The Importance of Language

Ik spreek een beetje Nederlands.

I speak a little Dutch.

I think this is the first sentence in Dutch I really mastered. Like really nailed time and time again when it came to intonation, pronunciation, speed, and all the other elements that make speech come naturally to you.

I’ve been studying Dutch for almost six months now and I’ve progressed in my courses from being able to count, navigate a menu in a restaurant and say the above phrase, to actually writing texts (poorly) and holding, more or less, conversations (one-on-one. I’m not so good at following group conversations or conversations in particularly noisy venues). My sentences aren’t always correct — in fact, more often than not they are mistake-riddled — but most people seem to understand me. I even can “trick” store clerks and bus drivers and random people on the street into thinking that I speak Dutch.

But learning a language is hard. I have a ton of respect (and slightly more than a little envy) for the people who speak three, four, five different languages. It can’t be easy.

Language is the biggest barrier I face to really integrating into daily life here. In reality, most (Flemish) people speak English, so going about your day-to-day activities without knowing Dutch is rather easy. The universities offer complete masters programs (not so sure what’s happening on the bachelor level) in English, so studying isn’t a barrier. And while I haven’t found a “real” job yet, there seems to be reasonable opportunities for English speakers, particularly in Brussels and particularly if you’re flexible. So it’s relatively easy to build a life in Belgium if English is the only (or the only common) language you have.

But you will still find yourself in situations where everyone around you is speaking in Dutch while you stand there and twiddle your thumbs.

It can definitely be frustrating. It can be boring. It also can make you start to feel a bit unsure of yourself (after all, if you’re standing in a group where everyone is speaking a language you don’t understand and someone tells a joke, people tend to start laughing and look at you. I’m sure most of the time it’s just checking to see if you understood or wondering why you’re the only one not laughing, but it’s hard not to let your mind wander to a place where it’s asking if everyone is laughing at you).

I just passed the next level of the Dutch program I’m doing. The program is offered by Ghent University’s language center and is really for international students who wish to study in Flanders (in Dutch). Therefore, the program offers six levels of language instruction, ranging from zero knowledge of a language to being able to study at the university level, in nine months. The idea is that once you complete the program, you will be able to follow courses at the university, write academic papers in Dutch, and be able to succeed in whatever study program you choose to do.

It has a very low success rate.

I was having drinks with former colleagues the other day, and the French intern asked why I was studying Dutch. I said because I lived in Flanders and that’s what they speak, to which he responded, “yea, but why?”

I get the sentiment. On my CV, Dutch won’t really make much of a difference anywhere but here (or the Netherlands) and it’s not like most people in both those places don’t speak English. So why? Why Dutch?

I’ve asked myself that a lot over the last couple of months, particularly when throwing out job solicitations after reading “Working knowledge of French and English mandatory”. And especially right before my exams.

But when it comes down to it, I do live in Flanders, my boyfriend’s friends and family are Flemish, so Dutch is what I should be speaking. After all, why should they all switch languages because I’m in the room?

Also, even though most people have a working knowledge of English, it can be very embarrassing when you meet someone who doesn’t speak English or when you have an entirely different conversation than the one you attempted (imagine trying to explain what a yeast infection is to a pharmacist who doesn’t know the term in English. Or mispronouncing a word in a way that changes fire eater to fire shitter).

I think you don’t realize the importance of language — as a social binding agent, as a means of communication, as a unifying factor — until it’s gone. Not speaking the language of a country can be isolating; it immediately labels you as a foreigner, a non-Belgian. So there’s always that feeling that maybe, just maybe you actually don’t belong. It’s this question I tend to push away when stuck behind the scenes of a conversation I can’t really follow.

For me, the hardest part about learning Dutch is that I’m a native English speaker. Because everyone speaks English, I know I can fall back on it, if necessary. Also, I’m afraid my broken Dutch will be interpreted as my being stupid. So I get self-conscious and freeze, chickening out and asking my questions (which I practice by talking to myself all the way to the city hall) in English. Being a native English speaker is a curse and a blessing.

But in the end, learning Dutch is more than just trying to fit in to daily life here. It’s more than being able to communicate effectively with people (after all, I usually can do that now in English). It’s a personal challenge, a way of changing how I think to include another language. It’s understanding more about the country I’m living in and the people who live here (you know how Inuits have 100 different words for snow? I think Dutch has 100 different words for drunk).

Plus, once I become fluent in Dutch, Joery and I will have a secret language in the U.S. That alone may be worth it.

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.

Moving to another country = so. much. paperwork.

Ghent: My almost-permanent home!

I’m sure that Belgium isn’t unique in it’s frustratingly convoluted public administration system (though if you watch this video, you begin to understand why it’s so convoluted) and I understand that immigration policy is necessarily complicated. But it’s still a frustrating experience.

So remember when I wrote about the hassle of getting my fingerprints taken so I could get an FBI background check? There were a handful of other documents I also collected while I was home that I was told I would need once I arrived back in Belgium. This included such basic documents as a medical check-up and the background check, but I also had to travel to Harrisburg (2 hours from my hometown) to get apostiles for both my diploma and birth certificate. In total, I probably spent over $100, once you break down the processing fees, administrative fees, and general cost of the items (and not counting the trip to Harrisburg, since I turned it into a day trip to Gettysburg with Mom and Dad, who covered most of the costs — Thanks guys!).

Once I got back to Belgium, guess how many of these documents I actually needed.

That’s right. None.

Upon my return, I first registered in the city hall as a tourist. That came with its own annoyances, particularly that the woman who was helping me used four (four) of my best-ever passport photos (i.e. all I had left) to put on four copies of a document that no one has ever asked to see (and is now expired, so no one will ever see them). Then Joery and I had to register as a couple, which is similar to a civil union in the U.S., so that I could apply for residence status based on our relationship.

As it turns out, the only document I actually needed for legalizing our relationship was the one I didn’t get while I was in the US. It was the affidavit of celibacy (that name still cracks me up), which I ended up having to go to Brussels twice to get. Once to actually go to the US Embassy and swear that I am not married or in a serious relationship with anyone other than Joery (seriously, I had to hold up my right hand and everything) and the second time to go to the Belgian Department for the Interior because I didn’t have a stamp on it. Why no one mentioned that this stamp was necessary before I went to the Embassy, I don’t know.

To make a very long process short, after registering as a couple, having two visits by the police to verify we were, in fact, living together, and waiting for the police to send the documents back to the city hall,  I was finally able to produce the “samenwoning” (literally “living together”) contract, along with a few other docs, to the immigration office so they could issue me a temporary permit.

So the process that started in January is now (semi)over in May.

Example of one of my sweet photos from Paris. Yes, I was gripping the ferris wheel. We were the only ones on and it wouldn’t stop and it creaked a lot and I freaked out, just a little.

We still have to get my permanent card, which will be valid for 5 years, and to do that there are still more documents we have to collect. They include proof of health insurance, proof of a suitable residence, proof we have a durable relationship (meaning we have to prove we’ve been together for at least two years. I have some sweet time-stamped photos from my first visit to Belgium in 2006 I’m going to send in. Joery ruining all my awesome European photos with time stamps finally worked in his favor) and proof of financial means. We have an appointment today  in three weeks (our insurance company is kind of dragging their feet on processing our request) to turn in the aforementioned documents. This means — taking the 3-month processing time into consideration — I will finally be a permanent resident of Belgium — by the end of September.

Now, this experience differs for everyone. I think the process for me went rather smoothly (aside from a few minor setbacks, like not having the proper stamp on my affidavit of celibacy and needing to wait a  month or so between every appointment), but this can be attributed to a few things: Joery being a Belgian citizen, me being an American citizen, us having been registered as living at the same address for the last two years (which makes proving our relationship rather easy), Joery owning his apartment, us being in Belgium, which I hear has rather relaxed immigration procedures, among others. Every  situation is evaluated individually (which also means you can’t just call the city hall beforehand to talk about your case, you must make an appointment to get every stupid question answered. And just because you have an appointment doesn’t mean you don’t have to wait for an hour, or so.)

The best advice I can give (if you happen to be going through or trying to go through the same thing) is to stay flexible. Things will go wrong. You will have the wrong (or completely unnecessary) documents. You will have to suffer through long waits in order to get an appointment. You may also have to use all your awesome passport pictures on the document no one will see, leaving the zombie-photos for your permanent card (and no, I can’t just pry them off — I tried. They have a stupid stamp on them). Staying calm is hard. I had my fair share of mental breaks, particularly when my tourist visa expired and I still couldn’t get an appointment at the city hall. But as long as you satisfy all the requirements, it should be a rather painless process (at least in hindsight…nothing was that bad).

So good luck. And if you have any questions, please direct them to the city hall of your domicile.

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.

Six tips for furniture shopping

Joery and I finally purchased the last major pieces of furniture for our apartment this weekend. After many, many, many frustrating shopping trips, I believe I emerged from this experience with a bit of knowledge I’d like to share.

No more patio furniture in our dining room!

1. Never go shopping on an empty stomach.

Everyone knows not to do this when going grocery shopping, but it’s true for furniture shopping as well. Empty stomachs translate into snippy comments, “we-already-had-this-conversation” / “why can’t you FOCUS??” / “what the hell are you thinking? That is hideous” remarks, and a silent, angry boyfriend who’s driving home from a fruitless shopping adventure. Not fun for anyone.

2. Make sure you measure EVERYTHING.

Because that one thing that you forget to measure — how wide the television is, how far from the wall your cabinet should protrude, etc. — that space will be what stands in the way of a completed order or driving home with your tail between your legs and a measuring tape in your hands.

3. Ask questions. A lot of questions.

Does this type of material attract fingerprints? Do you drill the holes for the electrical outlets or do we have to do it ourselves? Do you mind if I try picking the coffee table up so we can see how easy it is to move? Even if the saleswoman thinks you are completely bonkers, she will smile and treat you as if you asked the most reasonable question in the world. At least our wonderful saleswoman did.

Which brings me to 4. If you’ve already visited the store, talk to the same salesperson.

They give you their card for a reason. If they’re busy, wait. It will save you the time it takes to explain the situation to someone else who doesn’t completely understand the problem, have them give you the wrong information, and give up (due to the hangry-ness problem presented in number 1) and drive home.

5. Hold out (if you can) for promotional events.

Not only did Joery and I get a glass of kava and piece of chocolate when we entered the store, we also got two tickets for a hot-air balloon ride (in lieu of a small discount on the furniture) and a coupon for a free breakfast, delivered to your home. Not too shabby. And now we can look at it as a small reward for the numerous failed shopping trips and fact that it’ll probably be over a year since we moved in before we get a proper table.

And lastly, 6. There’s no shame in haggling.

Sure, it’s a store that probably won’t drop their prices any lower than what they originally say. But if you ask, they may just throw in an extra one of those breakfast coupons.

So, in 10-12 weeks (the length of time between purchase and delivery), our apartment will pass through it’s thrown-together, lawn furniture-marked adolescence and, hopefully, mature into an adult space. And thanks to our wonderful saleswoman, Fadoua, who not only humored our testing the weight of the furniture, but also assisted us in re-arranging what we could to recreate our apartment’s “look”.

Adaptation.

I haven’t really written much since I got back to Belgium. I could lie and say I’ve been busy, but that’s not really the case. My days consist of going to my Dutch classes in the morning and then sitting around my apartment (or walking around Ghent, if the weather is nice) in the afternoon.

Adjusting to being back in Belgium was a bit more difficult than I thought it would be, for a few reasons. First, I came here on a tourist visa this time — Joery and I are working on getting a visa based on our relationship, but so far we’ve only managed to register as a cohabitating couple and have the police check to make sure I really live where I say I live — so my legal status here is different. Legally, I can’t work,  since tourists can’t get a work permit, so I can’t look for a job or anything to do to fill my time. And since I don’t know when my visa will finally be processed, I can’t really even start looking for work yet. Also, while the Dutch classes are pretty intensive, it’s different from being a full-time student working on a degree. At this point, I still can’t speak Dutch so well (I’ll admit, a lot of my problems lie with my need to say everything perfectly the first time and getting embarrassed when I mess up), making it hard to see how useful the courses have been so far.

So while in my mind I know learning Dutch is a worthwhile way to spend my time — after all, I’ve been here long enough and, frankly, what else can I do? — I’m at the point in my life where I want to move forward, find a job, and make a little bit of money. Since I’m not able to do that at this point in time, I kind of feel stuck in a kind of limbo of sorts.

Also, being home for such a long time makes you realize how much of the day-to-day life of family and friends you’re missing by being so far away. In my mind I know I wouldn’t be very happy moving back to my hometown — the main employers there are resorts and casinos, not really my dream career path — but the sting of missing friends and family is still strong. Particularly when it comes to my nephews, who are still quite young and changing quite a bit on a daily basis. The most heartbreaking moment since I’ve been back is trying to explain to my 3-year-old nephew via webcam why I can’t come home any time soon.

And while I love the city of Ghent, for the last two years the majority of my friends and social life was in Leuven. Getting used to a new city, establishing a solid social life here, takes time.

So I’ve been struggling with a bit of homesickness and the ever-present question of what-am-I-doing-with-my-life? But things are looking up. I still don’t know what I want to do with my life, but I figure I’m only 25, after all, and there’s still time.

Hopefully, though, I’ll be writing on a more regular basis. Now that the weather is warming up (a bit), I plan on filling my days with more than class and lounging around the apartment.

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.

A Note on Traveling

Traveling is great — seeing new places, meeting new people, experiencing new things…it’s all pretty much grand. The exception? Getting where ever it is you want to go. There is no “best way” of travel, just one that is least frustrating. And depending on many factors, it can be anything.

Driving is mind-numbingly boring — particularly if you get stuck in traffic. And, if you’re an antsy passenger like me (my boyfriend has said numerous times that he likes me better asleep in the car than awake), you’re also constantly reminding yourself (and perhaps those around you) that traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for your age group (I can’t help it, I panic). But it’s great for short distances or when traveling with multiple people.

Train travel can be nice — you don’t have to worry about being behind the wheel (stick? throttle? I’m not sure how trains are maneuvered), so you’re relatively free to move about as you please. Trains that go longer distances also have the added benefit of a food and beverage car. The downside, though, is their availability. While train travel in Europe is relatively easy to find, it’s virtually nonexistent as an option in the USA. Also, the distances are far, travel time is long, and prices get expensive. With the rise of low-cost airlines and the decrease in the number of night trains, train travel definitely isn’t my first option when planning cross-country trips.

Also, on trains you can only bring as much luggage as you can reasonably control on your own. After landing in Brussels, I had to wait for Joery to meet me at the airport so we can take the train together, since there was no way I would have been able to carry both my suitcases, my backpack, and my carry-on alone.

And then there’s flying. Time-wise, it is definitely the fastest option when going far distances. But once you add the hassles of security, luggage limitations, extra fees, limited flexibility (or flexibility at a price), and all that jazz, the pleasantness of flight begins to fade.

Joery with his confiscated snowglobe.

While Joery and I were in NYC, we spent about 20 minutes in a souvenir shop looking for the perfect snow globe to get his friend. After finally settling on one, he wrapped it and gingerly placed it in his carry-on to prevent it from being tossed around in his suitcase just to get to security and be told that it was a “security risk” and must be confiscated. Who knew?

I also had a ton of luggage that I wanted to bring back to Belgium (too much shopping at home). I finally caved and decided to just pay for an extra bag (the first is still free on intercontinental flights), but then I had to pack and re-pack my suitcases three times before I got the weight right (and, I should add, both bags were either spot-on 23kg — the maximum weight allowance — or slightly over. The satisfaction was almost worth the many times I had to balance on my parent’s bathroom scale while dangling an overweight suitcase from my hands before getting it, apparently, perfect).

Once on the plane, things aren’t so bad. I mean, occasional crying baby aside, I’ve never experienced an awful flight. Even the food isn’t so bad (British Airways has a decent chicken curry, and I loved Lufthansa’s cheese cake dessert). And now that most planes come equipped with personal entertainment options, the flight itself can go by quite quickly. The only thing that really irks me has to do with luggage (again). Since they board the back of the plane first, I’ve noticed that some people, on entry, shove their carry-on into the first overhead compartment they see before proceeding to the back of the plane. Not only is this inconsiderate to the person who now is stuck sitting in the front of the plane but whose luggage is all the way in the back (meaning they have to wait for everyone to disembark before they are able to retrieve it), it’s just lazy. If you can carry it into the plane, you certainly can haul it the extra steps to your seat.

Luckily I never had really awful experiences on any form of travel. I mean, minor car accidents, train delays, a missed flight and lost luggage (which eventually was found) aside, I’ve been pretty fortunate. When I missed my flight, though, I did break down crying in front of the poor attendant when he told me the next flight wasn’t until the next day. But I checked myself into a hotel, ordered a steak dinner, took a bubble bath and arrived at the airport about 6 hours early the next day for my new flight. And because of my breakdown, the attendant (same guy) didn’t charge me for my overweight luggage.

But I’m still looking forward to the day when teleportation is actually a possibility. Although, it’s likely that even then there will be things to complain about.