Monday, September 22, 2014

A fair and a star

I knew there was something I forgot to tell you in my last blog, but I thought that since I'd sorted through all of my photos, I mustn't be missing anything. But I forgot that I didn't take my camera to Luxembourg the other week when we visited the Schueberfoeur.

The Schueberfouer is a fair in Luxembourg that has been going since 1340, when it was founded by John the Blind, King of Bohemia and Count of Luxembourg. That's a pretty sweet pedigree. That makes this year's edition the 674th of the fair!

There's nothing particularly historic when you get in there though. It's pretty much your standard fun-fair, with a mix of carnival rides, food stalls and sideshow attractions. (Jules and I were talking about fairs, and apparently they don't have the sort of school fairs we have back home, where everyone will bake cakes to raise money for the school and if you're lucky you'll get dragged around a field on a "magic carpet ride" hooked up to the back of a 4 wheel drive. Dommage.) There are lots of people - it apparently attracts around 2 million visitors each year, which either means a lot of Luxembourgers go more than once, or a lot of people come from outside the country, since that's around 4 times the country's population. Unlike the Luxembourg national day celebrations, it wasn't tooo crowded, although it was getting pretty packed by the time we left.

At the Schueberfoeur
One of this year's new attractions was the Skyfall, the world's largest movable free-fall ride at 80 metres tall. The view from the top was pretty amazing, but this has got to be one of the most terrifying things I've ever done. I wasn't even so much mentally scared as physically scared. I think there's a point where your body goes "that's it, I'm going to die". Even worse was doing it again after the first time!

Those are people up there

Up we go! Jules stayed on terra firma to take pictures

Waiting for the g-g-g-ghost train
Later on, after enjoying some delicious gromperekichelcher, we took a ride on the Ferris Wheel, itself 55 metres high, which gave us some great views of the fair.

View of the fair from the Ferris Wheel, with the Skyfall in the background

Visiting the fair also gave me the chance to catch up with one of my former colleagues


Et moi
Fast-forward to this weekend (skipping over our trip to Aachen for the moment) and the big event was our Michelin-starred lunch. Saturday was a gorgeous day, so we went out and about a bit before and after to enjoy it. It was the journées du patrimoine, but unfortunately we didn't have time to see anything since obviously the lunch took up the middle of the day. Instead, we visited the Botanic Gardens. Which if you ask me aren't very botanic, since there were no signs or anything telling you what the different plants were, and the greenhouse-looking thing is actually a (very hot) cultural/music venue as far as we could tell. Not the most impressive place in the world, but quite nice on a lovely sunny day regardless.

A beautiful day in the botanic gardens

Help! Crocodile attack!

It got me!
Then it was off to Bruneau, to "Dine with the Stars". This is a special promotion where you can go to have lunch or dinner in a range of Michelin-starred restaurants throughout Belgium. The deal being, it's a bit cheaper than normal, but you have a "surprise" menu. I sort of wimped out on the surprise even before we got there by writing "please no mushrooms" on the reservation, luckily enough since they were indeed featured in the main dish. Damn mushrooms are everywhere. I also had to get Jules to tell the waiter that I didn't want the coffee icecream dessert. I would have tried most things, but I really hate coffee. I can't even stand the smell. If there was a choice between nothing or a coffee dessert, I'd pick nothing. The restaurant went one better though, and brought me a chocolate tart! Could not have been happier, they called that one right!

First was an amuse-bouche of a mini goat's cheese waffle, followed by a trio of hors d'oeuvres - a pea soup, a cold sea bream preparation and a cod croquette. These were all really nice (especially the deep-fried cod bite), I forgot to take photos though.

Next was a "mosaic" of fish, made of salmon, eel and caviar, served cold. This is the sort of thing I'd never order, and I did leave some of the gelée, but that's actually just because it got in my head. When I was actually eating it without thinking about it, it tasted fine, but once I started really looking at the gelée, I couldn't any more. I don't even like gelée on the top of fruit tarts or whatever.

Fish "mosaic"
Second course was venison, normally served with a mushroom toast, but in my case served with a fig concoction. That thing at the front that looks like cheese is actually celery! The texture was a bit strange on its own, sort of like butter, but when eaten together with the venison it melted into it deliciously. The meat was perfectly cooked - again, venison wouldn't normally be my first choice on a menu - and the pommes dauphines were so good, I could have eaten a plate of them on their own.

Next was the famous chocolate tart, served with hot liquid chocolate and, hidden in the icecream, something I don't even know what it was, but it crackled like pop rocks when you put it in your mouth. So good! I bet that's how they would describe it on a menu - crackles like pop rocks...

Chocolate tart
It's not often a plate of sweets makes me groan, but the selection below that came with Jules's coffee was the straw that broke our stomachs' spirits. We did still eat them all though...

So, a very nice lunch, and I enjoyed the concept of the surprise menu even if I did cheat a little bit. They were very nice and accommodating about making those changes, which is great. It was nice to do it at lunch as well, as the restaurant was pretty quiet. Only complaint was that it was a little bit too hot in the room for me, and there was no air-conditioning, and the décor is a bit hotelly, but that is being picky.

We took a post-prandial stroll to the nearby Basilica to work off some of the calories (and sober up a bit, at least in my case). It wasn't really anything special inside (and a particularly irritating priest was baptising a baby in there), but it's apparently the 12th biggest church in the world and the world's largest Art Deco-style building (says Wikipedia). It doesn't look all that Art Deco to me, but what do I know?

Sacred Heart basilica

Photographing the view from the basilica steps

Me and Jules at the basilica
Then it was time to go home, watch qualifying on delay and basically loll about nursing our food babies. Good day! And on Sunday, I stayed in my PJs all day and watched Hamilton win the F1, which also counts as a very good day in my book :)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

News round-up

There's a few different things that I've been meaning to blog about but which aren't really a whole post on their own, so here's the news in brief (as if I'm ever brief).

- During summer, the Royal Palace in Brussels is open for visits and it's FREE! (Not sure why I put that in excited capitals since it's closed again now, but hey, maybe next year.) We dropped in for a quick tour between going to the library and watching the F1 a couple of weeks ago, and while it's not the most impressive palace I've ever seen, it's quite elegant (and did I mention, free?) They had an exhibition on WWI on when we went, it being the centenary, which I thought kind of spoilt the look of the place. Some of the old photos and videos were interesting, but this being the royal palace, it was annoyingly hagiographical towards the royals - there was even a section on the Congo with seemingly not a whisper about the murderous personal rule of Belgian King Leopold II there shortly before this period. Oh, and there was an amazing ceiling made out of 1.4 million crushed beetles.

In the palace ballroom, kinda ruined by the exhibition

The beetle ceiling

That painting in the corner had serious creepy vibes

I think he's going to haunt my dreams

- Here's the bit where I complain about something. Remember how I called my internet company in France, Alice, and tried to tell them my new address so I could settle up my account, and they were really rude and basically refused to take a new address and said they'd just keep billing me till my contract was up? HUGE SURPRISE!!! They just continued to keep billing me with zero acknowledgement that I had cancelled the contract. Oh but, no problem, I told my bank before leaving France to stop payments on all my old direct debits. Except my useless bank didn't stop the payments.

I let the first month go because I thought I probably owed that legitimately, and then the second month I just wasn't really on top of things. The third month, I actually found where I could tell the bank online to stop the payments, so I did that and it actually worked, prompting some angry emails from Alice. The next month, the bank helpfully let the payment go through again, this time with a late fee. Thanks a fricking bunch. By this time, I actually did get on to re-sending them a letter re-cancelling the contract, by registered mail, which cost more than 7€ from Belgium. The first time round, I had sent it by registered mail, but without proof of delivery, since I knew I was just about to move to another country and I didn't forward my mail from France since it was ridiculously expensive. So I have no proof that I did actually mail them back in June (and I'm still actually waiting for the receipt this time around too). I really don't think odds are that both the letter and the actual box sending my modem back both got lost in the registered mail system. Honestly, I wouldn't put it past them to see that there was no delivery receipt and just shrug and go "she can't prove she cancelled it, so we'll keep charging her". The internet worked fine, but every interaction I ever had with them was so unpleasant that I find that entirely plausible. (This was also the company that made me cry when I was trying to install my modem when the girl repeatedly called me "Monsieur... pardon, Madame" and kept laughing with her colleagues at me in the background.) So... hopefully this time it will actually be cancelled.

- Talking of useless bank stuff, I paid my taxes online, which helpfully involved having to mail a printed authorisation for the transaction to my bank (sigh). I know the bank got the authorisation, because I sent a cheque in the same envelope and they cashed it, but the money hasn't come out. I don't know whether the government just hasn't tried to take it, or they tried before the authorisation arrived. Either way, my taxes are showing as paid, so I suppose I should be thanking my lucky stars, but I really do try to do everything properly and by the book and that's why it bothers me so much when things like this and the internet fiasco happen. Life's not fair, it's true, but it seems like you should be rewarded with smooth sailing when you try to make an honest effort to take care of all your responsibilities, but it seems to end up in as much as a mess as if you did nothing. Then dealing with these administrative issues on the phone with French "customer service" people is really really one of my least favourite things to do. So I'm left not able to close my bank account because I don't know what's happening on the tax front.

- On a lighter note, Jules and I signed up as Friends of the Museum, as previously mentioned. When filling out the form, I started putting my details, and then they asked for ID, which I didn't have, so Jules gave them his ID and I added his name on the form. So it was like Surname: Sandiego/Luxembourg, First name: Gwan/Jules. I was amused when the ID cards came addressed to M. and Mme. Luxembourg-Sandiego. Then I remembered that I had definitely filled out the form with the names the other way round, since I started filling it in with just my name. So WTF, Musée des Beaux-Arts, do you have some sort of policy that the man's name has to come first? Or you took it upon yourself to decide it sounded better that way round? Way to mangle our fake, ridiculously long (in real life too) hyphenated name.

- Some other fun things: I joined a choir (yay) and will start evening Russian classes soon (I tested out at level A2, i.e. one up from a complete beginner. Slightly embarrassing since I did study it for 4 semesters at university, but that was a long time ago and it's hard). Last weekend we went to Aachen, Germany, so stand by for a blog post about that, and this weekend we're participating in a (sort of) festival where you go along to a Michelin-starred restaurant and get a surprise 4-course lunch or 5-course dinner for a bit cheaper than usual. We're going for lunch since most of the participating Brussels restaurants were all booked out by the time I found out about this last week. We're going to Bruneau - I can be a bit fussy, so I hope I like it! (The surprise is part of the charm, I suppose, but I couldn't resist writing "please no mushrooms" on the reservation though!)

Friday, September 12, 2014

A sunny day chez les Ch'tis

As mentioned in the previous post, we were treated on Sunday to a warm(ish), (mostly) sunny and much less windy day than on Saturday. As you can imagine, our hearts were gladdened when we stepped out on to the balcony to see this view:

We grabbed Susi the dog and headed down to the beach. Jules had been talking for a while about childhood exploits gathering mussels, crabs (mostly too scary) and shrimp on the coast here. I misunderstood how you got the shrimp, and thought it involved wading in the same sort of small rock pools where you got mussels, so I declared my intention not to partake. However, you actually get them by dragging a small (in our case) net along the sea floor and scooping them up. Turns out it's so much fun! I was inappropriately dressed and hence got a wet bum, but totally worth it. We only gathered around a dozen shrimp over the course of 20 minutes or so, plus I caught a baby crab a couple of inches long and two baby flat fish (these all went back in the sea, of course). I'd never seen baby fish/seafood like that, the flat fish were almost transparent, they were so small. We did cook and eat the fresh shrimp, although Jules grossed me out by pointing out that several (mostly the biggest ones) were covered in eggs. Ugh, I would have returned them to the sea too had I realised. I've eaten caviar, but gotta draw the line somewhere.

View of Ambleteuse from the beach
Me and Susi - obviously still a bit windy

Not Susi on the shore

Me and tiny camouflage man

Fisherman Jules having a Daniel Craig moment

Which I suppose makes me the woman in the white bikini, whatever she's called. Disclaimer: I've never seen a single Bond film

We realised while splashing around that the sea wasn't actually that cold, so we dropped Susi back off at the flat, I changed into a bikini, and we hurried back to the beach for a dip in the North Sea. Very brave! It was not that bad when you sucked it up and jumped in, and we even lay on the beach a bit afterwards, until the quickly-advancing tide threatened to dunk us again.

In the afternoon, we took another drive, this time to Blanc Nez, Gris Nez's twin, so named because it has white chalk cliffs similar to the Dover cliffs on the other side of the Channel. We actually parked near Escalles (I think) and walked up to a height of 134m or 151m, depending who you ask. I found the path, covered with myriad small, sharp stones, quite trying, I must admit (I had changed into thin-soled sandals). But at least I did better than Susi the dog, who had to be carried a fair bit of the way. She is 16 years old though. It was worth the walk though, as we were rewarded with beautiful views of the sea, Calais, Cap Gris Nez and all the way over to England.

Driving to Blanc Nez

Hello England!

Jules lets Susi rest her little legs

The land side of the cape

Susi selfie!

Looking towards Gris Nez

In the direction of Calais

View to Calais

I assume this village is Escalles 

Me, Jules and Susi

Okay, that was probably too many photos. But it really was pretty. The weather in August around these parts has not been too flash most of the time, so it was great to have a little taste of summer as the season draws to an end. Even more so since the forecast for the weekend had not been great, so it was a lovely surprise. We really had a good time and were just sad that it was so short! Luck definitely plays a part, but I'll think twice before badmouthing the Nord-Pas-de-Calais again.

Monday, September 08, 2014

In defence of Northern France

As some of you know, I lived for a while in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais way back in 2007. When I mention this fact to French people, they normally get an expression on their faces like "why on earth would you do that?" And much of the time, I would agree. For the most part, I found the accents incomprehensible, the weather abysmal, and the landscape unremarkable. Most of the time I was there, we were traipsing about WWI sites or cleaning children's dormitories, which doesn't help I suppose. One thing I rarely got to do was to go to the coast - and if I had, the weather the spring/summer/autumn I was there wasn't often beach-worthy.

Still, when Jules suggested we spend a weekend at his family's beachfront apartment in the small town of Ambleteuse, I thought, why not? Might be fun to see the old stamping grounds. My heart sank a little as the forecast for the weekend predicted more and more rain, but hey, free weekend break can't be too bad.

You'll probably have divined from the title of the post that it actually turned out to be a great weekend. We turned up in the dark late on Friday night, the wind blowing so hard along the sea front that I could barely open my car door, and it continued to howl around the house all night until we woke up to a grey and extremely blustery day on Saturday morning.

Undaunted, I put on my best tramp's assemblage of Jules's mum's too-small tennis shoes, rolled-up leggings, a dress and a mismatched cardigan, and we headed out to the beach with Susi, Jules's dog, to clamber around on the rocks while it was low tide (the beach actually disappears altogether at high tide).

Jules and Susi on the rocks
I don't want to badmouth Susi, but she did a poo right behind us while we were taking selfies. Everyone's a critic

I have so many where I look like I'm doing awkward Russian mail-order bride poses, when I'm actually trying to keep my hair from flying everywhere

Little red riding Susi gets a cuddle after her beach trip
In the afternoon, we took a trip to nearby Wimereux, because the weather still wasn't great and I wanted to buy some photo frames (no luck). The sea was at its peak by now, dramatically pounding the sea wall and sending plumes of spray up into the air and washing on to the promenade.

That's the face of someone wondering if they're about to get drenched
High tide at Wimereux
Stopping at a pretty bay between Wimereux and Ambleteuse

Panorama of the bay

We finished the day off with a drive to Cap Gris Nez, the closest point between France and England. I remembered once taking a drive up the Côte d'Opale (as it's called) when I was living there, and how pretty it was. There wasn't quite as much coastal views as I remembered, but it still was very pretty.

View from Cap Gris-Nez to Cap Blanc-Nez (and sheep)

Somewhere on the way to Cap Griz-Nez

So, it might have lived up to its reputation for fairly inclement weather, but luckily it didn't rain, and the wind, while extremely strong, wasn't all that cold. And it turned out the next day would bring us blue skies and sunshine...