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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

Note to future self: no more yard sales

Mom and I had our yard sale today and I can honestly say that it is not something I will be doing again anytime soon. This (and the previous) entry will just have to serve as reminders on why yard sales are awful.

I have no idea how many combined hours we spent digging through old chests of toys, dragging things out of the attic, re-arranging items in the garage to get to the things shoved way in the back.  But it was a lot.  Not to mention the fact that everything cluttered up the house for over two weeks while we waited for the weather to clear up (btw, it was a gorgeous day today, though a bit cold in the morning). I’m guessing if I combine the time it took my mom, my sister, myself and my dad to organize, clean, drag outside, display, and drag back inside, we probably all earned roughly 50 cents an hour. And I don’t think that counts the money we put into it (permits, signs, stickers, etc.).

But the frustrating thing is how much stuff was left. It didn’t even look like people made a dent. My mom and I were sitting there, at closing time, looking at all the stuff still on the front lawn thinking, “now what? Do I have to take this crap back inside?”

Also, people can be so rude! I get that the clothes are used. I get that it’s a yard sale and the leftovers will probably just be either given away or tucked back in the attic for another 10 years. But there’s no reason for you to be snotty.

My mom was in charge of selling my sister’s stuff (she was under strict orders not to negotiate too much) and a woman came up to her and asked if she could get the infant clothes for 25 cents a piece instead of $1. Mom explained that she was selling the clothes for my sister, who wasn’t present, and the lowest she felt comfortable going was 50 cents a piece. Rather than accepting that — like nearly every other person — the woman went on to say that the clothes were stained (which they weren’t — my mom painstakingly went through every item of clothing, teddy bear, toy, dish, figurine, etc. to make sure they were devoid of any stain, discoloration, dust, or random garage grime. I sold a shelf that was dusty on the bottom and she actually cringed as I picked it up to help the man carry it to his car). But the clincher: when it was clear my mom wasn’t budging, she goes, “does it really matter? You’re just going to throw this stuff away anyway.”

How obnoxious! Even if that is the case, it doesn’t mean the seller should just concede all their prices to the buyer. There’s no need to be that rude over a grand total of $1.50 (especially when you won’t find things this cheap anywhere else).

P.S. While digging through old boxes of Barbies, I found book reports that I used to make for the dolls. They had names like “Egyptian Cats” and “African Zeebras [sic]” and pretty much were just tiny scraps of paper stapled together with scribbles on every page. My Barbies weren’t just sitting around waiting for Ken to sweep them up and take them to their Dreamhouse. Hell no, they were scholars.

The yard sale gods have come back to haunt me — Updated

This is BS. Unless of course she's really saying, 'look how much money I got for pretending to have fun hosting a yard sale.' Then it's spot-on.

This summer, my parents finally had their house fitted for an air conditioning unit. When I heard, I was thrilled (my room faces East, so it begins heating up at sun-up and becomes stifling by 9:00). That is, I was thrilled until I heard that the air conditioning unit had to be installed in the attic, meaning that my free storage unit for memories, knick knacks and other junk accumulated from age 5 and up was now cut in half.

So when I arrived back in PA my old bedroom (and closet) was filled with boxes and boxes of stuff I had either 1) been too lazy to hunt through and organize before moving to Belgium; 2)  known I rationally wouldn’t be able to use but was too expensive/useful to throw away just in case; or 3) completely forgotten about.

My thoughts on dealing with changing the cramped living space into something more manageable? Yard sale.

I mean, how hard could it be? Gather a bunch of stuff, throw them on a table out front, put up a couple of signs around the neighborhood and BAM! suddenly I’m surrounded by cash instead of old Barbies.

I was so naive.

Funny, but I'm too desperate to get rid of stuff to make jokes.

Yard sales suck. Not only have I already put hours and hours of time into sorting through the boxes of junk that somehow survived my Mom’s yearly purges (she vowed never to have another yard sale after the one she hosted the summer of 1996*), but I also spent yesterday night rooting through my sister’s crammed storage unit (we literally had to climb our way through it, balancing very carefully on assorted furniture and this-looks-like-it-could-hold-my-weight boxes to snatch up old toddler toys and baby clothes) and all morning putting depressingly low price tags on all my formerly cherished possessions (I know that my collection of miniature “homies” dolls will get little more than a cursory glance from yard-sale goers, but for years it sat on a prominent shelf above my dresser. That’s worth something, right?).

And now, after all the price-tagging, sign-making, stuff-sorting fun, it’s supposed to freaking snow on Saturday.

Hi ho, hi ho it’s to the dump we go. Ba da da ba ba…

 

UPDATE: It did snow. A lot. But most of it has already melted so the yard sale has been pushed to this coming weekend. If another freak storm hits, it’s all going in the trash (or to the Salvation Army. Reduce, reuse, recycle, people).

*I was too young to really observe what specifically turned my mom off of yard sales for good (though after the last couple days, I’m thinking this experience won’t be repeated by me anytime soon). I do, however, think it may have had something to do with a certain 10-year-old girl, when asked by a customer if we had any other vintage Pooh Bear dolls for sale, going into the house, rummaging through her mom’s closet, taking a stuffed bear that was not for sale (you know, being in the house and all), and selling for it for a total profit of 50 cents. I still feel guilty about that (can you tell?).

Wedding bells a-ringing

Shortly after I returned to PA, I was a bridesmaid for the wedding of my good friend, Angela, and her now-husband, Tommy.

Me, the newlyweds and the rest of the wedding party doing the necessary jumping photo.

The wedding was beautiful — outdoor ceremony right off a lake, great weather (after a long streak of rainy days), moving words. One of the things the priest said during the ceremony that stayed with me was, (directed to the other married couples, but applicable to anyone in a relationship) “If this union today only reminds you of why you took your own vows, Tommy and Angela have provided you with a priceless gift” (or something like that).

After the ceremony, the reception was held inside a country club. The couple had chosen the theme of old hollywood — complete with life-size cardboard cutouts of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe that apparently they had found at an antique store and were able to trade a box of DVDs for.

Angela also compiled these amazing movies. There was one for each of them, chronicling their lives through photos (from baby to adulthood) and a third that showed their life together. Each video was set to a specific song that captured who they are, apart and together. The videos were touching and included stop-motion images Ang had drawn that corresponded to the words of the song. In between the videos, she took scenes from classic (and contemporary) romantic movies and pieced them together. It was a really sweet presentation that I’m totally going to steal for when I get married (Ang, you have to teach me how to do stop-motion).

All in all it was a great night. Everyone had such a blast and there were always people on the dance floor. I don’t think Joery left the floor for much of the night (except to eat and refill his gin and tonic). It had been ages since I danced so much; I had a blast.

Towards the end of the night, Joery turned to me (I later found out he also asked the bride as well) and asked, “So, at what point in the night is it appropriate to take off your tie and put it around your head?” It was only minutes later when I turned around and saw him dancing with Ang:

 Because, as he told me later, it’s not really a party until the tie comes off.

Congratulations Tommy and Angela!

Sunday morning flea market!

Technically, Sunday afternoon flea market. What can I say? I like to sleep in.

Enjoying music in the sun!

Yesterday, the boyfriend and I went to a free concert by Sebadoh, an American band I hadn’t heard of before. They were supposed to play at Pukkelpop, where they apparently have appeared many times, so they offered to play a free concert in Ghent to honor the victims.

The venue was pretty close to where we live, so we decided to walk there. Walking, however, took a lot longer than we anticipated. Technically it’s pretty close, but there’s a canal that separated us from the venue and we ended up having to walk all the way around to get to the other side. Once there, it was a lot of fun. The weather (finally) was gorgeous, the music was good, and we met up with a few friends, with whom we enjoyed a nice, cold beer.

The area where we live in Ghent is up-and-coming. It’s located on one of the major canals into the city, and the whole area was formerly an industrial zone. Now, contractors are buying up the old warehouses and converting them into trendy lofts, which is also true for the building where we live. But there’s still a lot of old, abandoned factories, and the venue where the concert was is no exception. Apparently next year the city (or a private company, not sure which) is going to tear everything down to build apartments, but for now there are a lot of

Sebadoh performing a free concert in Gent

activities organized there. In addition to the stage, there was a bar and grill set up, playground equipment for kids, and even a fake beach with sand and umbrellas. It was actually pretty sweet (wish I had taken a photo…have to get used to documenting everything again).

We found out that on Sundays there’s a market hosted in the cement structure (though all the sides are open, so not really sure what it used to be), so we decided today to check it out. Since moving into the apartment, we’ve been looking for things to decorate it. Generally, the entire apartment has a modern design, but there’s a little guest bathroom (just a toilet and a sink) that’s French-country/antiquey. It totally doesn’t fit with the rest of the apartment, but I found this antique-style toilet at an expo we went to and loved it, so my boyfriend decided to concede the guest toilet rather than have me impose a French-country-inspired look to the entire bathroom.

Our new mirror! Excuse the hair/t-shirt, I had already changed into my comfy clothes.

Anyway, we’ve been looking for an antique frame to use for a mirror in that bathroom, but haven’t had any luck yet. Until today! I’m really excited about it. We found this mirror — a little banged up, but we want to paint it anyway — for just 10 euros (actually, I have no idea if that’s good or not. Neither my boyfriend nor I are good at bargaining, so the woman asked for 10-15 euros and we just went with 10. It had 15 written on the sticker on the back, so I still feel like we accomplished something).

We also ended up buying a couple of homemade cupcakes (there were free samples and I have a terrible guilt complex about eating samples and then not buying from somebody, particularly at these events, where everyone’s just a normal person trying to make a little extra money).

So all in all it was a successful day so far. The rest of the day I’m planning to spend finishing my thesis. The final copy is due this Thursday, and I still have my analysis to finish and the introduction and conclusion to write, not to mention all the technical formatting issues I plan to deal with later. I’m sure I’ll finish on time, I just need to stop blogging and start working :)

Hope you all enjoyed your weekend as well!