October 26, 2010

The weekend in Paris :)

I am so unbelievably slow at writing these things... I need to make it part of my routine or something :)  So, more than two full weeks after going to Paris I'll finally write about it :P

First things first... I meant to book the bus tickets for Saturday morning but on Friday night, about 3 hrs before my friend Anastasia and I were supposed to be on the bus, we realized that I had booked the wrong itinerary - one that we'd looked at (cost the same price) but had kinda decided against and rushed off.  In the end, I think I preferred it, but it was a bit of a panicked rush to get ready! :P

Well, we made it to the bus on time and amazingly the travel time was less than expected too - only 3.5 hours!  It even passed relatively quickly while Anastasia and I played multiple games including eye-spy, 20 questions, name that capital and countries by letter, before resorting to actually chatting, listening to music and on my part - knitting!  I guess my time on buses with children this summer has taken its effect and I can't sit still and be mature (not that I could do that before).

When we did get to Paris... it was 11:30ish and we were tired, but especially hungry and in need of a washroom.  I think our excitement won out though as we headed down a street in a sorta directed way.  We walked for a while until we finally encountered a street sign that let us know where we were and where we needed to go!  So we set out - determined to walk our way to Becky's place (which should have only been a 45 min walk).  Of course in the end we managed to make a wrong turn (or a dozen) and, out of need, made a pit stop at a restaurant to have our first taste of french food and drink! :P  Well... we shared hummus while Anastasia had cheap wine and I had coffee (i somehow managed to order decaf.  which was prob a good idea as it was then pushing midnight).  After that, we managed to get on track with directions and make it to where we could rest our feet for the next 2 nights!  Becky was still up and we chatted about plans, the bus etc etc.  Then, Anastasia and I made up the couch and mattress and settled down to not sleep because we were of course way too excited!  I think we finally drifted off around 2:00am :P.

The next morning we were up bright and early!  Then out the door to do the most walking in one day that I think i've ever done (and that's saying a lot...)!  We started off close by with a daily market - wandering through to see if we wanted to buy our dinner right off - but decided we should probably listen to our rumbling stomachs and find a place to breakfast first!  We went to a cute café and had expresso (which is what it seems to be called in France, not espresso) and savory treats - cheese and veggies on different types of bread.  But we couldn't sit and linger too long, we had an abundance of sights and places to see and be!  So, off we went to the first one on the list.  But first... to figure out the Parisian metro :P

Le Montmartre is an area in the north of Paris (where they had a wine festival that weekend) - so that was our first destination.  We got to test out many different types of reds, whites and rosés as well as a selection of fruit and dessert wines.  Most of them were very yummy :) and it was definitely a nice change from all of the beer in Belgium.  We also checked out the area a bit - the Sacré Coeur - and admired the music and dancing that accompanied the festival.  There were lots of stands displaying sausages, cheeses, and many other delights, but I managed not to buy anything.  I got a couple free candies and Becky and I tried our luck at a little quiz on the champagne area of France (which was in french of course) and had very specific questions about dates and things.  Somehow we managed to get 50% right!  Also there, were a variety of dressed up men and woman in very pretty costumes but unfortunately creepy gold masks.  Ah well... life can't be perfect can it? :P  While we were in the area, we figured that we should stop by the gigantic cemetery too.  Anastasia searched out the tomb of the famous Dalida and we took a few pics after the tour group that we had momentarily joined had moved along on its way.  It was neat to see all of the beautifully decorated graves - so much more extravagant than what we have back home.

Some other things that we happened across in our wanderings were a wall d'amour - with LOVE written in all languages imaginable on it :), a bench in a lovely wooded road with a heart shaped post it note saying "You are beautiful" and a statue of a man walking out of the wall which we have no clue about the story behind.  More metro-ing, and more walking later, we were at the Moulin Rouge to take some photos and then off again to view l'avenue des Champs-Élysées and l'Arc de Triomphe!  Many pics were taken, but we didn't stop very long to really find out much about the monuments.  After all this, it was getting kinda late and we hadn't had lunch or supper... so it was time to search out food!  We ended up looking lost and having a very helpful stranger drag us into a health food store to chat to us for a very long time in both english and french about the restaurants in the area.  He ended up saying that there were no vegetarian places nearby so we ended up going to a pizza place for me that we saw up the road.  And guess what?  It was fully vegetarian :P.  So I got my pizza there and Anastasia and Becky went to a durum place where they could get something a bit more meaty.

I think we'd tired Becky out a bit - it doesn't sound like much, but we'd pretty much been all over Paris already.  So we decided we'd pick up dessert and eat it at the place we were staying.  I had a yummy flan and tea and then Anastasia and I got the crazy idea into our heads to walk to the Eiffel tower (a 1.5 hr walk if you knew where you were going).  So we left the place at 22:00 ...  and got to the Eiffel tower 3 hrs later.  The destination was kinda disappointing but as they say, the journey is the important part.  And what a journey it was!

The most obvious route to walk (and definitely the prettiest) was along la Seine...  so that's what we took.  It was amazing.  So pretty to see the stars shining in the water and the architecture in the background along the way.  Just before le notre dame de paris, we stumbled across some squares near the water that were crowded with people dancing and different styles of music.  We stopped to watch at the first one - with some folksy styling provided by an accordion and a guitar and ended up joining in on the fun!  Ah, it was great!  We so were not wearing the clothes to dance and we'd been walking all day... but it was the perfect addition to a trip to Paris.  It all ended with a group dance which we learned on the go - and chatted with all of our various partners in French.  We stayed there longer than we should have - until the last dance was over and the music was fading out.  I think we have to go back just for the dancing and atmosphere!  Then we picked up and continued our walk along la Seine.  Out of the blue, I heard my name and was sorta attacked from behind...  it was one of my friends from UBC who I had studied french with.  Of all the nights and rivers in Paris we just happened to be there at the same time!  So we stopped once again - this time to chat and plan other possible trips for the future!  We listened to an amazing singer who came up and joined in (or rather took over) a tune that had been stirring, only to wander off again down the path.  Then we decided that it really was getting late and we should continue on our route to la Tour Eiffel.  Somehow we completely missed le musée du Louvre which was on the other bank of the river.  But that's just another reason to go back to Paris - right? :D

We finally managed to catch one of the last night buses home after seeing the tower and settled down very quickly to sleep after such a long day of activity!  The next morning, was had a wonderful pre-brunch of crèpes at another market!  Then we wandered through the aisles and secured ourselves some 'dead mice' aka wild dried figs.  They were actually quite pleasant - and we haven't been able to find any in Brussels, thought the search hasn't yet been called off.  For actual lunch, I had cheese cake and expresso, but their version of cheese cake is quite different.  It was pretty egg-y and fluffy and not that sweet.  Becky had some chocolate creation and Anastasia had an eclair.  There wasn't even have a washroom :P (which is one of the more important reasons you usually go sit and eat in a café here).  Then we moved on to explore randomly for a bit and window shop.  I tried on a couple dresses - nothing quite right, but Anastasia found a pair of boots!  Yay.  And then we need to head off on the metro to find our way to the bus station.  Wow - that day seemed to go by really fast.

The bus ride back was nice... with it actually being light out, we could see the French countryside!  We passed some pretty neat graffiti, lots of fields and some windmills!!!  I think I also finally got some well deserved sleep :)  And then we were back home in Brussels - I guess it takes you going away to realize that you have started to call it "home".

October 11, 2010

The last 3 weeks... month? (Original post Oct.4)

Sorry that I haven't updated you guys at all... I have had things to do you know :P
Well... now it's time to think back over that time and let you in on what I've been up to!

First week I was pretty lonely. I hung out with my landord (Sabine) and her son (Boris) the first couple days. On the first Saturday, Sabine and I explored a bit and she showed me where she buys her yarn. So I got enough for a couple projects and now have a new scarf, toque and mittens and am working on legwarmers! Besides the shopping, we explored the city and downtown... the palais du roi, le forêt, la grand place and mannequin piste. It was such blur. We went to all of the sites that tourists go to and some more obscure places all in the span of one afternoon and I took pictures and tried to record it all so I could go back and visit later on! We walked for over 5 hours in the end and did a round tour - visiting her sister at the market where she sells the clay whistles that her husband makes. Then on Monday, Boris and I went to see the university and the supermarket :P. Now I can get to both with a blindfold on and my hands tied behind my back! (Which is important when you have class at 8am and leave before the sun is up and the brain is on!) Then, they both left - one for vacation and the other to move into his own place (out of the room that I am now occupying!) so I was left to my own devices... much of which was attempting to get used to the time change and then completely messing it up again after a couple days lonely brooding and the discovery of my new best friend; Skype! Yeah, I still miss you guys - but luckily my days are a little fuller for the time being :) and can't talk to you in the middle of my night which is your day anymore...

The second week here I finally made a friend! Well... sorta reconnected with an old one. Anastasia! (she goes to UBC and we met once at a prep session for go global) After we met up, we were inseperable :P Not only were we both from Vancouver and some of the only native English speakers around, we also didn't really know anyone else our gender and age in the country! It was very nice to complete together - one task a day - the things we needed to get done. First, a bus pass for me! The next day a bank account for Nastia. The next an attempt at one for me. Then on to shopping for more essentials. Everything closes so early (and we wake up so late :P) that by the time you get anywhere it's time for things to close up. The latest the supermarket is open is 8:00 - and that's the big one. Most shops close at 6:00 and only the very expensive "Night Shops" are open on Sundays at all. Oh, and the markets too (which are only on during the weekend). So, next thing Anastasia and I know, we're hunting down a carpet together! We snabbed an awesome deal somewhere downtown that we'll probably never stumble over again as we were wandering and not quite but nearly lost at the time. We then has to haul it back to Anastasia's house of course, so through the city, onto the metro, hanging out on the tram and then dragged down the street went the rug only to find itself getting trampled on! It looks so nice and homey sitting there in Nastia's living room - after we tried like ten different arrangements of the furniture and itself that is! Ohhh.. and the corn on the cob that they were selling just down the block from the carpet stall was way too tempting as well - we both had an ear! And that's only the first market we've been to - we found pillows yesterday which also made a long journey before finding a comfy spot on our respective beds. More market trips in order you think?

Let's see; what else has happened here? Most days before classes started I spent either attempting to get tasks done or just deciding to wander around and see where I ended up. I stumbled across many things that I would have wanted to look up and search out later on anyway. A cute little knitting shop that will provide my with the wool for my next big project - a sweater for Robin. Tea in the window of a shop, reminding me that I really need to buy some! A nice sweater that's the perfect weight to keep me warm but not sweating. Finally, a shop that had a travel mug! (Apparently people just don't take things with them here and actually take time to drink their beverage wherever they are before they leave for the day. But me? Why wake up 5 mins earlier so I can drink my tea before I leave the house? Are you crazy...? I'd much rather carry it with me). In the end - I found everything that I needed and maybe a couple added bonuses too.

Then, just before classes started I decided it might be a good idea to figure out the campus! Sure, it's not UBC (it's about a 5 min walk walk from one end to the other) but it's almost as complicated a labyrinth! It's full of pretty buildings just like the rest of the country - so old and historical :P. However, the numbering system of said buildings is quizzical at best. It seems as though the organizers randomly went through the alphabet and ended up with the letters A to S on the doors in no particular pattern! Oh, and then there are the "R" buildings, which don't necessarily exist on the map of campus we were given. They sit on periphery, just off campus, and are accompanied by a number (ex/ R42) which eventually helps them make a bit more sense than all the other alphabetical ones (once you're told what the R means that is). Also, we have pidgins! It was very exciting to see these familiar birds following me the first few days looking for a meal... they're not quite as tame or numerous as the ones at UBC though. Ah, an interesting tidbit: In the arts and philo building (my 'main' building) there's a door with this sign on it "ceci n'est plus un porte". I found it hilarious as the translation is "this is no longer a door" ; apparently it's having an identity crisis...

I guess this leads me to the start of classes. As I think I've mentioned before - this country is so slow moving! Conversely to home, where we rush around to meet deadlines, I feel that they are so relaxed here that they would actually enjoy sitting there watching paint dry. For the 'normal' students... the schedule is all arranged including the choice of said elective at this time and place or the said other elective at that time and place. They decide what they are going to study and are given a course load that corresponds, where they study with a relatively small group of people that are doing the same thing. Us though, the "étudiants INcoming" (exchange students - or - erasmus ... who are actually quite numerous considering the small student population at the uni) are left to our own devices. The intro meetings for many of the faculties are actually not held until days or weeks after the start of classes. I was lucky with philo et lettres. I got my meeting the Friday before classes started, so I had all weekend to prepare :P And now - it's been two weeks and I still haven't battened down the hatches and sworn into a definite schedule with set classes. I hopefully will get that all sorted soon! I really need to know which homework I need to do and which I can ignore :). As of now I've just completed none of it!

I am however certain (or fairly) that I'm in a 60hr french course that will get me 5ECTS (european version of credits). After being tested and being put in a group called 'trop fort', searching out the meeting place to find out what we were supposed to do with said news - and then being told to go to a completely different place to actually get my answer, i believe i was placed in a class - which was originally not the assumption at all. They could probably make their instructions clearer if they didn't try to organize at all. Now all we have to figure out is where the class is actually going to be held! No worries... it doesn't start until Tuesday (tomorrow) morning - i think... ;P

And now for a couple of fun things that are completely random and maybe a little strange:

I've started a sort of collection of street signs! I found "rue de laines" , "rue de canada" , "rue de henri marichal" and "rue de fritz toussaint" and currently have pictures of them all! The first is the street of wool! The second is sorta self explanatory. The third is the street on which i currently reside. The fourth is one I've walked down many times and I believe is translated as "something - all saint" but makes my thing of coughing fries :P because the verb for cough in french is 'tousser' and fritz is a fry place in vancouver! :P Okay... I told you this was random and strange.

I found guarana! It’s something I haven’t had since I was 12 and in Brazil... I never scoped it out in Canada but wasn't expecting to come across it in Europe... at a yummy 'moroccan' place in Belgium for that matter! The food was also good, but finding the guarana was a real bonus! Also, Anastasia and I found out a couple important things about dining out in Belgium that day. 1. There is no tax. If your meal costs 5€49 then it costs 5€49 ... and 2. Tips don’t exist. Not only do they completely not expect them, they don’t know what they are :P We had to explain it to the guy at the restaurant and he was flattered but didn’t know what to do with it. He ended up putting it in a little donation box he had for some charity :)

Some other food that I’ve tried here and completely enjoyed is stuffed pizza @ the metro (the main bus/tram/train etc station :P). It’s quite yummy and not badly priced. Also, a sorta falafel wrap that I had at some random ‘snack’ downtown. It’s kinda confusing.... any place that serves food but isn’t really sit-down or ‘full’ meal service is called a ‘Snack’ – they may serve pizza, waffles or durum or any other random variety. They’re usually quite cheap and satisfying :P. We also have McDonalds and Pizza Hut which I haven’t gone to – plus some randoms which seem to be chains... Quick (a fast food place exactly like McDs) and Hector’s Chicken – neither of which I’ve ventured into. Of course I’ve also tried a billion varieties of the countries famous waffles and even some Belgian fries, chocolate and beer. I’ve decided that I still don’t like beer! Though I must admit that the Kreik (cherry beer) and the raspberry beer actually weren’t that bad. :) The cheese on the other hand is extremely yummy – there's not really any cheddar, but so many french creamy cheeses... brie, camembert and double crème, oh my!

An interesting tidbit about Brussels is the Carfree Day. It’s every 2nd Sunday of the month I believe and quite a success. Only taxes and busses run and the streets are filled with pedestrians and bicyclers and a couple of other wheeled but engineless varieties of transport. It was neat to walk by and have a hoard of bicyclers pass you on the road. Apparently if you pay an exorbitant fee you can drive your car around... but not many were seen and with so many ppl in the road it’s almost silly to even try to drive without plowing them down.

To those of you who are worried that I’ve been letting some things go, don’t worry! I’ve been tapping and jazz dancing my troubles away! I’ve secured tap classes at ‘fred academy’ which are quite entertaining, challenging and just downright enjoyable, as well as modern jazz at the uni (with other classes soon to join when my school schedule is sorted). Not much to say really, but it is so nice to have dance! Speaking of, I must touch on my one attempt to “go out” dancing. Anastasia and I went the Club de la Nostalgie, which was kind of a let down. The music was pleasant (if at an annoyingly loud level like all clubs) but, you full of smokers - inside on the dancefloor. :( I ended up having to shower multiple times to get the smell out of my hair and toughed it out only for an hour or so before I had to leave and to avoid the risk of death by smoke inhalation :P Luckily there was no cover charge! Just an enforced and mandatory coat check... Plus, it led us to find the yummy falafel place that I mentioned earlier!

Oooo... and, I bought Brussels sprouts! In Brussels! How cool is that? :D

I think that's about it for now! I have finally confirmed a couple of classes that i want to stay in... and guess who the lucky person is that has homework? ...yeah, it's me!

First few days (original post Sept.8)

Alors, Je suis arrivée!

My flight(s) were long and not uneventful.  For those who haven't heard, my departure was delayed an hour and a bit because of a loading problem with the luggage onto our plane and previous ones.  Thus, after many assurances that they could make up the time and land pretty much on schedule, we landed an hour late and I missed my connecting flight to Brussels :( .   I was re-booked without a problem at Heathrow for 1:50 flight rather than 12:35 (which is of course 8 hrs ahead of Vancouver time).  I then waited to see which gate i would need to head to - which was posted on the boards about an hour before my departure :D.  In the mean time I payed for internet at the airport and managed to get the phone number of my landlord - who was to pick me up from Brussels International, send her an email and give everyone a very quick update on my travels... before my computer totally ran out of power :P

And so...  I caught the 40 minute flight to Brussels, which seemed very short after 10 hrs on a plane!  But figuring out how to bus to my place?  Really not going to happen when it's about 5:00 am, you've gotten 1.5 hrs of sleep and you can't do it in your own language.  My poor landlord ♥ Sabine had come to the airport and waited almost an hour before despairing and returning to her abode to find my email about the missed connection.  But there were positives of the experience.  I learned how to use a payphone in Brussels (with a credit card!) and took my first taxi outside of Québec :).

It was a very quick drive (I'm convinced the driver sped the whole way :P) but it was also quite pleasant for conversation and a huge plus that i probably saved a bunch of euros!

And then, j'étais chez moi!  Sabine and her son Boris were very welcoming and we ate dinner together after i unpacked, explored a bit and signed my forms!  I now have a home for the next 10 months and am awaiting the flatmates' arrival to see how much i'll be staying at the abode ;P jk jk

Oh, I guess I could give a bit of info on those guys.  The boys are named Boris et Luis.  Apparently they are both 18 and are studying engineering at ULB.  That's about all I know for now except that Boris speaks very little English and I'm not sure if Luis speaks any at all.

On to school matters for a bit.  I'll be studying at l'Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) for the year, taking courses in French and Spanish.  The system is very different from the one at UBC and some would even say that it is "disorganized" ...  One thing that I find cool is that you attend whichever courses you want - as many as you want for a couple weeks and then decide which ones are interesting to you and thus you want to take.  Then, you fill in a form (on paper!) and submit it to the offices.  Also, their sports card is 40€ and with that I can do all their classes all year! Anything that I want... which includes: modern jazz, tango, salsa, stretching, yoga, oriental dance, etc. etc. :D

I'm still getting used to people not understanding English here :S. Plus, the second language is flemish... so those that learn another language learn néerlandais.  And that is something that I really need to work on :P.  So far all I know is that if a word has straat on the end it means it's a street.  So I live on Henri Marichal St.

I didn't venture out much yesterday or today. Jetlag is still prominent in my life and my sleeping schedule is as wacked as it's ever been :P.  I did go out on my own today though... 5 minutes up the street to the grocery store :P.  I now have a ten ride bus pass! Yay! (and food too)  Tomorrow it will be over to the university to get my student card and other stuff done and then on to downtown and city hall to register my temporary residence and get an identity card.  Other things I'm considering pretty important are opening a bank account and getting a cellphone and plan.  Along with non-essentials like buying clothes and yarn!

Oh, just to give an idea of where I live... it's a 20 min walk from my house to the University and a 30 min bus in the other direction to downtown!  Not too bad - especially now that I can take busses.  Mayhaps I can get a permanent bus pass with the uni!  The address is Rue Henri Marichal, 43, 1050 Bruxelles in case you are interested.

Last details for the future as it now stands...  I'm not planning on returning to Vancouver for Christmas - it's just too expensive.  But I am planning on hopping over to England for a visit.  Other than that my plans for travel are very vague.  I really want to go to Venice and pretty much everywhere else, so I'm looking forward to meeting some ppl who will accompany me :D.  Hopefully very often on the weekends!
That's all for now folks.  Enjoy!