Sunday, October 21, 2012

Jean Claude Van Damme in Anderlecht

Yep, that's him, Mr. Awesome. 
Imagine my surprise when my host-mom, and sister advised me my child-hood hero, Jean Claude Van Damme (known locally as the Muscles of Brussels [not mussels as some might thing]) is coming to my hood, Anderlecht. Flipping exciting doesn't even begin to cover it. I used to enact out his karate moves while watching Time Cop, Double Impact and Blood Sport when I was little. His flexibility and trademark high kick were something I practiced until I had perfected them. Unfortunately I no longer can do it, but my adoration for this man is as great as any Belgian.

So when Queen's "We are the Champions" rumbled the streets of Anderlecht outside of Westside Shopping Mall, and Van Damme with his adorable grin, and sunglasses made his way to the stage just five hundred or so feet in front of me, I screamed like a teenager, raised my camera in the air and tried to absorb one of the greatest moments of my life.... Sharing the pavement with Jean Claude Van Damme.

His reason for arrival was a Rocky-like statue of him in standing in his famous pose overlooking the residents of the Lecht. While I'll admit that the whole concept of it being in front of a shopping center is a bit weird for me (likely for him too). I love the fact that it's here, and that I got to experience it. I'm definitely going back for pictures. I expect this to be a huge tourist attraction in Brussels.

The only thing that would have made the day better is getting to meet the man. Since I'm just lowly American in the crowd, I found his occasional jokes in English much funnier than the rest of the crowd. Often in total silence I'd bust out laughing and everyone would look at me. At one point, I think he game me that look. Sure I could be completely wrong... but (blush) Van Damme can come to my neighborhood any day.

Blind no more to disabilities

This week has been a very interesting week. Of course it always is here Brussels. First there was the interview with, class, eating an awesome fried grilled cheese baguette, and serving at Gare Du Nord feeding the homeless. Then on Saturday I was given the opportunity to be a part of Disabled Focus Day with Serve The City. A truly enlightening day that shed the light on disabilities and the services available to them here in Brussels. From learning sign-language, understanding ADHD, to blind simulations, it attempted to allow us to understand better the lives of the disabled.

As it was reminded to all of us, we all have disabilities. Some of us have no choice but to outwardly show them, while the rest of us hide them. This I know is true. We're all hiding something. Mine is a necrotic appendix which doctor's in the U.S. choose not operate on because it's not acute  It's left my lower-right abdomen swollen, infected, and pushes on my diaphragm. Having been someone who would run often, I've had to give up my running shoes for anti-biotics. It kills me being here in Brussels with all the beautiful parks that I know I could be running in. But this secret, which I've up to now, mostly kept private, is nothing compared to being blind (paralyzed, deaf, etc) in Brussels, and having to transverse the city alone. After two months of living here, I still get confused on the Simonis Line in the center city and I'm not blind (at least not in the non-metaphorical way). Finding a random location without sight, seems absolutely impossible. The trust you must have every time you leave your home seems insurmountably difficult to fathom.

Just as I wish to run again, imagine someone in a wheel chair staring at the racks of bikes at the Villo station wishing to do the same. It likely seems like a taunting tease, a opportunity within reach but beyond practicability.  But a group of three people are changing that. A company called Almagic brings bikes for everyone with specially designed, custom fit bikes for rent. As explained to us, these bikes are 3-5,000 Euros to buy unlike the traditional versions at Decathlon. This puts them far out of the reach of most people, but renting them by the day, week, or month gives an entire new freedom from both costs and lack of opportunity.

Another organization I had the chance to speak with is Solidanza, part of Handicap International which helps prevent, care, and enable those who become handicapped  Solidanza is their annual fund-raising event that encourages everyone to get involved with the gala where it's all celebrated through music and dance. There's various ways to fund-raise before the December 1st spectacular at Bozar, or volunteer on that day. For instance, have a dinner with friends over, and sell tickets for 5 Euros, then donate it to the project.

Most important I think what any of these organizations encourage is that we each reflect upon our lives, or daily routines and try to understand the difficulty of navigating in a world without sight, sound, or a leg or arm. Imagine a world where you truly are never disabled, but must be super human to overcome that which most of us take granted.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Breakfast in Brussels

So two months of no American breakfast makes me a bit cranky. You may be asking why I don't just go buy the stuff and make it. Well, typically I don't eat breakfast here, and more to the point I have a hour commute from Da Lecht (Anderlecht) to the VUB campus, which means eating is something of an after thought. Also there's the cost thing. See I get free breakfast as a part of my host family home-stay here, usually bread or fruit which is normally very practical for my mornings "on-the-run". Considering the cost of living here I really just can't bring myself to giving into my yearning American cravings of scrambled eggs and bacon.

However earlier this week I broke down. I was literally going to snap if I didn't get something that remotely looked like U.S./English breakfast. I had a primal hunger which led me to the internet for a search of breakfast in Brussels. Other than a few pubs, which offered breakfast, I found very little. I'm certain there are places here, but it's difficult to find. I did only have an extra hour to spare, so a table-service restaurant was not in my options.

Then I had this thought, surely McDonald's here in Brussels must offer breakfast, right? Biscuits, burritos, anything? Not really, but they do still carry the Egg McMuffin. Sure enough I ended up getting off at Porte de Namur for a quick stop at Mickey D's. Immediately after entering I felt guilty. I'm living in Brussels and I'm at Mickey D's? But I couldn't help it, my mouth was watering for the elusive spongy goodness of an English muffin with salty Canadian bacon and eggy goodness in between. Consider this was my first time at any American chain in Europe since arriving, I consider this breach of my Europhile code of conduct acceptable. After-all, even the most familiar of foods are different here. It's still exploratory, right?  Of course McDonald's isn't really fast-food here. A twenty minute wait for one orange yolk egg, on an English muffin was only acceptable since I didn't have to be anywhere important at the moment.

As I ate my muffin on my walk back to the Metro, I felt like a crack feign getting her fix from her dealer. Ahhhh.... finally breakfast!!! The first in almost two months. I could feel the fatty goodness course through my veins. I was renewed, though awkwardly ashamed of my fall from abstinence of my home culture.

I did however find an alternative, which, while still not gastronomically spectacular, does solve that ever so complicated challenge of being authentically Bruxelles, cheap, but still breakfasty. Better yet it's quicker than McDonalds and doesn't require self-regret or guilt. Where is this place? Opinio Cafe on the VUB campus. There's a little sandwich shop which makes decent sandwiches from 10:30-1800 daily. They're all about 3.50 Euro, but so far, the best I've had is their "Breakfast". It's a foot-long baguette with eggs and bacon. It won't win any awards for breakfast of the year, but when you're walking from Petillon with a major head-ache from the night before, and have to have something, anything breakfasty... then this is pretty darn good. It definitely is a cheap eat worth its weight in gold.

How to ride the Brussels Metro for free?

So an interesting discussion came up with some friends on the tram to Petillon yesterday about what would be called "jumping the turnstile" in the States. One of the students from our school was caught without a ticket or Mobib card and was dinged 100 Euro for her failure to show a valid pass. It was all quite a mistake as this occurred early in the semester and no one ever explained how the Brussels Metro system works. It can be quite confusing, and the tram police left her crying and feeling like a criminal.

I'll admit I've rode a few times for free though never was it intentional. Once when visiting Brussels and arriving with only notes (bills) and realizing that the Metro kiosks don't take "swipe" U.S. credit cards, and having no change. Then most recently when my abonnement on my Mobib card expired at the end of the first month and not knowing I could buy a ticket from the driver. (Marius Renard does not have a kiosk.) I do have a valid monthly subscription currently, and compared to my monthly fuel cost in the U.S., I'll gladly pay it.

But in the course of our short discussion, I learned several of the European students don't even bother paying for their pass. Either they live on open Metro lines (no turnstiles) or make use of trams and buses. In fact I always see tons of people traveling without validating, so this just reinforced my my opinion that it occurs very frequently. This is even easier if you live close to your daily destination, mitigating the risk. Of course the risk is always there, but if you go two months without getting caught you're technically "making" money off the system considering a monthly pass is about 50 Euros.

Interestingly many of the students have yet to be hand-checked by agents yet, but me, traveling from Anderlecht to the VUB daily have had that opportunity a half-dozen times. Surely I would have been busted by now. Anderlecht is obviously one of the worse especially when a football game is going on at the stadium. Since I roll legit, (most of the time) I've yet to have a problem.

However in the case of trams, I rarely see them board the tram (once they did with dogs).  You could of course, having seen the officers, remain on the vehicle to prevent from being caught. There's also another loop-hole if I understand right. If you have a valid ticket, but simply fail to validate it, then it's only a 10 Euro fine. So think about that! Carry a spare ticket (3.50 Euro) and you could go for months without getting caught. The moment you do, you show them the ticket, pay the 10 Euros and still come out on top. Sneaky!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Questions of Brussel's Meetro

You know you live in a rough area when the
"fancy" trains turn back at your neighborhood.
You ever get that feeling that who ever planned out the public transportation system in Brussels gave a three year old a crayon, a crack pipe, vodka, and a Red Bull and said "have at it?"

I recognize infrastructure tends to spring from random necessity rather than art, but there are several things that confuse me. Beyond the fact that the overhead voice calls it Le Meetro even in English to stylize the French pronunciation (which actually brings a smile to my face each time I hear it), I'm perplexed that after two months here I still can't find a map that combines both trams, buses, and Metros into a single image.

Why can't the 2 & 6 lines form a "circle line" like London does? Why is it called Simonis in both ways? Can't we just go with Elizabeth and Leopold? If it wasn't for the clockwise maps, I'd never make it home.

Is it just me, or does Kunst Wet remind everyone (the physical station, not the name) of the ending of Terminator 3? I say don't finish the remodel, but just install some escape slides, a training climbing wall, and a place selling golubtsy.

Why can't the 7 tram continue on from Churchhill? Why must I get on the 3 to go to Porte de Hal or Midi? Exactly how many stops do you need there too? What powers of the universe is preventing this miraculous feat from occurring?

I've got other questions, like why is there "short" Metros? Does it really save money by disconnecting a couple cars, or is this just to keep us guessing where to stand on the platform?

Has anyone ever done research about how many germs are on the door-open buttons? Perhaps we could install The Clapper, motion sensors, or just bloody open the doors at every stop like other Metros?

Marius Renard smells like cilantro. Saint Guidon smells like weed, De Brouckere smells like waffles. Every time I ride the metro I end up hungry!

If the power goes out at Gare de L'ouest, does the elderly who can't climb stairs just collect at the bottom of the station? Are the blue lights to calm us overly edgy Anderlecht types?

Why do some stops have disco style blue and white lights that activate when the train comes into the station? Are we supposed to break into dance?

Sunday, October 14, 2012

You Know You've Been In Brussels Too Long...

My ride back from Dinant gave me some time to write down some quirks of living in Belgium I've been thinking about. Somethings, I found challenging at the beginning, but ultimately became a part of living here. They make me laugh when I realize how funny it is that I now considering it a normal part of life. Now if I can just solve the mystery of the two buttons on the toilet.

So without out further ado,

you know you've been in Brussels (or Belgium) too long when:
0. You call tortillas: pitas.

  1. You get a free plastic bag and get excited, then promptly hide it away in your hoard of plastic bags drawer. In addition, you likely are always carrying one with you, just in case you have to go to the store.
  2. You find nothing wrong with the fact you have to go to the train station on Sunday to grocery shop.
  3. You've heard about vending machines that take bills/notes but have never seen one personally, but you've bought bread from a vending machine.
  4. Americans come up to ask you directions in French and rather then publicly divulging your native tongue you reply back to them only in French, then giggle at their confused look of non-comprehension.
  5. You start cursing in French when something bad happens and it shocks even you.
  6. You know what a Bicky Burger is, and your new concept of hamburgers is that they are not really (beef) burgers, and are typically deep-fried mystery meat. 
  7. Your favorite bar or restaurant has a resident cat.
  8. You see a horse in the country-side while on the way to Dinant and think "delicious"!
  9. You've successfully quit drinking soda because it's too expensive, but now drink beer constantly but no one considers you an alcoholic.
  10. You know that there's nothing American about Le Sandwich Americain, Saus Americain, or really anything labeled American.
  11. You consider your passage through the Metro Mobib gate a well choreographed talent that's part dance, and part skill, which impresses the tourists.
  12. Checking the weather involves opening the window and sticking your arm out of it without a screen to interfere.
  13. You've debated buying a pair of Converse shoes, or a Swatch watch but hide this from your ex-pat friends.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Horse Meat, It's what's for dinner.

Best horse I've ever ate.
I'm not sure where I was when I saw it, but I did, a restaurant that advertised horse burgers. I literally stopped, turned to the window with the sign, and for a moment I questioned my French skills. "Yep, that says Horse, not hair." Suddenly I'm excited, it's something taboo! I love taboo stuff!. Better yet, the idea of eating a horse has absolutely no emotional effect on me what so ever. As long as it's dead, and not moving- I'm good.

Of course this is the second weird Belgian food I've found, the first (not really food) is absinthe. I'm not sure what else is lurking out there, but my Catholic school girl upbringing in the States has me yearning to break out and find each one.

So you can imagine my enthusiasm as I ran home and told my host-mom I had found horse in town. Unfortunately I had forgot where it was. Her reply? "Aimes tu le cheval?" Uh "Hell yeah!!!", I think in my head, Obviously it's meat, and there's not much meat I don't love. Of course I told her, that "I didn't know", and that I had never had it. That's when Mom said she'd buy me some for dinner one night. Boo yeah! Host-Mom rocks!

So another day passes and I came home to this huge steak. She peered over the couch with my sister carefully not trying to give away the surprise. A couple bites and she cautiously asks "C'est bon?"- Oh yes. While I also sort of knew it was a horse, I played along. "Ouais! C'est bon!" Mom quickly informed me it was horse. Quite frankly it was the best meal I had at my home-stay since arriving. I had been waiting for that one dish, that one amazing thing which was new and different- and this was it!

Now this is where the story gets downright hilarious. My room-mate decided to eat his portion of horse earlier in the night, but they chose not to inform him that his steak was 100% Belgium horse steak. (That's what he gets for being hungry!) I'm certainly he assumed it was just another edible cow with no emotional baggage attached, but he was wrong.

The next evening I invited him to go feed the homeless with me at Gare Du Nord, and indeed he agreed to come. We rolled down on the Marius Renard to Gare Du Midi and that's when I asked him what he thought of the previous nights dinner. His face went blank, the blood drained: "Horse? (gulp)", he asked trembling. Giggling I said "Yes!!!" There at the turnstile to the tram, my roomie informed me he wasn't feeling good and was going to return home.

Of course it didn't hit me till later, but that night on the way home inside of Tram 3, I broke out laughing so hard as I realized it was probably my dinner confession that led him to his freak acute sickness. Of course tonight I asked if it was the fact that he ate horse that made him sick, and he replied that he wasn't sure. My bragging of eating horse has personally been met with remarks of horror and disgust. A badge of courage I proudly wear. Gosh I love weird, atlternative Brussels.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


Gare Centrale, Bruxelles
So lets be honest, I'm addicted to coffee back in the States. I used to laugh at people who went to Starbucks and paid the outrageous amounts of money for coffee, but then I became one of those people. Now it's just outrageously delicious. There's something undeniably right about their coffee, a coffee which is unique to America, yet common in parts of Europe: a strong rich coffee. Except in Brussels, I have not had that experience. I'm sure it exists, yet, I've had my fair share of coffee, but in the end, what I really want is Starbucks. Thankfully there's one in Brussels (a few actually).Unfortunately it's not cheap. My Venti Mocha set me back just over seven Euros which if my calculations are correct, puts me right about at ten greenbacks for a coffee. That's right, a $10 coffee, and it was awesome. Oh yes my friends... I smiled all the way home.

Here's the thing that Starbucks does right. It's their service. It "translated" perfectly here (in Belgium) too. Smiling employees, happy to see you, taking your name, and quick effective delivery of that most important aspect: frothy liquid coffee bean. I'm not just paying $10 and a walk from the Metro to Gare Centrale just for coffee, I'm paying for the privilege to have a bit of happiness in a cup.

A cup, not a shot glass like I've had at a few cafes. A human size, cargo-carrier-of caffeine ready to land in the blood stream like a Iraq War, George Bush, Bunker Buster Missile set to explode (or at least get me through mid-terms.)

Let's be honest, Belgium has America beat hands-down on beer, bread, cheese and horse burgers- but coffee? I think there's some room for improvement. Considering my interest in never leaving Brussels, the question arrives can I live with it? Actually yes. I drink a lot less coffee overall since I've arrived, where as in the U.S. I go through periods where I drink a pot or two a day. There's absolutely no reason not to hit Starbucks both on the way to school and the return in your SUV adorned with Romney bumper stickers at home. This of course probably explains the constant twitch in my left eye, back at home, that my professors are worried about.

...And while this post has gone on long enough to be a complete rant (thanks to the marvels of Starbucks and the power of procrastination in studying) I will say this, perhaps the reason the Belge are so mellow is because of the lack of caffeine?  Soda is eight Euro for a twelve pack, and comes in a smaller size than in the U.S. too. Are Belgian's just less addicted than Americans? Americans aren't obnoxious, war mongers, beating their chest like monkeys... we're just high on caffeine. Now that explains everything!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Mitraillette Burger Maison

Mitraillette Burger Maison
So after drinking on Wednesday night and not enough sleep I woke up with a head-ache that felt as if King-Kong was inside my cranium playing drums. After a brief morning class and a study gap between my afternoon studies, I decided to forgo the normal destination of many Veco students (the VUB sandwichery) and visit my friends over at the Etterbeek Station friture. Luckily it's right around the corner, and though it's not the finest friture in town, it's a Godsend for hangovers and returning to school. It's also the only place I've found that has real beef on their mitraillettes. I still haven't figured out what the "normal" hamburger is, but it's not beef in and sense of the American word. Though they will fill your stomach, I personally refuse to order the fake burgers.

However I got a bit excited after noticing the sign at the Etterbeek friture that read 100% real beef round. That's when I noticed they have something on the menu called a mitraillette burger maison. Using my collegiate skills of deductive reasoning, and the fact the price was nearly 8 Euros, I assumed it must be close to my French: Le Sandwich Americain (which isn't like the Belgian version with the same name). So I asked around, but no one knew. So the other day, I went and ordered one. Sometimes this strategy works, and sometimes it doesn't. My one meal with raw shrimp and egg one day was enough for me to curb the policy. However what I did get was real close. It is real beef, on a baguette with frites and sauce. In all, it was perfect that day. I could have gone for some mustard too, but this particular stand does not offer it. It also lacked the cheese and salad of the French version. But I'm not complaining at all... it's real beef, a baguette, and frites. They actually serve it in a paper boat. It's a lot of food, and perfect when you need real comfort food.

Of course I doubt my friends at the friture have any idea that there's one similar in French. Perhaps if they did, they'd offer it, because if I find that here.... I'll be hooked.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Anderlecht VS Stockel Metros

I remember the first time I visited Brussels and at that time I was staying with a friend in Stockel, she explained to me that Stockel was considered a wealthier area of Brussels, thus the spanking new Metro train (complete with A/C), and the the various other shiny, glittery aspects of the upper-class life. Cool I thought, but at the other end of the line is Anderlecht. Of course I didn't know then, that when I moved to Brussels, I'd be living on "the other side of the tracks", in Anderlecht (a place with a mixed reputation). I actually love it here, but considering the "community" spirit of Europe, and the attempt for European culture to maintain equality, I find it quite ironic that the nice metro-trains on the 1 & 5 come to a skidding halt at Gare de l'Ouest (yes I realize occasionally there's one that slips down to Erasmus, but it's rare). For the most part, if you live in Anderlecht you're riding the older, squeeky, rail-stock from God knows when (I'm guessing the 60's). The trams (Marius Renard / Montgomery) are even worse. They're like side-ways toasters. People pop out of the doors like toast, the heat is never shut off even when it's hot, and almost daily someone wedges themselves in the doors and it takes three people to push them out.

Don't get me wrong, I've adopted all this nostalgic public transport as a flashback of a time gone by. I pretend like I'm in the olden days of Brussels. However I cannot deny that it's apparent by merely the public transportation in the city, that poorer sections of town get the older, less equipped trams and metro-trains. The question is why?

Someone told me it's because of taxes, and that because people pay more in Stockel, they get the nicer stock. I don't buy that, because it's all one system, (which would make it worse) and secondly that's not <hesitation> socialistic Europe, that's.... I'm not sure what that is... but it's medieval. Isn't the right thing to do is mix them up, and share the various rail stock? One day we get the nice tram, the next day you do?

The more I thought about it, the more it bugged me, but of course, there must be a better reason right? I started to justify the disparity by making a rational assumption: that the tracks must be significantly different in Anderlecht than the rest of Brussels, meaning the newer trams can't run on the tracks. Then one night while coming home late, I boarded a spanking new tram, compliments of somewhere nicer in the city that evening. 


Must be a bit of pity from my peeps on the east-side.

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