Monday, December 28, 2009

Whoosh!

That is the sound Christmas would have made here as it rushed by like a light-speed streak of wine and good food.  It was a very disorganized affair for me this year.  I worked a truckload before and during the Christmas period, and given it's the first time I've really had to figure out how to manage shipping or internet shopping for everyone, sadly some fell through the cracks until after Christmas, which hasn't really made me feel like the greatest of expat-relatives/friends.  For those who who haven't received or heard a peep, I'm so sorry.  I was absolutely caught with my pants down, which is a really bad feeling for someone who normally has all their Christmas givings figured out by the end of October.  Give me time, and it'll all get sorted through, but I'll still feel guilty for not getting 'er all done on time.

Enough of this though.  Updates:  It snowed again!  Just a few days after the snow on the 16th, and we were thrilled because it was like some crazy blizzard blew threw and left everything gorgeous in it's wake.





The snow didn't stick around though.  Most of it melted fairly soon after falling, though there was enough left for us to have a "whitish" Christmas.

Boyfriend's mom showed up on our doorstep one day just a few before Christmas with a tree (well, actually with two trees.)  I've always felt bad about killing a real tree just to put it in your house for decoration, but in this case the killing was already done, so we gave the tree a lovely wake.


The other tree is this guy below, who is alive and well, and pretty tiny.  Mostly I'm happy becuase he's alive.  He's the first plant in the house I've claimed as "mine".  Hopefully I won't kill him.  I'm an alright gardener but I have little luck with houseplants.


Christmas is definitely different here.  It seems most people do their "big dinner" on the evening of the 24th.  When I say big I mean it too.  Like, more than 6 courses.  We had two cold entrées, two hot entrées, a "trou Normand" (this is usually a sorbet or something to try and help your stomach make room for the upcoming courses,) the plat principal (which is often not turkey, in our case it was chevreuil - a type of deer,) followed by coffee and dessert.  Dinner starts late, and ends crazily late.  As in: it's past midnight and you're still eating dinner.(!)

Of course, everyone here is used to eating late, (except me that is, and it usually results in me feeling significantly less than fabulous.)  Though the dinner was amazing, because it was huge and ended so late, I woke up later in the night with a horrible pain in my stomach and then realized as the cold sweat started to take over and the pain intensified in my belly that I should head, quickly, for the washroom.  It all... all 6 courses that we'd eaten, came back up and out.  I felt VERY MERRY about that, particularly since I'd only slept about an hour at that point, during an evening where I'd only be able to squeeze in a maximum of 5 hours of sleep before heading to work on Christmas morning.   (I work in a hotel, so we don't close for Christmas.)

I managed to drag myself into work anyhow, despite my jerk-stomach and I manage the day with a weak smile.  The eating late thing is something I just haven't been able to adopt.  I've tried, I just can't.  I can do it the Spanish way, however, since they're really smart about it, and take a nap in the afternoon.  This means that even though they eat late, they also stay up later too giving them time to digest things a little more before going to bed.  Spain is awesome that way.  I digress.

Now the end of 2009 is upon us.  After much batting around of ideas for how to spend our mutual end-of-year time off, we've finally settled on heading to Strasbourg for a few days.  On paper it seems like it should be a good trip.  The drive isn't too long, we're staying in a bathrobe and slipper providing 4-star with what trip-advisor tells me is a delicious breakfast buffet. The Christmas market should still be around and open, which is always pretty and festive, and though neither of us has been there before we've both seen and heard great things about how lovely it is there.  So I'm looking forward to it!  And since today is Boyfriend's last day of work, tonight we'll be heading into the Christmas market in Liège to wine and dine, followed by a very rough schedule tomorrow which includes picking out bottles of champagne for new years, and getting a massage side-by-side.  After a year where both of us have worked very hard and faced a lot of challenge, I feel no guilt about winding it down this way.  We totally deserve this.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

How to make a Canadian living in Belgium *finally* feel the Christmas spirit


This photo actually has the file-name "omg.jpg" on my computer.

Deck the halls with Plantaardig vet!

Tra-la-la-la laaaa la-laaaoooooh... no.
The Caramac is a (sad little) "Karamel Candybar", according to the back of the package.
First three ingredients: Vegetable Fat (Plantaardig vet), Sugar, Lactose.  Mmmmmm.

Ok so to break it down quickly for you while trying NOT to make myself sick: granular texture, very sweet.  In fact I don't need to go further.  I can just tell you that you would actually be better off taking 11 grams of butter, creaming it with 17 grams of brown sugar and 2 grams of molasses, placing this in a cool area in order for it to solidify, and then eating said mixture.  Yes, I'm serious.  It would be better if you did that.  Really.  Much better.  No, I have never done such a thing.  Yes, I'm still sure it would be better.

The packaging is in German and Dutch, which means (thankfully) that there isn't much of a market for these fail-bars here.  I made this "find" last night while doing a little Christmas shopping.  At the time I was in Hema; a store of Dutch origin.  Those Dutch... wacky people sometimes...  Did I mention they have "herring stands"?  (Think of something like a hot-dog stand, and then replace the dogs with raw fish.)  Again: "Mmmmm."

Oh well, at least the Dutch can claim the work of Dick Bruna as something that's pretty universally likeable and inoffensive.  Anyway, it's not like they make this bar, they just eat it.  It's the lovely folks at Nestle UK (?gasp!) who prey on their questionable tastes by making this.  *shakes head sadly*

Last thing: The German on the label: Seriously - what self-respecting German is eating this crap when there is an ABUNdance of great chocolate in Germany?  Really, this confuses me.  If anyone out there actually enjoys these, I want to know why.  And then I want to have a doctor verify that your mouth and tastebuds are functioning correctly.  Seriously, if you enjoy Caramac, I want to know why (and how.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Long lost siblings

The Cha-Cha.  Wafers with caramel between, enrobed in chocolate.  It's not bad, really.  I believe that I would have enjoyed it thoroughly were I not already aware of the existence of it's smarter, cooler older sister...


Image from www.westindianshop.com

Tunnock's Caramel wafer biscuits.  Eating the Cha-Cha caused me to think "It's like a Tunnock's, but not quite as "on" about texture.  You see, Tunnock's have a little more chew in the caramel, a slightly denser wafer, and again, like the Cha-Cha, it's enrobed in chocolate.  In comparison the Cha-Cha just seems a little flimsy, both taste and texture-wise.

My first Tunnock's came to me via Trinidad, when a friend brought some back for me.  I'd thought for quite some time that they were a Trini-chocolate bar, however I've since learned (after taking time to read the label rather than just greedily inhaling the goods) that Tunnock's is a Scottish company.  This only adds fuel to the fire for me with my suspicions that people in the UK simply have a much better idea of what is involved in making a good consumer level chocolate-treat.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Chasing the light

Yesterday I decided that no matter how unmotivated I was feeling, that it would be stupid to allow a lack of daylight to end up sucking the life and all the fun out of me.  There is nothing more miserable than feeling miserable, and in a defiant surge that welled up from somewhere, I decided I'm not the sort to give up in defeat.  I've decided to do a few things about this:
Just to give you an idea of what I'm dealing with here, I took this photo as a comparative illustration.  The bright part in the sky is what we normally DON'T see much of in the winter here.  It's RARE to see real sunlight, or blue sky.  The dark grey clouds are the normal sky-cover, as are the light levels in the photo that accompany them.  This was taken at 2pm.


*I'll be making a conscious effort to find as many ways to work sun exposure into my daily doings.  I'm hoping for a cumulative effect here.  I'll be finishing my Christmas cards today under the skylight, or by the window...wherever is brighter.  If it comes down to it, I'll buy one of those light-therapy lamps and read by it for a spell every day.
*Yoga.  Studies show that physical activity helps to ward off seasonal depression.  I've been neglecting my yoga mat a bit lately, and though it was partly due to injury, it's not as though I couldn't have modified my positions a bit and kept doing it.  So, the days where I'm not working (because when I'm working I'm moving a LOT) I'll be making sure to fit a yoga session into my day.  It's good for me, it usually makes me feel good, and ultimately there is no reason for me not to be doing it, other than that sometimes I am a lazy girl.
*Running.  This has posed a problem here, for sure.  The woods are off limits thanks to all the rain we get right now, not to mention that it's hunting season and I have neither a bright orange vest, nor the desire to be mistaken for a deer by someone who's got a rifle and one too many beer in them.  The cobblestones and very un-flat sidewalks around here regularly mess with my ankle BUT the boy and I are both restless, so we've taken to running after he comes home from work, about once a week on the university track (in the dark.)  It's flat, which is much better for my cranky ankle, and the light pollution from Liege provides enough light to see where you're going.  The only downside is that Boyfriend's maximum distance is about 5k whereas I prefer a session of 10k, but I'll take what I can get when I can get it.
*Weekend daytrips.  These are an excellent way to soak up the sunshine (through the car windows on the way to and from the destination) while avoiding the rain, humid cold, and wind that takes up residence here in the winter.  And we continue to see new places which is always a plus.  Yesterday we made our way to Orval, which is home of the Abbeye d'Orval, a Cistercian monastery that just happens to make one of my favoured beers.

I should preface these limited photos by mentioning that my camera died very early into our time here.  We will be visiting Orval again, so I'll show more photos next time we go.

This is part of the modern monastery grounds, (access to lay-people is very limited.)

Just next to the modern site, there are the ruins of the old church and monastery.  A 5 Euro contribution allows access to them, along with a museum of monastic artifacts (actually pretty cool,) and the silent area (which gives a feeling of immense space while being very, very quiet.)

The old church was built around 1100 AD.

The ruins are quite open for exploration.  There are several rooms and chambers off to the sides of the main room complete with descriptions of the activities that used to take place in these areas.

This is an access point to "Mathilde", the spring which provides water to the monastery, as well as its cheese-making facilities and brewery.  Legend has it that the widow Mathilda of Tuscany lost her wedding ring in the spring, and when she prayed for it to be returned to her, a trout appeared at the surface of the spring with the ring in it's mouth.  In gratitude, Mathilda made the funds available for the foundation of the monastery here.

Of course, we took a case of Orval home with us as well.  The beer you buy on-site has the added benefit of being aged for 6 months, whereas the Orval you can purchase anywhere else only has the guarantee of being aged for 4 weeks.  Other abbey-only products we'll be back for include the aged Orval cheese, and the beer cheese (which spends a full 24 hours bathing in the beer, glorious!)

Now, speaking of glorious, it is an incredibly rare blue-sky day here.  Sunshine in abundance!  This means it's time for me to take myself outside to soak up as much sunshine as I can get!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Grey = S.A.D

Winter in Belgium is dusk, followed by night.  Dusk, all day, every day.

I haven't seen the sky for days, no, weeks.  I've seen a thick cover of clouds that prevents the light of the sun from getting through, making it feel like the sun is about to set from the instant I've gotten up in the morning through to the time it actually does.

This makes me feel grey, grey, grey.  I hadn't really counted on the lack of sunlight being a problem, but even in Canada where we get a different quality of light in the winter lack of sunlight was a bit of a problem for me.  There, this was more easily remedied by going out for a walk, where the abundance of clear blue sky coupled with the sunlight bouncing off the snow gave me enough vitamin D to feel better.  Here a walk in the winter often involves an umbrella to keep the wet away, not to mention that bone-chilling kind of cold, the kind no amount of layering or special technical fabric seems to protect me from: humid cold.  Between the umbrella and the clouds I don't get much sunlight, and the cold does nothing to make me feel better.  This makes the idea of a walk so very appealing, and as you might imagine I'm not getting out much.

We have a skylight in the kitchen.  I've tried spending more time under it with the hope of soaking in a little more 'natural light', but as yet this has made no difference.  After weeks of grey I have come to feel as though I am dragging myself through finishing off my Christmas cards, I have lost all desire to pursue the architectural gingerbread house, I haven't bothered with social outings, and the making of plans for a trip around new year's has come to a grinding halt.  Even this blog entry felt forced, but you know... it's been more than 10 days, I should at least signal that I'm alive I suppose.

It is official, I am seasonally affected.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Detours and diversions

Ok, a little bit more of a real post for the day, rather than just diverting you with comics (but really, check out the link in the entry below.)  I stumbled across him this morning in my "what's going on in the world" internet session, and immediately devoured like, everything on his site.  His style reminds me somewhat of Natalie Dee's.  If you don't know who Natalie Dee is, take a small detour and click here now to know.  Or (but I would recommend it as an "and") you could click the following link to see another regularly funny comic she creates (in an entirely different style,) with her partner Drew.  That one goes by the name "Married to the Sea".  And now, for REAL this time: I'm done geeking out about comics... for today.

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I ate this:
Though the claim is that it's a praline filling (here this means a creamy nut-based paste,) that uses hazlenuts, cashews and almonds, really it just tastes blander than the regular praline filled chocolates (which are in a ridiculous abundance in Belgium, seriously, the country is obSESSED with praline.)  It's less hazlenutty, (hazlenuts are kind of your 'standard' praline material) and slightly salty.  It definitely didn't taste doubly-milky as the name might lead you to believe.  This, and it's choc-full (no pun intended) of hydrogenated vegetable fat.  Someday my dream-bar with come.  Until then, le sigh.

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The visit to Canada (at least for January,) looks like a less and less likely affair.  Time ticks on, we try to navigate the administrative channels here, and we are slowly getting the information we need to make an intelligent decision about whether or not to throw several hundred Euro at a plane ticket.  Meanwhile as we await the information we require, the number of seats on the flights I had my eyes on dwindles.  This is one of those situations where I wish I were a little more moneyed than I am, because if I were I could (and would) just pop by and visit friends and family every few months.  But no, at least not yet.  (Growing a rich and powerful empire takes time, ok?)

Now, after having said all of this, how sick is it that my schedule at work gives me 7 days off in a ROW ending on December 23rd?  I felt a bit like my calendar here was taunting me when I noticed that.  Of course flying to Canada for that period is completely out of the question given it's like a zillion more Euros than normal, so I'm thinking I have to at least find a good use for this period of time.  Something to divert my attention from (and make me feel less sucky about) missing out on spending the holiday season with friends and family.  I'll be brainstorming on this while I attempt to make headway with some Christmas cards today.
What to do, what to do... any suggestions?

Breakfast of another sort

Internet obsession of the day. The Oatmeal. Comics. Binge-reading them now!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Architecture, aviation and the avian abattoir

Ok, so dreaming in gingerbread:  I've got the itch to make a gingerbread house.  Ideally not just any old house too, one that is a little more original, (architecturally speaking,) than four walls and a triangular roof.  I've been mulling it over for a bit now, and I think today I'll start sketching out some ideas.  There is a problem though:  I can't seem to find molasses anywhere here!  I've been in touch with the anglo-expat community in Brussels, and there is a grocery store there that carries it, but I was hoping for something a little closer to home. : /  I may just end up having to find a reason to go into Brussels in the next couple of weeks.  Maybe to finally check out the new Magritte museum?  If worst came to worst,  I think something along the lines of a  sugar cookie might have the structural integrity to work as house-material too.  We'll see.  Mmm, cookie house.

Anyhoo, the plane tickets:  I had hoped to get myself back to Toronto for a week in January.  My boss said I could have 7 days.  However with the way travel schedules work, 7 days actually amounts to about 4.5 days on the ground in Toronto, which is not a lot of time to see people and handle administrative things there.  So, before deciding we are looking into what administrative things can be handled here instead of there (it seems a fair number of things can be handled at the Canadian embassy here,) and examining our costs and concerns for the upcoming year (like...what to do about my health insurance which expires at the end of March, even though my resident permit expires halfway through May?)  I just don't have enough info at the moment to make a decision I might not be kicking myself for later.  Meanwhile, I would absolutely LOVE to see my friends and family this wintery time of year.

Now, my poor chicken:  yesterday I bought a soup-chicken.  And this morning after breakfast, I went at the bird with a meat cleaver, getting it ready to fulfill its destiny of glorious soupdom.  I did consider for a moment before-hand that it might be nice to take pictures and explain my method of making chicken soup from scratch, however... well, butchering a chicken ain't pretty, and it sure doesn't leave you with hands that want to touch your digital camera.  Not only that, but today I'm glad no photographic evidence exists of my lame butchery skills, since in the process I discovered that our meat cleaver here is a joke.  I may as well have been trying to separate chicken-parts with a hammer, it's sooo blunt.  At any rate, if the soup turns out well, and if I can hone our knife blades in the near future, perhaps I'll photo it up next time.  I don't know though... I love food, but do the people who read this really want another person posting on how they cook via the interwebz?  It's not that this blog would ever turn into anything other than it's original intention (which was to communicate my experiences after leaving home and becoming a foreigner elsewhere,) but I suppose if cooking, baking or candy-making is something people take interest in, why not show what I'm up to in the kitchen now and then?  I'm pondering this one, since part of me thinks it's self-indulgent and part of me enjoys reading other people's food thingums now and then.

Food is definitely a significant area of my life, given that it is both a love and a matter of business for me.  Would the occasional kitchen post be a waste of time & space, or nice additional dimension to the blog?  What do you think?

Chitika