Showing posts with label Belgium. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Belgium. Show all posts

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.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

It's been five years

Well, to be exact, as of today it's been 4 years, 7 months and 3 days since I moved to France in September 2009. But that (plus six weeks or so) is going to have to do. I'm not going to make it to that magical 5 year mark where you can apply for French citizenship (I wasn't 100% sold on that anyway), because it's time to say au revoir France...

...and bonjour Belgium! Hello frites, yummy chocolate and endless rain (apparently) and adding a sixth country to the list of places I've lived. As of mid-June some time, I'll be on the move again (sigh), this time for hopefully a bit of a longer run in the same place - Brussels. My last move, a mere eight months ago, was so traumatic that I had zero interest in moving again any time soon (despite hating my apartment and the mega-commute), but a fantastic opportunity came up (hence my January trip to Brussels) which was way too good to say no to.

I had more-or-less settled in to commuting for around 1.5 hours each way, and my work for the first few months of the year was a lot more interesting (I'm back to deathly boredom now), but the new job offers so much more financially, in lifestyle terms and (hopefully) in the kind of work I'll be doing. Ever since I've known I'm moving, it's been more and more of a drag when the alarm goes off at 5.45 every day and when I stumble back in my front door at 8.30 pm. After working 40-hour weeks with 15 hours' commuting time, 38 hours plus about 5 hours' commute a week will be a breeze! As well as being character-forming, having to go through tough times of whatever description also helps you to appreciate any upturn in fortune.

Plus the payrise means I could shop around for somewhere I really wanted to live. Absolute non-negotiables: a balcony/terrace/garden and a bathtub. I've been dreaming for years of having some kind of outdoor space, and having a bath (with book, music and glass of wine) is one of my absolute favourite things to do whenever I'm in a hotel or wherever. I never quite had the budget to find exactly what I wanted before, so this time I didn't want to compromise. Jules and I spent last weekend in Brussels, and I've lined one up that ticks all the boxes, and is in what seems to be the perfect neighbourhood, balancing distance from work and the city, amenities, quietness etc. Happy days!

Talking of Jules (who reads the blog, so this is a bit weird), that's the part that's obviously not so great. I was waiting to hear back about the job before we met, and after a few good dates I kind of rolled my eyes and thought "I bet I'll get the job now, that'd be typical". It's almost a cliché that you meet someone when you're not looking (I wasn't - despite it being online, I had taken my photos down, which is basically man-repellent) or when circumstances are going to make things awkward. Sure enough, I got the news after we'd been dating for a few weeks, just before the trip to Cologne. I had planned on waiting until afterwards to tell him, so as not to spoil the weekend, but in the car conversation turned to my job (level of interest therein) and what my long-term plans were, and by the time we got to the hotel I was wracked with guilt and had to break it to him.

He took it very calmly. He's a calm guy, so that's not a big surprise, but after only going out for a few weeks, it would have been reasonable on his part to decide he wasn't into the prospect of a long-distance thing and that it was easier to pull the plug there and then. Which would have been a tad awkward stuck together in Cologne. But, happily, we decided to see how things went over the next 2 1/2 months or so until I left, and then... Brussels isn't that far from Luxembourg, really. It's still only been two months, but things are going well, so hopefully it'll be okay. I think the fact that we already don't live in the same city will help the transition, although I'll miss being able to catch up in the week for a drink after work.

So, I'm super excited! The stress is starting to kick in a little bit now too. It should be much less chaotic than last time (I can hire professional movers for starters), but with the added complications of being an international move to worry about. Who knows how things work in Belgium? And, naturally, I already have trips to Mallorca and Tours lined up for the end of May/beginning of June to suck money out of my bank account and time out of my schedule, but hey, there are worse problems!

I'm a bit sorry that, mostly due to those long hours, I haven't really got to know Metz at all. The last eight months have flown by at warp speed, I swear. The bi-country work/home balance is difficult to maintain: very hard to make friends in Metz, where I was never home, and I'd be tired at the end of the day in Luxembourg and just have to rush off to the train anyway. I still have a little time (moving formalities and holidays notwithstanding) to tick a couple of things like the Pompidou Metz off the list, and I'll be coming back to Luxembourg to see Jules, so all is not lost.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Exploring the Royal Collections in Brussels

I was recently in Brussels for a bit of business, making it my third trip in a calendar year or so, oddly enough. Since I had just been back in August, I didn't really look around that much. I didn't go to the Grand Place or to see what Mannekin Pis might be wearing, I didn't eat any French fries or waffles or buy any chocolate other than at the supermarket, but I did go to visit the Royal Museums.

I visited on my first trip back in 2007, and while a lot has changed with the museum (notably the development of separate museums-within-the-museum such as the Magritte Museum and the Fin-de-Siècle museum, which weren't open when I last went), there was definitely a sense of déjà vu. Or indeed, not so much déjà vu as déjà blogged. I walked around remembering many of the paintings I'd seen before, not from my original experience, but remembering having blogged about them and the little jokes I made in this post.

Blogfriend Canedolia recently blogged about how blogging has changed and whether or not anyone's still interested in the old-school "personal experiences" type blogs anyway. While my blogging output tends to vary wildly according to a self-assessment of how interesting my life is likely to be to other people (read: if I've travelled anywhere fun or sat around all weekend catching up on the BBC's Fake or Fortune and, less respectedly, The Undateables - which is brilliant - and Take Me Out - which is silly but fun), the basic goal is probably always the same. It's great to read other people's comments and think that they might, for some reason, enjoy reading my blog, but I think it's even better to know I'm creating a permanent (?) record for myself. So even if repeated trips to Brussels create a blurry palimpsest of impressions, I can always agree with Past Me that armpit fart Jesus never gets old:

I managed to get some better close-ups of the crazy world of Bosch this time. You could look at this for an hour and still find new stuff going on. No wonder they ended up with Surrealists hundreds of years later if they grew up seeing the likes of this:

Jesus after a hard night on the tiles

The saint in this is very pointedly not looking up Mary Magdalene's crotch

This guy, on the other hand... I do love this little detail though, of course you'd be pretty "woah!" if there were a giant floating saint and angels in the sky
So, everyone's pretty bummed about the temple collapsing...

Except this guy, who thinks it's FABULOUS, darling! (I actually lolled at my own joke there. That just shows where the bar is set when you principally aim to please yourself)
What's your favourite Brueghel?

Pretty Brueghel?

Disturbing slices of social history Brueghel?

Creepy Goblin Market Brueghel?

Or just the one with the nun's bum?
The Fin-de-Siècle museum hasn't been open for very long, I don't think. There's some nice stuff in there, but seriously, there's also some of the most god-awful tack I've ever seen inside a museum. Tell me some of this wouldn't be out of place spraypainted on a Harley Davidson or on a hair band's album cover:

Dear God, this is the worst thing I've ever seen. If you don't agree, however, you can buy a reproduction starting from $219 here

And it just keeps going...

I'm sorry to have done this to you all, but after looking at this, we have all been added to a list.

Oh great, add bestiality to the mix, that'll make it better
Terribly sorry about that, I'll leave you with my favourite painting in the museum, Magritte's Empire des Lumières:
This is from my last trip, as you're not allowed to take photos in the Magritte bit any more. The photo doesn't do it justice
And a nice snap of Brussels as a palate-cleanser to leave you with

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Gwan's Year in Review - 2013

Here goes, the second annual installment of my wrap-up of the year according to Gwan. I enjoyed reading through my report on 2012 again, and I know I'll have fun looking back through my 2013 experiences, even if it takes a really long time to put this together!

2013: A year of changes

So I managed to say a lot of positive things in last year's wrap-up, but it really was a year of disaster. I lost my job and spent the majority of the year unemployed and a bit depressed, which is no good in anyone's book. So I'm especially proud of myself that I managed to shake things off, pull myself together and get back into the working world. (PS I don't mean to imply that clinically depressed people just need to shake things off and pull themselves together.)

The turning-point came with a new job in Tours. Thank goodness I got it, because I think if an information job for an English-speaker had magically come up and I hadn't got it, it might just about have put the nail in the coffin of my hopes and dreams of ever getting back on the work horse. The unfortunate side-effect of getting the job, which I never discussed on the blog, was that I was actually meant to do an EVS volunteer project in Moldova, starting in May. Unfortunately, by the time the Tours job started in April, I still hadn't heard anything back about it. I think they finally contacted me about two weeks out from the start date - even if I hadn't gotten a job, it would obviously have been really difficult to pack everything up and move to Moldova within two weeks. I was pretty gutted to lose out on this opportunity in order to spend 5 months working in info management, but I think sticking with the job was definitely the grown-up, sensible thing to do, and I am really grateful that I was able to get my life back on track.

When I learned the contract in Tours wasn't going to be renewed, the race was on to find something else before I found myself back in the dark place of unemployment. After a few frantic weeks of scouring the web, online applications and surprise telephone interviews, an opportunity came through... All the way in a little country called Luxembourg across France's eastern border. 

I'm not going to say the move wasn't stressful. From touring a near-slum to accidentally insulting a secret real estate agent, figuring out where to live and how to move myself there on a serious time budget (and money budget) was tricky. Even after I found my new apartment, I got seriously delayed thanks to an airport strike, screamed at by my old estate agent and almost failed to hire a van. When I finally got to the new place, I had to start a new job while living without electricity for nearly a week, a phone for a couple of weeks and internet for about three weeks. I'm sort of tempted to move again, since I don't like where I live and it's a long commute every day, but I don't think I can face another move for a while!

I miss my friends in Tours a lot and don't love everything about my new life, but overall it's been a positive move. Again, I'm very happy to be working and I've been doing a pretty solid job settling in to Lux/Lorraine life.

And now on to the awards portion of the evening -

Best trip abroad

I seem to have some sort of travel amnesia. I think it's because I'm always eager to go to the next destination, so I tend to think that it's been aaaaaages since my last trip and I haven't been aaaanywhere in any given year. Au contraire, I've actually ventured beyond l'Hexagone on a number of occasions again this year.

  • The year began with a mid-January pick-me-up trip to Italy. I had some airmiles to burn, and picked the destination of Bologna more-or-less at random based on how much a return flight would set me back (since I only had enough miles for one-way). I actually made my way straight to Padua, in order to fulfil a recently-acquired ambition of seeing Giotto's Scrovegni Chapel.

This was one of the most amazing places I've seen in my life. The photos don't do it any justice. Definitely, definitely, if you get the chance, do go here. And even better if you go in the middle of winter and are as lucky as I was to be left all alone to contemplate it in peace for a full 40 minutes.

I also ate, drank, and took surreptitious photos of the devil and overt photos of flayed bodies in Bologna.

I took advantage of the free trip in order to take a little side visit to Bruges, which was icy cold and quite pretty. There I fell in love with a Turkish rug, or rather the painting of one in van Eyck's Madonna of Canon van der Paele in the Groeningen Museum. 

  • After that, it was back to gainful employment, so I didn't have a chance for any travels abroad until my July trip to Luxembourg to interview for my current position. Thinking that if things went badly I might never go back to Luxembourg again, I stayed overnight and had the time to wander around taking in the sights of Luxembourg on a particularly hot summer's day. I squeezed in a second quick trip in the middle of August, for a bit of stressful international house hunting, before obviously ending up spending 5-6 days a week here currently.

  • More exciting than Luxembourg, in August I headed back to Belgium to meet up with my family and take a trip to Liège/Spa with my Dad to watch the Belgian Grand Prix. While the race (and the rest of the season) didn't pan out quite as I would have hoped, I'll never forget the high of seeing Lewis Hamilton get up to take pole at the last second of Q3 - a sentiment that was shared, it seemed, by the majority of the crowd at Eau Rouge. (Sorry to those of you who think that sentence might as well have been written in Japanese...) It was also great to spend some time with my Dad: I'm especially proud of our military-style logistical efficiency in getting to and from the circuit on the three days (no easy feat!)
We also got to briefly hang out together back in Brussels, including a bit of a naughty drunken singalong with my sister, which left me slightly the worse for wear the next day!

  • We had a few more days in England on the way back too, where I got to hang out with my family and the lovely Rick, which mostly consisted of roaming around the English countryside in the Sandiego family mobile karaoke machine (we also solve mysteries in our spare time), avoiding the rain and looking for Hadrian's Wall.
  • I debated whether to put my daytrip to Trier in the "trip abroad" category, which probably shows I've become blasé about such things, given that I cross an international border on a daily basis. Germany is legitimately a different country though (last time I checked), so here it is. We popped across the border to visit the Karl Marx museum (utterly bereft of all things Marx, btw) and visit a true blue German Christmas market. Prost!
  • For my last trip of the year, it was back to England again - that makes two trips to England, two to Belgium and two to Italy. Quite a strange year, travel-wise! I spent Christmas chez my lovely friend Liz in the South West, and then we scuttled off to London for my first New Year's Eve in the capital! (Blogposts to come...)

And the winner is...

For the second year running (last year, it was Norway), the family holiday takes it out for the best travel experience of the year. Great spending time with Mum and Dad, and this time round we got tans and limoncello thrown in to boot!

Best domestic trip

I didn't have quite as much free time on my hands as last year (at least from April onwards), although I did have more money of course! 

  • One good thing about staying in Tours was that I got to claim my ticket to the wedding of the season, i.e. the wedding of the lovely Ella Coquine. In classic Ella style, not everything went smoothly as we raced across (and out of Paris) to get her to the mairie on time. Still, it was a beautiful, memorable, and most of all FUN occasion. Félicitations my dear & thank you for having me!
  • I "profited", as the French would say, from being in the Ile de France to go to nearby Fontainebleau, which is worth the interminable walk from the train station with a hangover to see its magnificent interiors.
  • I had intended to get to some more Loire châteaux before the Metz move, but I only managed to add Villandry to the mix. It's right up there with the best though, especially the gorgeous gardens.

And the winner is...

For sheer craziness and the brilliant story that came out of it, the nod has got to go to Dijon. The city itself was perfectly nice, we had some good food, mostly good weather and the museum was fabulous, but just goes to show that sometimes it's all about the company you're with!

What's next?

As you know, my contract in Luxembourg has been extended for the whole of this year. This, theoretically, means I could move closer to work than Metz, but I'm still weighing up my options for a number of reasons. The last move wiped me out a bit financially and also was exhausting, so maybe not just yet. 

In travel terms, I'm off to Brussels again for a long weekend next week, so stay posted for that (plus my Christmas/New Year wrapup). And then ??? There is talk with the Tours girls of a February break somewhere, but there hasn't been any actual planning. I'm kind of caught between the need to get on it quickly to snap up good deals (especially if we're going by train) and the fact that my bank balance is a bit sad after the UK sales (I got some good stuff though!) I haven't got around to even thinking of summer holidays yet, but I'm sure I'll be on the road somewhere this year, you can't keep a wandering Gwan down!

Happy New Year to all!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Formula Fun

Last weekend was our much-awaited pilgrimage to one of the temples of Formula One, the Spa Francorchamps circuit and, more specifically, the famous Eau Rouge corner.

A rather moody shot of a GP2 car going up Eau Rouge
"Pilgrimage" is an appropriate word, because it's a bit of a mission to get there and back. The journey started midday Thursday, when I managed to haul my hungover self (one quiet drink at the guinguette having turned into out-all-night with the girls) out of the house in time for my train/metro/train trip to Brussels, where I was reunited with my parents for the first time in a year and my sister.

We had time to settle into our lovely, central apartment and head out for a delicious dinner somewhere that the owner informed us was off the tourist trail. I was pleasantly surprised by the scrummy fish soup I had as an entree (Mum and I both headed into that one without high hopes, just picking the thing that seemed least bad on the fixed menu, but were agreeably surprised). I also made a total dick of myself and lost all pretensions I might have had about knowing anything about wine. We ordered a Sancerre rosé, the waiter duly brought it, presented it to us - I thought it strange that it was in a green bottle, but didn't actually click and I couldn't read the label. He poured it for me, the supposed Loire Valley expert. I held it up to the light, thinking it looked VERY pale, but my sister chipped in to say it was definitely pink. I smelled it, very floral and tasted it, likewise, but nodded approval since as we know, the point of tasting is to check it's not corked, not whether we like it or not... And perhaps also to check that it's actually a rosé. Because yeah, it was a white. Quelle embarassement! When he moved on to pour my sister's glass, she who had reassured me that it was pink piped up to ask the waiter if it was really a rosé. Nope! He fairly graciously brought us the correct wine (which was unmistakeably pink), but I think my face was quite red. I'm taking comfort in those wine studies that show that even experts can't tell the difference between a red and a white if they're dyed the same colour... d'oh!

Anyhow, after dinner it was time for bed, since I was understandably pretty tired and I needed to set the alarm for 5.45 am the next morning in order to get up and at 'em to cover the c. 150 km between Brussels and the Spa circuit. Mum and Jess stayed behind in Brussels, while Dad and I took a train to Verviers, followed by a bus to the circuit. Things were somewhat disorganised across the whole weekend, but I'm giving us props for our logistical skills. After the first day, when we had a nightmare hot, crowded bus ride back to Verviers despite crowd numbers for Friday practice being much lower than for Saturday and Sunday, we planned our movements with all the cunning of a whole bag full of weasels. From strategically sitting at the front of the train to Verviers in order to dash out first to the bus line (leading to us both being comfortably seated for the ride to the track on Saturday and Sunday) to investigating where the bus came from before it got to the main entrance for the trip home (again, meaning we got a seat for the Saturday trip), we executed our trips with panache. This didn't mean that we had late starts on Saturday and Sunday though - even with the race starting at 2 pm on Sunday and despite us staying Friday and Saturday night much closer to the track near Liège, we were up at 6.30 to make sure that the day went off without a hitch.

Here follows the boring F1 bit...

The first day (Friday), we arrived at the circuit conveniently right next to the pit-lane exit as free practice 1 began, and were able to hear the cars firing up and glimpse them heading out on to track. I've said it before and I'll say it again, there's nothing quite like the noise and speed of an F1 car in the "flesh" - orders of magnitude greater than they seem on TV. We headed into the stands, where the rain poncho I'd borrowed for the weekend came in handy for the first session, while it turned pretty hot and sunny for the afternoon session.

Probably the highlight of the weekend was Saturday's qualifying session. Light rain showers were passing throughout the qualifying, which is always a magic formula for exciting racing. While it looked like Paul di Resta (one of my least favourite drivers) was going to take a surprise pole, the track dried up in the closing stages of qualifying and lovely Lewis Hamilton crossed the line to start his pole lap with 2 seconds to spare. Trackside, however, it's a bit hard to follow the action, and I didn't actually know he was still out on track, because the big screen was only showing Webber and Vettel's times, who were slightly on front of him on track (in that order). So it was a pretty magic moment when first Webber crossed the line to take pole position, drawing a small cheer from the crowd around us, then Vettel took pole off him a few seconds later (cue a much smaller cheer), and then, unexpectedly, Hamilton popped over the line out of nowhere, the final car to complete the lap and take pole position. Cue massive cheer from at least 80% of the crowd! While I didn't see a lot of Mercedes merch (and it seems very much the done thing to kit yourself out with as much merchandise as possible when attending a GP), it was very obvious who the crowd was getting behind, at least in a three-way Webber/Vettel/Hamilton battle.

Unfortunately, the race didn't quite go the same way. Vettel got ahead on the first lap, just after passing us at Eau Rouge, and he built a lead very quickly and just dominated from the front, as (if I'm being bitter) is the only way he knows how to win. It was a bit depressing seeing him flash by lap after lap, with the gap growing ever wider to the following car. Plus some guy behind me felt the need to clap every time Vettel went by, getting on my nerves hugely. To add insult to injury, Alonso got past Hamilton before too long as well, and from there on in the lead group of drivers didn't really change. I was sitting there hoping for rain or a safety car, but unusually for Spa, neither turned up during the race. That said, we got to see a couple of overtakes down the bottom of the hill, particularly Sutil overtaking (I think) Gutierrez, and it's still a great experience seeing the cars (and hearing those engines for the last time, since they're changing next year), checking out the famous circuit and witnessing the ambience and camaraderie in between the fans. It would have been great to see Hamilton win, of course, but we still got to see him put it on pole at least.

Moi with Eau Rouge in the background

In the stands on Friday

All my photos were pretty terrible, so I put my camera down during the race and just watched it. Here's a Toro Rosso climbing Eau Rouge - it does at least show the gradient a bit

I had to find a much better photo online to confirm this was Mark Webber in the drivers' parade

On the third attempt, I managed to get a shot of this shop advising you to "drink drive in Tiège"

Our trip back to Brussels went pretty smoothly and we arrived in time for a yummy dinner cooked by Jess and the chance to demolish a few of the bottles of wine I'd brought over from France. After Mum and Dad went to bed, Jess and I "snuck" out to see a little of what Brussels nightlife had to offer on a Sunday. We ended up in a small bar which was playing (mostly) classic 80s and 90s tunes and videos, condensed to about 90 seconds each, so we had great fun doing our own little karaoke session. It did ensure I bookended both sides of our Belgium trip with a bit of a hangover though...

On our last day, we mostly just wandered around a bit to see the Grand Place and stock up on Belgian chocolate, eat fries and waffles, etc. We did make a detour to the Librarium museum which I'd tried to see on my last trip to Brussels. I would have liked it if there had been a few more really old and precious books, illluminated manuscripts, etc., but there was still some interesting stuff.

All in all, a nice long weekend en famille, and I'm counting down the last day and a half of work before it's off to England and Italy for more family fun!

Me, Dad and Jess in the Grand Place, Brussels. Both my parents are terrible photographers, hence you can't actually see anything of the background. For some reason Mum thought it more important to include our shoes in the photo.

Me, mum and Jess. In this version, you can't even really see us either!

This was my go...