Thursday, May 28, 2015

Medicine and Memling

May in Belgium doesn't have quite as many days off as May in France, since we don't get the 8th, but there are still three, which means, particularly this year as they fell well, plenty of long weekends in which endless thumb-twiddling eventually leads to getting out of the house and seeing what there is to do around Belgium. I've been to Bruges before, in the dead of winter, but Jules had never visited, so against my better judgement, we visited during the May Day long weekend.

I had expected it to be fairly crowded, being a long weekend in spring, but it was even worse than I thought. Here's something that might surprise you - Brussels and Antwerp have the worst and second-worst traffic in Europe and North America (or the world, depending on what source you read). This is evidently not a new phenomenon either - try Googling "Brussels worst traffic" and you'll find year after year of different surveys in which Brussels tops the worst league rankings.

I take the bus to work, so while there are definitely times when the bus is sitting in traffic, or (even more often) turns up late, presumably due to traffic, bus lanes along part of the route means that it's usually not too bad in my day-to-day life. The bizarre thing for me, though, is that the traffic never stops. Traffic back home in Auckland can get pretty dire in rush hour, but bar some massive accident, it's pretty rare to get caught in traffic on the weekend or in the middle of the day. Whereas almost every time we've tried to go anywhere across town or between cities here in Belgium, we've ended up in a massive traffic jam.

The 100 kilometres to Bruges is supposed to take about 1 hour 10 minutes to drive, but we ended up sitting in crawling, nose-to-tail traffic for around 2 1/2 hours. And then had to queue up to get into one of the jam-packed parking garages once we got there. Even worse, first off I had suggested going by train in case parking was an issue, and then the GPS had told us to get off the motorway, but its suggested route, that took a big loop around and added half an hour on to the travel time seemed so outlandish that we were convinced it must be on the fritz. So we had frustrated stupidity to add on to the annoyance of sitting in a cross-Belgium traffic jam.

When we finally got out and about in Bruges, there were way too many people everywhere and I, in particular, got rather grumpy. It was too crowded and not nice enough weather to think about the big tourist drawcards like the bell tower or the Groenige Museum, but we managed to escape the bulk of the crowds with a visit to the perhaps lesser-known Memling/Saint John's Hospital Museum.

In front of the ornate Basilica of the Holy Blood

Pretty sure a mother-in-Psycho situation is going on here with this animatronic lace-maker

Even though I like Hans Memling's bright, vivid paintings as much as the next girl (slash more), I had dismissed the idea of visiting the museum dedicated to him, housed in a medieval hospital, because I thought it pretty much consisted of a handful of Memling paintings and nothing else. Turns out, along with the atmospheric old building and the jewel-like Memlings, the museum also, fittingly, contains a range of exhibits explaining the history of the hospital and medieval and early modern medicine in general.

I'm a bit on the squeamish side when it comes to all things medical, but even I found it fascinating and horrifying in equal measures to see cases full of the different drills, scalpels and saws used in medical procedures in the past, and to contemplate how awful it would have been to undergo these operations with no pain relief and no knowledge of germ theory or basic hygiene!

Along with the medical instruments, there was also a large number of reliquaries and devotional paintings - hence the Memlings, some of which were specially commissioned for the hospital. This reflects the important religious role of the hospital, which aimed to care for its patients spiritually as much as (or more) than medically - praying for the saints to intercede with miraculous cures followed by praying for the patient's soul as they died.

I don't know about you, but I think I'd rather have the surgeon's full attention at a time like this

An anatomy lesson
This amazing shrine, telling the story of Saint Ursula, was specially created by Memling for the hospital

More beautiful Memling works

Memling's Saint John altarpiece

Details from the altarpiece

The hospital pharmacy, which like the hospital, stayed operational into the 19th century, was also worth a visit, with its walls lined with apothecary jars and boxes full of exotic herbs and minerals used to treat ailments.

Thankfully the car trip back was incident-free, but while we're still up for visiting Bruges again some time in the future, I think we'll be waiting for next winter, after the Christmas markets, when the tourists have left again for the year.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Keep on truckin'

If there's one thing that will motivate me to get blogging, it's knowing that I have a backlog of posts to get through before a long-anticipated, VERY FUN THING happens. It's that time of year again, and I'm counting down to my annual trip back to Tours (well, not counting the time I went in March which I didn't blog about because I just hung out with my friends) for the big Vitiloire wine festival. But more on that coming up, first I need to tell you what other fun things I've been up to. And what better time to do it than an overcast Monday morning, when thanks to Pentecost, I don't have to get out of bed? The fun of Vitiloire is still to come, but that makes it already a very good week in my book.

So, a few weeks ago, Brussels had its annual Food Truck Festival - food? festival? Yep, I'm gonna want to check that out. Luckily, Shannon from Almost Bilingue, along with her husband, a friend and her ex-flatmate of the sadly defunct I Fly a Starship blog also wanted to discover the delights of the food truck festival. Shannon and I have been talking about meeting up since I moved to Brussels nearly a year ago (gasp), thus bringing me pretty close to Lille, where she lives, but there's never been a good time until now.

Blog relationships are a funny thing - it's strange to know so much about someone you've never met, and vice versa, and at the same time you're conscious of all the gaps in the story - some people don't blog about relationships, many about work, or their friends, or the mundane, everyday parts of life. So it can definitely be weird meeting someone you've known for years - nearly six years in this case - and seen through major life events - moving, marrying, changing jobs - all without ever meeting.

Shannon is in fact one of my oldest blog friends, since I think she first got on my radar via the old Assistants in France website, sometime in 2009 before I moved back here. That was during the year-and-a-half or so that I wasn't blogging, since the blog was, at first, mostly a way to let people back home know about my exciting adventures in Europe (most of whom no longer read this as far as I know), so there wasn't much point keeping it up when I was having less exciting adventures as a student and worker back in New Zealand.

So, six years ago I had not long moved back to Auckland from Wellington, and I was working full-time as a librarian (the first and only time in my life I've done that, despite that supposedly being my profession) while finishing up my second Masters degree at night. I was beginning to develop horrible RSI in my arm from spending all day and all night typing away on the computer, and contemplating whether or not to chuck in the 9 to 5 and move back to France to work as a language assistant after I'd finished my degree.

The other option would have been to move back to Wellington, to cover a former colleague's year-long maternity leave. It would have been a big pay rise, working with a nice team of people I already knew, and probably a good opportunity for career development. Plus I like Wellington, and at the time still had friends there from university, although most have moved away now. It was hard to know whether to pick that option - I pictured myself in a nice flat in central Wellington, sipping lattes in one of the many cafés (not really though, since I don't drink coffee) and barhopping through chic cocktail joints at night. Versus moving to France and trying to survive on the Côte d'Azur on 780€ a month while going back to teaching English, which I hated the first time round...

It was a tough choice, but in the end, I decided that if I didn't give it a go and see what happened heading back to Europe, I might fall into a settled-down life in New Zealand and it would never happen. I had to try and see where I ended up. The plan was always to try and parlay the seven months as a teaching assistant into a more permanent job in my chosen field, but even if I just ended up having a seven-month break in the South of France, that was worth experiencing, right?

The Assistants boards were a big part of ironing out the anxieties and uncertainties of taking this leap, and I remember in particular getting a lot of advice and reassurance from people who had already been there and done that, like Shannon, Ksam, Eyeleen and Jennie. I suppose these days new assistants just join groups on Facebook or follow people on Twitter, but I hope there's some resources out there for them, because even though I'd lived and travelled in Europe before, it was scary trying to figure out how to turn up halfway across the world, find somewhere to live in an expensive city on a tiny income, with zero help or communication from the new school I was meant to be starting work at within a few days of arriving.

Anyway, all this to say that Shannon and I go way back, a lot has changed in the last 6 years, and it was cool to finally meet her! I think there were no big surprises on my end at least, we hung out, ate good food, had some tasty cocktails, and had a good time! Since we were hanging out as a group and eating lots of yummy stuff, I probably didn't get the inside scoop on all the behind-the-blog gossip, so I have a good excuse to schedule a return visit to Lille some time :)

The Food Truck Festival was fun too. Lots of people and a fun atmosphere. My only complaint was that pretty much everywhere was serving full-meal sized portions, i.e. whole burgers or whatever, so it was hard to sample stuff from many places. Luckily Jules and I ended up going back the next day (since I went with Shannon on the Friday night before he got to Brussels) and spent really quite a long time there, plus we shared one of everything we got, so we ended up being able to try quite a few things.

The super-cute Chang Noi food truck (love the elephant) along with one of my favourite bites of the festival - that delicious spicy shrimp.

Jules enjoys a mid-day mojito, as you do

Time for some classy street cider-chugging. Strongbow FTW!

Hmm, not so sure about this?

Nope, it's all good!

Our other favourite snack, delicious Japanese fried chicken strips from the equally cute Peko Peko van.

Walking back from drinks with Shannon and crew on the Friday night, we came across an illuminated Grand Place - I've never seen it lit up like this at night before, really pretty!

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Sumer is icumen in: Spring in Brussels

Last weekend, the 25th of April, we went to visit a forest just outside Brussels which is either very famous or completely obscure, depending on who you ask. It's called the Hallerbos/Bois de Halle, and is particularly known for the beautiful bluebells that bloom for a few weeks in spring. The flowering season is probably almost over - if you're interested in visiting this year or next, you can visit the forest's very informative website, which gives daily updates on whether the bluebells are (still) blooming. It explains that they will only bloom as long as sunlight can still reach them through the forest canopy, so once the beach trees have all their leaves, they will die off. I'm not sure why so many grow in this particular forest, I suppose it's just one of the lovely things nature does.

We spent about an hour walking around in the forest, and it felt like about half that amount of time. It really was enchanting, and I'm not sure the photos do it justice. I hadn't been expecting, in particular, the dense drifts of red leaves that were also covering the forest floor - they made for a lovely contrast with the rivers and pools of bluebells lying under the trees. We went there on a drizzly Saturday, which turned out to be a good choice, as the forest protected us from the rain but there weren't very many other people there. There's a carpark right there and it's all easily walkable for the average person.

We're having a nature overdose this spring, as this weekend we decided to visit the Royal Greenhouses at Laeken, on the 1st of May. The greenhouses are only open for a few weeks a year, as they are actually "royal" in the sense of being in the grounds of the royal palace. Cue much dark muttering from me as we went round about the unearned wealth and privilege of this family who live off taxpayers' money and ill-gotten Congo gains and then expect us all to doff our caps at them when they have the grace to let the great unwashed into their private domain once a year. My parents will be laughing at that, since I used to be quite the fan of the royals when I was a little girl, but as it says in the Bible, "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child..."

Anyway, I had heard from colleagues and the internet that it can get horrifically crowded in there and to expect long lines, so we decided to go for the evening session, when hopefully it would be a bit quieter, and turned up half an hour before it opened - by which time a pretty long line had already formed. Luckily the evening wasn't too cold or rainy, and it actually turned out to be not as much of a nightmare as I had feared. It was good that we got there while it was still light, as it was worth it in order to see and photograph the grounds before going into the greenhouses. Once you're in, you do have to process around the exact same route (and at pretty much the same speed) as everyone else, so I can imagine it getting quite unpleasant on a hot and crowded day. Everyone seemed pretty content to take their time (and plenty of photos) though, so I never really felt like I was trapped behind a slow moving crowd, which is something I really hate.

Looking back at the rest of the queue after we got in

Jules joked that this boar was saying "paint me like one of your French girls"
In front of the palace (you're not allowed any closer)

An empty greenhouse

Selfie in front of the Japanese garden

This crown-topped greenhouse with its towers reminded me of a mosque or the Hagia Sophia

If you're ever in Brussels in spring, it's worth a look, not least for the fact that it's the only time of year you can visit - but be prepared to queue! The queue to get in evaporated fairly quickly I think, but as I said, it's worth making it in while it's still light, so weigh up whether you really want to go when it's quiet or whether you want to see it in daylight etc.