Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Keukenhof, Holland: Flower garden (Apr 26)

This past weekend Shannon and I and two of our friends traveled up to Keukenhof, Holland where they are known for having the most beautiful spring garden in the world. Kuekenhof's park is only open for 2 months out of the year (roughly Mar. 20 - May 20). We arrived around 1 PM and had a picnic lunch in the parking lot on a grass field because we decided it wasn't worth carrying our coolers and other items around the park as it was rather busy.

It by far is the most amazing garden of flowers I've ever seen. I was told it is the most photographed park in the world when it is in bloom. The tulips and hyanthises are quite spectacular as I've never seem them get so large and full. We admired a breath-taking splendor of colors along with taking in the wonderful smell of all the flowers. They also have other things to enjoy in the park like sculptures, water fountains, a children's playground and small animal farm, obstacle courses, climbing up an old windmill, watching wooden clogs being made, souvenir shops and mention a few things. They even have a dragon made out of flowers in honor of China who is hosting the 2008 Olympics. Also on the outskirts of the park there are several fields full of tulips and other flower varieties like daffodils and hyanthises. In addition we saw a really cool parade where all the floats were made out of flowers (I'll attach pictures later since they're on a different camera).

I'm sure I'll be back to visit since it was such a wonderful experience!

Flowers everywhere!

Creator of the famous "Wooden Shoes / Clogs"

Flowers in the design of a dragon in honor of the Beijing Olympic Games

Tulip fields outside of the park
Traditional Holland Windmill

My friend Emilie and me

Royal Greenhouses in Laeken (Apr 19) & Ghent outing with Deloitte (Apr 17-18)

The Royal Greenhouses of the Monarchy are only open 2-3 weeks of the year around the end of April and early May, so we thought we'd better check them out. They are located in Laeken, Belgium which is basically a suburb of Brussels. This is actually where the King and his family reside while his official palace is in the center of Brussels where he exercises his prerogatives as Head of State.

Not only were the greenhouses quite nice, but the grounds around the Royal Castle of Laeken were also very beautiful. It almost looked like the King had a golf course around the palace with a few ponds scattered throughout the grounds. Inside the greenhouses, we saw a variety of plants and flowers, such as palm trees, geraniums, orange and banana trees and several more which I didn't know the names of.

Earlier in the week, Shannon's employer, Deloitte, had an overnight team building event in Ghent, Belgium where wives were also invited. After their meetings we had a nice dinner at a restaurant called Belga Queen that is located by the canals. The next day we all went for a short tour of Ghent which included a boat ride on the canals. This city has several beautiful old buildings along with a castle, clock tower, cathedrals and much more. For more information on Ghent, see one of my older blogs since this was our second time to this spectacular city.

Royal Greenhouses - Laeken

Japanese tower in Royal Gardens - Laeken

Royal Greenhouses - Laeken

Orange Tree in Royal Greenhouses - Laeken

Royal Greenhouses - Laeken

Medieval architecture - Ghent

Ghent Canals

Boat ride through canals - Ghent

Gravensteen Castle - Ghent
Medieval architecture - Ghent
Joker on stilts/springs - Ghent tour

Monday, April 28, 2008

WestVleteren Abbey: Where the best beers in the world are Brewed (Mar 29)

After only being in Belgium a few months, we decided that we needed to try the best beer in the world, which according to critics is made here. This style of beer is called 'Trappist' which is made by 7 different Abbeys, but WestVleteren Abbey in the Flanders Region of Belgium is regarded as having the best Trappist beers. There are 6 Trappist monasteries in Belgium (Orval, Chimay, Westvleteren, Rochefort, Westmalle and Achel) and 1 in The Netherlands (Koningshoeven) that produce this beer. As this beer is quite difficult to attain, I spent a few hours trying to get through on the eer phone, while Shannon was working. They only have their phone lines open when they are selling their beer and they only brew it when the monastery needs money. They're not like your other breweries which are quite commercialized. Anyway, a group of us went up to the Abbey to get our cases of beer. We felt like we were at a fast food drive through because there was a long que waiting to pick up each person's 3 cases of beer. The way they identify your order is by your license plate number and each person's license plate number can only be used once every 3 months. We purchased the Westvleteren 8. They also offer a number 6 and 12 beer, but were not available this time. After we picked up our beer, we enjoyed a few hours at their local beer cafe. On a side note, all bars/cafes serve each kind of beer in it's own special glass; thus, WestVleteren has it's own beer glass which you can see above. At the end of the day, we all agreed that WestVleteren beers were at the top of our list! I've attached their website if you're interested in hearing more about them.

Our 3 crates of Beer!

In front of road sign to Westvleteren

Group of us who went to Westvleteren

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Zythos Beer Festival, Moving to new Apt, Easter, general info (Feb 26 - Mar 24)

Sorry it has been such a long time since I have last blogged, but I have a good reason! We have not had internet access since February 29, so basically ever since we’ve moved out of our temporary housing. We actually still do not have it at our new apartment, but I was able to go to Deloitte’s office today with Shannon since today is considered a Belgium holiday (Monday, March 24) and thus no one is here except for a few dedicated workers! I’m hanging out in one of his coworker’s offices catching up on my emails, world news and our financial business. Anyway, we hope to have internet installed in our new place by early April. It appears that it takes a long time to hook up internet here according to our relocation agent.

I’m going to back up to March 1st when Shannon and I, along with some of coworkers, ventured to the small town of Sint Niklaas, Belgium for the annual Zythos Beer Festival. There were just over 50 different breweries and around 250 different kinds of beers to try. Everyone bought a glass and tokens and then chose which beer vendors they wanted to go to. We liked most of the ones we tried and ended up buying a few bottles to bring home. Here is the link in case you're interested in learning more about the festival.

Here's a little background on our housing situation. After we moved out of our temporary housing on February 29, we moved in with one of Shannon’s coworkers and stayed in their extra bedroom for a week because our new apartment didn’t have electricity along with a few other problems. We were a little frustrated because we had notified the management company/agent around mid-February that we had planned to move in March 1st, so we would need electricity along with the apartment cleaned and other issues dealt with prior to that date. However, I may have mentioned how customer service is not a top priority here, so these issues were not dealt with until the week of March 10. Thus, Shannon and I were finally able to move in during that week. We had already paid rent on February 29, so you can see that we were anxiously waiting to move in! Our shipment from the U.S. arrived on March 7, which I was quite thankful to see! It took around 1 1/2 months from the day our house was packed up in Lincoln (January 18) until the time we were notified that our stuff had arrived in the port city of Antwerp, Belgium the week of March 3rd. It was very interesting watching the shipping company unpack our 2 huge crates. I was praying that nothing was destroyed on its long voyage. Since most of the apartment buildings / houses are several stories high here, moving companies use an exterior lift to get items up to your apartment through your windows. It was quite scary watching boxes, furniture, ect... go up the unstable lift which consisted of just a platform with no sides. Since Shannon was at work, I had the liberty of telling them where to put everything along with supervising their actions. They were a nice group of Dutch movers; though, they weren’t the most careful with our stuff. I almost had a heart attack when I saw one of our bikes fall off the lift around 2 - 3 stories. Of course it was my bike, so I won’t be riding it anytime soon! I personally walked up all the mirrors, paintings and frames to our apartment for fear of them flying off the ’exterior lift’. A few other items of ours were roughened up, but we’ll just turn everything in to insurance that was damaged, so it should be fine.

We continue to furnish our new apartment since we didn’t bring over all of our belongings from the States. During the first week of April we will be receiving a dining room table, 6 chairs, 2 cabinets and a washing machine from a lady off Yeah, no more going to the Laundromat! Since Brussels is such an international city, there are several expats coming and going selling their stuff accordingly at relatively low prices. Also we will be receiving a couch from IKEA in April. For the time being, our dining room table consists of a card table and chairs and our living room furniture consists of a lazy boy chair and coffee table. We are waiting on hanging up any decorations in our living room / dining room until we get all of our new furniture situated. Several of the walls are concrete, so Shannon bought a drill the other day and some masonry bits and of course some other tools because he misses all of his back home! Thus, we continue to gradually settle in to our new place as we try to make our new home more comfortable! I almost forgot to mention, we bought a bed for our extra bedroom. This is in addition to our air mattress and couch, so pack your bags and come and visit us!

I hope you all had a nice Easter. We attempted to go to a French Cathedral, but went too early because they had changed the normal schedule of services and were having a special Easter service with the Portuguese an hour later than normal services, so we decided not to attend. Then we went to a Dutch Cathedral with one of Shannon’s coworkers an hour later because his friend new someone getting baptized. By the way, this cathedral was considered one of the Royal Family’s churches, so it was very nice. We went to a mini ’drink’ reception at the Deacon’s house after the baptism ceremony which was all very interesting. We also saw The Royal Crypt which is where all the Kings and Queens’ families are buried (magnificent tombstones)! Later on in the day, we ventured out to the Atomium, which is a giant, silvery iron molecule with escalators connecting the various "atoms" built for the 1958 World Fair in Brussels (we didn’t wait in line to go inside, but eventually we will). There are a few other attractions by the Atomium such as, Mini-Europe, BruParck (mini themepark / water park) and a huge convention center. Yesterday, we also road tripped up the Belgium coast checking out small ’villas’ that would be fun to visit in the Summer.

We’ve been having extremely strange weather lately; it actually has snowed the last 3 days here! Normally it never snows here, only rain! (not much accumulation, just some flurries).

Before I let you go, here is something to make you laugh and probably think I’m a bit too conservative. Since I didn’t want to spend an outrageous amount of money by going to a hair salon / hairdresser, also known as a ’coiffure’ in French, I let Shannon test out his skills on my hair. I told him I only wanted a trim, so around 1/2 inch, and he ended up hacking off 2 - 3 inches! After getting over the initial shock, he actually ended up making it look pretty good, apparently he thought I needed more than a trim! He wanted to do layers, but I told him he wasn’t at that level yet!

Moving in to our new Apt in Brussels

Snowed at Easter - view from our Apt

The Atomium - built for 1958 World Fair in Brussels

Belgium weather & day trips to Ghent & Amsterdam (Feb 12 - Feb 25)

Since it's raining outside today, I figured I'd update my blog. I unfortunately have to admit it rains over half the year in Belgium! The weather varies from 31 to 71 degrees Fahrenheit with your coldest months being December and January and your warmest months being July and August (They use Celsius, but it probably wouldn't make sense if I stated those numbers). All in all, it's better than Nebraska's weather, well at least during the Winter months! We'll have to venture south to Spain or France's beaches or even Greece's Islands to get some warmer weather during the Summer months. I can gradually see my little tan wasting away...oh well, that's better for my skin!

Over the last 2 weekends, we traveled to Ghent, Belgium and Amsterdam. Once again, both of these were day trips. In Ghent we toured a castle called the "Gravensteen" (aka "the Castle of the Count") which was built around 1177. We also visited Saint Bavo's Cathedral which houses the famous painting, "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb" by Jan and Hubert Van Eyck done around 1432. This medieval city has beautiful gothic architecture everywhere you turn. It also has a canal running through it since it used to be a prosperous port city.

This past Saturday, we went to Amsterdam where I was overwhelmed with sin! Let's just say I'm not use to seeing certain things that only Amsterdam can produce. After checking out the "Coffee Shops", where I literally had a coffee, but the air was quite polluted if you know what I mean, I felt much better about touring The Red Light District and seeing all the Sex Shops and even places for Live Sex Shows. In regards to The Red Light District, I have to admit the girls were better looking than I expected and quite a variety; though, it kind of disgusts me that this is legal! I don't have many pictures of this area because supposedly you could get your camera confiscated by taking them. Besides the wild side of Amsterdam, there are tons of cool canals, art museums, historical sites and old architecture within the city. Since we arrived in Amsterdam so late, we were unable to go inside Anne Frank's hiding place and the Van Gogh Museum, which I definitely want to see at some point. I have included a picture below of the building that Anne Frank was hiding out in, but it's really nothing spectacular from the outside.

Well, I'd better get off my computer and do something productive today...maybe study French since I had my first day of class yesterday. It's going to be a challenge, but I hope to be able to catch on eventually! Also the wonderful household chores are calling my name! I'm not sure if I like being unemployed after all! Though, I did apply for a few jobs through, so we'll see what happens. If I don't get a job, I'll probably end up enrolling in one or two grad classes towards a Masters in Business from the Dutch University in Brussels.

I hope you are all doing well. Feel free to drop me an email because I'd love to hear what's going on in your lives!

Gravensteen Castle - Ghent

View of Ghent from Castle

Canals in Ghent

Saint Bavos Cathedral - Ghent

Gravensteen Castle (we love castles!) - Ghent

Medieval architecture - Ghent

Canals in Amsterdam

Anne Frank's hiding place

Typical "Coffee House" / "Smoke Shop" in Amsterdam

Naughty Shops everywhere (Stephanie and me) - Amsterdam

Life in Belgium & visiting nearby cities Paris & Koln (Jan 24 - Feb 11)

I thought I'd share a little info about our new life in Brussels. First of all, the countries that border Belgium are The Netherlands/Holland, France, Germany and Luxembourg. Belgium is basically made up of two regions, the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders in the North and the French-speaking region of Wallonia in the South (Brussels is a mix of both - signs are in both languages). There's also a small German-speaking community in Eastern Wallonia. Brussels is headquarters to NATO and the European Union. There are numerous International companies here as well, making Brussels seem like a melting pot of cultures.

Things have been going well over the last few weeks and I'm starting to feel like this could be our home (of course only for 3 yrs!) Shannon has been busy at Deloitte trying to get his office caught up since they're still working on 2006 taxes. He seems to enjoy it so far and I've met several of his coworkers who all seem really nice.

Since we've been here, we've managed to try some waffles, chocolates, and most importantly beer - it tastes better than any American beer, not sure if I'll ever be able to switch back! Some kinds I've had thus far are the following: Chimay, Hogardaan, Leffe, Duvel & Kriek (and Kolsch in Germany). And you know how there's a Walgreen store on every corner in the States, well there's a Chocolate store on every corner here! They also have wonderful cheese, bread, pastries/tarts, and wine stores which are hard to resist. I'm praying that all the walking I do will offset all the great food that we've been consuming.

If you love old architecture and history, there's plenty of it here. Just outside Brussels, you'll find Waterloo, which is where Napoleon was defeated. There are several very old and unique buildings, palaces, cathedrals, abbeys, statues, ect... within Brussels.

I've been busy exploring the city and learning public transportation. I will begin French classes at the end of February. I've also joined the Americans Club where I plan to volunteer occasionally for different activities they're involved with. I'm attempting to find a job, but I hear it's quite difficult to get a job being a foreigner (part-time would be ideal, so I can focus on French classes...we'll see what happens). Shannon said he doesn't mind either way because now I'm able to cook, clean, laundry, grocery shop, travel planning, ect... while he's at work (I must do those chores if I want an allowance, per Shannon!). Anyway, I've met a few people here and there, so gradually, but surely we're making new friends.

I've learned that Belgium is a very environment friendly city. Recycling is basically the law here. They use 3 different colors of bags for garbage: blue for plastics and tin (don't ask me why these are mixed!), yellow for paper and cardboard and white for regular trash. I'm finally getting the hang of it after the garbage men didn't pick up my black colored trash bags that I brought from the U.S.! They only pick up the colors I specified above. The city also has huge containers for colored and clear glass at certain areas throughout each neighborhood. Another unique thing I've noticed here is that you must bring a sac with you whenever you go shopping because the stores don't just give them to you, you pay for them if you don't have a sac when you checkout. Thus, I always try and stuff a sac in my purse every time I leave my apartment to save myself 50+ cent euro at the checkout since I've already fallen into this trap and was forced to buy several sacs. One more thing that is actually quite disturbing about Belgium. It's not uncommon to come across dog poop on the sidewalks and other walkways. Belgians love their dogs, but they don't like to clean up after them. Also it is normal to see dogs in stores and occasionally in restaurants.

On a brighter note, the last few weekends, we were fortune enough to travel to Koln, Germany and Paris, France as the weather has been really nice. These were both day trips since they're both relatively close to Brussels. We saw a beautiful Gothic cathedral in Koln; we also dressed up for Carnival which was going on that weekend (it felt a lot like Halloween). In Paris we saw the main attractions, The Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, The Louvre, The Opera House, Champs-Elysee's Walk, Napoleon's Tomb and Seine River.

At the beginning of March we will be moving into our permanent apartment (we're currently in a temporary apartment which is very small). We went apartment hunting last week and found a few that we liked; though, some were really bad. You'd think living in an old city, you could find something with a little charm, but a lot of places have been completely renovated or were extremely outdated. I'll upload pictures of our new place once we get settled in.

The Louvre - Paris
Eiffel Tower - Paris
Arc de Triomphe - Paris
Notre Dame - Paris

Buildings in Grand Place - Brussels
Town Hall in Grand Place - Brussels
Famous Manneken Pis statue in Brussels
Restaurants in small alleys near Grand Place - Brussels
Brussels architecture

Cinquantenaire Park - Brussels
Cathedral in Brussels
Saint Michael's Gothic Cathedral - Brussels
Chocolatiers on every corner...yummy! - Brussels
Royal Palace of Brussels
Carnival Week - Koln
Gothic Cathedral - Koln
Gothic Cathedral - Koln