the beauty of the flower. Additionally, new grass is planted each year as well to ensure the manicured perfection that guests see. And much to my surprise, once the garden closes for the season, each of the 7 million bulbs are dug up and destroyed before the planting cycle starts all over again.

So what do visitors to Keukenhof get to see during their visit? Flowers of course but there is so much more. Flowering bulbs bloom in three waves: early, middle and late. (I learned this during my visit to the gardens). The varied blooming seasons ensure that visitors will see flowers regardless of when they come to the gardens. We were there during the middle season when hyacinths seemed to be the predominant flower. I love hyacinths---particularly the purple ones--and their aroma filled the air with an unmistakable sweet fragrance. But hyacinths of all colors were everywhere. There were lots of tulips as well. Rainbow like waves, edged by perfectly green lawns, filled just about every open expanse of the garden. It was breathtaking and beautiful and as someone who can only get weeds to flourish, it left me spellbound. There are water features as well; canals, fountains and ponds complete with swimming swans lend a tranquil atmosphere even when the gardens are crowded. Portions of the gardens are shaded by towering trees and a stroll through the Japanese inspired garden provides not only shade but an array of yellow daffodils. Kids of all ages can wander through a boxwood maze to make their way up to a viewing platform where you can take in the fields of tulips surrounding the gardens. And best of all there are plenty of places to sit and take it all in. And even on a crowded day, it was easy to find a quiet spot to sit and contemplate the flowers. (And for the more energetic younger set there are two age appropriate playgrounds and a petting zoo).

Waves of flowers (and crowds)

Shades of purple
In addition to the seemingly endless color filled gardens, there are indoor pavilions hosting revolving flower shows ranging from orchids, lilies and gerbera daisies to anthuriums, roses and daffodils. Each week features different flowers so you can visit more than once, seeing new flowers each time. My favorite area, however, was the inspirational gardens paying homage to the canals of Amsterdam. This year's gardens recreated the tiny patio, rooftop or canal side gardens that fill Amsterdam's residential neighborhoods. At Keukenhof, we could pull up chairs and sit along the canal amongst potted plants, climb up to the rooftops to enjoy the flowers and the views or pop into makeshift patios and guest cottages that were beautifully adorned with flowering plants. To me, these miniature gardens with their window boxes, potted plants and beautifully painted accessories truly were inspirations making me want to go home and recreate my own little piece of heaven in my garden.
The many faces of Van Gogh

Each year the gardens have their own theme and for the 2015 season that theme is honoring Vincent Van Gogh on the 125th anniversary of his death. Van Gogh may have begun his artistic career in Belgium, but he was born in the Netherlands in 1853 and spent much of his life living and working in various parts of the country. It was just beginning to bloom during our visit but the centerpiece of the Van Gogh tribute is an expansive 250 square meter bulb mosaic comprised of tulips and grape hyacinths. Making Van Gogh modern is a selfie garden that is inspired by Van Gogh's numerous self portraits. Here you can pose in reflective mirrors for your own selfie as well as have your picture taken alongside the artist. And if you're thirsty you can even get yourself a bottle of Van Gogh beer!

There's still time to see Van Gogh in bloom

But there really is so much to see at Keukenhof so a visit is a must. If you are fast you too can catch the last weeks of the 2015 blooms. If you miss it, mark your calendars for the 2016 season. I was there in 2015 and plan to return in 2016. In the meantime inspiration has struck me and I'm trying my hand at establishing my own little flower garden. Let's hope a green thumb prevails over black.

If you go:

Keukenhof Gardens
Stationsweg 166a
AM Lisse-Holland
+31 252 465 555

Daily 08.00-19.30
Open for the 2015 season: 20 March - 17 May
Open for the 2016 season:  24 March - 16 May
16 Euro adults, 8 Euro ages 4-11, under 4 Free
Parking 6 Euro

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Blooms Of Keukenhof Gardens

Nothing says spring more than brightly colored flowers and few places burst with colors the way Keukenhof Gardens does for a few weeks each spring. Here's a snippet of the beauty I experienced during my recent visit:

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Ruins Of The Abbaye d' Aulne

Blame it on my love of the Nancy Drew mystery series when I was a younger reader but for me, but many times, the ruins of a building are more beautiful than a well preserved building in its pristine state. As a Nancy Drew fan I used to fantasize about exploring the old granite ruins of castles and mansions the way Nancy and her friends did in their quest to solve the latest mystery. (Never mind that these fancy ruins were more apt to be in Europe than in the middle American suburban community Nancy called home; I loved them just the same). So it is no wonder than some of my favorite places to visit here in Europe are ruins. And of all the ruins I've seen, those of the Abbaye d' Aulne in Thuin, Belgium are by far one of my favorite.

The abbey dates back to the 7th Century when it was founded by Landelin, the son of a wealthy noble family, on the banks of the Sambre River. Various tales have him being a failed monk prone to debauchery as well as an ordained priest who was charged by the Holy See to built abbeys and to evangelize in a part of the world that was not overly religious. By the 9th Century the abbey had expanded its footprint, rule of the abbey had changed hands under the leadership of St. Bernard to the Cistercians, a conservative sect who turned inward, focusing on a quiet life free of outside corrupt influences which had plagued the abbey in recent years.

The following centuries were a turbulent time in this part of the world. The abbey was invaded by the French army in 1538 and again in 1578 by Dutch Calvinists who were at war against Phillip II of Spain; on both occasions the monks were forced to flee to safety. Under the reign of King Louis XIV French army invaded the region once again in 1693, pillaging and looting from the abbey and surrounding villages and leaving destruction in their wake. A century later , in 1794 during the French Revolution, the abbey was burned because it was a symbol of religion. By the time of the fire, locals had repeatedly plundered it of many of its valuables. Within a year, however, the monks returned and began rebuilding, restoring the associated mill and brewery. But those parts of the abbey that weren't reconstructed underwent a "voluntary" deconstruction with bricks, stones and pavers from the former cloister and former palace being repurposed for other construction projects including the 1845 reconstruction of the Charleroi-Erquelines rail line. In 1855 construction of a new church begins on the site and by 1873 it is blessed.

By the end of the century the remaining abbey facades had continued to deteriorate and posed such a  danger that the government stepped forward, partnering with the University of Ghent to restore the remaining buildings. The restoration work has continued through the years, pausing during the Second World War, with the abbey being recognized as a heritage site in 1991.

A visit today reveals the ongoing conservation work and excavation of the site. Parts of the ruins are cordoned off from visitors and as a heavily dented metal walkway indicates, the unrestored facade of the abbey is continuing to crumble. But there is still so much to see and for the most part, visitors can explore the many nooks and crannies of the old abbey. There is of course the "new' church and adjacent offices and event space that reminds me just how commercialized so many churches and abbeys have become. But the numbered placards (written only in French) explain the various parts of the original abbey grounds. The abbey grounds are sparse yet well cared for with the only adornment being carefully pruned bushes. Where a (presumably grand) fountain once stood there is now an empty basin. I've walked down the grand center aisle of many cathedrals but standing on the grass and pebble covered path at the foot of the former alter is a one of a kind experience. With the blue sky replacing the soaring vaulted ceilings and vines taking the place of ornate windows, you can get a real sense of how grand the cathedral once was. Windows are now pane-less, providing a clear view both inside and outside of buildings. Stubby stone columns are the only remnants of what had been the grand pillars supporting the apses' infrastructure yet it is easy to picture what they had looked like in their heyday.

For me, each view of the abbey was more magnificent than the last. Standing on the inside and looking up and out was breathtaking but walking the perimeter of the ruins and looking in was too. It was and still is, an architectural masterpiece which, for better or worse, has withstood invasions, wars, fire and "organized" looting and pillaging. Despite all of this, she still stands--rickety but she still stands. And yes, for a brief moment I closed my eyes and pretended that I was Nancy Drew on a mission to solve another mystery in an old abbey.

If you go:
Abbaye d'Aulne
Rue Emile Vandervelde 275
6534 Thuin, Belgium
+32 71 5954 54

Open from 1 April-30 September Wednesday-Sunday from 13.00-18.00
Open every day during school holidays
Adults 4 Euro, children over age 12 3 Euro, under 12 Free

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Biggest Atom Of All: Atomium Brussels

Its a giant atom
I think of it as one of the oddest, yet most iconic structures dotting a European skyline. (And I'm not the only one who thinks this as CNN once called it Europe's most bizarre building). It is simultaneously intriguing yet strange. It is referred to as the symbol of Brussels and was built as the showpiece of Expo 58, the 1958 World's Fair. In case you are still guessing at what I am talking about, it is the Atomium, the giant silver atom looming over the skyline in the outskirts of the Belgian capitol.

Atomium stands at 335 feet tall and 59 feet wide and is a series of stainless steel eight spheres connected in a way that forms a cell unit. A series of escalators transport visitors to five of the cells with an elevator whisking people to the top sphere from which one has a panoramic view of Brussels and the surrounding area. And on a clear day, the view was well worth the wait for the elevator to the top. Looking in one direction you can take in Brussels' grand architecture while looking in the other direction you see urban sprawl, a modern exposition center and the neighboring Mini-Europe, an attraction whose oddity is tempered by the Atomium itself.

An ultra modern office
space made completely
out of plastic
What you see on the outside of this giant atom--shiny metal making me think of a science experiment gone wrong--belies what you find inside. Today its construction remains novel but at the time it was built, it truly was cutting edge. With their orange and pale blue colors, the interior of the spheres can only be called retro. Visitors wending their way up a combination of escalators and stairs through the museum can learn about the engineering feat that was involved in the construction of the atom. There are also exhibits on the history of various districts and buildings within Brussels and of the 1958 World's Fair itself. You can also see ariel views of what the area surrounding Brussels was like before urban sprawl took over and you can peek outside to look both up and down at the atom's spheres. But even after undergoing an extensive renovation which included resurfacing the spheres with stainless steel and reinforcing its vertical support beams, the Atomium remains a product of the time in which she was originally constructed. One only needs to ride the escalator down through a dark techno-colored tube, which filled my head with visions of a lava lamp, to be reminded of this.

At any given time there are temporary exhibits sharing space alongside the permanent displays. When I visited the temporary exhibit was entitled Orange Dreams and played homage to the wonders of plastics. Talk about retro; when so much of today's focus is on espousing the ills of plastics, here is an exhibit dedicated to its virtues. Everything in this exhibit space, from the furniture and tableware to decor and even clothing, was made of a type of plastic. And to drive home the retro feel, not only was it plastic but everything was also a shade of orange. From bright and neon to faded and more subtle, I felt as though I was wandering through the entire pantone spectrum of orange. I'm not sure if it was cool, surreal or just plain strange.

A view from the top

The lava lamp-esqe ride down the escalator

So when you are in Brussels take a break from the chocolate, beer and grand architecture and visit the Atomium. It will be one of the strangest yet most memorable places you will ever visit.

Another perspective; under and looking up

If you go:
Square de l'Atomium
B-1020 Brussels, Belgium

Open daily from 10.00-18.00; ticket office closes 1/2 hour prior
Adults 11 Euro, teens 8 Euro, children 6-12 6 Euro, under 6 Free
Combination tickets available to neighboring Mini-Europe

Friday, April 10, 2015

Did Somebody Say Cookie: A Visit To Jules Destrooper

Belgium is awash with delicious food and drink. Chocolate and beer top the list but artisanal cheeses and sausages, moule and frites (mussels and fries) and crusty breads are also highly rated. Belgium is a county deep entrenched in food traditions so it should come as no surprise that another "must try" food item here in Belgium are the rich buttery cookies made by Jules Destrooper.

Original cookie presses
Jules Destrooper has been baking buttery cookies since 1886. From the beginning the bakery only used all natural ingredients and relied heavily upon rich butter (and this is still evident today since the air surrounding the factory bears the distinct aroma of melted butter). The first cookie made was an almond thin which within a few short years earned international recognition. The cookie line soon expanded to include a variety of butter wafers and the family owned business took off from there. Perhaps the most well known cookie flavor is speculoos, a spicy cinnamon infused butter cookie. Jules Destrooper began producing the cookie in 1970 but its origins are said to date back to the 17th Century with the import of spices due to the founding of the East India Trading Company. Today the bakery remains family owned and produces eighteen types of "biscuits" in addition to their creamy speculoos spread and their speculoos infused ice cream. Additionally Jules Destrooper has been working to develop more environmentally friendly packaging and they partner with local non-governmental organizations that support local residents with developmental disabilities and children with cancer throughout Belgium.

Like so many of Belgium's other great treasures, the Jules Destrooper cookie factory and visitors center is tucked away in small, off the beaten path Belgian town leading visitors (or at least myself) to wonder whether or not I am going on a wild goose chase. Our route had us trailing more than one tractor through rolling farmland dotted with World War I era Commonwealth graves (we were in the outskirts of Ypers after all), through quaint villages and over narrow cobblestone roads before we reached what is today the very modern glass fronted headquarters of Jules Destrooper. And
One of the interactive cookie games
while the cookie recipes may be traditional, what you find inside is thoroughly modern.

On a self guided tour (everything is translated into French, Dutch and English), visitors have the opportunity to learn about the history of Jules Destrooper and how the cookies have been and continue to be made. Visitors are able to view the ingredients in their natural, pre-cookie form, see how the cookies were first pressed and cut and compare them to how the process takes place today. (The difference really isn't that great). They can peek down into the factory floor and see cookies being packaged for shipping. There is a well done tri-lingual video that explains the entire history and cookie making process. But best of all, the exhibits are incredibly hands on. Kids of all ages can test the cookie irons for themselves and even play interactive games involving the various cookies. And of course no tour would be complete without the opportunity to sample the products. A tasting cafe features a variety of cookies as well as their famous speculoos and even speculoos flavored ice cream as well as delicious coffee for the adults and juice boxes for the kids.

The little village of Lo might be a bit out of the way but thanks to Jules Destrooper it has so much to offer. So if you're in the Ypers area or are simply looking for a tasty excursion, check out these cookies. Your taste buds will thank you even if your waistline doesn't.

The tasting cafe at the end of the tour

If you go:

Jules Destrooper Cookie Factory
Gravestraat 5
8647 Lo, Belgium
+32 58 28 09 33

Tours offered Monday-Saturday from 09:30-12:30 & 13.30-17.30; closed Friday mornings
Admission: Adults 5 Euro, Children under 6 Free, Ages 7-12 3 Euro

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A Date With Van Gogh

This year Mons is a European Capital of Culture and with that designation comes an entire year of cultural activities right here in our little part of Belgium. Earlier this winter we attended Illumination, the kick off event for this year's festivities and most recently we took in a Van Gogh exhibit at BAM, Mons' own modern art museum.

Van Gogh has been all of the rage this year. Sidney's kindergarten class has been studying Van Gogh since the beginning of the year. They've been looking at his art work, making their own five year old renditions of his sunflower paintings and even piled onto a bus and took a field trip to see the exhibit when it first opened. Sidney came home telling us that it was "the best field trip ever" and he wanted to take his father and I there to see Van Gogh's work. So this past weekend we did just that. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

You might ask yourself why Van Gogh in Mons? Well the answer is that Vincent Van Gogh is actually a product of Mons. Van Gogh had a short but turbulent life which lasted a mere 37 years. During this time he toiled with various professions: art dealer, teacher, book seller and lay preacher before focusing on his art work. Between December 1878 and October 1880 Van Gogh lived in the Borinage mining region (the area surrounding Mons) and worked as an evangelist missionary but it was during this time that he developed his artistic ideology. His early work was rather primitive and reflected the world he saw around him; miners and their families, hardscrabble villages and Belgian landscapes were the subjects of his earliest drawings and paintings. His work reflected the everyday realities of miners, peasants and weavers and by all intensive purposes was quite grim. But his work reflected the times and his perspective on the world and although his time in Mons was brief it shaped the rest of his career as an artist.

The BAM exhibit is entitled "Van Gogh in the Borinage: The Birth of an Artist" and features his early work, much of which was produced right here in Mons. The exhibit is comprised of a combination of original work and reproductions done in oils, watercolors, pencil and even woodcarving.  Many of the pieces are copies of the works of artists he admired, including Jean-Francois Millet, and visitors can clearly see the progression of his skills as they walk through the exhibit. An early work entitled "The Hag" depicted an old beaten down horse. On one hand I don't think it is a particularly artistic or even well done painting but one does get the sense that the horse had led a hard life. Later paintings of animals are more sophisticated and well done, thus reflecting his evolution as an artist. Personally, I am an admirer of Van Gogh's later works but it was interesting to see how his skills truly did develop over time. More often than not we only have the opportunity to view masterpieces and never get a glimpse of where the artist came from when they were getting their start. With this Van Gogh exhibit we are given just that and for that reason alone, a visit to the BAM is well worth it.

The Van Gogh exhibit is temporary, with many of the pieces on loan from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and will be at BAM through the middle of May so now is the time to visit. If you miss this exhibit not to fear; other temporary exhibits will follow.

If you go:
Rue Neuve 8
7000 Mons, Belgium
Open Tuesday-Sunday 12:00-18:00

You can also visit the Van Gogh House in neighboring Cuesmes
Maison Van Gogh
Rue du Pavillon 3
7033 Cuesmes, Belgium
Open Tuesday-Sunday 12:00-18:00

Monday, April 6, 2015

Food For Thought; Thoughts On Food

I've been thinking about food a lot recently. Not necessarily about specific recipes and meals but rather about how food is produced, how and where we buy our food and what it all means. Food is one of life's necessities that everyone, regardless of where we live, our race or socio-economic status, individual likes or dislikes, needs to survive. Some people have an abundance of food while others regularly go hungry. Some people live to eat while others eat to live. Simply put, food is something we all need and rely upon for our survival. Because of this food should be the great equalizer but sadly, it is not. Rather attitudes towards food and access to food are often the issues that divide us the most.

The topic in my French class for the past few weeks has been food. In learning the words for various types of food, we've been discussing how and where to shop for items both locally and in our home countries. Half of my class if comprised of Americans with the other half hailing from a mix of European countries. Although I was already aware of this on some level, it was quickly reaffirmed that so many Europeans shop for their food in local markets whereas us Americans tend to rely on supermarkets and big box stores for our daily nourishment. Urban areas can be food deserts and community markets, filled with organic produce are much more sporadic and difficult to find, are often located in more affluent neighborhoods and have prices that put the freshest of fruits and vegetables out of reach for many consumers. I'm a huge fan of the farm share trend but the often significant financial layout required to "buy in" to them at the beginning of the season makes them cost prohibitive for many American families. Class conversations quickly made it apparent that the differences between food resourcing in America and in Europe and what and how we eat are as far apart as the ocean that separates us.

Above all, as humans we seem to be creatures of habit. We crave the familiar and seek it out. More often than not we want, no demand, convenience. This probably explains why so many American military families posted overseas actively seek out their military commissaries (a.k.a. grocery stores stocked with all of the conveniences and foods from home) for a little piece of well traveled, overly processed comfort food from home. It is familiar, it is comfortable and it is how we most likely shopped and ate back home. If we grew up in households where convenience foods were the norm odds are we live the same was as adults. If we grew up eating fresh vegetables instead of canned, enjoyed home cooked meals eaten around the dinner table and had sugary snacks were kept at a minimum, we are probably recreating that lifestyle in our own homes. If our parents cooked we are more likely to cook ourselves. Perhaps this is why eating and shopping local remains the norm in Europe since the tradition of village markets, local farms and family dinner being events for all ages are the norm rather than a trend. This may be a broad sweeping statement on my part but I in my experience, access to quality food is less of a class issue in Europe than it is in America. I  feel as though quality food for people from all walks of live is valued much more in Europe than it is in America. I love that about Europe and it makes me feel a bit sad about America.

And that brings me to where I am now. Shopping "like a European" is a habit that I have fallen in love with and am increasingly practicing in my own household. With two different expansive markets held in my neighborhood each week and others held in neighboring towns daily, shopping at these local markets is the easiest food option for me. And as I sit here and type this, I have homemade pizza dough rising for tonight's dinner. The flour and yeast were purchased at my local Belgian supermarket but the toppings--fresh cheese, locally made sausage, fresh artichokes, tomatoes and herbs--were all purchased at my local market. For the most part I know where my food came from--here in Belgium as well as neighboring France and the Netherlands. It is local and fresh and minimally processed. And this is how my family eats on most days. The source of  my food is important to me and regardless of where I am living, I will go out of my way to buy from fresh and local sources.

But all of my food choices are clearly ones of class and privilege. I have the means, both financially and time wise, to decide where and how I will shop. I can afford to shop for locally grown organic produce, which here in Europe is often cheaper than mass produced and imported items. And because I am currently living in Europe all of this great quality food is literally sitting at my doorstep. I am also quite positive that once we are back in America we will continue to shop and eat the way we do now. If that means trekking out to a farm to buy organic milk or buying into a farm share each spring, it is something that I will do.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Open For The Season: Pairi Daiza

Feeding the monkeys is a favorite stop

The best zoo I have ever visited is right in our Belgian back yard.  We were told about the zoo by several people the minute we arrived in  Belgium with everyone telling us how wonderful it was. There was so much hype around the zoo that I found myself wondering if it was really as good as everyone was saying. I found out that it is and others agree since it was named the most beautiful park and best zoo in Belgium in 2014 and the best theme park in 2013. In a country filled with parks these recognitions are definitely something to brag about.

Actually, to call Pairi Daiza a zoo isn't accurate since it is a zoo and so much more. It is a botanical garden and international cultural showcase. And best of all it is located fifteen minutes from our house making both day long and last minute visits easy. In fact, since it reopened for the season early last month Pairi Daiza it has become our favorite place to visit. We've bought season passes and have started stopping by for the afternoon or just a an hour or so. There is so much to see and despite our repeated visits, we have yet to experience the entire zoo. It is that big and that amazing.

Today Pairi Daiza is a 140 acre zoo and botanical garden that is home to 4,000 animals- from zebras and panda bears to kangaroos, monkeys and hundreds of birds, they all live here. There is even a small aquarium, complete with seals and penguins. But the zoo grounds, located in the midst of rolling farmland, is actually on the grounds of the old Cistercian Cambron Abbey. The old abbey tower remains as the centerpiece of the park, looming over the lush grounds and serving as a geographic landmark since it is easy to get lost amongst the maze of pathways, ponds, and animals. But to get a bird's eye view of the entire grounds, a rope walk spanning high over much of the park is the way to go. My fearless little boy loves it--especially making the narrow wooden and rope walkway bounce uncontrollably--and it is now the first, and sometimes last, place we visit upon arriving.

The old abbey tower

The first thing I noticed about Pairi Daiza is that the animals have so much space to wander around and in some cases are free to share space with their human visitors. Regal peacocks stroll the ground and while visiting "the land down under" we found only a low guardrail separating ourselves from the kangaroos. Lush vegetation lined pathways connect each world garden with the next. In one moment you may be in an immortal Chinese city complete with giant pandas and the next you have wandered into an African stilt village or a Balinese temple surrounded by elephants. Monkeys swing overhead and if you visit during feeding time the monkeys will come right up and eat out of your hands. (This has become a favorite activity for our family). Wandering around one of the many lagoons you encounter birds-giant pelicans, bright pink flamingos, ducks of all kinds, herons, and eagles wandering around the paths, swimming in the water, or soaring overhead. There are also several large caged aviaries where visitors share space with smaller, more colorful birds. I'm not a fan of the avian world but even I find it really cool to be so up close and personal with these colorful feathered creatures.

One of the smallest residents enjoying a
rare sunny moment

African stilt village

And because this is Europe Pairi Daiza has two other features that are rarely found in American zoos. First there are giant playgrounds, both outside and in (in consideration to the often inclement Belgian weather) where kids can run, jump, and climb to their heart's content and burn off energy. The second feature that I love is the food. Yes, you will find your typical park food of grilled hotdogs and hamburgers here but you will also find sushi, Italian and Chinese foods, traditional Belgian fare, and African delicacies. And because this is Belgium all of the food can all be washed down with the zoo's own brewed beer. Have you ever wanted to participate in a traditional tea ceremony? You can do it here. (You can also get a fish pedicure if that is your thing).

There really is something for everyone here and I know we've only just begun to explore and experience everything Pairi Daiza has to offer. In fact, rain or shine its going to be a great place to spend our summer days.

Bright koi frolicking near the immortal city

You never know what you will find hiding
amongst the trees

Bright birds


If you go:

Pairi Daiza
Domaine de Cambron
B-7940 Brugelette Belgium
+ 32 (0) 68 250 850
Open April-November daily from 10:00-18:00, later during the summer
Adults: 27 Euro, children 3-12 , 22 Euro, free under 3

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Our Belgian Beer Road: Of Trolls & Bush

The beer & the glass
With this beer, it started with the glass. Well actually it started shortly after our arrival in Belgium with an inquiry (in English) to the French only speaking waiter as to whether the Bush beer on the menu was an import from America. Glenn's question was met with a blank stare so he took a gamble and ordered it any way. Much to his relief it wasn't the American version and it arrived in its own crackle texture glass. He was immediately enamored by both the beer and the glass so naturally we had to go to the source.

Today, the "source" is a brassarie located in rural village of Pipaix in Hainaut Province Belgium. (The attached restaurant serves traditional Belgian foods and is well worth a visit). Brassarie Dubuisson, which also brews some beers under the Bush label, was founded in 1769 on a farm with the sole intent of brewing beer for consumption by its farm workers and residents of the surrounding village. Through the years the brewery and farm remained in the family and in the 1930s descendants of the founders gave up farming in favor of expanding their brewery and producing beer on a full time basis. Today the brewery remains family owned and operated and claims to be the oldest and most traditional brewery in Wallonia.

Visitors can eat in the brassarie and shop for beer throughout the week but if you want to take a tour of the facilities, you must visit during the weekend. As is fitting for a guided trip through a brewery, the tour starts and ends with beer tastings. Six to be exact with the opportunity to try three different types of beer while watching a film showcasing the history of the brewery (the film is offered in French, Flemmish and English depending upon the audience) then three more beers at the conclusion of the tour. (Before you hop in your car to drive home????). The film is quite informative, walking visitors through the founding of the brewery through its modernization and expansion.

Next up the fun begins with the actual tour of the brewery. We descended down a narrow staircase to the beer cellar were wooden casts used to age some of the beers are stored in the cool stone caverns below the brewery. The cellars are also immediately adjacent to the nearby road and we could both hear and feel the traffic as it passed by. Row upon row of casks line the room. When we exit the cellar we find ourselves outside in the center courtyard which is the heart of the brewery complex. Next up is a quick walk through of the original brewery before we move onto the thoroughly modern section of the brewery where today's beer are produced. (I can't help but think of the classic American television show Laverne & Shirley whenever I walk through a bottling room). And then of course we conclude our tour back in the tasting room sampling three more types of beer. For me, the single thing that distinguishes this brewery from others we have visited, is its efforts to be environmentally friendly. Despite Belgium's famous lack of sun, solar panels cover 900 square meters of the newly constructed storage facility.

Today Dubuisson brews over a dozen types of beer. Since 2013, over 10 million liters of beer are produced annually, with 40% of it being exported throughout Europe, North America, Asia and Australia. With such a variety of beers, it is always hard to identify a favorite. Although I generally prefer darker beers, their Peche Mel, or peach beer, is surprisingly delicious and refreshing. But the seasonal Noel beer is also pretty good. As is the Prestige....... All of the beers are quite strong by American standards so a little does go a long way. But if you find yourself in the area, do stop by. You can take a tour, sample a variety of beers and eat a really good meal. Then you can decide on your favorites (and there is no need to pick just one) and buy some to bring home. Just don't forget to buy the coordinating glasses as well. They simply make the beer drinking experience so much better and the Bush glass is by far one of the coolest I've ever seen.

The old beer wagon

and a very modern production line

If you go:

Brassarie Dubuisson
Chaussee de Mons 32
7904 Pipaix, Belgium
+32 69 66 17 27
Food served from 12.00-15.00 & 19.00-22.00, closed Mondays
Tours offered weekends at 15.00