joyeux anniversaire | two years

Today is the two year anniversary of our arrival in Brussels.

It’s been silent on the blog front lately.  I’d like to say it is because I’ve been so incredibly busy that I’d fall in bed at the end of the day unable to keep my eyes open a minute longer – forget blogging, this girl needed sleep. And that wouldn’t be totally untrue. Life has been real busy.

It’s always a struggle to balance work and life and the last six months have been heavily weighted towards work. What time hasn’t been spent working has been spent doing what we love most – traveling. Work and travel, travel and work. Pretty much everything else has fallen by the wayside, including this blog. So now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s return to our semi-regular blogging ways with a recap of what we’ve been up to this past year.

We (or me in some cases) visited 8 new countries this year. We:

  • tasted Guinness from the source in Ireland (tastes just the same to me),
  • ate pho for breakfast in Vietnam,
  • visited the night zoo in Singapore,
  • discovered the magic that is pasteis de nata in Portugal,
  • sipped black balsam in Latvia,
  • hiked in Switzerland (and battled some serious altitude sickness),
  • drank Mikkheller in Denmark and then drank some more, and
  • devoured the most delicious food in Czech Republic.

We celebrated our first Christmas in Brussels and first Christmas away from family. We decided to overcompensate by buying twice as many presents.

We rang in New Year’s with our friend Ben, a lot of Berliners, and David Hasselhoff (and we remember most of it). Those Germans love them some Hoff.

We spent a long weekend meandering along the Mosel Valley touring old castles and sipping wine.

We revisited some of our favorite spots (Paris is always a good idea).

We spent almost three weeks back in California this fall catching up with friends and family, eating two years’ worth of tacos, and watching some of our best friends tie the knot. It was amazing being back home and made us very excited about all the wonderful things that await us when we return.

Plus so much more.

We are now into Year Three. Our last and final year in Brussels. Cue panic.

One more year to travel (well, at least while living in Europe). So many places we still want to visit and not enough time to see them all. And so we’ve been working on narrowing our list down and prioritizing. Places we know we’ll come back and do in the future have been pushed farther down the list (i.e. Greece, Israel).  Places which we know we are unlikely to visit  once we leave have been pushed up the list (i.e. Romania, Slovakia). I’m trying to not stress.

One more Christmas season. Christmas is by far our favorite time of year and we love hitting up the Christmas markets. Drinking glühwein from tiny boot mugs. Eating sausages, pretzels, and all sorts of tasty treats. We’ll revisit some of our favorites and seek out some new ones (London, Dresden).

One more summer enjoying long days. I love that at the height of summer it stays light out until almost midnight – no matter how late we’ve had to work there is still “day” available to play.  It more than compensates for the short, dark days of winter.

One Oktoberfest. We’ve been trying to get some of our friends over to Europe for two years now, and (knock on wood) it looks like it’ll finally be happening. Oktoberfest will be our final hurrah before we head back to the states and an epic friends gathering.

The last two years have been nothing short of amazing. I have no doubt this last year will be the best yet.

Doel • Belgium | The Abandoned City

IMG_0079You might already be aware, but I have a massive love affair with street art (Ghent and Bosnia would be just a couple of examples). On our travels I always keep an eye out to see if I can find great street art to photograph.

Cut to a couple of weekends ago. We had plans to head to the Christmas Beer Festival in Essen, but had a few hours to kill before we wanted to arrive. It had been awhile since our last adventure, so Jared did a quick search to see what was nearby and happened to find an entry on Atlas Obscura about the doomed city of Doel. It promised to provide a bit of adventure for Jared and a lot of great street art for me. This city definitely delivered.

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Doel is a modern-day city which evokes the emptiness of a city abandoned – like the mining and railroad towns which shuttered up seemingly overnight leaving the bones of the city behind. Doel has existed for almost 750 years – having first been mentioned in 1267 as The Doolen. The town is located near the Antwerp ports, and thus as the city looked to expand the ports Doel became a target and victim of that expansion. During the 1970s-1990s, Doel citizens and fellow protesters were able to successfully stave off demolition. However, in 1999 the city was officially scheduled for demolition.

In 2007, a campaign was started called “Doel 2020” to turn the town into an artists’ haven – numerous street artists from not only Belgium (like ROA) but all over Europe have added their touch to this town. However, in 2008 100 riot police were sent in to help carryout the eviction orders. Once a town of 1,000, most of the residents have now left Doel – there are about 20-30 residents remaining in the town and about 200 homes which remain intact. Its been more than a few years that residents received their orders to vacate their homes in Doel – the destruction of this town is imminent. I’m glad we were able to document what we saw there – who knows how much longer it will be around to see.

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joyeux anniversaire | one year

Today marks the one year anniversary of our arrival in Brussels.

We arrived here with big hopes, and even bigger plans. Brussels would be a chance to re-calibrate. It was a promise to tip the work/life balance a little bit – work a little less, live a little more. While we have haven’t perfected that balance yet, we’ve definitely enjoying discovering our weekends again.

Looking back it feels as though this year has passed in a blur. A wonderful, fantastic blur.

Over the past year, whether by plane, train, or automobile, we have had quite the adventure. In all, we visited 14 countries this year. We discovered some new favorites (hey Croatia and Iceland!) and returned to some old. Each new place has been a tick on the travel bucket list, which seems to grow exponentially faster than we can cross off. A few places found themselves in the one-and-done category, but many we have decided deserve a second or third visit.

I know it’s hard to believe based on the content of this blog so far, but we did do some other things this year aside from travel. Although, the backlog of travel to blog is intimidating.

In our unending quest to find the best Belgian beer (if that’s even possible), we have drunk liters upon liters of beer. From the sourest of sour – oh Cantillon, how we love you – to the rarest of the abbey beers, this is a quest we are in no hurry to complete.

We ate pounds of chocolate, frites, waffles, and speculoos. We now have “our favorite” places for these lovely treats. The scales can attest.

With three classes under our belts, we are officially on our way to learning French. Although a far cry from where we hoped to be at this point, we have mastered at least one important thing: how to order a beer. And really, what else do we really need to know?

After almost a year of living with an embarrassing amount of blank white walls, we finally put some paint up. One step towards making it feel less temporary and more like home.

Looking forward, Year Two will…

…find us sticking around a little closer to home. And honestly? We’re pretty excited. We are looking forward to discovering all that Brussels has to offer.  Visiting the museums and special exhibits. Spending lazy mornings in little cafés. Finally eating at all these restaurants we keep reading about.

…find us making new friends, and reconnecting with old (yo friends – please come visit us, we promise you’ll love it!).

…be the year of family. With Jared’s parents in town next week and mine making the visit in May, we are excited to introduce them to “our” Brussels.

…see us continuing to work on that travel bucket list. On the docket? In a week we’re heading to Ireland – Dublin, Belfast, and the northeast coast. I’ve got a trip planned to Vietnam and Singapore in December. Other plans have us sipping scotch in Scotland, traversing through the blue city in Morocco, seeing the beauty that is Prague, exploring the walls of Carcassonne, and following the sun down to the coast of Spain and Portugal. Oh, the places we will go.

…have us revisiting some of the places we have fallen in love with during the past year. The pull of these places is one we don’t want to resist.

Year One has been one hell of a year. Year Two – let’s do this.

Dinant • Belgium | The Bathtub Regatta

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When we first found out that we were moving overseas, Jared’s first order of business was researching unique European things. One of the first found and calendared was this: Dinant’s bathtub regatta. Each August 15th, people build boat floats and race (in theory) 1 km down the river Meuse. The race is open to anyone who wants to participate and the only caveats are that your boat 1) must incorporate a bathtub, and 2) it must be man-powered. Intrigued? So were we.

About 10 months later, having completely forgotten about the regatta, we were scrolling through our calendars and stumbled upon the entry we had put in there so long ago. Did we still want to go? Sure, why not. And so fresh off a red-eye flight back from the States, we hopped in our car and headed to Dinant to check it out. Turns out the regatta didn’t officially start until later that afternoon, so we did a mini tour of the city – Dinant’s big claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, creator of the saxophone – and grabbed some beers while we waited.

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Once the schedule start time arrived, we hunkered down along the river with the other folks and waited for the spectacle to begin. This year’s theme was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Adolphe Sax – some boats went all out and were floating dance parties, others were much simpler, and some chose to go with their own theme. The one lesson we learned that day is just because you are high and dry up on the river bank, doesn’t mean you’ll stay that way. Quite a few of the boats would cruise up along the edge and send some splashes of water up into the crowds with their paddles. Survived those? Then keep an eye open for the water balloons rocketing in.

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The best part of this one was actually the flip side. This is the float I’d want to be on!

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Learning French

Or rather (more appropriately) NOT learning French.

We arrived in Belgium at the end of October in 2013, geared up and ready to dominate this French language thing. Much to our dismay, the school year was already a couple of months in, so our preferred French language class was closed to us until the following school year. Not ideal, but okay. We’ll use duolingo and speak with the locals to try to learn until we can start the class.

So fast forward to now. Remember the plan to duolingo? Yeah, a few false starts, but it never happened (for me at least). And talking to the locals? Ha! This is the problem with working in an English-speaking office – no one speaks French to you. And really, as if I expected to osmosis that language in…

Now that registration is open for the new school year, I went to register myself for Level 1 and guess what? IT’S COMPLETELY FULL! So I am on a list, waiting with fingers crossed, that someone will either level up because they are much more proficient than they thought or someone decides they actually hate the French language and were crazy to sign up for the class.

Wish me luck!

Brussels • Belgium | Flower Carpet 2014

Flower Carpet - Grand Place

Last weekend was a big deal here in Brussels – something that only happens once for a very brief period of time every two years: the Flower Carpet.

For one long weekend in August of every even year, the Grand Place is completely transformed with almost the entirety of the square covered with one massive flower carpet. The flower carpet is about 75 meters in length and 25 meters in width. That’s about 1,800 square meters of flowers. It takes around 750,000 flowers and more than 120 volunteers to put the carpet together. The flowers are apparently packed in so tightly that no soil needs to be used and the wind won’t blow them away. It’s pretty crazy to think of all the work that goes into building this carpet and to have it gone again in the blink of an eye.

The first flower carpet to be laid was in 1971, and after a few more additional flower carpets over the years, the biennial installation began in 1986. Each year has a different theme, and prior themes have included garden “à la française”, Brussels’ lace, Mozart, and Versailles. 2014 is the 50th anniversary of a convention which allowed Turkish immigration into Brussels; therefore, the carpet this year celebrated that anniversary. The Grand Place’s flower carpet was fashioned into a pattern resembling a Turkish rug.

You can walk along the perimeter of the flower carpet and get a good look at how tightly packed those flowers are. To get the best view though, I recommend paying the small fee (€5/person for 2014) to go up into City Hall and get the bird’s-eye view from the balcony. It’s the best way to get a true appreciation for the size and the detail of the pattern. It does get fairly crowded, so I would aim to get there either early or late in the day.

Flower Carpet - View from City Hall

I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say you should travel here just for this, that is unless you are a super flower enthusiast. But if it sounds like something that interests you, and you’re planning a trip to Brussels in August of 2016, I’d mark it on your calendar.

Anything unique or fun your city does?

LIFE: World Cup

World Cup officially ended yesterday with a Germany victory over Argentina. I was rooting for Germany, but a part of me was hoping Messi would be able to pull it out.

These last few weeks, World Cup has been our life. Those first couple of weeks, games would air over here at 18:00, 21:00, and 00:00. We’ve gotten so used to staying up until 2:30AM for games that it now seems early to tuck in anytime before 2:00AM. Most games we watched at home while we worked, but when we could, we tried to get out and watch it with people. Europeans love them some football (or soccer for us Americans), and there is nothing better than getting to root for and cheer on your home team. At various points around the city big screens went up where you and hundreds of your fellow fans could drink some beers, and cheer on the boys.

Thankfully, Belgium and the U.S. were in separate groups so we could cheer on our home country and our new adopted country with equal fervor. Jared spent those weeks constantly trading between his U.S. jersey and his Belgian jersey (and he even rocked his 16 year old Italian jersey on the occasion). We were so proud of all our boys.  The U.S. far exceeded expectations and actually survived the so-called Group of Death. Belgium had a little bit of a slow start, but came through their Group without contest.

We hoped (quite unrealistically) that the U.S. would come out first in their Group, or Belgium would come in second. Anything to delay a U.S.-Belgium face-off. But alas, it wasn’t meant to be and too soon we found ourselves having to root against our beloved Belgium. Our friends back home questioned our allegiance, but we were rooting for the U.S. 100%. As proof, Jared brought his U.S. jersey to Croatia and rocked that baby all day while we explored Hvar:

Jared - USA Jersey

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BELGIUM: Westvleteren Trappist Beer

Blonde + 8
Blonde + 8

Belgium is well-known, dare I say infamous, for their Trappist beer.  When people ask why you should visit Brussels we often say “the beer, the chocolate, and the frites.”  It’s one of the country’s big draws, and Jared’s favorite perk of living in Brussels.

There are six abbeys in Belgium allowed to use the “Authentic Trappist Product” label.  Of the six, Westvleteren is the one you most likely have never heard of (even though it’s regularly rated as one of the top beers in the world) and have probably never actually seen or tried.  [Unless you are one of the few desperate enough to pay the outrageous prices on eBay.]  Unlike some of the other Trappists, Westvleteren is very exclusive with its distribution – as in it doesn’t.  You won’t find this beer on tap at your local beer bar and you most definitely will not find it at your grocery or liquor store no matter how specialty or “craft” they are.  The only way to enjoy one of these beers is to go to the abbey and buy one for yourself, and we definitely recommend that you do!

If you are visiting Belgium with a car, you can attempt to get a case or two of beer by calling during the two open hours a day to schedule a time slot.  This can, however, often prove to be an impossible and frustrating task.  Or, you can do as we do and head to In de Vrede which is their cafe located right by the abbey.  Here you can sit down, grab a bite to eat, and enjoy a bottle or two of any of their famous beer (the Blonde, 8 or 12).  Once you’ve had your fill, stop by the visitor center and pick up a 6-pack of your own to take home.  And if you’re nice, maybe you’ll share one or two of them with those less fortunate than you, because good beer is meant to be shared.

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Tucked in the farm lands off the main road – blink and you may miss it.

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Blonde drinking the Blonde.
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Two six-packs of the 12 to go – unlikely to last through the week.

Tell us, have any of you tried it? Do you think it lives up to the hype as “best beer in the world”?

BRUSSELS: Comic Strip Route Part I

I have a long list of favorite television shows from my childhood.  Oh how I wished I had Evie’s ability to freeze time.  Admittedly, it is still something I find myself wishing for on the occasional Sunday night in anticipation of a long work week or during a late night spent reading an impossible-to-put-down book.  There was always something special though about Saturday morning cartoons.  One of my Saturday morning favorites was The Smurfs.  Apparently I and all of Belgium share the same fondness for those funny little blue creatures.  You see, Belgians LOVE their comics.  The Smurfs was created by a Belgian, as was Tintin, and they are very proud of these national treasures.

When we were visiting Brussels a few years ago, we decided to check out the Belgian Comic Strip Center.  The museum was… not our cup of tea.  It’s often sarcastically referred to in our conversations as being the bar for all other museums and tourist attractions.  The museums’ one highlight?  Getting to pose with this awesome little dude:

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A few months ago I stumbled upon the Brussels Comic Strip Route.  It’s the result of a collaborative project started in 1991 by the city of Brussels and the Belgian Comic Strip Center.  There are more than 50 mural paintings around the city of Brussels (as well as the two neighborhoods of Laeken and Auderghem), although most of these murals can be found within the main city center.  We decided to spend one Saturday tackling half of the route.  Most were relatively easy to find, although some had us backtracking a few streets and gazing up at buildings and around corners like crazy people.  This was our reward:

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BELGIUM: Gent/Ghent – Graffitistraat

This past weekend we found ourselves with a free Sunday.  Jared will be the first to tell you that I have an irrational need to fill up every weekend with travel.  It’s not that I don’t like Brussels.  I just want to make sure that I cross EVERYTHING off my list.  And let me tell you, it’s a big list.  We’ve definitely got our work cut out for us.

But anyways, back to this weekend: Gent.

Our first visit to Gent was about two and a half years ago.  Love at first sight may sound a little strong, but really, it was love at first sight.  Most people (okay fine, us too) wax poetic over Bruges, but Gent has much of the same charm just with a very city feel.  Plus the city’s motto is “1,000 years against the current.  Our city is stubborn and always will be. That will never change.”  Badass.  Without agenda, we wandered through the city on Sunday admiring the churches, drinking beers by the canal, and taking a million and one photos of the Graffitistraat.  I’m a sucker for color, and this, this is a color lover’s delight.

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