Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Entire English Language is a Big Exception to the Rule

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IF YOU CAN CORRECTLY PRONOUNCE EVERY WORD IN THIS POEM, YOU WILL BE SPEAKING ENGLISH BETTER THAN 90% OF THE NATIVE ENGLISH SPEAKERS IN THE WORLD. AFTER TRYING THE VERSES, A FRENCHMAN SAID HE’D PREFER SIX MONTHS OF HARD LABOUR TO READING SIX LINES ALOUD. TRY THEM YOURSELF.

En route to Zaragoza

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Against all odds, I arrived safely and on time in Zaragoza. My heart sunk this morning as I was on the first leg of the journey – a bus trip – and realized that I left ALL the tickets I had printed (airport shuttle, flight, and hostel) on my bed at home. It was too late to go back; I would have missed my flight and all the connecting means of transportation before it. So I just prayed and prayed, and hoped, and prayed that in this age of computers I would be permitted access to everything without my tickets. Fortunately the shuttle driver took pity on me and offered to use his cell phone to call the main bureau and check my inscription. Access permitted sans extra fees. Then I got to the Ryanair desk and was told that I'd have to pay 40 euro to have my boarding passes printed at the check-in counter. I explained my situation and the fact that I had already checked in online, as requested. Can you imagine? $60 USD for 1/3 sheet of paper that takes two seconds to print? For once I didn't try to hide my surprise and the fact that I thought a policy such as this completely absurd. But I complied and headed towards the queue for the “Passengers Without Print-outs” window. No sooner had I stepped into line but a young lady came up to me and said, “Mademoiselle, the lady at the register said to come back. She said that if you have your passport she can give you your boarding pass, no problem.” Perhaps my reluctant but polite compliance softened her heart. She was very kind and smiled warmly as she handed me the boarding pass. Once again, access permitted. Two hurdles successfully cleared.

Upon arriving in Spain I had the most wonderful realization. I understand and speak more Spanish than I would have ever guessed! 

Monday, January 24, 2011

Dutch Architecture: Colonial Style Meets Post-Modernism

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Amsterdam & The Hague

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I could spend hours telling you about how beautiful this city is, but I'll just let the photos speak for themselves...

Lone Traveler

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I just got off the phone with my mom, who is in San Diego right now, spending a day in the city on her own while my dad is in business meetings.  She said to me, "I got up this morning and was at the hotel by myself, when I thought, this must be how Shirah feels all the time. You kind of have to kick yourself to get up and go out and see the world - it can be hard when you're somewhere all alone."

She's exactly right.  As much as I love my independence, I derive so much of my happiness from - and feel most fulfilled in - meaningful relationships. And when I'm somewhere new, fascinating, and exhilarating, I want to share the experience with the people I know and love best. It takes determination, focus, and a little encouragement to really thrive in a foreign place. It's so easy to stay inside - both literally and figuratively.  I find that sunny weather really helps me get out of the house, but even then, it can be a challenge to burst out of our own comforting bubble and truly engage with the people and objects and events surrounding us.  Even now, as a seasoned solo traveler, I struggle with this from time to time. But not this weekend.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Nijmegen

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My trip to the Netherlands this week was lovely!  I left early Monday morning: first stop Nijmegen, the oldest city in Holland. 
(Side note: the Netherlands is the official name of the country, but Holland is also acceptable and used colloquially even among the Dutch people.)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

On the Road Again

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In just a few hours I'll be on my way to les Pays-Bas, otherwise known as Holland or the Netherlands.  In French, les Pays-Bas means "the low-lands" -- a very appropriate name as Belgium and Holland are perhaps the flattest lands I've ever seen.  In fact, besides my family, what I missed most while living here was the evergreen mountainous skyline of the beautiful Rogue Valley in Southern Oregon. 


I'll take the train from Brussels to Nijmegen tomorrow morning, to meet up with my friend, Hadrien, whom I went to high school with in Belgium and who now studies in Nijmegen, Holland. Belgian students are obliged to take Néerlandais (Dutch) classes from 1st-12th grades.  In 5th or 6th grade they usually have the option to start English as well.  After finishing high school, it's very common to do a linguistic exchange -- either in the form of a gap year or as part of university studies.  Some francophone (French-speaking) families try to give their kids a head-start by sending them to Dutch schools, where they become completely bilingual very quickly.  You see, Belgium is split in two: Wallonia, the French-speakers, in the south; and Flanders, the Flemish-speakers, in the north (Flemish is Dutch spoken with a lighter accent).  Both French and Flemish are official national languages. The linguistic and cultural separation in the country has been a big problem for a while.  April 2010 saw the most recent collapse of the Belgian government, and we're going on month nine without any substantial progress in negotiations to erect a new government. To better understand the mess here, click here to view an short animated film that does a great job introducing the situation in a quite entertaining fashion. 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Things can get complicated

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After spending the better part of the last two and a half years back in the States, I've forgotten how difficult and (often needlessly) complex certain tasks and processes can be overseas.  I've also been reminded of some of the luxuries we enjoy and perhaps take for granted.

1. Hot water.  There seems to be no end to our hot water reserves, and when we want it, we get it fast.  Even among my 5 siblings -- in a house of 8 people -- four or five of us can take steamy showers all in row before the hot water starts to become tepid.  Not so here.  Even in my host family's brand new, state-of-the-art shower, it just never gets hotter than 90 degrees.  Most Jacuzzis are set at 104-105 degrees, so although 90 isn't especially unpleasant, it's not the ideal experience that I enjoy back home. 


2. Mail.
  We in the US can pretty much count on getting all the mail addressed to us -- even the junk mail we don't want. And it usually comes in a timely manner as well.  That's not the case everywhere.  In addition to having a US Postal Service system in place that works better than most national systems, we have post offices with regular business hours and the ability to meet all our packaging needs.  FedEx & UPS  are even more comprehensive and customer-service oriented.  I love walking into a FedEx/Kinko's to print, copy, laminate, buy packaging, wrap my package, and send it all in 30 minutes with the peace of mind that it will arrive on time and in one piece. I'm disappointed to say that this has never been my experience overseas.

While I was living with my aunt and uncle in South Australia we moved across town and had the most difficult time getting our mail forwarded.  Then we were summoned to pick up a package but the package center was only open something like 10 hours a week, at the strangest times.
Yesterday I tried to mail the painting I bought for my mom to Oregon. What an ordeal!  I arrived at the post office, took a number, and proceeded to wait for my turn at the caisse.  There were no boxes or envelopes on display so I was praying they might have some behind the counter for sale.  It was not a very friendly place.  The postal workers are enclosed behind large panes of thick, tinted glass, with a hole smaller than my fist at the bottom through which to pass money.  In the center of the wall of glass, there is a 2-door chamber through which customers may hand over their packages to be mailed.  Unfortunately the biggest padded envelope was 1.5 centimeters too small, and the bonne femme behind the counter offered me no solution. I am not a content customer, and I am mourning the fact that both FedEx and UPS serve only corporate clients in Belgium.

3. Internet.  I am very lucky that my host family has wifi -- this is definitely not the norm here -- which allows me to work on my thesis, talk over Skype with my family and friends, and use email to clarify last-minute details of my internship with the State Department at any time.  
Even with the luxury of wifi, however, there are some things I just can't do.  I was extremely disappointed to discover that my favourite internet radio, Pandora, is inaccessible in Belgium due to licensing restrictions.  So is Playlist, my second-most-visited online music site.  And so are the ABC Network's free online episodes.

My list of things I love about Europe is still to come, so don't be discouraged: I'm much enjoying my stay here.  I hope you'll mail your packages, take a nice hot shower, listen to some of your favourite tunes tonight, and smile because you are blessed to live in a country of untold luxuries.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

More around Brussels

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This sketch of Le Grand Place is very similar to the one I bought there yesterday for my mom.  I think she'll like it a lot.

I wanted to share a few more photos from the last few days....

This first one is the park Tervuren in Brussels - one of the many immaculately manicured parks around Brussels.


These next photos are close-ups of some of the decorative façades in old town Brussels.
 
























La Place Royale
 
I love that there is room in this intersection for at least 5 lanes, and yet no one sees any need to paint lines.
Perhaps they are simply well aware that no one would respect the painted lanes anyway, and so have saved themselves the time and paint.

Adjacent to La Place Royale. Walk to the end of this street, turn left, and continue one block, and you'll arrive at the US Embassy.
It's difficult to tell, but this is a very old, crusty and rusted, intricate and ornate steel spire.
A group of casual statues, looking very statuesque. 




Monday, January 10, 2011

A Fiesta in View

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Well, there it is.  C'est tout fait.  I've booked myself a mini-vacation in Spain and I can't wait to spend some time in the sun!  One of my friends from the UK, a girl whom I studied with in Belgium, is on Erasmus (Europe's study exchange program) in Zaragoza, Spain.  So of course I had to look into the opportunity to visit.  Spain has been in my top ten "To Visit" since I left Europe in 2007, but I never thought I would have such luck to find myself there so soon.
And so inexpensively, as well.  



Europe is home to several small, intra-continental airlines. I'd heard that it was possible to find quite inexpensive airfares, if you land on a lucky date, but nothing could prepare me for what I found this morning while poking around Ryanair.com.  I fly out from Brussels to Zaragoza - a direct flight - on Friday the 28th, for a fee of 8.00€ -- that's $10.36.  And then I return the 31st for only 10€ -- $12.94.  Unbelievable.  At these prices, I can't afford NOT to go to Spain!


In four days I certainly won't be able to see all of Spain that I want, but Zaragoza is the fifth largest city in Spain (as of September 2010) and is spoken of as a sort of cultural crossroads. It's time I start a little research into the history, food, culture, and sights I want to see!


After booking this mini-vacation this morning, I got some work done before setting out en ville to revisit Brussels' Grand Place -- the old city square.  Here are a few snapshots from my afternoon promenade.  
L'hôtel de Ville de Bruxelles

From his perspective...
Dedicated 1698
Church of St. Nicolas
La Bourse -- The Stock Exchange (now houses NYSE Europa)
Covered mall one block from Le Grand Place
Looking out over Bruxelles from La Place Royale.
The large spire you see in the center is the top of l'Hôtel de Ville.


The next three photos follow a theme that I see a lot in Brussels: Mixing the Old and New; the Ancient and Modern. 
All of the sidewalks (and many of the streets in the old city) are of ancient cobblestone.
And yet, here in the middle of Le Grand Place, new sewer access ways have been installed.
New glass constructs grow up between old buildings at Le Place Royale.




And lastly, a glimpse of our Sunday afternoon ballade in the parc.





Saturday, January 08, 2011

Double Fête

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A lot of you have responded to my first few blog posts with some questions; I thought I'd post some select Q & A's here so that everyone can en profiter.  So here's number one...


What is the first experience that you missed about Belgium or Bruxelles that you wanted to experience after being away?
Believe it or not, the first thing that just felt right was driving home in a tiny European car on tiny, crowded European streets.  But the first night, yesterday night, my sister Aline and I left around 9pm and walked just a block and a half to a little bar to catch up with some girl friends, and THAT is the experience that I most missed....being able to leave the house at a moment's notice and literally walk no more than three blocks before passing 2 bakeries, 3 convenience stores, a tanning salon, a movie rental store, several fresh produce marts, a barber, a pharmacy, a bank, 2 bus stops, 3 bars, a "snack" kebab shop, 2 churches, a gas station -- it's incredible how close everything is. 


My last view of Oregon for a while

Friday, January 07, 2011

Coming Home

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I missed my first flight out of Medford and was booked for one leaving just an hour later, but it was delayed due to excessive fog, so by the time I arrived at SFO my bags were quickly transfered to my connecting flight to Chicago, but I didn't make it even though I sprinted through the airport.  Instead I got rebooked on Lufthansa and left for Frankfurt a few hours later.  From there got a connecting flight to Brussels.  Amazingly, I arrived only 3 hours later than my original itinerary suggested. However my bags are still in Chicago - they should be delivered to my house tomorrow.

The weather is typical of Brussels....overcast, drizzly, damp...but it feels like home!
Coming home to Bruxelles this time is even better than my arrival the first time.  I was thinking about it during the last, quick 50 minute flight from Frankfurt to Brussels: I feel so free - almost freer than I've felt on any trip ever before.  I speak the local dialect fluently, I know my way around the city - the roads, the best cafés and shops, the métro, the bus system, the trams and trains -- I just feel so comfortable here.  I was greeted by my host mom and little brother and sister at the airport, and it was immediately just like I'd never left. I came home to find my user account still on the computer in the office, and was told that when my older host brother visits friends in the quartier and decides to stay here for the night, he's told he can sleep in "Shirah's room."  

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Departure Day

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Apparently if a series of connecting flights ends with an international flight, each of the preceding legs is considered “international” as well. I learned this the hard way.

I arrived at our little local airport plenty early to catch the 6am flight to San Francisco. I regularly fly between Medford and Nashville, and have never seen more than a handful of travelers here, especially at 5am. So while I don't need to come early to beat a rush, I did learn that my checked bag needs to come early if I want to get on an international flight. Fortunately my layover in San Francisco is long enough to allow me to get on the 8am flight here and still catch my connection from San Francisco to Chicago. From there, it's an eight and a half hour overnight flight to Brussels.
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