Sunday, December 27, 2009

home is where the absurd is

I spent the first 3 days of my ostensibly triumphant return holed up at home, trying to shelter myself from the reverse culture shock of seeing my hometown again. Luckily, it was pretty easy to do with cookies to be baked, family friends to entertain and jetlag to get over. But today I decided to venture into the wild, rough streets of Orlando on my own. I had prepared myself for this moment - I had been hearing "because
of the crisis" as a reason for everything for months anyway, so I figured that would also apply here. Basically, I was expecting to see tons of homeless people, foreclosure signs, and shut up storefronts everywhere. My fears were (mostly) unfounded, except for the notable demolition of the local ice cream joint, Coney's (which was formerly known as Dairy King - the estranged husband of the queen, I presume). But the other greats like Austin, the tea house on Edgewater Drive, and Orange Cycle are still around. And the traffic on 436 sucks as hard as ever.

I have to say, one of my favorite parts about being back is eavesdropping. My Mom and I went shopping in the old money part of town today (Park Ave., in Winter Park) and I heard some very interesting things. Ah, America, for better or for worse, there's nothin' like ya. Here are my favorites:

Overheard in Chico's, a middle aged women's fashion emporium
Overenthusiastic salesgirl, holding up blouse: "So, do you like this one?"
First snooty middle aged French lady: "I HATE it."
Salesgirl smiles awkwardly, shuffles away
Second snooty middle aged French lady [in French]: "I cannot find anything in this store..."

Overheard in a cosmetics store
One salesgirl to another, angrily: "I DON'T like avocados. They smell horrible, they taste horrible, it just makes me want to vomit!"

Overheard in a fair trade store
Flamboyantly gay salesguy to customer: "These purses are made out of used burkas. The women just sew them up when they finish with them, it's fabulous! But we're all out of black. As you would expect it's the most popular color..."

Overheard in a hippie dippy incense-stinking boutique
Southern accented lady with a bouffant who doesn't seem like she could possibly own a hippie store, but does:"Can y'all believe how cold it is out there? I hear we're going to have some cold air blownin' down all the way from Atlanta tonight..."

Meanwhile, I'm wearing shorts and flip flops. I guess I forgot to mention, Christmas in Florida looks something like this:

Could be worse, right?

Monday, December 21, 2009

back to basics

Sometimes I feel like I can only handle simple things, like when I recently congratulated myself for getting up the motivation to leave the house when it was minus 12 outside (I work in degrees C now, boys and girls). Or when I was waiting for the bus for 45 minutes in the cold because it was late, and then took such a hot shower that I successfully felt my little toes again. Although I sneered along with the other Krakowians last year when London shut down because of snow, I have to say it is not fun to experience a blizzard in a country not used to a real winter. At least I know that I should wear shoes with tread, unlike the lady I saw on the way to work today who almost ate it walking on ice in her high heels.

These are much more satisfying victories than the more technically difficult things I accomplished this weekend, such as learning how slippery it is to ride a bike in ice when it hasn't been plowed or salted. Also, I won't tell you how, but I also learned (cue soundtrack of choir of angels) the Correct Way to Make Belgian Fries. I would give you the recipe, but then I would have to kill you. Let's just say it involves a little voodoo magic and a whole lotta love.

So let's focus on the simple stuff. Hit it, Ray!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

all i want for Christmas is...

Since I decided to quit French class, endlessly frustrated with not enough opportunities to practice it, I have a new hobby: trying to make money or win stuff by writing. Or at least get published.

My first endeavor: a contest at a travel writing website. First prize: a trip to Hawaii, woo hoo! Second prize (which might be even better for my hobby): a contract to freelance write some stories for the website.

Check out my entry & vote by clicking here:

If you're reading this, please take a few seconds to vote! You won't get spammed because the site connects you directly through facebook (or you can log in separately if you don't have an account). The deadline is December 23. If you have time to explore, the site is kind of cool because it recommends trips based on your location and the other trips you like. Sort of like Pandora but for traveling.

If I win, my plan is to take the opportunity to join up with an around the world sailing vessel:

I just read this guy's book, he spend 10 years sailing from port to port, circumnavigating the globe. Highlights on his last tour include diving at the infamous bikini atoll, and being the first sailboat to dock in Ho Chi Minh City after the Vietnam War. This, my friends, is the dream.

That is all.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

You're a mean one

Why is it that the Christmas season in Belgium is Christmas, interrupted?

Right now, there are about 30 small Christmas trees and 2 large ones in and around Antwerpen Centraal train station, and only half of them are decorated. They have been up for a week, and some lazy tree trimmer even left the lights dangling off one of the big trees halfway up, like he was interrupted mid-trim, and then forgot to come back. He can't even use the two past weeks of constant rain as an excuse, because half of the undecorated trees are inside. Shame on you, Mr. Antwerp tree trimmer! There are small children just waiting for the decorations to go up, and you are off drinking hot wine somewhere! You're as cuddly as a cactus, and you're as charming as an eel!

Not only that, every time I try to visit the Christmas market in Antwerp, it's closed up. This could possibly be because I work normal working hours, which tends to exclude you from a lot of things in Belgium. So, I decided to go to the market in Brussels today instead, and could only find 20 of the 240 stands the website claims were up there, and nary a sign of the ice skating rink. However I did find a totally unnecessary light show in the Grand Place. There were a lot of tourists taking pictures, but I think they were as confused as I was.

Mr. Brussels market planning guy, you could have made so much more money off me today than you did! Your heart is filled with unwashed socks!

Believe it or not, today I met someone even worse of a Grinch than the lazy tree trimmer and the poor market planner. He was in disguise of a middle aged businessman, and got escorted off the train by SNCB security guards because he forcibly pushed small children out of the way trying to get on. On Sinterklaas day! Sir, given the choice between you and a seasick crocodile, I'd take the crocodile.

Let's hope someone in Whoville invites these guys to a feast of roast beast soon, the world has enough people with their hearts two sizes too small...

Monday, November 30, 2009

and they shall eat turkey

There's something funny about bringing new world traditions to the old world. I was never one to spend much time or effort on Thanksgivings past; it was more of a time to grumble a little bit about the commuting that had to be endured, eat a lot of pie and watch football with my Dad.

But something about being away makes you want to carry these things on, even if you don't get the day off. This is my second year putting on a 30+ person Thanksgiving in Europe, and I have to admit that sometimes it's better than the real thing. For one, the turkey in Belgium is infinitely fresher ("Hold on, we're just cleaning them, they're right off the truck," the butcher told me as I went to pick up my two 10 pound birds). Last year, after we finished eating, I watched incredulously as my Thanksgiving turned into a full blown dance party.

But traditions, I'm now realizing, are really important. Despite the near disasters, the expense, the hassle, it's worth it - maybe because it's a way to maintain your identity. Not only that, Thanksgiving is the perfect holiday for me and the people I tend to meet because it is a holiday expressly made for new immigrants eating together with natives.

Damn, I wish I had thought of that while I was making the toast. But to all who made it great, this cup of leftover wine is to you!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sitting in a park in Paris, France...

I came home from a day of frustration the other day, and decided to have a nostalgic moment. I started listening to songs written by expat folk singers in Europe, like Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, singing of their states when they were feeling lost in France and Spain. I think the nostalgia is a product of the impending Christmas decorations you already see everywhere, but also of just being out a little too long. And tomorrow I'm going to Paris. I've been in four countries this week, but it's not as exciting as it used to be.

I sing a lot of the time, even often without realizing it, but that doesn't mean I'm not ever homesick. I feel like I have to hide it - I have well-rehearsed scripts to respond to questions, such as why In God's Name I Would Ever Leave A Tropical Paradise. It annoys me when people make assumptions that one place is better to live in than another without having tried it themselves --- but on the other hand, experience hasn't been that much of a guide to me either.

In 5 weeks, I'll be in Florida for the first time in 18 months. That's a hell of a long time to be off your continent. And I'm nervous about the measurements that I will have to make. What has changed? Who has changed? Will I hate it and rush back across Atlantic shores? Or will I relish the anonymity of no longer being the American Girl?

Will you take me as I am?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Spotted in Antwerp

5:45 p.m., Keyserlei, in front of Media Mart: a tall, grey haired, frowning middle-eastern man skips down the street. At full speed. And somehow manages to smoke a cigarette at the same time. Heads turn, incredulous at how it is possible to skip so joylessly.

6:09 p.m., intersection of Astridplein and Carnotstraat: a businessman's bike gets caught in the tram tracks. It wheels around and smacks right into another bike. Both riders flail their arms uselessly and the tram track man is launched head over handlebars in slow motion, his briefcase flung into the air. Five people, all different ages and races, immediately rush to his aid - no losing faith in humanity in this town.

Monday, October 12, 2009


There is nothing like the sound of chainsaws and blood curdling screams to remind me of home. Changing leaves, ripening pumpkins, fake blood: you know it must be fall!

I spent this weekend hanging with this dude, and others like him. The undead brides. The axe murderers. The rando monsters with extra eyeballs for no apparent reason. Also a carful of Canadians I came with, who were joyful with anticipation of the horror yet to come. So was I, despite my German friend Uli assuring me that they don't actually celebrate Halloween in Germany.

I have to admit that the production value is far superior at Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights - it's more about the entertainment than fear, and I'm guessing this is only because they have a larger budget. They have a new theme or character every year - there are even entire backstories written about them. I remember "the Director" from when I went in high school - he's a crazy snuff film director and his next victim is YOU.

But low budget or no, I really have to hand it to Movie Park. They may have been smaller than Universal, with fewer roller coasters, but it was a hell of a lot creepier. When push comes to shove, Germans can just pull off scary monster better than the average family-friendly American "cast member". Plus, with the amount of punk- and gothic- dressed locals it was sometimes hard to tell apart the mortal souls and the vengeful undead. In any case they had one thing in common: when there was a sudden downpour of rain, both ran for cover to prevent their makeup from running.

Here's the real reason the Movie Park monsters are scarier: they are allowed to touch you. In one of the haunted houses, an undead bride even pulled my hair, moaning "lekkerrrrrrr" [tasty] in a scary ghost voice. At Halloween Horror Nights, I guess you could probably sue them if they touched you. Or maybe they are more afraid of people attacking the characters and them suing the park.

Well, no matter. Germany was still way scarier.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Just like spring is a season of colors, fall is all about smells and tastes. For those of you like myself whose lives already revolve around food, fall is perfect. And since I never got to experience this season growing up in a swamp, there isn't a crunchy leaf I leave untrod.

In Antwerp, I like fall because the cozy pubs finally fit in with the nasty weather (it was annoyingly perfect all summer). Because of the wind, rain and cold, Petra and I have declared winter already here and have started making hot wine for ourselves. More importantly, we buy bushels of exotic (at least to me) fruit at the weekend market...plums, dates, pomegranates, figs, and these giant Belgian nuts that I think are some kind of pecans. Not only that, I have eaten at least two proper steaks in the past week.

Other than eating as usual here, I was lucky enough to spend some time of the turn of season in Madrid, which this time of year is not as tropical as you might expect. But it is definitely more awesome than you might expect - thanks mostly to the company. But you know me - I'm going to talk about the food.

One distinctive taste of Madrid was that of Andres' dinosaur cookies (best when dipped into coffee). I hadn't tasted them since my childhood. Although I'm pretty sure it's a different brand in Spain, they are still the Best. Cookies. Ever. I was sad to learn that apparently in the US they are apparently now extinct!

My taste buds also remember the never ending plates of finger food - sausages, salami, cheese, croquettes and mini-hot dogs - from the standing only, working-class bar in the outskirts of the city. The amazing thing about this place was that if you buy a beer, the food is completely free. And it just keeps comin'. The catch? There wasn't one.

Andres told me that the owners were four childhood friends (now about 60) who had worked every day in shifts for the last twenty years as barmen together. Any time any one of them got a tip, a cheer went up from the crowd, the barman rang a bell and a stuffed parakeet started chirping. The mood was so loud and frenetic that I forgot to stop eating and gave myself a stomachache. Maybe that was the catch...

OK, I'm off now This post is making me kinda hungry.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


Being sick is no fun. The coughing, sneezing and low grade fever are small potatoes compared to the excruciating boredom. Hell, today I even did the dishes before they got disgusting! With my nonexistent attention span nowadays, cooped up at home, sniffling, with nothing but rain and wind outside, I had to find some way to entertain myself....

So I spent long minutes in considerably deep thought about where - no - when would be the best time to be a time travel tourist. After much deliberation, I think it would be really cool to live in 16th century Japan and be a samurai (yes, girls were samurai too back then. With sword skills and everything. Plus they practiced basic hygeine and didn't have the plague like in Europe).

Then I tried to spy on our scandalously dressed neighbor who likes to parade around (no luck). Maybe witnessing a murder, Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window style, would be more realistic in my neighborhood.

After that, I started to wonder if sometimes God really can pick a side (just ask Tim Tebow)! I mean, if I were God, I would certainly reward people who believed in me. But maybe it's exactly this sort of nepotism that makes me not God.

Later, I started on my game plan for becoming a supercool Asian lady novelist when I grow up. After watching Amy Tan's talk, I think that my writerly dreams might eventually falter because I had too happy of a childhood.

Upon this thought, I gave up my dreams for the time being and ate a shameful amount of squares of Cote d'Or Noir Mousse Intense. It's dark chocolate with this truffley mousse inside, and since it's from the grocery store it only costs two euros!

Pray for my speedy recovery, y'all. Because soon enough, I will have watched every single talk on and won't be able to fit into my jeans any more.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

battle of the aRRdennes

I know pirates aren't cool anymore. They are sooooo 2003. I mean, I made pirate movies with friends back in high school, which was the last time it was cool. We rode around with a hobie cat attached to a jeep and marooned ourselves on the island in the middle of Lake Maitland. It was epic, not to mention Oscar worthy. Now, one of the original land pirates of the Pirates of Edgewater is currently in the US Navy. About as anti-pirate as you can get.

But avast! I digress.

Last weekend, 13 lucky landlubbers voyaged to the rough seas of the Ardennes, and dressed up as pirates anyway. And here lies the Tale of the 13 Pirates of the Ardennes.

Yo ho, yo ho....abandon all hope, ye who read this...

It all began on a beautiful, not dark, not stormy night. The pirates had been merrily kayaking along a river, accompanied by their pet crocodile. They already had found some treasure, but were quickly running out because they kept stealing it from one another.

This caused a mutiny, which happened when the pirates had docked their boats and were busy drinking some more of their treasure. The mutiny started because all of a sudden, random pirates started dying, one by one! Shiver me timbers, what's a pirate captain to do?

Why, accuse Jing the superdeadly Chinese pirate of murder and make her walk the plank, of course! I mean, she just looked guilty, come on, everyone knew it. The only problem was, she wasn't.

Before Jing could come back from the dead and get her otherworldly revenge, the pirates saw a ghost!
They were surprised because dead men, as it turns out, do tell tales. Really long ones, in fact. But only in French. Also, dead men can't do very much - mostly they just raise their arms on different parts of a castle. And look vaguely like Klansmen.

The pirates were pretty disappointed because they had already hoisted the colors, savvy? They had gotten all ready for an epic pirate battle with the ghost of a Klansman just to see him disappear in a cloud of smoke and fireworks...

"What a no good lily livered scalawag!" the 13 pirates said, vowing to return to the ghostly forest some other weekend and get the vengeance that was rightfully theirs. And drink some more grog. Because it was a pretty sweet weekend.

To be continued?

Monday, August 17, 2009


This post is for all of you back home who imagine my life on the continent as a carefree blur of sitting in cafes looking European, smoking cigarettes with a gold cigarette holder, spending a few hours pretending to work, drinking some wine, reading some Sartre, eating some stinky cheese, and then treating myself to some Belgian beer to celebrate a long day of work accomplished.

Well. I have some news for you.
So, I've now officially been an illegal immigrant in Belgium for a full week. (I feel for you, Elian.)

It's not that I dislike living on the edge - in fact, I love it! Just ask those of you in the know about my semi-legal status in Poland. But this time, I am not illegal by choice and convenience. I am illegal because the Antwerp registration office has lost all of my paperwork not once, but twice.

Here's the deal for newbies to the Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit hole that is European immigration policy. Everyone gets a three month visa when they arrive, which is supposed to be plenty of time to get a residence card. This card is important because it allows you to travel outside of the country (the visas are single entry).

I applied for the card within hours of my arrival on May 11th. The registration office assures me that "it's normal" that my paperwork was lost and that I will have to wait until October to be registered because "we are on vacation."

Unfortunately, I can't use my normal tactics from America to get what I want - that is, asking to speak to the manager and yelling at someone until I get free stuff. (Customer service, baby.)

So, I'm trying to be creative with some alternative solutions. Any other bright ideas y'all can think of?

- Kidnap the mean registration lady's bicycle (Belgians LOVE bicycles). Cut out magazine letters and make a ransom note. Price for return: one registration card.
- Call them using a disguised voice machine and tell them "Mijn noncle Salvatore langskommen met en paar zware jongens" if they don't give me my card.
- Call up my BFF Jean Claude, better known as "The muscles from Brussels", to show 'em what's up. It might involve a roundhouse kick to the face, but that's just guessin'.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Give me the splendid silent sun

Do you ever feel like you spend all day waiting for something interesting to come into your inbox? I don't have a crackberry or another one of those newfangled creations that makes you take your work home with you and allows your boss to email you while you're asleep at night, but I still sometimes find myself compulsively checking my devices to see if something new came in. And then neglecting other things that aren't new, just because they have already been read.

I read recently that something like 70% of people admit that they connect to work using their PDAs or laptops while they are on vacation. What do we expect, an email saying we won the lottery? A call from the big boss that he will give us a raise if we do a task during our vacations? A text telling us that our secret true love has felt the same way, all this time?

I don't know. But I do know that the whole thing really makes me want to unplug myself before facebook figures out how to put a chip in our heads. Or before google installs ads that pop up when I open my refrigerator. Last Friday, I unplugged myself by going to a concert in the middle of the Rivierenhof park right outside of Antwerp. If I could always hear some tasty funksoul music out in nature with 30 foot tall trees all around me, I would move to the countryside tomorrow. (check out Moiano)

It does make me wonder, though, if there will ever be a backlash from all this technologizin' that seems to rule people's lives. A former coworker once told me I had socialist tendencies because my ideas to improve the workplace involved a vegetable garden and a bike rack. The ideas might have been a little facetious at the time, but he's right: I could see myself doing just like Ryan Adams in this video, moving to Jamaica, playing bongo drums all day and feeding rum to my donkey.

And Ryan Adams himself wouldn't be too bad of an addition either...

Monday, July 27, 2009

it's that time of year again

Nope, I don't mean Christmas in July (a holiday celebrated solely by car dealerships in America). It's festival time in Europe and in Belgium, so I thought I would outline my as-yet favorite: the colossal Geentse Feesten (Ghent Festival).

This festival is so awesome that it is made up of not one but four actual festivals, making it the largest open air cultural festival in Europe. The entire city center is taken over by music, food, performers and hippie clothing stalls for what is called the "10 Days Off", when most of the festivals happen to overlap.

One of them is the International Puppet Busker festival, where these local kids were occupying some prime real estate. There were also a ton of regular buskers, such as a guy who was making animal balloons, and then proceeded to eat a blown up balloon. He was also wearing an inflatable glove on his head for no discernable reason. Luckily, there were also many other better acts there.

Unlike the puppet guys, who seemed to cater mainly to Flemish kids, the regular buskers almost all seemed to be from the UK. I can't say I'm too surprised, since I have never seen anyone give a street musician or performer money in Belgium. Not even the very clever guy who dresses himself like a statue and hides among the other statues on the side of the cathedral in Antwerp. I'm always slightly disappointed when I don't see him there, freaking out the tourists by jumping out at them.

There's also the world renowned Gent Jazz Festival, this year headlined by B.B. King. I didn't get to see the master play on Lucille this year, but I did get to see American jazz pianist Brad Mehldau. It was some of the best live jazz I've ever seen, and somehow even though he is a Florida native like me, Brad did his entire introduction in Dutch. People like that make me feel like a language retard, but then I looked it up and he's married to a Dutch woman (clearly cheating).

Today's the closing day of the festival, so if you didn't get a chance to check it out this year, tough cookies. Anyone want to come back with me next year?

Monday, July 13, 2009

only in lille

Searching for the true authentic French experience, and also because we could, a few friends and I decided to go to another country for the day; namely, the French town of Lille, about 10 minutes' drive past the French "border".

We wandered around the town, eating and drinking in cafes, checking out vintage bookstalls, and trying our best to look French and chic and nothing at all like tourists, anything but that. I even practiced my French....sort of. If asking for a scoop of ice cream to go on my hunk o' cake counts as practice. Miming it in the process.

In the true style of broke tourists in Europe in the summer, we did the obvious thing: took a peaceful nap in a green park located in vieux Lille. Ahhh, life was good.


Something still didn't seem right...

AuuuuUGHHHHH!! Giant 25 foot tall demonic bat babies are taking over the French countryside!

Not only that, there was even a demon baby riding a dinosaur, which according to the plaque, was supposed to symbolize the past riding the future. But also vice versa.

I don't know what that's supposed to mean, but I do know that it's SCARY.

So, in such a horrific situation, what's a girl to do?

Go to Carrefour, bien sur!

Ahh, France. I already miss thee.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

independence (part dos)

It's not all 4am grocery store runs and sipping margaritas on the as promised, here is the second half of my inventory: the top 10 things America can keep.

Starbucks coffee. Blechhh. Only for emergencies. (This one is a superspecial shout out to the person who told me that I would get "lynched" by Europeans because I preferred an American brand of coffee.)

99.9% of American TV. Especially anything that tries to put the words "Entertainment" and "News" together in its title. Exceptions: Weeds, Flight of the Conchords, the Colbert Report, and NCAA basketball.

Workaholics. It will be hard to return to American “vacation” days and American lunch “break”.

American health care system. Or lack thereof – I will even have to buy travel insurance when I go home for Christmas this year because I won't be covered. In Belgium, I pay less than 10 euros per month (that’s about $13) and I am covered for 75% of my doctor’s appointment fees and prescriptions, dental care, and my contact lenses. And if I can get a doctor to approve it, even a chiropractor and acupuncturist! Hooray welfare states.

Driving half a mile to the grocery store. I now find it absurd that I actually used to do this constantly, even when it was nice outside. In high school, I drove literally two blocks to get to school in the morning, and because of traffic, I probably could have gotten there faster walking.

Fat People. If you've ever taken any flights wedged between two guys who had to get the "lap belt extenders" because they were too big, you know what I mean. Oh, you're European? I guess you don't...

Open container laws. Last week, I spent an evening with a few coworkers in the park in the middle of the city with some burgers, wine and beer (an unlikely yet winning combination). We drank in the park until the sun set at about 10 pm and watched little kids chase around bunny rabbits. And it wasn't even creepy! Or illegal.

Values. I'm not talking about real concepts by which any thoughtful person would abide to help guide his or her life. I'm talking about the ones that Christian evangelicals pronounce like this (usually in some sort of southern accent): vaaaaal yoooooooouz. (But maybe vaaaal yooooouz don't exist in America any more with a liberal in the White House?)

Apathy toward the English language. People here have actually told me "thank you" for correcting their grammar. In the US, if I corrected someone using the wrong "it's" I would probably be called a jackass.

Geographic blandness. I could drive the whole 10 hour stretch between my hometown and my college town on I-95 and mile 1 looked no different than mile 451. Usually, it involved a Texaco and a stripmall. Here, if I take a train for 2 hours in any direction, I am in a completely different country, with a different language, different architecture, different cuisine, and different culture.

But really, I do love America - which I why I reserve the right to criticize it, any time I want, with an uppity voice of authority. So anyone who's at home this weekend, please eat some pulled pork and watermelon (not together) and set off some illegal fireworks from South Carolina for me (watch your fingers). Happy 4th!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


It's really weird to think about this time last year... I was sitting on a plane taking off from Chicago, watching the independence day fireworks go off over the city. Poland? Umm....why not? The crazy ecstatic feeling of being free from responsibility faded as soon as I settled in to my corporate job, but somehow, I am still here. It's getting to the point where my friends stateside are asking me half-jokingly, "are you never coming back?"

So, a week early, before the next independence day I'll miss out on, here's to you, America: in no particular order, the top 10 things that still bring a tear to my eye even after getting stockholm syndrome in Europe.

Cuban sandwiches from the Black Bean Deli. This is the first thing I eat anytime I return from abroad. Grilled to perfection, spicy mustard slathered on top, just the way Fidel likes it.

My white VW beetle. Her name is Daisy and she turns on a dime.

Dunkin Donuts coffee.
I remember days in college when my roommate and I would make bets about who would drive for an hour just to get a cup. Yes, it’s that good.

Trader Joe’s. The best grocery store known to man.

St Augustine beach. For most of my childhood and adult life, I went there every July with my family, my childhood friends from Atlanta, and a giant, loud, fantastic clan of Cubans. I wish I could be on the gazebo near the water, drinking goombay smashes and watching the dolphins a few dozen feet away jump out of the water.

Clothes dryers and 24 hour stores.
Inconvenience is part of the daily routine when your duvet cover is still wet after washing it two days ago and the grocery store closes at 6.

sized pitchers of margaritas.
Split with friends of course…

Wearing my PJs in public.
Well, truth be told, I have started doing this anyway. But I'm the only one.

Fresh fruit.
And when I say fresh, I mean: oranges, limes, lemons and grapefruit by the crateful from my uncle’s citrus groves, and the tangerines and oranges my Mom catches as they drop off the trees in our backyard. She juices them or makes them into orange cake with glazed frosting.

‘Nuff said.

Next week: the things America can keep for all I care.

Monday, June 15, 2009

my castle

The windows have a constant layer of grime from the stream of trams and cars from the street below. The hot pipes in my closet should probably not be exposed. Someone has written the word "scream" on the wall of our living room in pencil (but I'm too afraid of what will happen if I erase it). One of our kitchen counters is held up by a single, sturdy Jupiler beer can.

Our elevator is circa 1958, and its floor was completely covered in water the other day when we had a particularly strong Belgian rainstorm. I am far too afraid to use our potentially lethal gas oven.

The saving grace of our apartment with character, the beautiful Moroccan lamps, are now sold.

And I think I'm in love.

After two days spent google translating a Dutch newspaper, it really seemed too good to be true. When we came to see the flat for the first time, Nacho and Laura, the previous tenants, ended up drinking wine with us and cooking us dinner. A supposed 15-minute visit turned into five hours. Their curly haired four year old rode her bike around the living room wearing a tutu and twirled in circles to Flemish singer Ann Christy's "Bla Bla Bla".

What I'm trying to say is that my couch is now officially open for business. Who wants to be the first to crash on it?

(Not counting almost me, the night of our housewarming party, when my bed was occupied by two very sleepy Belgian boys.)

Et moi, vraiment je t'aime....

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Getting out of the vote

It's Election Day in Europe, and the streets are not filled with canvassers. I haven't gotten any recorded messages from candidates on my cell phone or mudslinging junk mail. Nobody is honking if they love a candidate.

Instead, on Friday, there was one man wearing a clown nose standing outside of my workplace and handing out "stop het politieke circus" flyers. The dour looking man in the middle of the poster is Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, who has been in control since 2008.

There was at least one guy other than lone clown man trying to encourage voters: Frank de Winne, Belgium's second ever astronaut. He used the coincidence of European election day and a trip to space for a PR opportunity:

"Europe looks united and great from up here! I have arranged to vote by proxy, so I will not miss out of the next European elections while I am up here," he said.

Actually, Frank is not just a nice guy doing his civic duty, he has arranged to vote from space because voting is compulsory in Belgium.

Belgium was one of the first countries to make voting mandatory, all the way back in 1892. Since then, there has been a voter turnout of something like 90%, because of what happens if you don't:

- a fine of up to 55 euro on your first offense
- a fine of up to 137.5 euro for repeat offenders
- losing your right to vote if you don't vote at least 4 times in 15 years
- being excluded from getting a job in the public sector

Of course, as a coworker suggested to me, you can just get a doctor's note. Unfortunately, being an immigrant from Morocco or Turkey and not speaking a word of Dutch is not enough to get you a doctor's note. You can show up at the voting booth and just not fill out the ballot, but if you're all the way there, heck, you might as well Christmas tree the thing.

Coming from the land of the hanging chad, I'm hardly the best person to comment, but it seems to me that forcing apathetic and Christmas Tree citizens to vote ensures that incumbents stay in power, corrupt or not. Psychologically for voters, it negates the idea that Every Vote Counts. Is it really a good idea to force people who don't care about the democratic process to make a choice?

Wherever you are, your vote should matter: this past week, I heard about friends in Poland celebrating 20 years of free voting after the fall of communism. There, voting is a precious right - and many people remember a time when they couldn't exercise it at all. As for me, every time November rolls around, I vote from overseas. Why? Because you never know when there will be another margin of 537...

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Dutch speakers are going to kill me for this one

As a girl who likes to pick up notoriously difficult, rarely spoken and/or illogical languages in her spare time, I thought Dutch to be the next obvious choice.

One website describes it this way: [Flemish] Dutch is "A strange language spoken in Flanders and consisting largely of the consonants v,s,c,h,r and k. Dutch is surprisingly easy to learn. Simply fill your mouth with crisps and then speak English and German simultaneously without breathing."

Another friend describes it as English spoken backwards and underwater. And possibly upside down. I agree, because sometimes I feel like if I accidentally hit my head in the right place, I could understand Dutch completely (don't worry, I'm not trying that hard).

Actually, I'm not alone in my thinking: English borrows many words from Dutch, such as "pickle" and the much funnier "gherkin" (where were the Poles with this one?). Umm....there are more, I just wanted to include that because of "gherkin".

I have another theory: Dutch is English spoken by lolcatz.

Dutch/lolcat answer (from a sign I saw at my bank): "Wij helpen u!"

Unlike American expats, Dutch speakers (or at least some of them) take their language quite seriously. Almost as bad as in France, language is politics is this part of the world: in het Groene Boekje (you guessed it, "the green book"), Dutch and Flemish people battle it out for how things should be spelled in nederlands. An example of one of the changes made in the last edition, published every 10 years: anti-Amerikanisme is now antiamerikanisme.

Should I be worried (after all, "Yankee" is also Dutch in origin)? Nah, I think I'll be alright, as long as I start my Dutch lessons soon and stop cracking up at street signs...

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Cause there ain't no doubt I love this land

Honesty time.

I admit it. I was a little nervous about coming to Belgium because I heard it was "boring" and "full of Eurocrats" (whatever that means). So it's chilled out, I rationalized. Grown up. I can deal with that after living for a year in a city full of 20-year-olds wearing stiletto heels and a pound of makeup. And I merrily went about my business.

But I was really taken aback when someone said to me the other day: "You are from Florida? Why, in the name of God, did you decide to come here?"

So, it's not just a Polish thing! (I heard that all the time.) It's a European thing. And it wasn't even raining.

I'm not exactly out on the street singing "Proud to be an American" at the top of my lungs, since it's not that nice living in suburban Florida, but really! Come on, Europeans. Have some pride.

I am not going to cop out and say that I like Belgium because it's close to other cities that are cool (i.e. it is not cool in itself). Check out these pictures of Ghent, where I went the other day:

See? Belgium is pretty. And the people are nice! Within 30 seconds of me or one of my friends opening a map, someone always comes up to us and says "OK, let me help you" and then sometimes even shows us the way.

Today, the weather is fine, not a cloud in the sky, and I am going to a barbecue.

Yeah, pretty bad...

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Do as the Flemish do

One of the greatest pleasures about moving to a new place is learning about it through lots of eating and drinking. Visions of waffles dripping in chocolate, fries dripping in mayonaise, and French-accented chefs with voices dripping in sarcasm disappeared soon after my arrival when I found out that....

Belgium has.... Food Lion?

Check out the bag, I'm not lying. After a little research (er...wikipedia) I learned that Del is Flemish for "food" and Haize is Flemish for "lion."

OK, what I really learned was that Food Lion is actually owned by Belgians! Also, they own another grocery store in the US with the unfortunate name of "Bottom Dollar Food." Ick.

The difference between Food Lion in Belgium and Food Lion in the US is that here they have non-scary produce, a decent wine selection, and a much smaller proportion of crazy people wandering around the aisles. Also, it is easily navigable even after you decide to sample Belgian beer and jenever at 3 in the afternoon (possibly making me count as one of the crazy people wandering around the aisles). For the uninitiated, jenever is the local juniper-flavored liquor, but you can also find it in many other creamy or fruity flavors.

After the shock of the few American chains that I saw in Antwerp (they have Ben & Jerry's and Urban Outfitters too) I decided I needed some fries, stat!

My future roommate Petra and I went to a place a local had told us had the Best Fries In Antwerp. The name of the place was Best Fries (creative, guys). There were many imitators who were clearly trying to fool us (#1 fries, McDonald's next door) but we found it because of the huge line of people getting their fry fix. Best Fries takes its work seriously: it is known for having Fry Inspectors who regularly test the oil and the fryer to make sure they are up to standard. Yes, I forced myself to put mayo on my fries to fit in with the locals, and it was actually pretty good.

I would write more, but think it's time for my waffle. Daag!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Get in line, folks...

There's been a lot of water under the bridge since my last post, but let's go straight to the good stuff: last weekend, I had the privilege to attend a Real Polish Wedding.

My first wish was that it would turn out just like the Deer Hunter wedding, except I think that was supposed to be Ukranian, not Polish. Mostly I just like to think of myself as a young Meryl Streep in this scenario, dancing in the middle of a huge crowd to the sounds of a traditional Polish wedding band. And did I mention there was vodka involved?

Being a Florida native, I tend to associate weddings with pulled pork drenched in barbecue sauce and beaches at sunset, so finding a new meal in front of me every 30 minutes and being obligated to do shots with the bride were completely new for me. They were experiences in which I gladly participated until about 2am, when I realized that even after almost a year of practice in Poland, I am still a lightweight compared to 25 out of 26 of my friend Marek's first cousins. I'm not counting the little blond boy who I spotted with an empty champagne glass... I hope he was holding it for his mom!

Compared to other typical Polish weddings, this one was definitely more modern - usually, everyone has to bring flowers to give to the bride and groom when meeting them in the receiving line. This couple, being practical, realized that nobody knows what to do with hundreds of bouquets of flowers, so they cut that part out. In the countryside, wedding parties last two or three days, with an afterparty being held the day after the reception. The rule: you must finish all the leftover food and drink from the night before. And no, there is no other drink except for vodka.

The wedding and having Easter in my flatmate's village in Silesia were the jewels in the crown of my Polish experience this year, which is now unbelievably coming to an end. That's Kasia to the left, crossing a stream near her village.

During that weekend, yes, I went to church multiple times, but mostly spent my time riding bikes around the lakes and forests with Kasia and her sisters. And also running away from six year old boys.

For you folks back home: Easter Monday in Poland is called "Wet Monday" because girls get doused with water for "good luck." I must be really lucky, because four 15 year olds in a maly fiat thought it was a cool idea to pour an entire bucket of water on me on the way to the train station. It was a pretty cold three-hour journey in wet jeans, but I think it was worth it just to see Kasia's mom yell at the offenders.

I don't want to get too sappy, but I am having a hard time getting excited about my next destination because it involves leaving this one. So if any of you boys and girls are around Krakow, let's hang out - I don't have a clue how it happened, but I am at two weeks and counting.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Scatter chart of Krakow

If you know me well, you'll know that I have many theories. My latest?

A theory of convergence. Case in point: enough people complain that I don't update my blog enough within the space of the last 48 hours - and here you and I are together.

This was a week full of friends' birthdays - how did the stars converge in June 1984? Somehow all that comes to mind is a surreal image: George Orwell's novel set to the tune of "Wake me up before you go go" by WHAM!

So on Saturday, I decided to be the liminal force to merge two of the birthday parties, WHAM! The result? We found ourselves forced into a VIP room not exactly against our will, playing a waiting for Godot game for the actual hosts. Sometimes convergence takes patience...or the luck of having very few choices of first names in Poland. Next week, my imaginary friend Ania is also having a birthday party...

Places as well as people converge. After months of escaping Poland to see Scotland, Germany and Italy, I've traveled to Poznan and Wroclaw, taking two trips in two weeks. They are two cities with the same face as Krakow but different hairstyles. Intense rivalries build between those who are mostly similar, or close to one another, like bickering siblings. For those of you currently gambling large amounts of money on bracketology, just look at the ideological divide that makes up the stretch of I-40 between Dook and UNC.

In Wroclaw last week as I was working the targi pracy (career fair), the main concern students had was not about the financial crisis or controversy with UBS but with the prospect of relocating to Krakow for a job. That being said, both cities were lovely, filled with funky cafes and far less populated with superman costume-clad British tourons than Krakow is. It's getting to the time of year where as soon as twilight hits, you start to hear the howl across the city...

The only problem with my theory is that it is supposed to be working out the kinks in the universe toward a state of equilibrium. Instead, three of my friends are leaving Krakow in the next week - it won't be the same. Not only that, I'm facing a countdown clock of my own - less than seven weeks left before my visa expires and I'm jettisoned off.

Maybe some states of equilibrium are more equal than others...

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Can't fight the runnin' blues

There are some times you just want to run away.

I reached my breaking point when for the first time I saw on the way home from work a sight I found incredible. Tiny bits of crystalized water vapor were freezing in the air right before my eyes. All of Krakow was glittering.

And I couldn't feel my face.

When it comes to being inspired to travel, deus ex machina will drop in without fail, usually in the form of a friend who knows of a cheap flight. So less than 24 hours after I heard about the deal on Wizz Air, my favorite Hungarian airline, I had booked myself on a trip to Rome with four of my closest friends.

Now my preconceptions of Italy were chiefly based on two things: stereotypes I had heard from coeds who went on party abroad there, and the menu of the Olive Garden. I was happy to discover that Rome in the real world was lovely, relaxed and (forgive the maudlin description) renewing of my soul. Not only that, Rome was....different.

The locals broke the mold - an Italian family sitting next to us at dinner may have made lots of gestures, but they were actually laughing at how loud we were. Out of the five of us, only two were Americans, so that's saying something. The nightlife was as vibrant as the city - after chatting up various bartenders and taxi drivers, somehow we found ourselves in a Caribbean bar in the middle of Roma, a Cuban rap group on stage, the best mojitos this side of the pond in hand. And the best Italian food I ate when I was there? Creamy, melt in your mouth lasagna from a trattoria owned by Indians.

How do you hit the refresh button on your life? You don't have to go to Italy, although I highly recommend it. (In fact, I highly encourage everyone reading this to move there so I can come visit.)

Maybe all it takes are a good pair of Italian leather boots and having an adventure with friends who give you the freedom to be yourself.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

To all of Europe

Christmas in Poland will be a memorable one for me for many reasons, and it's not just because it was my first white Christmas - or even the first Christmas where I wasn't wearing shorts and flip flops. No, it wasn't even the joy of falling down a mountain on skis or soaking in a hot tub at the "Terma" water park down the road from our hotel in the mountains. Nor was it the insanity of Sylwester (Polish New Year's Eve), popping bottles of champagne on the Rynek with my brother and thousands of our closest friends.

So what was it? Rather than bore you with a story of my Christmas vacation, here are the memorable moments spoken by those who said it best:

"No, we do not have a wine list. So, what country do you want your wine from?"
-A waitress at a Krakow restaurant called Kuchnia i Wino (translation: Kitchen and Wine).

"No, Eric, don't drink the water! And no, I can't tell you why!"
-A well meaning Polish friend.

"To your health, and all of Europe!"
-A Polish gentleman, who after hearing my family speak English, kissed my hand and wished me luck as according to the Polish Wigilia tradition by breaking off a piece of my Christmas wafer. Wigilia is Christmas Eve dinner that has 12 courses, centered around carp. Ours also featured a traditional highlander band and a very underfed Santa Claus giving out presents.

"And I thought it was going to be Russia!"
-My culture shocked father, who even after being impressed by how un-Soviet Poland was, could still not understand the continuing fatherly presence of the one-man voiceover for foreign sitcoms on TV Polonia.

It's not Russia - it's home.

For now.