Sunday, November 30, 2008

Back in Nebraska visiting Family and Friends (Oct 18 - Nov 9)

It was finally time for our annual (free) trip home for the year. We scheduled it around Shannon's Deloitte GES conference in Chicago at the end of October. I actually flew back a few days before Shannon so I could make my friend, Charity's, 30th Birthday party and see my friend, Megan, from San Francisco who happened to be back at her parents in Pender for a quick weekend (unfortunately, I don't have any pictures from those outings). I was quite exhausted when I finally arrived in Omaha on Saturday the 18th of October since my flights had gotten all messed up which made me 5 hours later than planned! Luckily, my friend Elizabeth still didn't mind picking me up and driving me to Lincoln to attend Charity's 30th Birthday party. It was a really nice party where I was able to catch up with some old friends and acquaintances. I stayed at Missy and Andrew's house that evening even though Camryn (their daughter) was a little skeptical of me!

The next day Charity and her boyfriend, Mark, and I road tripped to Pender to see Megan whom I haven't seen since my wedding. I was really bummed that I didn't make it back for her and Derek's wedding in September. It was fun seeing all the pictures at her parents. Susan, her mom, was even nice enough to give me an extra photo of them and one of the wedding favors, a cookie cutter with a cute tag containing their names and the date of the wedding. I heard they had several kinds of cookie cutters on the tables, ranging from shapes of Nebraska and Michigan to cows and hearts. I also loved her flowers in mason jars on all the tables which they had bought at a farmer's market earlier that morning. Megan reminds me of Martha Stuart with all her creative ideas. Anyway, we had a wonderful evening at her parents as they always show us a good time! We had amazing lasagna along with some wine and champagne (I brought a bottle of champagne that I had gotten from my trip earlier in October to Champagne, France). We also were given a tour of her father's, Joe's, Veterinary Clinic in Pender which was really interesting.

Finally on Monday, I was able to see my family. My mom picked me up in Lincoln and then we did a little shopping before heading back to the farm (I picked up Shannon from Omaha later in the week since he was at his conference). Since Harvest was in full swing while we were back, we were able to help out a little. My main job was making the guys lunches and driving them between fields. My mom, Kathy (sister-in-law) and Shannon took turns driving the grain trucks while Clay (my brother) drove the semi. My dad of course had the most important job, combining. He also had a hired man drive the tractor / auger wagon. One year I drove the auger wagon, but then we broke down. Ever since, I haven't been asked to drive the auger wagon again, maybe they just think I'm bad luck!

After I picked up Shannon at the airport on Oct 24, we headed to his folks for the night and then off to a wedding near Ogallala the next day for two of Shannon's former coworkers (Chris and Rachelle Fryzek). Luckily, my friends, Missy and Andrew were invited, so we were able to carpool and stay in a hotel room together. The wedding was really nice and the reception hall was extremely was on a ranch. We had a good time, even though none of Shannon's other coworkers made the long trip which we were kind of bummed about. Regardless, it was fun catching up with Missy and Andrew and watching our entertainment for the evening, Camryn, who enjoyed being on the dance floor nonstop!

We stayed with Shannon's family a few days here and there travelling back and forth between our families. Shannon hadn't seen them for almost a year. I had stopped by last May for a brief visit. His mom held a nice family dinner one evening in which his brother's family Lonnie, Amy Jacob and Jordan along with his Grandma Mildred and Aunt Trudy and Uncle Steve and Cousin Wayne and Jill and their baby Shali all attended. It felt like Thanksgiving because we were lucky enough to have his Grandma's pecan pie which was much better than the Belgian interpretation of a pecan pie we had on Thanksgiving Day! While Shannon was at his parents, he helped his dad work on the corn head, but mostly played with guns in the shop since he's going through withdrawals (his brother and dad run a gun business called Run-n-Iron). Jody, one of Lonnie and Shannon's friends, came out to the farm one day and the boys decided it would be fun to head to the canyons to do some shooting. Every once in awhile here in Belgium, I find Shannon on buying something I don't think he needs, but I'm sure he'd say otherwise (it's always a 'good investment' I'm told)!

On Halloween I went trick-or-treating with Garrett and Emma along with their mom, Kathy, and my mom. Garrett was a turtle while Emma was a pumpkin (you'll see pictures below). We pulled the kids in wagon so they wouldn't get tired trucking around the town. They both really seemed to have a fun time, even though Emma is still a bit young; Garrett out-lasted her in the end and made it to a few more places with his mom.

For the Nov 1st Husker game my parents hosted a Fish Fry. We had several bags of catfish from our pond in the freezer which needed to be eaten. Some of my parents' friends came over to help deep fat fry the fish and also onion rings. Everything was really good...I tried not to think how fattening it all was! Even though the Huskers played horrible against Oklahoma and got beat by over 30 points, we still had a good time gorging ourselves on all the snacks and of course deep fat fried catfish and onion rings!

We tried to see as many people as we could while we were back, but of course could not catch everyone. In addition to the people I've mentioned that we've already seen, here is a few more. I was able to make it over a few times to visit my Grandma at the Harvard Nursing Home. She seems to be in high spirits most of the time. While we were in Lincoln, Shannon stopped by his former office to say a quick hello (it was pretty quiet as so many people have left and most of them are fairly new). We also had several doctor and dentist appointments while we were in Lincoln. We met up briefly with my Aunt Marilyn for her birthday at The Green Gateau along with my mom and my Aunt Judy and cousins, Gina and Sandi. After some shopping (things are a lot cheaper in the US than in Brussels), we ventured out to Tarah and Ben's place in Hickman and saw their two adorable children. We also stopped by Katie's new place and couldn't believe how grown up her little boy is now! (She used to live in our basement - aka apt -in our house in Lincoln). We even made it to Shannon's good friend, Matt's house in Fallbrook for one evening where we ended up spending the night. Another day, Shannon and I met Kari, Shade and Vicki (along with some of Kari's coworkers) at a bar in Hastings after their volleyball match. It was great catching up with those who we were able to meet up with and hope to catch more friends and family next time!

It wouldn't be right to fly all this way home and not to go a Husker game, so the day before we were scheduled to leave, we went to the Nebraska vs. Kansas game. We used my grandparent's tickets. My friend Elizabeth had organized a tailgate in which lots of our friends attended. Despite, the freezing temperatures, we managed to have a fun time socializing, drinking and snacking away. Evan even got a ticket from one of his friends so he had ridden up with us. My cousins Jake and Jacey even stopped by. Otherwise, lots of people were there like Missy, Andrew, Gina, Charity, Mark, Ashley, Matt, Tim, Curt, Emily, Brett and few other Sandy Creekers.

The entrance of my parents' house with their dog, Rowdy, and cat enjoying the nice day (I'm not sure what name Garrett has given the cat)
My dad, the master mind behind the combine!
Our niece, Jordan, and nephew, Jacob, (on Shannon's side) wearing their Christmas presents since we had to buy presents early because of the expense in shipping items across the pond
Shannon's cousin, Wayne and Jill with their baby, Shali
Our niece, Emma, and nephew, Garrett, (on my side) sporting their Halloween costumes
My mom and I trying to get Emma back in the wagon or at least to walk in the right direction, but she preferred walking her own way while Garrett didn't mind'd think it would be the other way around!
Clay with Emma and Garrett messing around on the farm
My dad and brother, Clay, frying up some onion rings (the catfish was in the deep-fat fryer nearby)
Clay, Emma and me
Husker Game against Kansas, tailgating with friends, Elizabeth, me, Gina, Missy, Charity and Ashley
My other brother, Evan, who also went to the game
Bundled up and ready for the game
Some additional strays from Sandy Creek, Curt and Tim, who also joined the tailgate
Nebraska Football stadium on game day (80,000+)

Girls Trip to Champagne, France (Oct 11 & 12)

Since one of my friends, Stephanie Cohan, had a gal coming to visit her, we decided to do a girls trip to Champagne, France on the weekend of October 12. Also one of Shannon's coworkers, Stephanie Clark, who we also hang out with quite a bit, came along since she appreciates good champagne. Unfortunately, we had just missed Harvest, but there were still a few grapes left on the vines since they only pick the best grapes for champagne production. The region of Champagne is in the northeast of France and is only 3 1/2 hrs away from Brussels. The commercial centers of the area are Reims, Épernay and Troyes; however, we only visited Épernay and a few smaller surrounding towns. We actually preferred the smaller, lesser known champagne houses to the big name champagne houses. The quality was much better along with the prices and hospitality of the owners of the small caves. Though, we did enjoy the tour of the caves at a few of the more popular larger champagne houses, such as Mercier and de Castellane which are both located in Épernay.

We found Épernay to be a very tourist-friendly town and thus was the main reason we decided to stay there. It boasts an estimated 200 miles (322 km) or more of cellars and tunnels. These caves are vast vaults cut into the chalk rock on which the town is built. The most famous street in Épernay is the Avenue de Champagne which is lined with neoclassical villas and Victorian town houses. It features the leading Champagne manufactures, such as Moët et Chandon (the largest), Pol Roger, Mercier, and de Castellane. Moët et Chandon actually created the Dom Pérignon (inventor of champagne) brand of vintage champagne in the late 1920s and thus, is the reason why it's recognized by most individuals as the most perfect champagne available, though, also the most expensive on the market! The tour at Mercier was pretty cool since you take a train through its vast caves with a guide. Castellane also had a nice walking tour of its caves and wine-making methods. However, both of these champagne houses didn't live up to our expectations when it came to the tasting, but I felt obligated to buy one bottle which I did at Castellane.

Our favorite destination in Champagne was Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, one of the small Champagne towns outside of Épernay. The champagnes of Le Mesnil are often racy and acidic when young, but burst into exotic fruit flavors with underlying levels of toffee, almond and vanilla, when matured in the bottle. First we visited the champagne house of Launois Pére & Fils where we tasted three different kinds. I ended up buying two bottles from them since we were also heading to another place and my husband told me that I couldn't go crazy and buy a ton of bottles! The next place we went was called Robert Charlemagne which happened to be on a whim since we met the owner at a market in town (on a side note: the market had fantastic cheese and wine samples that we indulged in)! We only tried one kind here, but it was extremely good, so I ended up buying around four bottles along with two champagne flutes. We all concluded that Le Mesnil-sur-Oger had the best champagnes and will more than likely head back there once we run out!

Just some fun facts: The vines of Champagne take root in a vast layer of chalk under a thin layer of fertilized soil. The Champagne vineyards are planted only with Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay by law. The method of making "mousse" (another name for bubbles) in a bottle was invested by the efforts of Frère Jean Oudart (1654 - 1742) and Dom Pierre Pérignon (1639 - 1715), Benedictine monks and cellar masters at the respective abbeys of Saint-Pierre aux Monts de Châlons and Saint-Pierre d'Hautvillers.

(We actually never went to Mailly Champagne, which is the name listed on the huge wooden wine barrel photo above. We noticed it in the middle of some vineyards and thought it would be a cool picture. It was located on the Route de Champagne which is a road going through the countryside of Champagne)

Some grapes they left for me to sample! (Harvest was over by the time we visited in Oct)One of the Champagne Houses on Avenue de Champagne in Épernay
Elaborate old wine barrel at Mercier's Champagne House - Épernay
We all took the train tour of Mercier's Caves (me, Stephanie Cohan and her friend Betsy, Stephanie Clark took the photo)
In Mercier's Caves
In Mercier's Caves
In Mercier's Caves
In Mercier's Caves
In Mercier's Caves
In Mercier's Caves at the beginning of tour
Pyramid of Mercier's Champagne in their showroom with giant wine barrel in background
Enjoying a glass of Champagne at Mercier (we were able to keep the glass, though not our favorite Champagne!)
You can buy it in a variety of sizes
Castellane Champagne House Tower (just down the road from Mercier)
Castellane Champagne House
Wine barrels at Castellane
On our tour of Castellane's Caves (notice that some bottles are from 1870! I think it's more for show than people really drinking that old of champagne!)
Castellane labeled their wine cave walkways/paths with different names
A machine that automatically rotates the bottles when needed.
Most of the big Champagne Houses use stainless steel vats instead of wooden barrels
Castellane's Champagne
Stephanie Clark, Betsy, Stephanie Cohan and me enjoying some Castellane Champagne at the end of our tour
Moët et Chandon Champagne House (makes the famous Dom Pérignon Champagne)
Dom Pérignon invented the process of Champagne
Unique structure in Épernay
Outside the Champagne House of Launois Pére & Fils in the small town of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger
Finally we found some champagne that we really liked, so we all ended up buying a few bottles at Launois Pére & Fils (the two Stephanie's hauling our cases back to the car)
At a market in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger (I love Comte fromage - cheese!)
Another good cheese, Gruyere, I think originally from Switzerland
Still yet another fine cheese, Beaufort (Can you tell I'm obsessed with cheese!)
Another form of Comte cheese ('vieux' means old)
Our second stop in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger was at the Champagne House of Robert Charlemagne
Having yet another tasting of champagne at Robert Charlemagne! (we all really liked their champagne and bought the most bottles from them)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Brussels Half Marathon (Oct 5)

On Sunday, October 5, I ran the ING Brussels Half Marathon. It was actually a Full and Half Marathon, but I hadn't trained enough for the Full Marathon. The weather was around 45 - 50 degrees Fahrenheit plus a little rainy and windy, but I forced myself to still compete in it. I noticed there were a lot more men than women running in the race. The Half Marathon started at 10:30 AM while the Marathon started a little earlier at 9:00 AM. Shannon had bought me some running gear at Nike when he was up in The Netherlands for a meeting with his client, who happens to be Nike; thus, he got a pretty good deal on my outfit. Anyway, the race started at Park Cinquantenaire and finished at the Grand Place. Shannon dropped me off and then headed to work for a few hours and came back just in time to see me finish. Overall it was a nice scenic route with a few hills, but very manageable, similar to the Lincoln Half Marathon which I have done several times. I finished in 1 hr 58 minutes, not my best time, but I'm blaming it on the weather! I couldn't really sprint to the finish line since the ground was covered with slippery cobblestones due to the constant rain.

Once I went through the finish line, there were several freebees being handed out. I think I grabbed one of each: water, juice, soy milk. They also handed out ponchos and samples of foot cream. After I found Shannon, we took a few pictures and then headed for my reward which was a Belgian Waffle. He said I deserved one for finishing the race, but I think he wanted one more than I did! Of course, I still devoured it!

The last leg of the race in the Grand Place (in blue)
Going through the finish line and picking up some drinks and other freebees
They handed out soy milk, juice, water, ponchos, foot cream and a medal for finishing the race
Shannon waited for me at the end
My reward for completing the race was a 'Belgian Waffle' (Shannon's idea probably because he wanted one for himself!)