Belgium calls again!

I have just returned from visit number 12 to Belgium!  Che Fortuna!

Here’s how it all happened.  I am teaching an International Baccalaureate (IB) course called Language A. (I teach it in English, but it is offered in dozens of languages).  I already have training in Language and Literature, but it’s a different track for English than my school offers.  I applied for funds through the professional development committee to go, originally for December in Oxford, but it’s a crazy time of year and I had already received some funding, so I applied again for spring semester.  The soonest course was in Brussels, Belgium.  So once again, back to one of my favorite countries.

As you may recall from my previous Belgium post My Magic Bruges , my heart lies in Flanders – the Flemish (Dutch dialect) speaking region north of Brussels.  But while I may love Bruges the best, Brussels is certainly nice.

It was a whirlwind.  I worked on Thursday, my crazy day, for four 80 minute classes, jetted home to get my bags and dash to the airport where I had to transfer in Rome, finally arriving in Belgium at midnight.  Brussels airport is super convenient with a rail connection to Brussels Central, so I did that then groggily showed a taxi driver my hotel info and arrived at my hostel/hotel around 1am.  Whew!  Reception normally closes at 22:00, so I’m so glad I notified them in advance and someone waited for me.  When I arrived, I soon learned that he was “going to sleep for three hours” because then he had to work again very early in the morning.  Yikes.

I awoke the next morning to pouring rain as I had a yummy hotel breakfast – just some warm croissants and breads along with coffee and OJ.  I was worried about my transport connections to the Management Conference Center, so I jetted out and on my way.  I somehow got on the right tram, but in the wrong direction, with foggy windows and no signs to announce the stops, it was a collossall guessing game.  Where am I?  Where am I going?  I dunno.  Eventually I asked someone what stop we were at, then I learned I had gone the wrong way.  I am not necessarily a shy person, but with certain things I’m painfully shy — asking strangers for directions – yeah, that’s tricky for me.  Everyone was being super helpful, but they were also confused, too.   The directions listed the wrong name for the tram stop, which thanks to google maps and some help from tram riders, we learned was Baili.  Next, the website said, “once you get off at the stop, the Management Center is a short walk away.” No map, no indication of the direction.  Nothing to help.  Again, luckily I had a google maps printout with me as well, but that was not exactly correct.  One woman said, “I worked at that stop for 20 years, and I have never heard of that place.”    There was a lot of passing around of my documents, a lot of discussion and a lot of wishes for good luck.  We had a while to go, so we chatted about books and how much she loves Faulkner.  So friendly.  Everyone was so kind, and I was so grateful.

Once I exited, I clung to my soggy paper and finally found my way.  After a hard start, the day was lovely.  My teacher was extremely warm, positive and helpful– an IB English A teacher in London.  We had people in our class from all over the world: Russia, Netherlands, Turkey, Jordan, Poland, Italy, Switzerland, Slovakia . . .and all teaching in different languages.  Very cool!

The information was extremely helpful for my coursework.  We shared ideas, and it was all information my students and I desperately needed, so I soaked it up like a sponge and the days flew by.  They provided us with coffee breaks after 90 minute sessions.  Yummy treats, and then an absolutely delicious lunch buffet.  The first day, there were cheese croquettes as an option!  My favorite!  And two different types.  I just love how these are done in Belgium, fried perfectly crisp with a sumptuous filling.  I need to write poetry about these cheese croquettes to do them justice.  They also had a huge salad spread with smoked salmon, meats, tasty raisin and cranberry bread . . . I couldn’t stop eating, and even went for a second helping of croquettes.  Even little glass bottles of coke.  And one of the dessert options at the buffet was creme brulee.  At a buffet!

At the end of a long yet productive day of coursework, I grabbed a fresh-made warm waffle with chocolate sauce, whipped cream and ice cream, then headed straight for a train to Ghent, where I’d meet up with Jasper, one of my Belgian friends I met in Bruges in the summer of 2001 — all those years ago.  Both Jasper and Dave have become really good friends, and due to both my love for Europe and Belgium, I get to see them a lot.

Jasper met me at the station, and we walked around the very quiet streets of Ghent.  It was Friday night — and unlike most university towns in America, the college kids go home.  Virtually all of them.  Ghent is a major university where most of the Flemish speaking college aged kids go to school.  Both Jasper and Dave went there, and both of them now have their own apartments in the city like many young adults stay. Jasper walked me through a street that was like a mini Greenwich Village, if I wanted to stretch a bit. . .er, a lot.  He kept calling Ghent the “New York of Flanders”

“Take a photo,” he said, “and post it as the New York of Flanders.  And everyone will wonder — ooh, what is that city.”  I laughed and turned on the sarcasm.  Then he said, “No really, look at that tall building they are constructing.”  He pointed to a solitary communist-style architecture apartment building that was clearly an eyesore on the gorgeous medieval landscape.  “That makes it like New York, and this is my neighborhood.  So I kind of live in New York.  I’m a New Yorker.”

“So move to New York, ” I said.

“No, I can’t.  My heart is here.”

And I hear that from so many Belgians.  They often love to talk about and visit New York.  They have a fondness for America, American things, and American people.  (Do they like me for me or my country, hmmm?)  Yet they wouldn’t want to leave their country.  I can’t blame them.  It’s a good , peaceful life.  People are provided for.  Overall, it’s calm.  It’s a beautiful country with beautiful people and delicious food and beer.  Yeah, I get it.

I had to get some fries.  Though they try, they just can’t get them right in the “Belgian Fry Shops” of NYC.  This night, I tried the Mammoetsauce (mayonnaise, tomato, onion,glucose, garlic, soy) because I remember loving it out late in Ghent in November.  To help me choose, the girl put four different sauces in a dish for me to dip a fry in to taste. Cool!  I loved them all, but chose the Mammoet for this night.

Jasper had a water.

I refused to feel guilty devouring the fries as he counted calories and just ate his traditional one fry in sauce.  I was in Belgium and I was determined to eat my way through it.  As usual.

Afterwards, we went to a bar in a student neighborhood, where on a Friday night, there were only four other people, all around age 18.  We had Leffe Blondes, then moved on to another bar for a cocktail.  I had a mojito and Jasper had a Bloody Mary, mostly for the political reference.  (He’s a history teacher).  He kept making a face while drinking it, saying “I hate tomatoes, I should have known I wouldn’t have liked this.”

Um . . .yeah.

We had some good laughs, sharing memories over the years, and then I had to dash home to catch my train.  Bummer.  I’m usually here on holiday, where I can crash if I miss the train — no big deal.  But my class was super important and super expensive for my school, so I wanted to make sure I got the most out of it.

I arrived back at Brussels Central and decided to walk to my hotel that night, through the Grand Place, past students, locals and tourists out for Friday night fun, and I got to my hotel around 1 am  . . .again, and passed out exhausted.  7am rise the next day.

Another pleasant hotel breakfast, another amazing and informative day of class along with fabulous lunch (Turkey Cordon Blu), then I dashed to the train for a ride to BRUGES!  I was so excited both Jasper and Dave agreed to meet me in Bruges this night so I could see it.  🙂  Jasper hopped on the train in Ghent, and Dave was already home in Bruges for the weekend, so he would drive over later.

As Jasper and I walked around Bruges, he was oohing and ahhing at everything: the quaint winding Medieval streets, the peace, the architecture.  “I’m starting to appreciate my city like a tourist,” he said.  “I see why you always want to stay here.  I can really see it now.  It’s special.”

We walked through the market square, passed the Belfry, then stopped in a fry shop where I indulged in bitterballen —  fried balls filled with something delicious.  Then I had a Kaas Kroqet.  mmm.  After, we had beers in a bar I visited several times before, including NYE 2010.  When Dave arrived, we went to a bar on the T-Zand, the other big market in Bruges, with the fountain.  I had a Brugse Zot (Bruges Fool) and a Kriek, followed by profiteroles.  mmmm.  Dave was distracted because he had a crazy girl stalking him and getting him and his friend in trouble with their girlfriends, so he was outside on the phone for much of it.  But we understood. Then all too quickly, it was time to catch the train home.  Jasper and I said farewell to Dave, boarded the train, and he departed in Ghent.  I wanted to snooze, but Jasper said, “That’s not social!” So I stayed up to spend time with him before my next visit.

Back in Brussels late again, and again, I arrived at my hotel around 1am.  Really exhausted now, but it’s all worth it.

The following morning, I rose early, ate breakfast, checked out and left my luggage, and darted to class for the last time.  It was a super helpful conclusion.  We said our farewells and had lunch at 12:30.  I sat with my teacher and a woman who is an admin in Lebanon.  I’m going to try to arrange a visit.

After, I strolled around a Brussels park a bit, at the stop called Parc on Tram Line 1 and 5.  Then I got my luggage and headed for the airport an hour early.  I wanted more fried food, but didn’t have the opportunity there.  I did have the opportunity to purchase some Neuhaus cocoa powder for hot chocolate. mmm.  To kill time, I had a nice Leffe Brown beer in the terminal and headed on a long journey home, transferring in Rome.  I arrived in Genoa before 11:30, but by the time I waited for the air bus, switched to the local bus, and walked home, it was almost 1am . . .yet again.

The next day at work, after going, going, going — I was super exhausted.  But I was also glowing because it was an awesome, productive and fun trip filled with much joy and a lot of food.  I don’t know how this is possible, but I swear my pants already don’t fit.  Worth it.

**Please note, there seems to be an issue with inserting a slideshow in WordPress.  The button is no longer there.  Any ideas?  I inserted a gallery this time instead.

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