Thursday, July 17, 2014

Chocolate and things

I would like to say that I haven't blogged in a while because I've been SO BUSY, but that would basically be a dirty lie. Yes, obviously I'm settling in to the new job, but the truth is in the evenings I find myself with almost *too* much time on my hands. Sure, when I was getting home at 8.30 pm after being out of the house for nearly 14 hours, I dreamed of having more time to myself in the evenings, being able to relax instead of rushing to cook dinner and then fall into bed - and trust me, I'm not complaining that things have changed - but turns out I kind of adjusted to not having any spare time. So going from that to having a solid 4 hours or so till bedtime, with no social life to fill them with, is a bit of a shock. So I know, I know, the answer is to throw myself in to finding new activities to fill my time (particularly before I readjust to a life of comparative leisure). I should be getting out there and meeting people, taking a class, whatever. And yes, I SHOULD do that, but there's always a fight between the part of me that is a bit bored and lonely and the part of me that really would rather just lounge around in my PJs than do something daunting like going to a meet-up where I don't know anyone. I'm hoping when the summer break is over I can start up some language classes... That gives me a couple of months to pluck up the resolve to get out there, at any rate.

So things are ticking over. Nothing much exciting to report for the moment, although my sister's coming to Brussels this weekend, and with any luck this hot, sunny weather will stick around for it. I joined the library, which I'm pleased about since it had been years since I was a member of a library and that always makes me feel guilty (support your libraries BEFORE they're threatened with closure, people! By going there and borrowing things, not by tweeting about how awesome you think libraries are), especially since there's actually a decent selection of English books in the central branch.

Here's a few old(ish) photos from the camera, and then I'll introduce Jules' and my inaugural chocolate dégustation, mmm!

Me, Caro and Liz at Vitiloire

And at Caro's place

I feel this is representative of the way I look a lot of the time

The Tours monster claims another victim

Rosé and strawberries on the balcony with Bob

Our view of the fireworks for Luxembourg's fête nationale. Over the top of a 5-storey building, people. Tsk

So, when moving to Belgium, you'd be crazy not to sample some of their finest frites and chocolates (probably not together). And I suppose beer and waffles too, if you're that way inclined. (I am not inclined to beer, I am kind of to waffles, but they're probably not a treat I'd cross the street for if there was chocolate on my side of the street.) In an attempt to class things up and justify eating a ton of chocolate, Jules and I staged the first of hopefully many chocolate dégustations together.

Our first chocolatier was Mary, recommended in the "Secret Brussels" book my old colleagues gave me as a leaving present. The book claimed that their shop on Rue Royale was recommended as one of the 1000 places to see before you die. I was expecting ornate chandeliers, crystals, velvet, whatever. I actually can't remember what it looked like and didn't take any photos, but as far as places to see before you die go, the shop itself was evidently a bit meh. But that's not the important part, the important part is how did it taste?

We originally planned to buy 5 * 2 chocolates, but ended up getting six since it was so hard to pick. Plus we got an almond praline each thrown in for free, which was a nice surprise. The 12 (14) chocolates came to 10.50€, which seemed reasonable, although I suppose each chocolate is pretty expensive if you really think about it. After some discussion of how to rate the chocolates (Jules was rating them vis à vis each other, whereas I couldn't quite decide whether to go with that idea or try to rate them against some sort of platonic ideal), it was down to business.

Our 12 contenders line up on the grid

Caramel dominoes
Jules - 5
Gwan - 4
We started with the one I would rate as my least favourite, which is always a good way to go. I thought it was too runny and not caramelly enough, although Jules thought it was fun sucking the caramel out of the crunchy shell.

Milk chocolate truffle
Jules - 6
Gwan - 7

I thought these tasted a bit like they were flavoured with raspberry liqueur - "not bad, but unexpected".

"Gianduja with a fancy name I forget but starts with A"
Jules - 9
Gwan - 8.5

High scores from both of us, but then I do always like a gianduja (who doesn't?). I noted its nice smooth filling and that I drooled a bit while eating it. Not sure if that's the chocolate's fault.

Dark chocolate lady 2 mousse 48% bitter
Jules - 3
Gwan - 7

Opinions divided on this one. Jules thought these were "really boring". He thought maybe he just needed a rest before continuing on, so I called him a chocolate baby. I thought they had a nice cocoa-y aftertaste and the consistency was more like what I expected the truffle to be, not really "moussey". I'd like to try one of the darker ladies. Extra points for the pretty picture (matches my plate!)

Raspberry
Jules - 8
Gwan - 9

This one was my favourite - I love raspberries! It was a dark, smooth chocolate ganache centre flavoured with raspberry, rather than a raspberry-coulis-type affair. Yum.

Manon hazelnut praline
Jules - 9
Gwan - 7.5

I described these as "unsubstantial", but Jules disagreed, describing them as light but soft and smooth, with a moussey texture. I thought the flavour was nice, but I think of a praline as being a bit denser, whereas this was more like a light cream. An extra point for the whole hazelnut though.

All gone, so sad
It was actually a lot of chocolate for one sitting, and I say that as someone who can put away her fair share. Overall, they were nice, but I don't know if I'd go back. I mean, I might, I really like chocolate, but it wasn't an experience that made me think "oh no, I'm going to be blowing my whole pay cheque on Mary" (heh heh). But nor did I think we'd stumbed into a yucky, over-priced tourist trap. We'll just have to keep looking for Brussels' best chocolates!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Two weeks

I won't do "three weeks" next week, promise. Last night of freedom before work starts tomorrow - eek! Let me tell you, the past three weeks of unemployment have just flown by, as you can imagine when organising an international move. So it's the perfect time to bring you up to date with my doings while watching France beat Nigeria (note to self: edit for hubris as necessary) before I'm too tired from the new job!

Today I got up early for a "dry run" travelling to work. Yes, I'm that much of a lame-o. It was helpful though - I arrived five minutes "late" as the bus ran 15 minutes behind schedule - and it was really packed too, so I'll leave more time tomorrow and get on at the earlier stop rather than the later (my place is about halfway between the two). Maybe it's a bit silly, but that's one less thing to stress about tomorrow, so worth it I think. On the other hand, I'm not too sure what to wear. I was planning on a suit my first day, but I don't want to turn up closely resembling a flustered puddle of sweat if it's warm. Temperatures have been fluctuating quite a bit, although the only rain we've had so far was this weekend (obviously, always rains on the weekend).

The last time I blogged, we were back in Luxembourg for the weekend. Last Monday was the Luxembourg national holiday, and I thought I should go back for it because who knows if I'll ever be around Luxembourg in the future. We went into the city on Sunday night for the festivities, which consisted of a firework display and basically street parties. The atmosphere was pretty fun at first, but when we tried to go to the recommended spot to see the fireworks, I basically freaked the eff out. Too. Many. People. I swear to god, more than the entire population of Luxembourg was there that night (the population of Luxembourg is only 531,441, so it's completely possible that that's not an exaggeration). I didn't mind it so much when we were walking, but as we were funnelled down towards the bridge which was meant to be a good vantage point to see the fireworks, it was standing room only and people just kept coming down and I couldn't handle being there. So we moved a little bit out of the way and ended up seeing only about 20% of the fireworks over the top of a 5-storey building. Bah humbug.

Other than that, the week has been taken up with exciting, exciting stuff like unpacking boxes, doing about a million loads of laundry (I decided to wash all those things like cardigans that I have a habit of just shoving into my laundry hamper on the theory that "it was in my handbag most of the time" and then lose track of how long it's been since it was washed... is that gross?) and spending a solid three hours ironing, literally the first I've done since I moved to Europe. I didn't get home wifi hooked up until this Saturday, which was actually quite a good incentive for taking care of all these sorts of things instead of pissing about all day online, although it was a bit boring at times (hello hour-long baths and afternoon naps).

So the apartment is coming together, although there's a long way to go on the furnishing front (I have all the necessary stuff, more or less, but most could do with an upgrade). I'm especially proud of our DIY window frosting (mostly courtesy of Jules). Not only does it mean I can finally have a proper stand-up shower, it looks way better than I would have thought for a stick-on transfer!

I should point out that I took this photo halfway through, to show a "before/after" effect, as both my parents commented that people could just look in the other side. Duh!
Also dyed my hair and got it cut before having to take some new ID photos and start work. Unfortunately, since my straighteners broke, it currently looks a lot wilder than this, but at least I got the photos with a fresh 'do:


And I went to the supermarket, which was cavernous and confusing and appears to have no fresh food. Kind of hard to find stuff when the toilet paper is in the same aisle as the soft drinks:


Talking of supermarkets, one of the fun things about Belgium is the bilingualism you see on products, signs, etc. It means you can learn some fun Dutch words:

Go to your room, you slaaaag. (What's that from? Something British)
But quite often, surprisingly, they seem to default to English, even in contexts you wouldn't expect such as signs wishing the Belgian football team well (by the way, they are really amped about the World Cup so far!) I suppose it's easier just to write something in English rather than using Dutch and French or just one of those and alienating half your audience (it may even be illegal not to put both, I don't know). As a side note, when we visited Antwerp the week before last, everyone asked us "Nederlands or English?". French was not an option when communicating with the (friendly, perfectly fluent in English) salespeople we talked to. And people and companies here seem much more ready to speak English than in France. Granted, I never lived in Paris, so it might be a different situation here, but all the big companies seem to have English versions of their websites, which is not at all a given in France (if they even have a website!) and people seem to speak English to me more frequently. I never know how to respond in these situations, as I do like to speak French (except on the telephone), but I'm aware here that French may not even be their first language, so it's a bit silly to persist in those circumstances.

But even if people's English is better here, they still make some mistakes...


Hair horns, not to be confused with the hair horns of Moses. It is, by the way, an enduring mystery why Francophones drop the 'h' off every word that should have it, and then tack extra ones on where they don't belong.

Horny Moses
So fingers crossed there's not some loud dance party going on tonight like there was last night (on a SUNDAY!) and I manage to grab a few winks before the big day tomorrow! Nervous, but I am looking forward to the new job, which I think (I hope) is going to be a lot more interesting than the last one :)

Oh and here's a photo of me and Bob because why not :)


Sunday, June 22, 2014

One week

Hello! I've been officially resident in Belgium for over a week now. Most of the time, it feels much the same as being in France - until someone asks me for my GSM (mobile phone number) and I have to remember to say 'septante' instead of 'soixante-dix' when I give it to them. That's a change I can definitely get on board with though, go Belgium!

The move went smoothly - it's definitely a #firstworldproblem when your biggest issue is that you're awkwardly perched on a chair in the middle of the room eating a pain au chocolat while other people work around you, cringing that they'll be judging your shabby IKEA furniture. Actually, the worst part was when I was unpacking my clothes on the other end and I discovered a pair of the dirtiest, mouldiest jeans you've ever seen. I've complained at length, I'm sure, about how damp the old apartment was, and since I wear jeans super rarely, they'd evidently just been sitting in my bottom dresser drawer gathering mould for the last nine months. I was horrified at the thought that the movers not only SAW these mouldbominations, they FOLDED them and PACKED them, obviously thinking that I was the kind of person who must, at all cost, have this pair of living dead jeans brought with her to a new country. I know, I know, they see all sorts of things and they're not supposed to judge. They definitely do judge though - the proof being that one of them remarked twice on how my new apartment was bigger than the old one and had a real kitchen. I suppose that kind of remark is just about kosher as long as you're coming up in the world, not moving *into* a hole. In that case though, you almost certainly can't afford professional movers - thank goodness my new work was picking up the tab, because it ain't cheap, let me tell you.

My second moment of shame last week was also related to mouldy, old stuff. I came downstairs one day and realised that my old laptop bag, also shamefully covered with mould, was sitting on the pavement outside my apartment. Odd... On further investigation, an old pair of my pyjamas (not mouldy, but well-worn to the point of threadbareness) and a shoe, missing its mate, were also on the pavement. Very odd. If you can believe it, apparently the rubbish collectors opened my rubbish bag, removed the items they thought unfit for disposal, and left them on the pavement!!! Can you believe it? This was NOT a recycling bag, just a normal bag for household waste (and don't get me started on the elaborate fortnightly schedule for throwing out different kinds of rubbish). I was mortified that my old clothes and mouldy bag were sitting on the footpath for all to see. Thank god the jeans were in a different bag and escaped the beady eyes of the garbage men, I couldn't take it if the zombie jeans rose again. What you're supposed to do with old clothes which are unfit for human consumption, I have no idea. I scooped them into a opaque black sack, put that into the official clear rubbish bag, and covered the whole lot with used kitty litter. Rifle through that if you please!

Anyway, that's a lot about garments of shame. The rest of the week was mostly taken up with long, exhausting trip to the supermarket, IKEA, etc., trying to fix up the apartment and get some ideas for future bigger furniture purposes. With the addition of a throw here, a couple of cushions there, my furniture doesn't look as bad as it did when the movers first deposited it, but most of it could definitely do with a refresh. Plus, I have more space to fill! Not the worst problem ever. There was also various DIY-type things to deal with: there were no curtains, and it was a bit of a hassle getting them (turns out getting curtains made costs hundreds of euros: the IKEA ready-mades are too long, resulting in some cat-related mischief, but they'll have to do for now until I can have them hemmed). We also hung up a clothesline on the back balcony - yay for being able to dry clothes without it taking a whole week and having clothes horses permanently cluttering up the place, and fixed a hook on the wall to hold the shower up. I've heard the explanation for why the French (and, apparently, Belgians) don't have hooks for their showers is because they prefer to take them sitting down, but after a week of sitting down to shower, I have to say the theory doesn't hold much water (heh heh). Even sitting down, it's incredibly awkward having to hold the shower head the whole time, you get cold because unless you hold it right above your head, your back or your front won't be under the water, and it's impossible to wash your hair properly. Even after hanging the shower head up, I still had to sit down since not only are there no curtains, there's not even anywhere to hang curtains - crazy! Eagerly awaiting the arrival of stick-on window transfers from Germany so I can shower like a real person.

Minor issues aside though, the new place is great. It's such a luxury to sit in the sunshine on my own balcony, with a book and a glass of wine.

Jules getting Bobby used to the balcony


And it's so great having a real kitchen with cupboard and counter space (still getting used to gas burners though)! Oh and a bath, so relaxing!

There's still work to be done - mostly boxes that need unpacking and sorting still in the short-term, and then longer-term new furniture purchases. But I have this week before I start work to make the place more habitable, and then I think it will be great! Jules stayed the whole week with me, which was a massive help, and it was nice to start getting our bearings and exploring Brussels a little bit. I'm definitely pleased with my choice of neighbourhood - thanks to the World Cup and evenings without internet at home, we already have a 'local' pub and have eaten at a few of the neighbourhood restaurants. Seems like a nice area! And of course, being a capital city - and, if the crowds watching the World Cup are anything to go by, a multicultural, multilingual type of place - I'm sure there's heaps more I can discover in the next few months.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Pre-move round-up!

Hello all, yesterday was my last day at my old work, meaning today is the first day of not getting up and not going to work until the 1st of July, hurrah! In true SNCF form, there was a strike last night (and today, and who knows when else) - I managed to get one of the last trains before it started at 7 pm, so we were "only" 25 minutes late. There have been at least half a dozen delays, some hours long, since around Easter, which considering how many days I've NOT been at work is pretty impressive. 5.45 am starts and 1.5 hour commute, how I will not miss you!

Lots to catch you up on before the move on Friday. Figuring out internet access in Brussels is currently one of the missing pieces in the puzzle. I called a company on the weekend who claimed that I would have to register with the "commune" (council, less dodgy than it sounds) as a foreigner and then wait THREE months to get internet? That can't be right, surely? I managed to sign a lease and open a bank account (more on that later) without being registered, why would internet suddenly be a big deal?

Going back to last Thursday, which was Ascension or Assumption or something like that, I finally ticked off one of the must-sees in Metz (maybe the only must-see in Metz) by heading along to the Pompidou Centre. The Pompidou Metz is an exhibition space without its own permanent collection (although there is a long-term exhibit of key pieces that will run for several years - installed, I believe, because of disappointed visitors stumbling in to a near-empty gallery between major exhibitions). The exhibition we went to see was all about the paparazzi. It was actually better-executed, bigger and more interesting than I would have thought. As well as classic paparazzi shots of a selection of key figures such as Brigitte Bardot, Princess Di and Britney Spears, it featured "behind the scenes" shots of paparazzi work and artistic "interrogations" of the role of the paparazzo. I think I did leave with more understanding of just what a circus it is - and we got to see Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis naked (let's just say you can tell it's the 70s!) and Britney's cooch (not the 70s any more). (Bonus?)



I should have noted who/what this work was, because I really liked it. It's a floating plastic disc that looks like a sphere, lit so as to project the circles on the wall behind. Photo doesn't really do it justice

Me with a couple of monumental panels by Robert Delaunay

Really want to hear more about that baboon!

Blatantly flouting the "no bending" rule
The following day, I got the train to Tours, where I was later joined by Jules, who drove over after work. I don't think I took many photos, but I'll whack some up later if I get around to getting them off my camera. It was really great catching up with my friends and introducing them to Jules (and vice versa). The wine festival was great, I bought SO much wine! Went a little bit crazy to the tune of around 250€, to be honest, but I'm looking at it as my wine budget for quite some time to come. At an average of maybe around 5-6€ a bottle, you get a lot of bang for your buck, and Loire wines are really hard to find outside the region! I don't know about Brussels, but here in Metz you see maybe Cabernet d'Anjou or Rosé du Loire (bleh) in the supermarkets, Sancerre sometimes on menus, but my favourite Chinons, or small appellations like St Nicolas de Borgueil or Montlouis are nowhere to be found. So it would have been silly not to stock up, really!

I had three days back at work, and then headed to Brussels on Thursday evening to pick up the keys to my new place, eeeeee! Friday was a busy day, meeting with the agent, opening my bank account and arranging insurance. In Belgium, it's apparently standard procedure to open a frozen bank account for your security deposit, which can only be accessed by either side at the end of the contract, if both parties sign off on it. I had mistakenly thought this meant I would open it together with the agent, so I didn't actually have an appointment at the bank until the late afternoon (to open my own personal accounts). Luckily, the bank across the road managed to squeeze me in, and after a lot of boring to-ing and fro-ing, a mere 4 hours or so later, I was good to go! Oh, AND the agent brought along all the necessary forms to sign me up to gas, electricity and water. SO much easier than in Metz (and everything's turned on already, woohoo).

It was pretty exciting walking in to my new apartment, which I was a bit fuzzy on, having only seen for about 10 minutes way back in April. I still love it, and was so excited to see sunshine on the front balcony and test out the bath (fully clothed, and I couldn't hop all the way in because I stupidly tested the taps first, but seems comfortable enough). I'm already plotting in my mind where to put existing furniture and what additional/upgraded furniture I should get. Goodbye horrible damp bathless and balconyless apartment, hello airy new Brussels pad :)

(Sunny) kitchen. OMG, cupboards and counter space, I'm in heaven! Just need to figure out obtaining and placing a larger fridge

Living room, nibbled by poor panorama-taking

And the Lord said, "Let there be light. And there was light." On my balcony.

Bedroom, facing on to the back (shady) balcony. Gonna need some curtains!
That's it for now. This (long) weekend was super hot, in the 30s, so we spent it lazily lounging around in the park and splish-splashing in Jules's pool. Next weekend I hope to be sipping rosé on my sunny balcony (Brussels weather permitting)! I'll leave you with a few extra snaps from Majorca, stolen off one of the party on Facebook (who I can now unfriend? Or too soon?).

Group shot at Cap Formentor



At the amazing lunch location in Port Soller

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Beaches and churches: Majorca continued

As noted, the highlight of the trip was probably our drive on the north-west coast on the first day. The rest of the time, we really didn't do that much, particularly Sunday and Monday which was essentially taken up with shopping and eating (and waiting ages for people to get out of bed).

Saturday was a pretty good day, however. We spent the morning faffing about and seeing the cathedral, thus wasting the best weather (grizzle, grizzle) and then drove south-east of Palma to Cala Pi, a pretty amazing beach in a secluded cove. Not so secluded that it wasn't a bit cold between the thin layer of cloud and the breeze (temperatures ranged from around 16-25 while we were there. Which is okay, I don't like being super hot, and the rain threatened in the forecast never came, so can't complain too much.) Not only did I sunbathe, I actually went "swimming", how brave! I say "swimming", as we went quite far out and the water still wasn't above hip level, so you did have to crouch down in order to stop absolutely freezing your nuts off. The evening before we had gone self-catering (and actually had a lot of fun drinking, nibbling home-made tapas - well, ham and cheese - and playing cards in the apartment) and someone had picked up a small beach ball at the supermarket. It was actually a lot of fun splashing around trying to throw the ball to each other despite the breeze playing havoc. I hadn't really been to the beach since 2011 I think, and I think the last time I went swimming in the sea was in 2009 in Italy, so it was very welcome. I am going to have to make the effort to go more often - why do I keep moving to cold places miles from the sea?

Beach at Cala Pi

The cove was narrow but quite deep, and the sea very shallow as far as we went out

A scenic lookout near Cala Pi

Lonely Planet suggested this was a good picnic spot. Maybe not eh?
Even though it delayed our beach visit, the cathedral was pretty impressive. On a grand scale, old, and with some lovely stained glass. It was also really rammed with tourists, wouldn't like to see it when the season's properly under way. For the most part though, I think May is a great time of year to visit. As mentioned, it was warm enough (hot in the sun) to sunbathe or just hang out sipping sangria on a terrace, but while there were certainly a fair share of tourists, it wasn't choked with them. And talking of tourists, beyond "hola" and "gracias", I don't think I had to (or did) speak a word of Spanish the whole time. I'm sure, as with France, "everyone" does not in fact speak English, but in the touristy professions they at least get by. And they do it with a smile on their face, attention France!

Inside the cathedral



Canopy by Gaudi

Chapel also by Gaudi? The pamphlet is all the way in the living room, so we'll never know

Cathedral window

View of the water from the cathedral

Panorama of the cathedral





On Saturday night, we went to MISA for Amber's birthday dinner. We really had a good time. The food was excellent, wine was plentiful, and the waiters were helpful and efficient but not at all stuffy or formal. Very reasonably-priced too. I split half a roast chicken with someone else. It was amazing, although I really did not need dessert after that, I was stuffed!

Amber's birthday dinner

Delicious roast chicken (for two). 

Me and Amber
I don't think we really did anything on Sunday. On Monday, I was dragged along for a carriage ride. The price came down from 30€ per person to 15€ by the simple expedient of walking away after he named his price - I think we could have got it to 10€. It's not really something I would have done, I don't really see the point of riding around in a carriage, but hey. The particularly interesting part was that the carriage just chilled out in the normal lanes of traffic. I suppose if we'd got one at the top of the steps by the cathedral it would have gone around the narrow cobblestone lanes of the old city, which seem more carriage-appropriate, but since we got it at the bottom of the steps we just bombed around on the normal city streets, surrounded by cars. So I guess that's a new experience!


Carriage ride
After that, we had a look around the very cute Cort shopping district, full of little boutiques where I picked up a new dress and a gorgeous sparkly clutch for my friend Liz's birthday. We'll see if I actually manage to give it to her or if it mysteriously falls off the back of a truck between now and then... The girls went home on Monday afternoon (the others left the day before) and I stayed an extra night. Initially we had planned to stay out on the coast somewhere, so I thought I'd tack on an extra day in Palma. Since we changed to staying in Palma, I really didn't have much to do with myself on the last afternoon/morning - just some more shopping and plenty of sitting around in the sunshine with a glass of rosé and a platter of ham. There are worse things to do with your time.

Majorca: very brown


Adios Mallorca