Tour of Ghent

I don’t even know how to keep up with all the things I’m doing. Today, I suppose I should highlight my

Our tour guide emphasized that John Quincy Adams wrote his letters to home from the spot I took this photo at.

Our tour guide emphasized that John Quincy Adams wrote his letters to home from the spot I took this photo at.

trip to the Belgian city of Ghent. The name might sound familiar to Americans, as it is where the treaty that ended the Revolutionary War was signed. It’s a city that is a 40 minute drive from Brussels. It is tremendously old and full of a splattering of different architecture styles. Canals run throughout the city; a testament to an era when canals were the lifeblood of the trading economy of Europe. Lining the canals are houses from 17th and 18th centuries. Ghent also has an abundance of cathedrals packed into a small area. Even when the city fell on hard times, glorious cathedrals were erected, trimmed in marble and gold. My companion and I first went to the heart of the city, which I consider to be Gravensteen Castle. The structure was made out of greystone and looms over a large and lively square full of tourists. The day was cold and windy but the streets were still full of visitors. I can hardly imagine how busy it must be when the weather is nice!




My companion and I dined at a cafe facing the castle. I insisted on sitting outside where we could view the castle’s outer walls. The restaurant offered thick fleece blankets and a space heater for us nutso patrons that want to dine outdoors. I ordered a Flemish Beer Stew with frites and a local abby beer. I really think I’ve been spoiled by the strong flavors of Tripels because the beer tasted a little weak to me. The stew was wonderful, though the broth was a little sweet to eat a lot of. I think next time I make stew at home I will add some belgian beer into the mix.

my meal and castle

After lunch, I took a walking tour of Ghent offered by the Ghent tourism office. I had the distinction of being the only American in the tour group, so whenever the guide mentioned the US, he would gesture towards me and ask for little responses on the topic he was discussing. The buildings in Ghent range from Gothic to Baroque to Rococo, sometimes even on the same building! I really enjoyed the tour, but it was to COLD in Ghent after a while I started losing feeling in my toes. Even when we entered the grand cathedral that didn’t help since the church was as cold as the outdoors. In the church a great piece of panel art was kept called The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. It’s called the Mona Lisa of Belgium, but I’m afraid to say that I’d never heard of it. I didn’t get a chance to see it either, because the church keeps it sectioned off and you have to pay extra to see it. Quite the commercial operation.


After the tour, we raced back to the castle so we could enter it before it closed. I should mention that I I spent a while here identifying which beers I had tried and which I still need to tastehave a certain fascination with castles. Perhaps this stems from my love of old buildings and the foreign concept of castles. As an American, we just don’t have castles back home. To me, a castle resembles something exotic and fantastic. Perhaps I may reflect on the numerous fantasy novels I’ve read that feature castles prominently: Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Dragonriders of Pern, Redwall etc. Castles hold a bit of mystery and excitment for me, although the castle of Ghent doesn’t have a pleasant history. After it was built, the many who commissioned it deemed it too uncomfortable to live and the castle instead became a prison. Not your every day prison, but a place for the condemned to be stored until execution and prisoners were tortured. Seriously, this place has a torture dungeon and torture museum. Sadly, I was unable to live out my dream of going inside the castle and catching the view of the parapets because by the time we arrived to get it, no more tickets for entry were being sold for the day. This handily won my award for biggest disappointment of the week.

Oh how I love thee, delicious cones.


For the last hour or two, I popped in and out of

shops in Ghent, specialty coffe shops, lace shops,chocolate shops and beer novelty shops. There certainly was a lot to look at. I even bought some street vendor candy called cubedons. These cone like candies are mana droplets fallen from heaven. The cone shell of the candy is filled with raspberry, grape or licorice flavored goo. You want one. Trust me. They are made almost exclusively in Flanders (Dutch Belgium) and their composition is such that they crystalize a week or two after being made. The result is, apparently  that you can only get these little cones in the area. If I go back I’ll buy a dozen more!

Orval – I think my favorite of the Trappiste ales so far, even more than Chimay. Three cheers for Orval!

Ramee Blonde – Sort of a generic belgian ale. A solid choice but I think I prefer something a little more special.

Augustijn – Abby Ale from Ghent. A little short on flavor. Very crisp. Maybe better for warmer months.

Getting the Hang of This

Daily, I am starting to feel more and more at home. In fact, today it’s even snowing! I’m considering making a snow angel on my balcony. I’ve done a lot of this this week, I should have updated them at the time because now it’s starting to become a jumble of beer and fine restaurants.

My weekend got off to a good start, as a surprise care package arrived for me at work. It contained a

Swedish Fish, Body Pillow and Blanket.

Swedish Fish, Body Pillow and Blanket. Also, someone had to emphasize that the contents of the box weren’t regulated as the place for a hazard label suggests.

body pillow, Swedish Fish candy, a blanket and a photo of my and my friends and a card signed by just about everyone. It really meant a lot to me to get such a thoughtful gift from my friends and I ended up tearing up at work. Here’s a photo of my package minus the photo which I’ve left on my desk at work. Now I have some things to cozy up with in my nice but rather barren apartment.

As for food, a colleague from work took me out for drinks, dinner and good company on Wednesday. The bar was actually an Irish Pub called The Snug. I had to translate the name for him. In a decidedly un-Belgian tradition, I ordered a black and tan, which somehow tasted mediocre and thin. It’s usually a solid choice for me, so now I wonder if my pallat is getting spoiled by heavy Trappist tripels. Dinner was at a hidden Italian restaurant called Chez Rino. We had a hard time finding it because it was really dark and unassuming from the outside. You walk in right past the pizza prep area complete with wood burning oven. The seating was cramped and rather unassuming. When I say an Italian restaurant, don’t confuse it with what you get at an Italian restaurant in the US, this place was 100% authentic. The staff spoke good French with heavy italian accents and ordering a dessert mouse meant it would be whipped up at a small station in the corner of the eating area. This is legit italian food in a way I have never experienced. The menu was in italian with some French translations splashed here and there. Really helpful, right? I ended up ordering a pizza and some Croquettes aux Crevettes. This is a deep fried dumpling filled with teeny tiny shrimp in a sauce that can only be described as mana from heaven. Apparently it is a Belgian delicacy, I’m glad I was pressured into ordering it because it isn’t an experience I will forget. The pizza was really something else. The dough was hand made and it was covered  in piles of fresh tomatoes, mozzerella, mushrooms and assorted meats. The edges of the pizza were singed as is appropriate for preparation in a good hot wood burning oven. It really was something else.

Fancy Kwak Glass

Fancy Kwak Glass

Through the end of the week, the study I have been preparing since I arrived was finally released for execution, which means the actual work I’ve laid out carefully for weeks can be started! It felt very rewarding to complete all the preliminary work considering the challenges of the language change, facility change and project change presented me with. Then end of the week was spent observing the execution of the study I prepared in the lab, which felt very rewarding and I’m learning new things. All around a big plus.

Once I finally got out of work on Friday, I had to fight through thick city weekend traffic to get home. I then met another new friend for dinner. We went to a local Belgian place and had to battle through an incredibly foreign menu. The menu was heavily Flemmish with some splashes of French that I could translate. Often the translations didn’t seem to make any sense. I read one as “feet of pig in the house”. I laughed that one off until we looked it up on the internet and sure enough, it was pigs feet slow cooked in house. I guess I should have more faith in my French :). Also splashed here and there over the menu was my LAST NAME! Apparently its the name of a city which has a cooking style that the kitchen was using frequently. I was struck at how I am a Dutch American living in Belgium who can only speak English and French. This mash up of cultures is really a Belgian staple if nothing else. I ended up ordering Waterzooi with chicken. Waterzooi is a Flemish stew that is set with vegetables, meat and a cream sauce that is too delicious to describe. The chicken was moist and tender and I could not get enough of the sauce. If you ever go to Belgium, give it a try! Everything in the Sablon area is dead after 11:30 so the Cafe Leffe gave us our check and clearly shooed us out the door by midnight.

Saturday I met up with some other ex-pat Baxter colleagues for dinner and drinks. We walked to a local place called Chez Leon which is a Belgian restaurant that specializes in seafood and of course, mussels. They got me to try raw oysters as an appetizer. It didn’t taste chewy, it mostly tasted of the seawater from inside the shell and the lemon that was poured liberally all over. I’m glad I tried it, but I don’t think it is something I would order on my own. The main course was MUSSELS! We got a bucked of mussels steamed in a tomato and vegetable broth and also a tray that was baked with tomato sauce and cheese. I was feeling nervous as I didn’t know how much I would like mussels and I was commited to sharing a large number of them with a colleague. Fortunately, I loved them. Fantastic texture and flavor. They were also a whole lot of fun to eat. You take the shell of your first victim and use them like pincers to dig out all the rest from their shells. They tasted wonderful and I was entertained. Such fun!

Following dinner, we spent a few hours at Delirium cafe. This part of town is much more lively than the Sablon tourist area closer to my apartment. We had to hover for a while until we captured a free table. I tried a few different beers on tap based on recommendations of my new friends and enjoyed some new flavors to add to my beer review list. Unfortunately, one of my new friends will be leaving Belgium this week after spending a year here. She’s ready to go home, but I’m sad we did not overlap for longer. The area of dinner and drinks seems like a younger and more active area. I’ll have to go back sometime. I haven’t even finished describing my weekend but I’m spent, I’ll have to wrap it up another day.

Leffe Brune – I was not impressed

Floris Pomme(apple)- Light and sweet, tastes a bit like cider. Can only drink in small quantities due to the sweetness

Floris White – Sweet while beer

Delirium Tremmens – You have to try this beer! Classic crisp Belgian ale.

Weekend Events

On Friday night, I found myself very hungry. Very hungry and very bored of my small meals I can prepare in my apartment. The bread mean and cheese here is really a step above what I’m used to back home, but even still I am bored of belgian sammiches. Given my hunger, I forced myself to go out to dinner alone in Brussels on Friday night. I decided to bring my 3DS and look for a casual bar. When I travel alone for work, I like to find the corner of a comfortable bar and cozy up with some electronic

Looks unassuming from the outside.

Looks unassuming from the outside.

entertainment and hang out for a while. For some reason, this feels more adventurous than doing the same thing in my hotel room and I’m not sure why. I locate a likely looking candiate, Cafe Leffe which is a short walk from my apartment. Leffe is a very very common Belgian ale. It’s the type of beer that you can find in cans and bottle 12 packs at the local grocers. It is also delicious.

When I get into the place, I realize I have misjudged it. Instead of a rough hewn table in the corner of a dark bar, I find myself sitting at a table with a white tablecloth surrounded by wealthy tourists. I quietly lament the 3DS in my bag that can’t come out and play, but I resolve to enjoy my time there anyway. The meals were around 18-23 euros, which is about 24 USD. I’m already committed so I might as well enjoy myself. I order the duck with apple brandy sauce.

While I wait, my waitress slices up some bread at the baguette station located right next to my table. The bread is something else. An extremely fresh slice of frech Belgian bread is exquisite. I ended up using it to mop up any spare apple brandy sauce that came on my duck. While the duck was fine, the sauce it was set in stole the show. I furtively hid all my uneaten bread in my purse for later. I ended up burning it in my toaster oven the following morning, which left me rather depressed.

Jupiler, the Belgian Bud Light.

Jupiler, the Belgian Bud Light.


On Saturday night, I went out to a party at the house of a friend of a friend. It was a party/private concert. A couple of touring minor musicians were invited to play for an audience of about 30-40 people in an apartment in downtown Brussels. It was difficult for me to find the courage to go to a party where I only knew one person and everyone was native French speakers, but I gathered together stray bits of social bravery and headed out. The home I was invited into was an elegantly decorated old studio apartment with a vaulted ceiling. All the attendees were dressed very stylishly and there were candles scattered all over the apartment. When it comes to house parties, apparently the same drinking sensibilities reign no matter the country. The kitchen was stocked with rum and coke, vodka and orange juice and a local cheap beer that I thought tasted like a light pilsner. It really was the belgian equivalent of Bud Light! I guess some things never change no matter where you are.

The artists that played at the house were guitar + single singer setups. Sarah Carlier ( opened it up with her striking voice, well timed pauses and simple tunes. This quiet combination pulled the attention of everyone in the room. Although she was clearly native to Belgian, she sung in English. I recommend checking out this video on youtube:

David Philips

David Philips

The second artist was a man from the UK (ttp:// David Philips surprised me by following up the delicate Sara Carlier with some modern rock/blues with a touch of country. These are very US styles so it felt odd to hear them in a Belgian living room. I even got to speak English with him between acts. It was surprisingly refreshing to be able to speak English at a quick pace with a native speaker. It made me realize that was the first time I had been able to do that since I arrive two weeks ago.

I was at first very nervous about being around so many French speakers chatting around me in rapid French that I could not follow, but eventually after a drink and spending some time there I found some very nice people that spoke to me in English. We shared some fun stories about work and travel and I enjoyed myself.

I finished out my weekend by trying to do some laundry and going to the supermarket. The store I found on Anspach the other day is actually open on Sundays and is quite large despite being cramped. I was happy to stock up  on cereal meat and cheese. The laundry was less successful, I found out the washing machine is front loader and I had bought regular detergent. After I bought a front loader liquid replacement, I found out that ALL Belgian washing machines are font load. So now I have two sets of detergent for my four month stay. I suppose I’ll never run out. Sunday also afforded me the chance to spend some time hanging out with Rob on Skype, which was a weekend highlight that left me feeling like my weekend was successful.


Chimay Blanche – Delicious and unfiltered goodness.

Juniper – Cheap pilsner. Sort of nostalgic as it tastes like a strong Bud Light.

Moving around Brussels

The last few days have been busy.

Driving in Belgium isn’t awful; I generally know what I’m doing. I’ve gotten used to all the roundabouts, and they’re actually starting to grow on me. The speeds are in kph instead on mph, but cars give you a kph reading so it isn’t hard to adjust. There is absolutely NOT right turn on red. Try that  move here and you’ll get into piles of trouble. The trickiest part of being an American driving in Belgium is the concept of priority on the right. Now in the US, we give the right away to right at stop signs and some other intersections, but the Belgians take this to another level.  There are almost  no stop signs anywhere, and at all unmarked intersections, you just have to expect to give anyone approaching from the right the right of way. This is true even for intersections where that seems unlikely, where the road on the right doesn’t intuitively seem like it should have priority over yours based on the relative size or traffic of each road. I still find some intersections confusing, but my method is to just not hit anyone and I suppose I’ll be okay.

My daily drive begins by jogging through small streets in the city trying to get to the outer ring of highways that loop around Brussels. The Ring then takes me around Brussels to where I work in the south. I could switch back to the train commute, but right now I’m comfortable driving, how very American of me. I hope to exchange large car soon for a smaller one. Pulling into my garage is nerve wracking because of the tight squeeze.

The strangest sight on my drive is what looks like a large nuclear reactor steam vent. It’s one the really traditionally shaped ones, like you see on the Simpsons. Belgium has taken the initiative of spicing up the tower a bit. When I drive by, the vent is lit up with a colorful and lively display. It looks like a work of art. I am unable to stop and take a photo while driving at 120 kph on the ring. I’d really like to get a photo, but I’ll have to wait until I have a driving companion to get one. Today the tower’s light show was pink and white hearts (it’s an active show not just passive lights). I suppose the nuclear power plant wants to celebrate Valentine’s Day just like the rest of us.

Another trial I should mention is the saga of trying to retrieve my Declaration of Arrive at Brussels town hall. The premise is, I have to go to the town hall within eight days of me arrival in Belgium to retrieve paperwork that verifies that I am living in Belgium at the address I gave when I entered. Apparently this regulation is new, and the local authorities have not staffed or organized appropriately for the major influx of new residents that need these declarations. I tried to stop in on Monday, and it turned out that even though it was 3 hours before close,  they were not accepting additional people into the queue. Given that I am at the end of my grace period, I attempted to go in again today. After an excruciatingly long ~3 hour wait, I finally made it to the counter. After a rough franglais conversation with the attendant, I learned that that was just the line to MAKE AN APPOINTMENT to get my declaration of arrival. I have to go back again next Monday (three business days from now). Given that this is a time sensitive document, I hope that the authorities are flexible given how difficult this documentation is to obtain. Anywhoo, I’ll be back for a third time on Monday, I hope it’s my last visit.

Local Musee

Local Musee

One very nice thing about these trips to town hall is that walking there brought me through a new part of Brussels. The street it is located on actually has a supermarket, not just a convenience store. I passed a gorgeous museum with pillars and stone lions. The signage claims that they are currently housing some of the Chinese terracotta army. I need to investigate when a good time to visit would be. I also found a Mobistar (one of Belgium’s three major cell carriers). I FINALLY have a cellular plan that I am happy with. I will get 2GB, 1000 texts and some 100 odd minutes a month for 15 euro ($20). I’m not sure what it costs to send text messages to Belgium, but friends you’d be better off using my Google voice number which I’ve set up on my phone. Message me if you want this number.

Beer: La Trappist Tripel – This beer is absolutely delicious and has all the delightful flavors one should expect from a tripel. This is a particular favorite!

Gilles de Binche

I’ve enjoyed my weekend immensely. I got home way too late on Friday do to much. Everything in the city center is closed after 7pm except some restaurants. Even the convenience store I tried to stop at was closed. A Steam sale and a suggestion from Rob prompted us to both buy Boarderlands 2. Everyone I’ve talked to as well as reviewers seem to like the game. Given the game’s 5.1 GB download, I wasn’t able to start playing until Saturday morning. I was able to try out the Siren and the Assassin class types. Though I’m not wild about the female Siren’s skill set, I can’t stand having Zero as an avatar. I find it annoying that the supposedly tough female character is the mage/support class. Why do women always get stuck with the support skills? It looks like we haven’t come far since Secret of Mana. Despite my conflicting avatar/skill set dilemma, I’ve been enjoyed the game both alone and cooperatively. Turns out, I find sniping the most entertaining, well that and setting my enemies of fire with the elemental guns available in the game. Headshots are almost imaba, it’s hard to justify play style that doesn’t focus on sniping/headshots, although that could be partially personal preference.

After spending most of Saturday playing games with my boyfriend, friends and brother, I was ready for an adventure on Sunday. A coworker and I attended day 1 of the three day festival called Gilles de Binche. Binche is the name of a City about 45 minutes drive from Brussels center and Gilles are. . . well Gilles. I’m not sure I can even come up with a US equivalent. I should note that I really did not wear clothing warm enough for the ~28F day. Though I had fun, I was constantly trying to warm up numb fingers and toes.

I have no idea what they were going for.

I have no idea what they were going for.


Gilles are exclusively men and boys from the small town of Binche. I thought at first that they would be street performers, but in truth, they are revelers who entertain crowds by marching around town to drumbeat while waving odd sticks. Why do they wave these sticks about? Traditionally, it was to ward away evil spirits in the 14th century, but now I think it is just fun for everyone involved. People come from all over Brussels and beyond to party in Binche. The mood at the festival is extremely lighthearted, the bars were full of tipsy patrons and the streets were crowded with children and tourists there to catch the fun.  The costumes the Binches wear on Sunday of the festival are whimsical.






They seemed completely random at times, and usually a large number of men (at least 5+) matched one another. There were also a few oddballs that didn’t match anyone, like this cosplayer I caught marching around. He seemed happy enough to pose for a picture. I also took the time to enjoy the architecture of the town.






Cathedral of Binche



Here is a photo of the old Cathedral in Binche. Catholic churches were simply the most interesting and beautiful buildings built in the early ages of European cities, so I always find myself fascinated by them during my travels. Whew it’s late, I’ll try to check in tomorrow.







Starting to Settle in?

Today was another first day. I went to work in a second company location where I met a whole new group of people. It ended up being very pleasant and the facility really captured my attention. In order to get there, I had to take the Brussels equivalent to the NY Subway. Here it’s affectionately called The Metro. I purchased my ticket from a real live person entirely in French. It felt like a small victory even there wasn’t a lot of dialogue. I purchased a five ride ticket and heading on down. The train itself was nice, but you have to walk through a line of beggars to get to and from your train at my local station. I’ve got no beef with the homeless, but one man aggressively ran up to me waving a small tray in my face asking loudly for money. Maybe I look like a softie?

The colleagues at this work location are a lot more accustomed to using French than English. I find myself extremely thankful every day that I took so much French. I found the facility very impressive, I only got a brief tour with general explanations. Since I will return to the facility on Monday, I expect to get a lot more familiar with the technical aspects of this plant.

I met a colleagues children today. I couldn’t get over how foreign I seem to them. I suppose every first time international traveler must experience this, but being a foreigner from a far away country feels so strange. I enjoy how the experience gives me some perspective about my place in the world.

On the way home, I stopped by a local Sushi Shop. I was in a hurry, so I purchased a premade sushi box. It comes with bamboo chopsticks and the soy sauce comes in tiny adorable bottles. No soy sauce mess when I pour out the liquid from a stupid packet!. +1 The sushi was good enough to come back for, although some of the flavors tasted a little off, not bad, just different than what I’m used to. I think I’ll return, as it is a great place to take out. I think next time I will order my fish fresh and tolerate the wait. Beer tonight is Delirium Red. I was expecting a lambic, but instead I got a sweet cheery beer, or is it sour? I can’t tell. Either way, I think I prefer the classic Delirium Tremens. On my way back from the Sushi shop, I spied this in an antique store. I’m pretty sure it is a real stuffed jungle cat.

Stuffed Kitty