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.

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.

My Weekend in a Castle

That’s right. I slept in a castle.

The Château-ferme de Laval to be precise.

Ok, so it’s more like a big manor than your typical fairy-tale castle, but in Dutch the name of the building is the Kasteel van Laval so for all intents and purposes, it’s a castle.

The manor is divided into five different vacation houses, which can be rented out individually or the entire manor can be rented for big groups (I think it sleeps 40 people in total). The grounds include a big community lounge area with a kitchen area, though the individual buildings have their own kitchens and lounges. There’s also a playground for children and swimming pool/jacuzzi combo (something I have never seen before) and a small sauna (it fits three people comfortably).

And it’s smack-dab in the middle of no where, which is actually a bit refreshing.

The manor itself has no internet access (which shocked me… I guess that illustrates how plugged in I actually am. I didn’t realize places without WI-FI existed) and is surrounded by farmland. But it’s a beautiful area with a ton of nature trails and other outdoor activities.

Joery and I made the three-hour drive to Laval, which is in the French-speaking Walloon region, a few weekends ago. A group of Joery’s friends, I think from his high school years, try to get together each year for a weekend getaway to the Ardennes, a region in Belgium marked by rolling hills, forests, and beauty. There’s about 30 of us in the group (including spouses and children), so the manor was perfect.

Originally, Joery and I had this gorgeous room in the cellar of the tower. It had a relatively low ceiling with exposed beams, white-washed stone walls, two narrow slits for windows and a sturdy wooden bed tucked into the corner. It was great. Until I found a spider.

Now, first it was just one of those thin little spiders with the tiny body and fragile legs that doesn’t really seem like it could really hurt you but you just don’t want to take any chances. That spooked me a little, but I was able to push forward, unpacked our bed linens and helped Joery start dressing the bed. That is, until I went to grab the pillows from a chair in the corner and I saw it.

Tucked into the bottom of a locked door (there were two in the room, I assume used for storage purposes) was a huge (ok, it was probably the size of a half-dollar) spider with a thick black torso and long defined black legs. I hate these spiders. They are thick and fast and look like they can really do some damage and because they are so thick you can hear the crrrrruuuuuunnnnch when you squish them (which, I’m ashamed to say, I tend to do. Mostly in a fit of panicky lunges and the waving of a shoe. I really wish I could be the type of person to gently pick up a spider and let it back into the wild, but I’m not. We have to accept it and move on).

So, while I’m perched on a chair in the middle of the room, Joery bravely took his shoe and squished the spider.

I wish that could have been the end of it.

Rather, I made Joery do a full-on spider check while I observed from my rather safe perch. Things were going rather well until he swept the curtain away from the window (the window right next to the bed) and… five more thick, black, aggressive (I know, I’m projecting) spiders were found. And, because one or two were in crevices in the wall where Joery couldn’t reach, we had to move.

While gathering our things, I also found a spider dangling from the ceiling which, had it touched me, I believe would have led to cardiac arrest. Joery swooped in and saved the day again, but you should have seen how fast I darted up the stairs with all of the luggage. I also wanted to take a picture of the space, but I was too afraid to re-enter. After all, Joery had just massacred a family of spiders. Who knows what kind of revenge the rest were plotting. Or how many were waiting to come out from behind the locked doors as soon as we shut off the lights. I didn’t have enough towels to plug the space at the bottom of the doors and still be able to dry off after a shower.

To put this in perspective, this whole event went down around 1:00 in the morning, since we had first had a couple of drinks in the main lounge before lugging our stuff to our room. I’m really happy to have a boyfriend so tolerant of my neuroses. And I’m actually pretty proud that I didn’t have Joery check to make sure no spiders hitched a ride to our new, spider-free room in our bags. It’s all about restraint, people.

Our new room was equally beautiful and two floors above the spider-infested cellar.*

Anyway, aside from the shaky start, the rest of the weekend was great. I learned how to play the Settlers of Catan board game (and even won the first time, to the chagrin of my competitors), I went on a hike in a beautiful forest, got to go in a pool and a jacuzzi simultaneously, I saw a cow run for the first time in real life (I’m such a city girl), and I enjoyed a relaxing weekend with good friends, strong drinks, and good food. I also befriended the cutest brother and sister duo (ages 3 and 5, I think) who taught me “verstoppertje” (hide and seek) and gave me a lovely makeover with a Hello Kitty make-up kit (at one point the little boy was just hitting my face with an eyeliner pencil. Black lines/dots everywhere. And when he finished, he stepped back, reviewed his work and said, “viola, nu ben je mooi” — Voila, now you are pretty.).

It was a great weekend.

Joery and I about to drive home.

*I’m exaggerating. I don’t think the prevalence of spiders had anything to do with the cleanliness or state of the manor. It was actually a really lovely place and everything was top-notch. I would recommend it in a heartbeat. It’s just an old cellar in an old (16th century, I think) building, so spiders should be expected. I just, apparently, can’t handle it.

Kattenstoet!

The cat of Ieper. Her blouse is made of poppies and the image on the front is of the big textile hall in the city square.

A few weekends ago, Joery and I made the one-hour train trip to Ieper (Ypres in French, Wipers in English) to see the triennial Cat Parade (Kattenstoet in Dutch).

I heard about the Cat Parade shortly after I moved here in 2009. Unfortunately, this was in September and the event had just taken place that May. To my disappointment, I would have to wait three years before being able to experience the awesomeness that is the cat parade. I mean, the main events include a witch trial and throwing (stuffed) cats from the clock tower in the main square. What’s not to love?

So when I arrived back in Belgium in January, I did a quick google search of cultural events that were occurring around the country this year. I figure that if I can’t afford a lot of travel outside of Belgium, I should start making the most of being here. Also, I really wanted to see the Cat Parade, and I was worried there were other events I would miss due to my ignorance (see list of different cultural events in Belgium here).

What’s a cat parade without a couple of mice?

Ieper is about an hour by train from Ghent. It’s located in West Flanders, and the city itself has a lot of history. All the gorgeous medieval buildings in the city center are less than a hundred years old. The city was a strategic position during the first World War, so much of the city was destroyed. If you do make it to Flanders, the museum In Flanders Fieldis a must-see. Currently, it’s undergoing renovations, but it’s due to reopen next month.

Me in the market square, before the start of the parade.

The cat festival itself revolves around three events: the parade, the cat toss, and the witch trial and execution. The parade is long. It starts around 3pm and was over a little after 6pm (though this was from my perspective, which was mid-parade route) and is completely dedicated to the cat.

Cats as companions of the devil. It was actually a bit scary.

The parade was divided into different sections. The first section celebrated cats throughout history. The floats illustrated everything from the esteemed status of cats in ancient Egypt to the perception in the Middle Ages of cats as the house-pets of witches. There were also sections about the history of Ieper, cats around the world, and cats in expressions (such as when the cat’s away, the mice will play, or in Dutch, dance). The parade was really interesting, and while each section has an announcer who explains the history, it’s not really necessary to know Dutch to understand the floats (though it helps, particularly in the section about the expressions).

The cat toss was due to start right after the parade at 6pm, so I was getting a bit anxious when the parade went until a little past six. The cat toss was the bit I really didn’t want to miss. But, it turns out, they have to clear the square of all the blockades that marked the parade route before they can start tossing cats. So you have a solid thirty minutes or so to get to the square after the end of the parade.

The cat toss. Amazing that they used to throw live cats from the tower.

The practice of tossing cats from the top of towers dates back to the middle ages. They used to gather up the cats, which, as I mentioned, were considered to be the companions of witches and bring bad luck, and toss the (live) cats from the tower. Today, luckily, the cats are just stuffed animals.

The cat toss itself lasted about 30 minutes. The jester (whose job description also included cat executioner in the middle ages) stood on the balcony and reveled in taking his time, tricking the crowd into thinking he was going to toss a cat, but then lining them up so they balanced on the edge of the railing. Now, I didn’t even attempt to catch a cat. It was a mad house. Once a cat was thrown, people lunged for it. I’m rather tiny and going up against determined fathers trying to get a stuffed cat for their daughter was not on my agenda. So I just watched. I don’t know how many cats were actually thrown, but it couldn’t have been that many. Maybe 30, at most. So chances are, you won’t be catching one. The same cats, though, are for sale all around the city, so the chance to purchase a memento is there.

After the cat toss, the witch trial begins in the center of the square. This is the only part of the day when it becomes useful to know a bit of Dutch (though the West-Flemish dialect is difficult even for Dutch speakers to understand). While the beginning of the trial is announced in French, Dutch and English, the rest is just in Dutch. It’s not too difficult to follow (after all, the bonfire is already constructed, so there’s no surprise how it’s going to end), but the accusations are fun to understand. Joery had to help with the translations a bit, but the accused woman was said to not only have poisoned her neighbor, but she also appeared to a man in the night, was able to get inside his house even though the doors were locked and, with her mind, force him to touch himself. Yes, what the Belgians consider family-friendly witch accusations includes stories about masturbation.

Once the grand inquisitor finds the woman guilty, the townspeople swarm the accused, eventually switching her out for a dummy. The dummy is then carried by the executioner to the bonfire and tossed on top.

Not going so well…

Now, this is the part of the day that didn’t go exactly as planned. The executioner poured some gasoline on the fire, lit a torch and, with a whoosh, the witch was engulfed in flames. For about a second. Unfortunately, the flames were extinguished rather quickly (my hypothesis is that the wood was too wet, so the only thing that burned was the gasoline). The only thing to actually catch fire was the poor witch’s foot. So, while the witch slowly burned, the poor executioner scrambled to try to get the rest of the fire lit. This included picking up a broken pint glass, filling it with gasoline and throwing it on the fire. He also at one point took a lighter out of his pocket and tried to light some paper on fire, but it didn’t really work. The day ended with confused applause and a burning witch perched on a pile of wood.

Now, after experiencing the event, I want to provide some tips if you ever intend to attend.

1) Arrive early.

The parade starts around 3pm (with a pre-parade of commercial floats that begins at 2pm), so it’s best to arrive at least an hour earlier. Joery and I got to the city around 1pm, but we ended up walking around the parade route for a bit before heading back to the station to meet up with his parents. Now, at 1pm there were still enough empty slots on the sidewalk that you could comfortably find a place to view the parade. By 2pm, the selection was sparse.

2) Bring a chair/stool/something comfortable to sit on.

“One moment please” — Some floats had a bit of trouble navigating the narrow streets, causing a bit of a delay between floats.

The parade is looong. We started watching the pre-parade around 2:30 (it starts at 2, but by the time it reached us it was closer to 2:30) and by the time the last float passed us it was a little after 6pm. That’s a lot of time standing (especially, if you’re like me, and half of that time is spent on your tip-toes trying to get the best photos). Fold-up chairs/stools would have been nice.

3) Location, Location, Location.

It’s best to get to the parade early both in order to score a place with enough space to park a chair and to pick the ideal location. In my opinion, this location is located either directly before the market or directly after the market on the parade route. If you stand too far from the market, you’ll never get to the square in time to participate in the cat throwing, which you really should stay and check out.

4) Bring snacks.

Like I said, the parade is long. Also, the streets are narrow and the sidewalks are packed with people, so trying to work your way to a fry hut or waffle stand is near impossible. Additionally, the prices are inflated for the occasion. And if you dive in front of the groups of kids trying to get candy thrown from the floats, you won’t be making many friends.

The cats of Broadway even made an appearance.

5) Storm the bleachers.

After the parade, the paid seats are, for the most part, vacated. This is because most people either 1) leave or 2) migrate to the other side of the market to participate in the cat throwing (catching). Therefore, by the time the witch trial starts, there are a ton of empty seats. Play your cards right and you could get a front-row seat to the trial (rather than standing in the back and only seeing the back of their heads through a crowd of people).

So that was my experience in Ieper. If you do make the trip, it may be worth it to stay until 8:30pm when they do the Last Post at the World War I monument for the fallen soldiers. We couldn’t stay for it, since we had a train to catch, but it’s something I would like to see.

And now I’m off to watch the rest of the EuroVision song festival. The Russian ladies are awesome.

Cultural Events in Belgium (aka, part of my ‘to-see’ list)

Performers dangling in front of the university library in Leuven (Leuven in Scène, 2010).

From festivals and parades to parties and re-enactments, Belgium — like many countries — is full of cultural events. After living here for a couple of years (and as the result of a bit of research), I’ve put together a list of events I would like to see while I’m here. Some of them I’ve already been to, others are on my list of things to do.

When I posted my photo album on Facebook of my visit to the Kattenstoet in Ieper, many people asked me how I heard about the event. While it’s relatively easy to find much of this information, I figured I would put together a quick post outlining what I’ve done and what I would like to do.Without further ado, here is my (ever-changing) list:

Gratis (free) events

Oiljst Carnaval, Aalst

This is probably the event I’ve been to the most, since Joery is from right outside Aalst and Carnaval is in his blood. It occurs the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, so the date changes on a yearly basis. For me, the highlights are the burning of the doll that happens on Tuesday night (and is the unofficial end of the festival, though most people keep partying until the wee hours of the morning) and the parade, which is Sunday and Monday during the day. There’s a parade on Tuesday as well of the Voil Jeanetten, but I haven’t actually seen that yet. They also have an onion throw where they toss onions from the tower in the market square, but that happens at 2:00 in the afternoon (ish) on Monday, so Joery and I have never actually made it there.

Kattenstoet, Ieper

This festival occurs every three years in the city of Ieper (a wonderful city to visit on it’s own). The festival includes a parade that details the history of the cat throughout the world as well as in the city of Ieper, a witch trial (which ends with the witch in flames), and the tossing of cats from the clock tower in the market square. It’s a great day trip, providing the weather is good, though I would caution you to get there about an hour or so before the parade starts and to bring a chair or stool to sit on. There are also tickets you can buy to sit in the bleachers in the market square to watch the parade, but the route is long and as long as you find a place to park your chair you should be golden.

Parade of the Ommengang, Brussels

I have yet to see this parade, but it looks pretty fantastic.

Flower carpet in Brussels, 2010.

Flower Carpet, Brussels

Every two years, the flower carpet is assembled in the Grand Place in Brussels. I went to see it in 2010, and will probably check it out again this year. In 2010 I just went during the day, checked out the carpet and then spent the rest of the day in the city before heading back to Leuven in the evening. Apparently, in the evening there’s a light show and, on the opening day, there are fireworks, which may be worth planning around. You can also view the carpet from the balcony of the Hotel de Ville (for a small fee, I think). This year the carpet will be there for five days, which is exceptional.

Leuven in Scène, Leuven

Every two years, the city center is transformed into an open air street theatre festival. This year, it’s the last weekend in May. Some of the acts I saw when I went to the festival in 2010 were acrobats dangling in front of the university library, fire eaters, trapeze artists, and a silent theatre act. While not for the crowd-averse (they expect upwards of 100,000 visitors to the relatively small city center), it certainly is worth the trip.

Gentse Feesten (Gent Parties), Ghent

The Genste Feesten is probably the biggest festival in Belgium. It lasts for ten days in July and is a mix of concerts, cultural events, street acts, and stage performances. While the festival is free, there are a number of side festivals that cost money (Polé Polé, Ten Days Off, Boomtown, Gent Jazz Festival, etc.). Visiting Ghent during the ten days of the parties requires some pre-planning. It is easily the biggest event of the year for the city, so hotels and such are probably booked way in advance.

Marktrock, Leuven

This city festival is marketed as 100% Belgian, 100% free. It features Belgian musicians who perform free concerts in the old market square and the fish market. It’s typically held in the middle of August. In the past it’s featured such artists as Absynthe Minded, Customs, School is Cool, K’s Choice and Intergalactic Lovers. It went through a transitional period a few years ago when the organizers started charging an entrance fee and recruiting internationally-renowned musicians, but it was poorly received and went back to being a free festival.

The Ducasse, Ath

Also known as the parade of the giants, this festival has very religious overtones and the main event is the reenactment of the battle of David and Goliath. It’s one of the few events (if the only) that happens in the Walloon region of Belgium (where French is the official language). Unfortunately, I don’t know much about the Walloon region, so hopefully in the future this post will expand. I have yet to go to this parade, which occurs every year in August. This year there’s a festival that is the same weekend, so I may have to put it off for another year.

Projections on the old post office in Ghent (Licht Festival Gent, 2012).

Licht Festival, Ghent

Literally, “Light Festival“, this is turning into a yearly exhibition. The first light festival was in 2011 and was such a success (think 200,000 visitors descending on the city during the three days of the exhibition), they decided to keep it going. This year it lasted for four days at the end of January. The exhibitions and route through the city changes from year to year, but there is some continuity: both years projections on the old post office was one of the main exhibitions. The festival does attract a lot of people, though, so it’s best to go on the Thursday or Friday as opposed to Saturday or Sunday. Also, it’s January, so the weather is frigid and, due to the surplus of people, the cafés are packed. So it’s best to plan accordingly, dress warmly, and wander a bit off the beaten path to warm up with a hot chocolate or beer.

Ros Beiaardommegang, Dendermonde

This festival is every ten years (!) and the reasons behind my wanting to go are more personal than touristy. The cities of Dendermonde and Aalst have a rivalry that dates back to the middle ages. Legend has it that the city of Dendermonde hired an artist from Aalst to make the head of the horse of the Ros Beiaard parade. Once he was finished, the head was so beautifully constructed that, in order to prevent the artist from ever creating something that surpassed the beauty of the horse, they poked out his eyes. So I want to see the horse that caused such a ruckus.

Doudou, Mons

I read about this event (which happens every year on Trinity Sunday, this year June 03) in The Bulletin, a magazine for expats in Belgium. The highlights of this festival include a re-enactment of the battle between Saint George and a dragon in the market square. After the dragon is slain, the people cry out, “And the people of Mons shall never perish!” (love it). There’s also a procession of over a thousand people who carry the relics of Saint Waudru throughout the city. Saint Waudru is said to have founded the city in the 7th century. And if you’re in Mons, apparently there’s a little monkey statue on the front of the city hall who brings a year of happiness to all those who pat his head.

Semi-free events

Hapje Tapje, Leuven

This is an event for the foodies among you. This one-day event (this year: Sunday, August 5th) is divided into two parts: one revolving around food and the other around beer. It’s organized in cooperation with a variety of restaurants, and the culinary route through the city allows visitors to pick up tasty treats on the cheap. The main events occur on the Oude Markt, the Grote Markt and the Muntstraat (which is a very narrow street lined by restaurants). I went a couple years ago and it was packed, so be prepared to battle through the crowds. More information about this year’s event here.

Zythos Bierfestival, Leuven

I can’t believe when I lived in Leuven I didn’t know about this event, but it’s certainly one for beer lovers (or those of you determined to try as many Belgian beers as possible). Entrance is free, but each beer costs 1.40. There are hundreds of different types of beer to try in a variety of styles (so choose wisely!). I even saw a ‘Cookie Beer’ on their list, which I believe I tried in Brussels and is made with bits of speculoos cookie. It’s a special taste. (Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Neeli!)

Bollekesfeest, Antwerpen

Taking place every August, this is another event for food/beer lovers. This four-day event, this year the 16th to 19th of August, is similar to Hapje Tapje. It’s a chance for local restaurants, brewers, specialty shops, and caterers to share samples of their work. Entrance is free, but you pay for each tasting with tokens, priced at 1 euro each. I have yet to check it out, but it sounds delicious!

Tickets needed

Top music festivals:

Directions for the different stages/festival areas at Pukkelpop (2007).

Pukkelpop, in the neighborhood of Hasselt

This three-day festival occurs mid- to late-August every year and is known for it’s variety of alternative music. This year, the headliners will be The Stone Roses, Björk, and the Foo Fighters. Tickets run from 79 euros/day to 155 euros for all three days (not including processing fees). The ticket price does include public transportation to the festival (easiest way is by train) and access to the camping sites. Fun fact: the term “pukkel” in Dutch means “pimple”. So it’s pimple pop. Haha.

Rock Werchter, neighborhood of Leuven

Werchter is a four-day festival at the end of June/beginning of July. Tickets for this year are already sold out, but they cost from 79 euros/day to 195 euros for all four days. Headliners this year include the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Hickey Underworld, Florence and the Machine, dEUS, and Black Box Revelation. The ticket price includes transportation to the festival (easiest way is taking a train to the Leuven station and picking up one of the festival buses there), though camping tickets will set you back an extra 18 euros.

Tomorrowland, neighborhood of Boom

Tomorrowland, unlike Pukkelpop and Rock Werchter, is a festival I have yet to experience (tickets this year — all 112,000 of them — sold out in 30 minutes). It’s a hugely popular dance/electronic festival that looks as trippy as it is fun. This year’s festival occurs at the end of July, and tickets were 172.50 euros for all three days or 72.50 euros for one day (they also offered ‘comfort’ passes that ran from 110 euros/day to 242 euros for all three days. ‘Comfort’ appears to be access to the VIP areas). There’s also a campground (appropriately named “Dreamville”), and tickets were 34.50 euros/person.

Now, these are the most expensive festivals (as well as the most popular). There are also a range of smaller, more moderately priced festivals throughout the summer. Ones that come to mind include JosPop, Lokerse Feesten, Cactus Festival, I Love Techno, and 10 Days Off.


Up, up and away

Yesterday, I was finally able to complete one of the items on my 30 before 30 list. I have four-and-a-half years left before I hope to complete the list and, while I’m working on a couple of items (specifically numbers 3, 11, 15, 20, 21 and 24), I haven’t completed any of them yet.

Until now.

Yesterday I rode in a hot air balloon!

As I mentioned in the last post, Joery and I were lucky enough to purchase our furniture from a store who was in the midst of a promotional campaign where they offered free rides in a hot air balloon in lieu of a small discount off your furniture. Since the discount was smaller than the cost of a two-person hot air balloon ride (and because it’s on my to-do list), Joery decided to take the tickets. And Saturday, with predictions for clear skies and some wind, we got a phone call asking if we would like to ride in a balloon the following day.

The entire experience was great, providing you don’t dwell too much on questions such as “I wonder if I fall from this height whether I would bounce off the electrical wires or if they would just cut me into tiny pieces before I hit the ground”, or “if the bottom falls out of the basket, how long can I hold on before plummeting to my death?” (What can I say, I watch too much TV).

But really, I had an absolutely amazing time. The company was located in Sint-Niklaas, which is about 30 minutes from Ghent (it’s actually right between Ghent and Antwerp, so you could kind of see both cities once in the sky). Apparently the city is rather renowned for their hot air balloons, and every year there’s a hot air balloon festival in September that celebrates the liberation of the city by British troops from the German occupation in 1944.

Looking down...this is when I started wondering how stable the bottom of the basket really was.

Take-off was a little intense, since I had no idea what to expect. While we were waiting for our balloon to be ready for lift-off, there were two other balloons already preparing for flight. The first one took off so quickly and rose really fast. It definitely made me a bit nervous, so I had always imagined hot air ballooning to consist of slow ascents and gentle descents, which is not really the case. We basically had to hurry into the basket (we were with four other passengers and the pilot) and once the team let go and the pilot turned up the flame, we went up quickly. My ears even popped.

But once up in the air the view swept just sweeps over you. It was a really clear day, so we could see quite far (though seeing Ghent meant looking directly into the sun, so I couldn’t make out the city’s towers). We took off around 7pm and landed right after sunset, around 8:30pm. Most of the trip was over the countryside, though we did fly over part of Lokeren (and an industrial park after missing our initial landing space). I think the highest we went was about a kilometer up (3,280 feet), though we bobbed up and down a lot (at one point we were lower than the top of a tree that we drifted past).

Joery enjoying the ride.

The highlight for me was hearing a little voice yelling, “Hallo, HALLLLLLLLOOOOOO” and (after a bit of searching) looking down to see a kid standing in his backyard waving his hands like crazy. I waved back and I think it surprised him, because afterwards he ran all the way to the end of his yard and started jumping up and down and shouting (this time something completely incomprehensible), almost as if he was stranded on an island and we were the rescue balloon. It’s amazing how far sound travels, because we were quite high at that point in time. I also was able to hear the organ music coming from (presumably) one of the churches of a little village we flew over.

Another surprise was how much the basket wobbled. I don’t know what I expected, but any shift in weight caused the basket to dip a little. Not enough that anyone could actually fall out (it did come up to your elbows) or even lose their balance, but enough to be noticeable (and cause the above questions to pop into your mind).

We also got to see the sunset from the sky, though it was a bit accidental. We planned on landing in a field, but we got caught in a gust of wind and weren’t descending fast enough, so we had to switch the plan and go back up before colliding with a barn.

Landing was a bit rough. We bounced a couple of times and almost tipped over before getting caught in a small barbed wire fence. Joery hopped out and, as the pilot gave a little bit of flame to rise the balloon a bit, pulled us toward the middle of the field.

After packing the balloon back into the trailer, we all stood in a circle in the middle of the field and the pilot poured us all a glass of champagne and told us the story of the first hot air balloons.

The brothers who invented the form of travel (initially with paper balloons and rabbit test-subjects), noticed that after people rode in the balloon’s basket, they started experiencing problems with their balance. So they devised a test to make sure their passengers were alright to go home. Each passenger, upon disembarking, had to kneel on the ground and put their nose on top of their glass. They were supposed to maintain that position for 30 seconds and, if they experienced no balance issues upon standing up, were free to go home.

And, as we all took the “test” the pilot went around and poured champagne on our heads (apparently, baptizing us into ballooning).

And, just so you know, tripping while you stand up afterwards (as I did) is not such a good plan.

All in all, a very good day. It was a bit cold, though, so I seem to be a bit sick today, but it was totally worth it.

Watching the sun set on the balloon of our fellow travelers.

Alliejn in Oilsjt est Carnaval

Joery and I dressed in our Carnaval best!

Oilsjt Carnaval. It’s hard to describe it to the uninitiated. As one of the largest street festivals in Belgium (I believe rivaled only by the 10 days of the Gentse Feesten), the three days of Carnaval seem to be just another excuse for binge-drinking, partying, and dressing up in outrageous costumes (which, I will argue, is non-negotiable).

An example of the intricate costumes from the Carnaval groups.

But for many Oilsjteneers, preparations for Carnaval are year-round. The first two days of the festivities are marked by a parade of floats — ranging from the intricate to the obscene — that are built by different Carnaval groups. The biggest, and most detailed are official entrants and compete for different prize categories. But the parade is also peppered with smaller, satirical groups who veer from the parade route before the official floats enter the market square for judging.

I got to know this festival rather well over the last three years. Joery grew up outside of Aalst (Oilsjt is Aalst in the city’s dialect), and he takes his Carnaval preparations seriously. Carnival music starts playing in the apartment at the end of January, and we can’t drive near Aalst without Radio Ajoin on. In fact, the first year I accompanied Joery to the festivities he told me, “I don’t care if you get tired and want to go home early. This is Carnaval. I will not leave.”

And this seems to be the mentality of many Carnaval-goers. Carnaval represents a special time of the year when one can dress up in politically incorrect, satirical, ridiculous costumes and take over a city. Businesses and streets close and as you get closer to the city center the number of “normal” people you see becomes fewer and fewer. Rather, the roads are filled with men (and women) in fur coats, wigs, lampshade-hats, and fake eyelashes, clutching their pocketbooks and pushing their festival wagons (aka baby-buggies and shopping carts that have been converted to beer storage units).

As it gets dark, the costumes start lighting up.

It’s a chance for people to disappear into their costumes and let a totally different aspect of their personality shine. The satirical nature of the costumes and parade floats is notorious throughout Belgium. This year, a common theme of many of the smaller, informal groups (though some of the larger floats as well) circled around the unfortunate video that appeared over the summer of the city’s mayor having sex with her then-boyfriend on top of a tower while vacationing in Spain (the video itself is pretty PG — no nudity or anything — but it is very clear what’s going on). Other themes poked fun at local, national and international politics and pop culture references, such as the death of Amy Winehouse and the extended period (to say the least) it took for Belgium to form a national government.

And yes, it’s an opportunity to party.

After the parade on Sunday (which typically begins at 1:00pm and ends around 11:00pm — there are many groups and the parade route not only is long, but is hampered by obstacles like bridges and narrow turns, which are difficult for some of the larger floats to navigate around), the “pompiers” (literally “firetrucks”, but is actually a reference to old firetrucks that have been outfitted with speakers and lights) stream back into the market square, form a circle, and hook up their speakers to a single system, essentially turning the square into a giant dance party. This (and another square where the same thing occurs) is where Joery and I generally stay until we head home around 6am.

One of the floats. This one references the election for a new Belgian prime minister -- Who will it be?

There are other aspects of Carnaval that I haven’t had the chance to see (yet) and the entire celebration itself has been recognized by UNESCO since 2010 for it’s “Intangible Cultural Heritage”. For instance, on Monday afternoon the Prince Carnaval (who campaigns and is elected by the Carnaval groups) throws onions or candy from the top of the bell tower in the market square and there’s also the “Dance of the Broomsticks”, which I don’t know much about. But these things tend to happen in the afternoon on Monday, which is usually when Joery and I are recovering from the night before.

Carnaval itself is a great experience, particularly if you really delve into it. In my opinion, the amount of fun you have is directly related to how much effort you put into your costume (after all, most of the members of the official groups spend much of the year designing and making their outfits). The perception of what is “normal” is completely turned upside down, with many people surprised to see someone cutting through the crowd in jeans and a jacket while men in high-heels and fishnets is relatively common. (Sidenote: while not all men go to Carnaval as a Voil Jeanet — literally ‘dirty Jenny’ — it’s the traditional costume for men. It stems from a period in the city’s history when many of the inhabitants were poor and couldn’t afford the luxurious, detailed Carnaval costumes of the bourgeoisie. Rather, they would raid their wive’s closets for their outfits)

For me, this is the appeal of Carnaval. It’s a way of looking at life in a different manner; a chance to poke fun at society, politics, and whatever else in a way that could be frowned upon in different circumstances. And it’s a chance to put on fake eyelashes, cake on the makeup, don a velle frak (fur or faux-fur coat) and dance the night away.

Dancing on the market square.

I first met Joery in 2006 while he was in the U.S. doing research for his doctorate. On the last night of Carnaval that year, he wrote me a wistful e-mail, describing the “Burning of the Doll” that marks the end of the festival on Tuesday night. He wrote:

The sculpture was completely incinerated by 3.45pm Eastern Time, that’s 9.35 pm in Aalst … At that point I lay down the phone, and I knew which song they were going to sing next, so I quietly sang along with the anthem of my city: Oilsjt goi stad van men droeimen, or \”Aalst, city of my dreams”\.

Most people will continue partying until six in the morning, some die-hards will only stop when they get their Ash Wednesday cross in church, still in their Carnaval costume. The priest won’t mind, he understands they mean no harm; he knows how important Carnaval is.

The Big Apple

I have a love-love relationship with NYC. My dream for a long time was to graduate with a degree in journalism, move to Manhattan, and become a world-famous investigative reporter. Of course, this was long before I 1) realized how freaking expensive living in the city was and 2) had the chance to move to Belgium (which I won’t say is better but it certainly takes the sting out of the dream-that-got-away).

Rockefeller Plaza

But I love NYC. My hometown was close enough that you could easily make a weekend trip (in fact, many people do the 2-hour commute daily, though I don’t see how they can stand sitting in the traffic). And while yes, it’s a bit grimy and in places crime-ridden, and yes, it can be over-stimulating, I find the city to be exhilarating. I try to make it a point to visit every time I’m home (at least once).

Now, while I have a general knowledge of NYC, I could never call myself a New Yorker. I don’t have the insider-tips or the know-how to really make the city work for me (hence the reason I want to live there). I can usually find where I want to go, but I have to do a bit of research and planning first.

Which is where this next point comes in. Did you know that the Museum of Natural History’s admission fee was just a suggestion? Yea, well I didn’t. The last time I went there (prior to finding this out), I think Joery and I paid nearly $100 between the two of us when you include the additional fees for extra exhibits and food. Craziness. This past visit? $1. I was going to give $5 but the rest of my party unabashedly put $1 on the table so I followed suit. Besides, I figured my last contribution will keep my karma intact for a while.

While I’ve been home, I’ve been able to head into the city for a couple of trips. The first was to visit some friends who were vacationing in New York for a few days between their other destinations. And the second was a trip with Joery to see all the pretty Christmas lights.

Though Christmas in NYC is certainly magical, it can also be maddening. Rockefeller Plaza was packed with tourists, to the extent that you just want to snap a photo of the lights and run. There was a line that wrapped completely around the corner of the LEGO store and while the LEGO statues I could see through the windows were impressive, I do not think they would be worth an hours wait with screaming — or at least antsy — children who will probably continue to be screaming and/or antsy once inside. Also, the stores that we did go inside (with no wait) also were packed. Long lines to try clothes on, long lines to check out, people squeezing past one another in the corridors. It was so bad I didn’t even feel like shopping. I know. Bad.

Both trips were very enjoyable and included a handful of must-see tourist stops — the Museum of Natural History, a walk in Central Park, the Top of the Rock at Rockefeller Center, Macy’s, etc. But my favorite part of each trip was definitely sitting in the cafe (Max Brenner’s has the best hot cocoa — and “hug mugs”) or bar with friends and catching up.

And regardless of how Lifetime movie-esque the ending of this post is, I’m leaving it. Because such is life (sometimes).

Will the real Mommy please stand up?

Me and Laura (or Laura and I, though I'm on the left. Grammar?).

I have a twin sister, Laura, who has two adorable little boys, ages 2 and 3. Now, Laura and I aren’t identical, but it is rather easy to confuse the two of us. We look incredibly similar, particularly if we aren’t standing next to each other when you can really focus on the differences.

A couple of days a week, when Laura has to work late, I pick the boys up from daycare. Usually Mommy has explained to them in the morning when she drops them off that Aunt Karin will be picking them up, so they’re somewhat prepared when a Mommy-looklalike strolls through the door.

Friday, however, Laura was running late from her dentist appointment, so she called to ask me to get them. I had been talking to her on the phone in the morning when she dropped them off, and I heard her tell Jessie (the oldest) that she would be taking them home in the evening. This was going to be a problem.

I drove over to daycare in my parent’s van, thinking that maybe it would be easier to just pretend to be Mommy. But the car, if nothing else, was sure to give me away (Jessie is incredibly observant). So I prepared to break their little hearts.

Jessie and Wyatt were waiting in the foyer when I walked in to pick them up. In the split second I entered their little faces went from ecstasy  to confusion to I-can’t-believe-Mommy-has-abandoned-me-my-world-is-over pain. You could literally see the joy dripping off their faces.

Now, I can’t take it too personally, because I know all to well why they are reacting this way. My dad has a twin brother and they look almost identical. Their voices however, are quite different. When I was little, I have vivid memories of climbing into Uncle Joe’s lap at family gatherings and then, once securely seated, hearing him say something and realizing that he is not, in fact, Daddy. I would freeze, perched on the top of his lap thinking “Daddy is never going to forgive me for not knowing who he is” and “how the hell do I get down?”, the panic slowly creeping in.

So, kiddos, I get it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel the slightest twinge of hurt when you start screaming, “NOOOOOO! I WANT MOMMY!” in the middle of daycare. Ok, that feeling is most likely embarrassment, but potato/patato.

A little sidenote: Wyatt, the youngest, has come up with an ingenious (for his two years) way of determining who’s the “real” mommy. If I walk into the room, he’ll look at me quizzically before asking, “What’s your name?”. I find this adorable. Laura does not.

How to catch a seagull in three easy steps.

Every summer, my family would squeeze our suitcases and beach gear into our van, wrapping up the overflow and bungeeing it to the roof, and drive the four-and-a-half hours (roughly) from our house to Ocean City, Maryland. It was our annual vacation: a week in a timeshared condo, right on the other side of the bay.

The trips down were mostly dull (though one year, less than 45 minutes into our drive my sister kicked my brother — she was sitting in the back seat and he was in the middle, shoving his hand through the seat and smacking her leg. The kick caused my brother to dislocate his finger so severely he needed surgery. I still remember my dad — who was driving — just telling him repeatedly, “just pop it back, pop it back”. He spent the summer at the beach with a cast up to his elbow).

Imagine: four kids and one handheld Gameboy that was on loan from my Pappy. The only games we had were Tetris and Wheel of Fortune, but we still fought over it as if it were the last cupcake on Earth and not eating it would mean sudden death (or something like that). With all the bells and whistles loaded into cars these days (my sister has a TV in the back of her car, turning her two- and three-year-old into silent, obedient zombies for the duration of their journey — or until the show is over, depending which comes first), four+ hour car trips with nothing but “I Spy” and the license plate game to keep one occupied may be a thing of the past.

But I digress.

This girl totally would have fallen for it.

One year, when my sister and I were probably 10 or 11 (pre-surgery-induced-kick) and my younger brother was about 8, we convinced my brother that he could catch his very own seagull and keep it as a pet. Without further ado:

How to trick your brother in 3 easy steps:

1) Talk to a younger, naive sibling about catching a seagull. We lured Greg in with the possibility of tying a string to its leg and flying it like a kite once caught. Be vague about the details. It’s most successful if you pretend you’ve already done it.

2) Devise a seagull trap. Convince the younger sibling to lie face-up on the sand. Cover the sibling with a white blanket, sprinkling some sand on top (make sure their face is covered). Next, put some pretzels or other crackers on the sibling’s stomach. The idea is that when the seagull lands on the sibling’s stomach to eat the bait, the sibling will throw the towel around the bird and capture it in one swift, bear-hug-like maneuver.

3) Instruct the sibling to lie perfectly still. If they start to move, yell that a seagull is that close and they just have to lie still for a few more minutes.

I think my sister and I got my brother to lay in the sand for 20 minutes while we drank root beer and laughed under the shade of the umbrella.

Younger brothers are great.