On being a biker in Ghent

Me and my bike in our garage. I got the bike as a special deal from the Flemish newspaper "De Morgen" when I purchased my subscription.

Me and my De Morgen bike.

I still have a lot of anxiety about riding a bike in Ghent. There are a few reasons for this:

1) Prior to Ghent, the biggest cities where I rode bikes were Leuven and Utrecht. Leuven is tiny and there’s not really that much car traffic in the center. Utrecht, as most Dutch cities, is made for bikes. There are sophisticated bike paths that keep bikers and cars apart and, because nearly everyone rides bikes, motorists are also very cautious about sharing the road.

2) Ghent is the first city to have elaborate tram tracks that you have to ride next to that are the perfect width for getting a bike tire stuck. I’ve seen the most veteran bikers get too close to the tracks and get stuck. And when I say “get stuck” I mean instantly come to a halting stop. Because bike tires are small enough to fit into the tracks, but not small enough for you to keep going once it’s in there.

and

3) I have to do significantly more car + people navigating, which I’m not so good about. Yesterday, when riding through the city center, I almost hit a group of teens and a little old lady (who really did appear from no where). I didn’t actually hit anyone, but I came close.

Also, as a side note, my condition is currently terrible, so I can’t ride a bike very quickly, meaning I probably piss off all the cars that get stuck behind me.

When I started riding a bike in Ghent, which I have to admit was quite recently, I was pretty excited to start riding again. Biking is by far the quickest — and healthiest — way to get around the city, which is especially true for me, since I don’t have a car. This excitement lasted all of about two minutes and afterwards was replaced by complete anxiety.

Let me paint a picture.

Joery and I spent an afternoon making a trip to a bike shop to get all the gear required for making biking an integral part of our routine. This pretty much included bike locks, lights, and reflectors. I already had a bike, which I had received as a gift when buying a subscription to a Flemish newspaper “De Morgen,” and Joery had just received a hand-me-down bike from friends of his parents. We just needed the locks and lights and we were ready to go.

That night, we had a party to go to across town. Formerly, parties in this neighborhood were rather annoying to get to, since the trams/buses stopped running before the party was over, meaning we either had to catch a cab (which gets pricey) or spend nearly an hour walking home. The bike was a welcome change.

So Joery and I get our bikes ready — screwing on the lights, making sure the locks were working, adjusting my seat and checking brakes. We wheel out our new rides and, excitedly, begin the trip.

Now, Joery and I live on a rather busy road. There are two lanes of traffic going each direction, separated by a tram line in the center. On each side of the road, between the road and the parking on the side, there’s a bike path. Convenient, right? It’s an illusion of safe bike passage.

We’re about two minutes into our trip, I’m getting comfortable on the bike, trying to keep up with Joery, who’s been biking for years and therefore is much faster than I am. Joery cocks his head towards me and starts saying, “Well, love, aren’t you happy? We’re finally riding bikes in Ghent” (I’ve been nagging him that this was something I wanted to do for some time).

Those words are barely out of his mouth when — BAM — all of a sudden Joery has flown off his bike and is laying on the side of the road, bike on top of him and some guy is sitting in his car, door wide open, which blocks the entire bike lane, with his mouth gaping open.

“KLOOTZAK”  (which is basically Dutch for asshole)

I never heard Joery curse at someone like that before, but seriously. This guy had been sitting in the drivers side of his car for a while — so as we approached we had no idea there was anyone inside  — and suddenly, without paying any attention and with no warning, he just swung his door open right at the moment when Joery was passing. The force of the door knocked Joery into the street and bent the back tire of his bike. Joery was ok — thankfully no cars were coming at the time — but he fell on his shoulder, which bothered him for quite some time.

I’m sure the guy wasn’t really a “klootzak”; he was very apologetic and seemed to be shocked that the whole thing happened. The side of the guy’s door was a bit dented, and Joery and him ended the encounter by shaking hands — no harm, really, done.

Except that now I am terrified of riding next to parked cars. And tram tracks. And moving cars.

For me this was a terrifying experience for two reasons. The first being that Joery was completely knocked off his bike and thrown into the road, which could have ended horribly. But the second was that by the time we arrived at the party and Joery explained what happened, almost everyone had a similar story they could recount about being knocked off their bike by some driver who wasn’t paying attention. It only takes a split second, not checking the bike lane one time, to seriously injure a biker. And having it happen to you seems to be a “right of passage” of sorts to really being a biker in Ghent.

For us, this story did not have a tragic ending — though it very well could have had one. But every time I get on my bike now the thought that crosses my mind is: will today be the day that this happens to you?

And that, my friends, is why I have anxiety when it comes to riding bikes.

Also, the cobblestones in Ghent are a bitch.

On applying for jobs — because it’s hard and frustrating and the silence is deafening

Let me preface this post by saying one thing: I feel very lucky to have found a job given the current job market in Brussels. Not only did I find a job, but it’s one that I like, that challenges me to grow, and is with people who are friendly and easy to work with. I really lucked out and I am very grateful for the opportunity I received.

That said, now that I’m on the other side of the hiring process — in that I’m the main contact for all the applications we receive for people wanting to intern with us — I find it intriguing, and at times mystifying, how certain cover letters and CVs made it into my inbox. I also know that most hiring managers don’t provide any feedback whatsoever to poorly written cover letters — myself included — so I wanted to address that in my little corner of the Internet.

While I was searching for a job/paid internship, I wrote hundreds of cover letters. Many followed a basic structure, which was to a certain extent copy+pasted from previous letters. In every letter I tried to include something specific about why I wanted to work for this particular organization doing this particular job and why I would be a good candidate for said job. For the jobs/internships I was most interested in, I spent a good amount of time going through the organization’s website and completely tailoring my cover letter and CV to highlight what I thought was most appropriate for them. I was invited for four interviews before finding the position I currently have. All of these interviews were for positions where I used tailored letters/resumes.

I’m not an expert on writing cover letters or formatting your CV. But over the past few months, while sifting through hundreds of applications, I collected a few observations, both from personal experience and from talking with friends/colleagues, about what makes a good presentation and what does not.

Without further ado:

1) If the job ad is in English, send a cover letter that is in English. I’m not going to take the time to run it through a translation program just to find out what your major was. If another language is mentioned in the ad, it’s ok to use that one for either the cover letter or CV, particularly if you use your cover letter to show fluency in one and the CV to show fluency in the other. But sending a CV in a language that not is used by the organization is a guarantee I won’t spend time reviewing your materials.

2) If the job ad says send a CV and a cover letter, send both. A cover letter is not, “Dear sir/madame, As requested in the job ad I saw on ____ website, I have attached my CV for your review.” Rather, it’s a chance to not only show your writing skills, but also to provide context to the information presented in your CV. Not taking the opportunity to do this — particularly when it’s specifically requested by the organization — is a missed opportunity.

3) The art of writing a cover letter is definitely key. Some tips:

  • Spell check is your friend. Even if English is not the main language you use in Word, it only takes a second to change the language to catch all your mistakes. If you’re applying for a communication position, advertise that you speak fluent English, but your cover letter is riddled with spelling mistakes I’m going to question how fluent you actually are.
  • If the name of the person the cover letter should be addressed to is on the ad, use it. Do not say “Dear sir or madame.” Our ads always state that the cover letter should be addressed to our director. The majority of the letters that aren’t are put in the “No” pile.
  • Use the cover letter to confirm the requirements of the internship. For instance, for our interns we require a contract to be signed through the university (for insurance purposes). If it’s not clear in your CV that this is possible (for instance, some universities allow such a contract to be signed by students up to a year post-graduation), make sure it’s clear in your cover letter. You don’t want your application to be put in the disqualified pile just because you didn’t add a sentence that reaffirms your eligibility (and don’t assume it’s applied. I put this requirement in bold, red letters on our ad and that didn’t prevent people from applying who didn’t fulfill this qualification).
  • The cover letter is your chance to show your writing skills. Be concise and thorough. If you write in three pages what could easily be said in one, it doesn’t make a good case that you’re able to write a one-page press release. Also, superfluous information — date of birth, favorite hobbies, etc. — is better left out.  A good rule of thumb is: unless you are able to connect the information to what makes you a good candidate, don’t include it.
  • Format, format, format. If I receive a letter that’s written in 9-pt. font with no spaces between the paragraphs, chances are I’m not going to read the whole thing. Maybe I’ll scan it. In all, a letter that isn’t pleasing to look at will not be looked at for long.
  • Be honest (of course) but only to a certain extent. There is a line and you should not cross it. Example: Saying you’re planning to spend the summer in Brussels and would like to use this opportunity to gain work experience is positive honesty. Saying you’re planning to spend the summer visiting your boyfriend in Brussels and therefore are looking for a job is negative honesty. Know where the line is and when you crossed it.

4) Also regarding the cover letter but important enough to have it’s own number: the cover letter should not just be about what you can get out of the internship. It should also include how your specific skill set can be utilized by the organization. I would estimate that 80% of the cover letters I receive say things such as “This position is perfect for me because x, y and z” or “This position will provide me with a great opportunity” or “I would like to gain experience in this field and this position allows me to do that” etc. etc. without following up with why the candidate is good for the position. If you can include a paragraph about why this is your dream job but can’t include a sentence about why you think you are our dream candidate, something is wrong. Sidenote: when saying the position is perfect, link it to your specific experience/interests that are relevant to the advertised position. Don’t have it be some generic sentence that can be applied to any and every job.

5) Save writing the application e-mail for a time when you are able to really focus. Unless the deadline is right now, wait until you are able to re-check everything before sending it. If you spell someone’s name wrong because you were in a rush, that’s not a good first impression. I had a poor girl send me three e-mails because her first e-mail had nothing attached, in her second e-mail my name was spelled wrong, and her third e-mail was to correct her second e-mail. Not the best first impression.

6) If you include a photo on your CV — which is relatively common in Europe — make it a professional one. If you are wearing sunglasses, in a bar, or obviously have cut someone out of the picture, pick another one. Or have a friend take one. Or just leave it out. A picture is not a requirement and if there’s any possibility of it being misinterpreted it’s better to omit it. Passport photos are usually a good bet.

7) Formatting is important. I hate the Europass CV format because it can be very confusing to find specific information due to the way it’s structured. But I understand that it’s widely used and required by many organizations, so using it isn’t necessarily a strike. However, if you have time, it’s a good idea to download a template from Word and have your CV available in another format. Something that’s aesthetically pleasing is always more pleasant to read. Proof: I spent hours designing and formatting my CV in InDesign (as I work in communications, I thought it would be best to use my CV as a way to showcase my design skills). All of the people who interviewed me mentioned how they appreciated how easy my CV was to read and that it “stuck out” from the piles of Europass CVs precisely because it was aesthetically pleasing.

8) If you receive an e-mail requesting an interview, do not let more than 24-hours pass before responding. Doing so not only shows a lack of interest, but it prolongs the hiring process for the organization unnecessarily. If the request includes providing specific information and it will take a while to get it, write back and say that you are interested and that you will do what needs to be done to answer the questions and will get back as soon as possible. If it takes more than a day or two, follow up with your progress. This will show you are not only motivated about the position, but that you are considerate of the hiring individual’s time.

On a related note: When you get a request for the interview, don’t respond with “for your information” remarks about when you are planning your next vacation. Wait until after you get the job offer to sort it out. Also, if the position is advertised as full-time, don’t suddenly say you are only available for part-time work. Or that you can’t start until two months after the advertised start-date. (This may be ok for a job, but for a 3-6 month internship, starting two months late is a big deal).

9) Be careful when adding a subject line to an e-mail and naming your documents. In our ad, I ask candidates to have the subject line state “Application Intern (position name): last name, first name”. You would be surprised how many e-mails I receive that just say “Intern Application” — no position, no name. It’s another attention to detail point. Also, it comes off as more put-together if your documents are named “CV_yourname” and “CoverLetter_yourname” — you thought ahead about how to make life a tiny bit easier for the hiring individual. When you get a ton of CVs and cover letters, you don’t want to spend time renaming them because half of the candidates also chose “CV01″ or “CoverLetterPublishing” as the title. Having a candidate’s name in the title of the document makes it easier to save and easier to find later.

10) This may be a bit picky, but always send your CV and cover letter as pdfs. I always prefer receiving pdfs for two reasons: 1) they are always formatted correctly and I don’t have to worry about problems associated with having an older version of Word or the like; and 2) I can right-click a pdf in Outlook and print it automatically without opening the file. I also think that a pdf is always better when it comes to any sensitive or professional document because it indicates a final, clean version. A Word document, in my mind, is still a draft, since there’s the possibility to edit it and change things. Also, you don’t want me to open up your cover letter/CV as a Word document and have any grammatical/spelling mistakes automatically highlighted.

Those are my tips. Some may sound incredibly picky and a little bit obsessive-compulsive, but these days I receive a hundred applications or more for unpaid internship positions. I have multiple qualified candidates for every open position and in the end only one can be hired. The responsibility/burden as an applicant is to use your materials to show why you are the one.

So to sum up: no one wants to read a copy+pasted letter that was sent en masse to every opening on EurActiv. No employer wants to know more about what the position can do for the candidate than what the candidate can do for them. No one wants to weed through a hundred applications, half of which are modeled after the same cover letter pulled off of a basic Google search. Rather, your CV and cover letter — and the e-mail that accompanies it — will be the first impression you make on the organization where you wish to work. Take the time to be sure it’s a good one.

Getting Lei-d

IMG_0303[1]Last weekend, Joery treated me to a lovely afternoon for two at Lei, a spa in Aalst (hence my funny title. Not so funny? oh well, titles are hard). Unlike my previous spa experience, this was a completely private, relaxing affair. In fact, except in the waiting room when we were paying/leaving, I didn’t even see any other guests. Very different from the walk-around-naked experience of the last spa (which was fun in it’s own right).

Lei is located right in the center of the city, right across the street from where we always go to watch the Carnaval parade (which is coming up! 10,11,12 February!). It’s on a really nice tree-lined street near the main square and the building itself seems to be a converted house. After we arrived, we were led to a private room where there were three massage tables set up and two glasses of tea (delicious) were waiting for us.  I was super tempted to test the gong…I refrained.

The treatments started with a warm foot bath while we enjoyed our tea, and then a hot stone massage, body scrub, some kind of treatment where they wrap you in plastic and let you marinate, and a facial. The massage included the legs and feet and I had to bite my lip to keep from kicking the masseuse when she touched my feet (I’m super ticklish). Seriously, I really had to concentrate. I mean, how do you even handle that situation? “Uh, sorry I kicked you in the face, please continue.”

There was one person working on both of us, so there was a bit of hanging out between treatments. Joery totally fell asleep. He tried to play it off when I asked him if he was snoring by saying that his nose was “just a little stuffy,” but when I was getting my massage and he was all wrapped up he started snoring. Loudly. It was just like home :)

IMG_0304[1]

The sauna and a really comfortable bean bag chair next to the door that leads to the garden.

After the massage and facial we were led to a private room in the back of the building with a sauna and shower. There were glasses of orange juice and a bottle of water for us, and a sea salt scrub in the shower. I was a bit too enthusiastic about the “exfoliating powers” of the salt scrub, so Joery’s back was a bit red the rest of the afternoon (sorry babes…I didn’t realize how rough it was until I put it on myself). I also re-learned that I can only sit in a sauna for max 10 minutes before I convince myself that I can no longer breath and will pass out right.this.second. if I don’t leave.

Next to our room there was also a jacuzzi we could use. Sitting in the jacuzzi was fun; getting out — not so much. It was freezing outside, so you had to carefully calculate how fast you can get out, grab your robe and run inside without slipping and ending sprawled naked on the concrete with a broken arm (Joery was such a gentleman, he said if that happened — while I pondered the possibility out loud — he would be sure to cover me with a towel before getting help).

All in all, it was a wonderfully relaxing day and my skin has not felt this soft in ages. It was perfect timing for such a warm, cozy day, since it started snowing yesterday and hasn’t really stopped. In fact, I don’t know if I have really felt warm since being in that sauna.

New years drink in Ghent. It was super crowded.

New years drink in Ghent. It was super crowded.

The following day, Sunday, was the New Year’s drink in Ghent. Every year the city hosts a drink, where there’s speeches and stuff, but more importantly free booze for all attendees. It was the first time in a long, long time that I started drinking before noon (hello Cortaca!), since the event started at 10:30 in the morning. Now, I didn’t think that I had all that much to drink, but it turns out I forgot one important thing: jenever (Dutch gin) kicks your ass. Particularly the jenever they were serving, which was berry-flavored and really sweet. It was basically like drinking juice, which is why it gets you in trouble. Whatever the case, Joery and I stumbled (or I stumbled and Joery walked easily) home around 2:00 and I ended up napping the whole afternoon. I only woke up for dinner, which Joery made as I snored (and drooled a little bit) on the couch.

It was a lovely weekend.

Welcoming 2013

I’ve been MIA on this blog for a couple of months now. The last few months of 2012 were hectic ones — but in the good way. There are two rather big announcements to share, so without further ado:

  1. I found a job! And it’s in my field! You’re reading the blog of the new communications and administration officer of a lobby group in Brussels. I actually interned at the organization while I was studying in Leuven and when the position became available the executive director gave me a call to see if I was interested. Considering a draft blog post I wrote at the time contained such phrases as “spending the entire day filling out applications, tweaking my CV, and obsessively checking my e-mail for any response is not good for my mental health” and “my couch may be developing a permanent ass-imprint from my failure to get off of it”, interested was an understatement. I was thrilled, ecstatic, relieved. I had just started working on my back-up plan, which was to attend courses at the University of Ghent to work on a second master’s degree in communications in Dutch, and while I was doing alright understanding what was happening in the classes, assignments were starting to come around and I was freaking out about my elementary writing abilities in the language. So while finding a job has been good for my mental health, my wallet, and my couch, my Dutch has become stagnant. But one of my resolutions in the new year is to speak more in Dutch with Joery — it’s too easy for us to fall back to English — and take some night courses to help clear up some of the errors I constantly make.
  2. The second biggest change is that Joery also has a new job. He left his job at KU Leuven in November and is now a lecturer at the University of Leiden (The Hague). This has been a huge adjustment. He found out he was offered the job in the Netherlands about the same time I was offered the position in Brussels and, due to a variety of circumstances — my finding the job in Brussels, not being able to rent our apartment in Ghent (for tax/lawsuit reasons), the fact that he still had classes to teach in Leuven — he was able to arrange his work schedule so that he only has to be in The Hague three days out of the week. The other two days he comes back to Belgium to work from home.  The Hague also isn’t so far away — two hours by car, two and a half/three by train — but it’s too far to commute every day. So Joery is renting a small room in the Netherlands for the few days he’s there, while I stay in Belgium. It’s certainly been an adjustment — coming home to an empty apartment is not so cozy — but both of us had opportunities that we couldn’t really pass up.

So there you have it. A new year brings new opportunities. Both Joery and I are very happy with our work and it’s a big step forward for both of our careers. We’re both still getting used to the new schedule — weekends always seem to be too short, since Joery leaves to go back to Holland Sunday afternoon — but we’re making the best of it.

For instance, this weekend we both drove up to The Hague to get Joery all settled in to his new place (which is just basically a small room with a shared kitchen and bath). His room is in a narrow row house in a quaint area of the city — lots of different shops/activities/wine stores nearby, so it’s definitely promising. It’s about a 30 minute walk from his place to the university, though by bike it’s probably just half that. We were walking around the city on Sunday morning and it felt like Joery and I were the only ones not biking. I mean, biking is big in Belgium , too, but in the Netherlands it almost feels as if people look at you funny if you’re walking. Like, walking? Why?

IMG_0283[1]Anyway, it was a lovely weekend. We left Saturday around noon from Ghent and arrived at his place (with minor detours) a little before 3:00. After unpacking, we moved the car to an area with free parking (FYI, we chose the street in front of the German embassy). This street happened to be right next to the Vredespaleis, or the Peace Palace (left), so we walked over to check it out.

The building is absolutely gorgeous. It was built in 1913 (or more accurately, between 1907 and 1913) and is the home of the International Court of Justice, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the Hague Academy of International Law and the Peace Palace Library. Andrew Carnegie backed the construction with a donation of $1.5 million, and the street around the palace is called Carnegie Lane.

Being the weekend, everything was closed so we didn’t have the chance to go inside, which was a bummer. The building is breathtaking from the outside, so I would love to see what’s within her walls. Next visit :)

IMG_0287[1]After checking out the Peace Palace, we wandered back in the direction of the apartment. I had read (thank you, Wikipedia) that The Hague features some great Indonesian restaurants, so we asked Joery’s landlord to suggest a place nearby. We’re definitely going to have to take his advice on where to eat again because the food we ate was awesome (restaurant Bogor). We ended up eating super early, since we hadn’t had time for a proper lunch and moving boxes makes you hungry. We chose to share a rice table, which basically was a bunch of rice with 12 portions of different dishes. It was a great way to sample the cuisine and I didn’t have anything I didn’t like. (Excuse the crappy iPhone pictures — the restaurant had a nice candlelit ambiance and, while I brought my camera to the Netherlands, I forgot to actually bring it with me outside the apartment).

The plan after dinner was to walk back to the apartment to drop off the leftovers and then head to the city center, but it had begun to rain a bit in the meantime so we decided to just hang out a bit. Turns out, when you turn the heat on in a small room with two people whose bellies are completely full of good food and wine, it’s pretty easy for them to fall asleep. To say this sounds so old, but we were both fast asleep by 9pm. Of course, an hour and a half later we both woke up, but with the crappy weather and warmness of the apartment we ended up staying in for the night, promising ourselves that we’ll wake up early the next morning to make up for lost time (which we did, more or less).

IMG_0291[1]Sunday morning we walked into the city center to find a place for breakfast, which was a good decision because the food we had was delicious. We went to a restaurant called Het Wapen van Den Haag (The weapon of the Hague) which had big signs out front advertising their all-you-can eat breakfast buffet for €9,95 (on Sundays). We popped in to check it out and the place was empty. And huge. Normally, that makes me a little nervous — why would a place that offers a Sunday brunch be dead at 10:00? Must be bad. But partially because we had already been walking around for an hour and partially because we had no other options, we decided to give it a try.

The interior of the restaurant is actually quite impressive. There were tapestries draped from the ceiling around gigantic iron chandeliers, and the whole place was paneled in rich wood. And the breakfast spread was really nice — fresh fruit, assorted breads, cereal (though the only milk they had out was karne milk, basically buttermilk, a typical Dutch drink), pâté, hard boiled eggs, and a chef on hand to make you a fresh omelet or pancakes. Not too shabby for €25 for two (the buffet included a cup of coffee, but I also had fresh-squeezed orange juice and Joery had a second cup… I miss the free refills of the States). The service was also really good — our waitress was super patient with my Dutch (and difficulty I had understanding the Dutch accent, which is very different from Flemish), which I always find really nice. More often then not, people just switch to English, so I like when they let me practice. Needless to say, we weren’t really hungry the rest of the day.

IMG_0301[1]Sunday was spent exploring the city center a bit longer. Joery showed me his university building and we got to walk around the Binnenhof, where the buildings of the Dutch government and a medieval Ridderzaal (Knight’s Hall) are located. The government buildings sit along a pond/canal, and there’s a great view of them from a picturesque tree-lined walking path on the other side (Lange Vijverberg).

I also did a bit of shopping — sales tax is lower in the Netherlands than in Belgium and the sales are a bit better. In Belgium there’s a “sales period” twice a year, in January and July (I think), which I find highly overrated. Between these periods, there are very few promotions so it feels like everyone and his mother decides now is the time I have to shop. Also, for being a huge sales period, some of the items are only marked down by 20%, so I feel a bit like I’m being duped. The difference between Belgium and the Netherlands has to do with how Belgium regulates these types of sales. Technically, a store can’t sell anything at a loss, with the idea that this protects small Mom+Pop shops from the unfair competition of major outlets. While I understand and appreciate this, I still miss scoring a $75 dress for under $10. Besides, it was Joery’s decision to walk through the shopping streets that were overflowing with huge sales signs. Also, De Passage was apparently the first covered mall in the Netherlands, so why wouldn’t we check it out? ;)

All in all, it was a lovely — though relatively quiet — weekend. It was definitely nice to see the city where Joery’s working (though I had visited The Hague a few years ago, I just didn’t remember much) and living, and I’m sure this isn’t going to be my last visit.

When the cat’s away…

…the mice will play (or in Dutch, dance).

My nest, made pretty by my awesome friend, Alicia, who made me the beautiful quilt pictured. She also sent the box of girl scout cookies, which I received today and is already over half empty. And yes, I do put sheets on my couch when I know I’ll be sleeping there. I’m not a barbarian.

Actually, in this case, the mice will make a nest on the couch, forgo any attempts at personal hygiene or basic cleanliness, and spend all day attached to their computer or television (and/or napping).

Joery’s in Norway now, attending a conference. He’s there until Sunday, which means my nest of pillows/blankets/boxes of food will continue to grow until Sunday morning when I will get hit by a panicked wave of realization that I have made a complete and utter mess of the apartment and only have a few hours to clean until my co-habitating boyfriend discovers my secret, unsanitary habits.

It’s funny how sharing an entire apartment with someone forces certain living habits underground. I’ve never had my own place, all to myself, so I’m not sure how long I would really be a health hazard if left to my own devices (and with a lack of prying eyes forcing me to conform to society’s norms of what is/is not appropriate living conditions). But I have had roommates and, while the common areas tended to be relatively ok, my room was 80% of the time a disaster. Part of me wonders: if living alone, or at the very least, having private space, means that you can allow your “true” self to emerge — the self that is uninhibited from social norms and mores and just does whatever it wants — is my true self a slob?

I don’t know. It’s quite possible it’s true. (My mom is probably yelling “YESSSSS” at the computer right now).

Here are my top five shame-inducing habits (that I’m willing to admit publicly…can’t forget that caveat):

5) Not doing the dishes. At all. In spite of having a dishwasher. I don’t even put them in the sink. The dishwasher is filled with (now clean) dishes from the last meal Joery and I shared before his departure, and it probably won’t be refilled until he gets home. In my defense, I also…

4) Only eat food that comes out of a box. Or is pre-made and everything is disposable. Actually, I just refrain from eating proper meals and instead graze on whatever is in the fridge or pantry. Potatoes? Totally mashing them up. Canned corn? That’s dinner! Cereal? Godsend. So really, I’m not going through that many dishes. Also, I drink right out of the juice container and eat whipped cream directly from the can, meaning I need to make a trip to the grocery store to replace both those things before Joery gets home.

3) Really awkward sleeping habits. When I was in college, I was able to blame my weird sleeping patterns on “I’m just going to take a quick, 3-hour nap this afternoon…I did have a 9:00 class, after all!” or “I have a paper to write, so I’m going to stay up until 6:00 in the morning watching TV shows online before finally freaking out about the assignment and pumping it out in an hour while hopped up on coffee”. Now that I’m no longer a student, I have no excuse except that I hate the mornings and my couch is comfortable. Especially after I drag every pillow and blanket in the apartment there.

2) I don’t shower. This is particularly true now, since I have no job and no classes to go to. If I have no plans to leave the house, I can easily be stuck in the same pajamas for days. Or nothing at all, depending how warm it is. I remember talking to my sister about the practice of going commando. She asked, “but if you take a shower and aren’t planning on leaving the house, don’t you just pop on sweatpants and call it a day?” My response: “If I’m not leaving the house, I don’t shower. Period.”

and finally,

1) Buying one of those tiny sheet cakes from Wegmans and stashing it in my room because I’m embarrassed to show my roommates that I am able to buy a cake that, theoretically, feeds 6-8 people and eat half of it by myself in one sitting (right from the box). Also, I don’t want to share.

Bonus entry: I had a habit of realizing my room got to a point where no one would ever be invited to see the inside (even my roommates) and I would proceed to run around like a crazy person tidying it up. Until, of course, I would decide to go out for drinks with friends and conveniently forget how to put an outfit together, spending an hour or so taking all my clothes out of my closet, trying them on one after another, before settling on the first thing I pulled out. But by then I’d be running late, so the heaps of clothes on the bed would stay there, and when I got home a bit later, tired and tipsy, I’d just push them all on the floor, starting the cycle of perpetual clutter all over again. This, though, can’t really go on my list because it’s something I still do and I’m pretty sure drives Joery insane.

For more eccentricities of the solo dweller, read this article from the NY Times. At least I’ve never left the house missing an essential article of clothing. Yet.

*Also, I had to look really closely at the photo I took, because I’m not wearing any pants at the moment and I wanted to make sure you couldn’t see any unmentionables in the reflection. You can, however, see the empty whipped cream container. It complemented the cookies.

Ok, I’m lying. I got the cookies today and polished off the whipped cream last night. Sue me.

And because I want to say a big THANK YOU to Alicia for her gorgeous gifts, here are pictures of the fabulous (and handmade) quilt and clutch she sent me for my birthday (in addition to peanut butter and girl scout cookies. Ah-maz-ing). Totally worth having the mailman ring the doorbell at 8am.

The purple matches my wall perfectly. And the details are gorgeous (even though the photo is not).

The clutch! I love the fabric.

How cute is this? She embroidered my name on the inside!

 

Stuck on you.

My contact is stuck in my eye.

I know, this is a ridiculous situation and I feel stupid. Who gets a contact stuck? Where can it go? And, most importantly, how the hell do you get it out?

I have been wearing contacts for around eight years now and, on occasion, I’ve experienced the awfulness that is having the contact fold up under my upper lash and get stuck. But a few blinks or a good panic-induced rub later and it usually pops back out.

This time, that didn’t happen. In fact, I think it made it worse.

I have no idea how it got lodged back there, but I am freaking out. I’m already paranoid about having things in my eye, I do not need this. It’s already been two days, so I arranged to go to a doctor to have a professional try their luck. Unfortunately, now I’m having visions of anonymous men in white lab coats and surgical masks holding my eye open with scary spider-like steel clamps coming at me with giant tweezers.

In this scenario, I — necessarily — am strapped to the chair. In real life, that may be necessary.

** update **

Ok, so it wasn’t my entire contact. In fact, the doctor may or may not have characterized whatever was stuck back there as “miniscule”. Miniscule. I don’t know if he ever had anything stuck in his eye but even miniscule things hurt like a bitch. And cause, apparently, a gigantic overreaction.

But I did learn something today: when things are lost in translation at the doctor’s office, it’s terrifying.

I went to an open consultation hour at a local doctor’s office, so before going to see the doctor a technician screens you. This included a test where they blow a puff of air into your eye. But when the technician was talking to me, she described it as “pressure” and not a “puff of air” (though, let’s be honest, I wasn’t too thrilled about the “puff” either). So here I am, chin and forehead pressed up against some scary-looking, complicated device expecting something to apply pressure to my eyeball. I panicked, a bit.

Granted, there was no running out of the room screaming, or crying, but I did close my eyes at least the first three times she tried to puff the air into my eyeball and, even after I knew it was just a puff of air, at least two or three times afterwards. After all, for me “pressure” means that something is touching your eyeball. I kept thinking (even after the puff of air) that something was going to protrude out of the machine and poke me in the eye.

I know, I’m ridiculous.

Also, did I mention I made my wonderful boyfriend come home from work early just to escort me to the doctor? And hold my hand?

As my sister put it, “I have no idea how he puts up with you.”

I responded that it doesn’t happen often, to which she said, “said the girl who cut off part of her finger a little while ago.”

Touché, touché.

In my defense, it was almost a year ago. A girl can have a freakout (or two) a year.

American as Apple Pie

Happy 4th of July!

Holidays can be difficult far from home, particularly holidays that aren’t celebrated where you are.

Last year, the fourth of July landed a few days after Joery and I officially moved into our new apartment. We were among the last people to move into the complex (our building has 7 apartments, the other 6), so to celebrate, we had a 4th of July BBQ in the private alley between the two buildings. It was a great welcome to the neighborhood: a map of the US hung on the wall (as well as a few other knick-knacks), country music was blasted from the speakers, and Joery got out the good ol’ stars and stripes and hung it from the fire escape. But what makes a 4th of July BBQ so special is the people, so our new neighbors really made the day.

The food helped, of course.

So this year, we’re throwing another BBQ with the neighbors and I volunteered (as in, Joery volunteered me) to make a dessert (or two). And a salad.

Here’s what I came up with:

It’s a Quinoa, Feta, Cucumber and Tomato salad (which was made by a friend after a night of hard partying at the Gentse Feesten and quickly became Joery’s favorite salad), a Roasted Cherry Chocolate Tart, and, of course, a Lattice Crust Apple Pie (my first!).

Eventually I’ll put up some recipe posts to correlate with the food, but now it’s time to eat!

Hope you are all enjoying the 4th (or just a normal Wednesday)!

Invigorate your taste buds


[by Rick Mereki on Vimeo]

My sister has a rule: she doesn’t eat homemade food given to her from other people until she’s seen their kitchen.

Now, I would have called her paranoid but then I watched the shows “Clean House” and “Hoarders”. The people just seem so normal. The kitchens, not so much.

I used to be an incredibly picky eater. I wasn’t so concerned about the state of the kitchen (until now, that is), I just didn’t have a lot of variation in my diet (or flavor, as Joery says). None of the food on my plate could touch one another — mixing meat and vegetables just didn’t happen. I ate my steaks well-done and never ate anything that came out of the ocean. Or lake. Or any body of water, really. The only meats I touched were either from a pig, a cow, or a chicken, and if it was even the slightest bit game-y I would avoid it. Also, the only spices I knew and used often were salt and pepper. Sometimes garlic.

Since meeting Joery, I’ve relaxed a bit. Travelling and going to college also helped, since it meant being introduced to new foods that went beyond the meat-and-potato dishes of my childhood. I also enjoyed learning how to cook different things. Moving to Belgium was an additional challenge, since the pre-made, frozen dinners of America are not so common (and, perhaps it’s just me, but also not so appetizing), so learning to make things from scratch was necessary.

But now one of my favorite things about going to a new place is tasting the food. I haven’t been to so many places where the palette is radically different from where I grew up, so I’ve eased into it (and I’ll be honest, when it comes to bugs on a stick, I probably would pass). But even though there have been times where I really haven’t liked the food (boterham met Gentse kop, literally a sandwich with meat from the head, at the Gentse Feesten: sorry Joery) or times when the food made me incredibly sick (surprisingly this was the relatively safe choice of lasagna in Aix-en-Provence), more often than not I enjoyed it, even when I was skeptical (sushi/deep-fried mussels/kangaroo/escargot).

Dinner.

During one of my first trips to Belgium, Joery and I were staying at his parents’ house. One day, we came home to see a wooden cage in the driveway. As I walked closer, I noticed that there were pigeons inside.

“Oooh, babes!” I cooed (pun intended). “Look at the birds!”

Joery walked over, took me by the arm and led me away. “That’s dinner,” he said.

Now, I’ve never been introduced to my food while it was still alive. Actually, by the time meat gets to me it no longer looks like an animal, which makes eating it pretty easy (and delicious). So this was new.

We left the house for the afternoon while Joery’s dad prepared the pigeons for cooking. I’m pretty sure Joery planned it that way. I mean, I may be able to forget I saw them walking around their cage. I would not be able to forget watching Joery’s dad kill and pluck them.

If I was borderline vegetarian before, that would have pushed me over.

And if you’re curious, they were alright. A bit tough, but that’s because they were racing pigeons. Apparently, their owner was disappointed in their performance.

And we have furniture!

Our furniture has arrived! (Remember when we bought it, three months ago? I know, neither do I).

But it finally arrived this morning and was pieced together and installed by this afternoon.

Without further ado:

Of course, in order for the nice delivery guys to hang up all the cabinets/shelves, I had to disconnect the TV from the digicorder and sound system. Now I have everything plugged back in except for one cable (for the sound) that I can’t figure out where it goes. Actually, I’m pretty sure I know where it goes, I just don’t know how to reach the back of the TV while it’s hanging on the wall.

I would say I could just wait for Joery to get home to figure it out, but he’s in Italy until Sunday for work. So it’s either figure it out or watch TV silently (though that could be a good way to practice my Dutch — as long as it’s subtitled).

Now all that’s left is to buy a rug for in front of the couch and a light for over the table and our living area/kitchen/dining room will be (more or less) complete!

Of course, there’s still the guest room, bedroom, terrace and walk-in closet to finish, but let’s not dwell on that, shall we?

Dealing with ornithoscelidaphobia (aka, the most irrational fear ever)

My sister and I in Florida, circa 2005. This dinosaur didn’t move, so I was alright.

I have this completely illegitimate fear of dinosaurs.

Yes, you read that right. Dinosaurs. Those things that have been dead for, oh, I don’t know, 65 million years.

I blame my parents.

It all started after my parents took my brothers and sister and I to a dinosaur museum/theme park that featured moving animatronic dinosaurs, scary, dark lighting, and rooms filled with growls and rumbles. I think they thought it would be enjoyable. After all, we loved “The Land Before Time”.

They were wrong.

My five-year-old self was terrified. I was young, but I’d like to think that I understood the dinosaurs wouldn’t  actually hurt me, but the set-up was so realistic that I barely made it out of the lobby. And once I was out of the lobby, I immediately returned (it was the only well-lit room). And I’m pretty sure the first room was only the herbivores. I don’t even want to think about what would have happened had I been confronted by T-Rex.

“Jurassic Park” also could have contributed to this fear. Before watching that movie, dinosaurs were the lovable creatures who were just trying to stay alive and find their moms.

Anyway, fast-forward thirteen years. My mom, sister and I are boarding the dinosaur ride at Disney World. Being 18, a fresh high school graduate months away from leaving the nest and embarking on the new adventure called ‘college’, I thought my dinosaur fears were behind me.

They were not.

I spent the majority of the ride with my head buried in my mom’s shoulder. I’m pretty sure I only saw about 50 percent of it, but I’m 100 percent sure that what I did see cemented my fear of dinosaurs (even if they were neon-colored, flashy ones). It was actually rather embarrassing to exit the ride and check out the photo wall (I didn’t realize a photo was even taken, what with all the flashing lights and roars. And the fact that my main view was of my mom’s back) just to see a picture of you (and your sister, btw) cowering with mom sitting in the middle, laughing.

It was not flattering.

During the same vacation, I had another terrifying, death-flashing-before-my-eyes encounter with dinosaurs, though the terror wasn’t entirely dinosaur-related. It all went down in Universal Studios on the Jurassic Park ride — one of those boat rides where you float around for a bit before being pulled to a top of a huge hill, making a big splash when you reach the bottom. I was getting on as a single rider (in a family of six, waiting in line so you all get on the same train takes three times as long) and was paired with a family of four: mother, father, and two young children (probably around 8 and 11 years old). I was sitting on the outside of the boat with one little kid next to me. His mom sat next to him, then the other kid, and then the father.

Now, the family was probably really nice. The mom attempted to strike up a conversation, but as soon as the ride started I began to panic.

You see, the family was rather large. As in the big-boned kind of large. When the ride attendant put the safety bar down (and it was just a bar) it barely moved. I kept yanking on it, trying to get it to go a bit further down, before looking over and realizing it was already digging in to the father’s stomach.

This would not be good.

There was nothing holding me in to the stupid little boat. The bar left enough space on the end that I could have easily gotten out without any problems. In fact, my sister probably could have sat on my lap and we would have still been comfortable. I kept thinking the attendant would notice and let me catch the next ride, but once we were seated and the bar was “down” he gave the signal and we were off.

The entire time the boat took its little tour through the jungle, rode its way into the science lab that was being attacked by raptors, and was almost was eaten by T-Rex, dinosaurs were the least of my worries. Instead, a movie played over and over again in my head of the next day’s news broadcast with a video of the boat going down and me sliding out the side and falling to my death.

I had quite the imagination.

Anyway, in an effort to protect myself, I slowly slide my way to the center of the boat. By the time we reached the highest point and started to go down, I had pushed the poor little boy so close against his mother that he could barely raise his arms as he fell. Also, an entire person could have fit on the bench next to me, even though the ride was only built to seat five. And I had wrapped my arms completely around the bar, just in case I did slide out.

In the end, nothing dramatic happened. I barely came out of seat, and certainly didn’t come close to flying off the boat. Actually, the complete lack of movement made my actions that much more embarrassing.

When I exited the ride I did find my mom and sister doubled-over in laughter at the photo of me, with my death-grip on the bar and eyes wide with terror, squashing this poor little kid into his mom. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t a souvenir picture they considered buying.

We left quickly.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about all this recently because there have been these dinosaur posters popping up all over Ghent advertising the theater show “Walking With Dinosaurs” that will be coming to the Brussels Expo in December. It looks pretty impressive, but I’m not sure if it’s worth spending 35 euros to spend the entire program with my head buried in Joery’s shoulder.