Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Meet the Neighbors/Faire la Connaisance de mes Voisins

I think I've mentioned, but I live in a fairly nice suburb of Brussels. It's called Ixelles or Elsene, depending on if you're French or Flemish. There are a lot of embassies and missions in the area, as well as docteurs et advocats (doctors and layers). Today Truman and I took a walk, and I wrote down the embassies and took pictures of some of them. Here's what I found:
I'm within walking distance (less than 4 blocks from):
  • Embassy of Equatorial Guinea
  • Embassy of Monaco
  • Embassy of the Philippians
  • Embassy of Algeria
  • Embassy of Slovakia
  • Embassy of Portugal
  • Embassy of Latvia
  • Embassy of Belarus
  • Embassy of Burkino Faso
  • Embassy of Zambia
  • Mission of he African Union
  • Official Residence of Turkish Ambassador
In addition, I think I've seen in my wanderings around the area the Embassies of Hungary and Tunisia.

Here are some pictures:

Embassy of the Republic of Belarus, the last dictatorship in Europe. They are fond of reminding us that, if they had oil, they would not be considered a dictatorship but an "international ally".

A shot just down the street, where the Slovakian and Portuguese embassies are right next to each other.

This is the complex I live in. We're the 2nd floor (3rd for Americans) with the window boxes outside. Someone that visited the other day asked why we had the only ugly building in the area, and I told them it was so we didn't have to look at it.

The Phillippino Embassy, which is literally right across the street from where I live.

Of Holidays, Tractors, and Dinners of Joy

Yesterday I found out I would have today off, but still be paid for my hours. "Why?" you might ask, and I will tell you. As you may know, I'm working for the U.S. government. The U.S. government offers its employees 10 paid holidays, even if one is working in a country that doesn't recognize those holidays. So, for example, I was paid for Memorial Day even though I didn't work it, and I'll be paid for July 4th, even though I didn't work it. Here's the beautiful (if you work overseas): U.S. government employees stationed overseas also get local holidays off. This is Belgium. Most European countries have at least 10 holidays as well, and only a few overlap. So that's at least 15 paid holidays that Americans working in Europe will be given (my next one is July 21st). But interestingly, today is not a European or Belgian holiday.

Anyone who watches European news will have heard of the protests and demonstrations going on here in Brussels. Mostly they are either fishermen, truck drivers, or farmers protesting high gas prices. Contrary to what the news wants to imply, the demonstrations are usually quite peaceful and not violent at all. Today the city of Brussels has been invaded by thousands of tractors and semi-trucks as a protest to high European taxes on petrol. While we don't expect these demonstrations to be dangerous, the Embassy felt it wasn't worth us trying to make it into work today since most traffic around the city is blocked. And so we all have a non-holiday holiday. And it's an excused absence (since public transportation is most likely disrupted), so we all get paid for it as well. I love Europe.

I have a theory as to why the governments of European countries are in favor of the EU: They get tired of demonstrations in Paris, Rome, Madrid, London, Berlin, the Hague, etc., so they've decided to export these demonstrators to Brussels. And the Belgians are just stupid enough to agree to it (I'll do a post on Belgian idiocy sometime in the future).

Today I took a quick trip into the supermarket in downtown Ixelles, a superb of Brussels. There weren't supposed to be protests out this far (I didn't think), but hundreds of tractors were driving through the main street today. I don't think I've ever seen that many tractors, not even in my dear Kansas! I couldn't help but laugh because most of these were from other countries: France, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy. They were protesting the high prices of gasoline. And yet these farmers could afford to drive their huge tractors all the way to Brussels from, say southern Spain or eastern Germany, to prove their point. How much did that journey cost in petrol? I couldn't help but laugh at their absolute stupidity.

In other news, I also stopped by McDonald's (or McDo) while I was in town. It was a nice little respite and a great place to watch and laugh at the tractors rolling past. I ordered a Happy Meal (or a "Dinner of Joy") and was surprised at the price: 4 euro 30! That's $6.15!!! For a Happy Meal!!! But my shock soon turned to amusement as I realized why: This is French-speaking Belgium. Most of the culture here is, despite what the Flemish want to think, French. This was no ordinary American Happy Meal with a drink, toy, fries, and hamburger. Oh no! The French would, of course, consider that silly American Happy Meal a 2-course meal (fries and burger): how barbaric. That simply wouldn't do for a French child. They must have, at the very least, 4-course meals. Even at McDo. So my Dinner of Joy included the customary toy (choice between boy or girl), drink (bottled water, soft drink, or fruit juice), fries, an entree (hamburger, cheeseburger, chicken sandwich, or chicken nuggets), crudite (raw veggies), and a dessert (cake, fruit smoothie, fruit or chocolate milk, or fresh fruit). I could have also taken a balloon, but I declined. I was a little amused that the meal didn't include a cheese-course. The sucker filled me up. If American Happy Meals included 4-course meals, I would gladly $6.15 for them. If you're interested, you can check out the Belgian McDo's site for Happy Meals at

Monday, June 16, 2008

Strange Boys in a Strange Land

A friend of mine, Jeremy, told me awhile back that he would be visiting Europe this summer. But he had no plans to visit Brussels. I was glad for him that he could make it to Europe, but sad that I probably wouldn't get to see him. This is the friend that I have taken many adventures with in the past. The two of us visited Boston on a road trip last Thanksgiving break and the Christmas before we went to pick up his brother, Sean, from college in Minneapolis, MN. We've had a lot of great times together. So I was elated when he sent me his itinerary and it included Essen, Germany, which is just north of Cologne. Jeremy and Sean were traveling with one of Sean's friends, Bryan, who knew some Germans. So we stayed in the home of a wonderful German family and got to experience the essential German life. So many sausages... And beer (but not as many as in Belgium)... And this amazing chocolate candy called "Marzipan" which I had never heard of but fell in love with.

I had never had any real desire to visit Germany again, but something about being shown the country by real life people who really live there helps the experience a lot. I suppose that's true of any place though. One doesn't learn about France by visiting the Eiffel Tour, or about England by visiting Buckingham Palace, or about Italy by visiting St. Peters anymore than one learns about the U.S. by visiting the Statue of Liberty. Honestly, those things I can take or leave, but the people in all of these countries (as well as dozens others) fascinate me. In each, they have their beautiful and ugly. And it shows me the beautiful and ugly in my own dear Kansas/Oklahoman culture too.

Essen used to be a huge coal industry town. In the 1970s, all the mines were closed down. They tried to tear them down but the biggest one was preserved and is now a Unesco World Heritage site. Below are some pictures.

Outside the coal mines. Jeremy, Sean, Bryan, and the German family.

Inside the mines. Scary huh? Actually it's face light.

We had a near miss when part of the building started to fall down. Fortunately, Sean was there to save the day and pulled the steel beams of of us. Jeremy would have helped more, but his hands were fully of (English!) materials about the museums.
It was so sunny and warm in Germany. Well, compared to Brussels anyway.

So that's my adventure in Essen. The family has asked me to come back, but I don't know if I'm going to be able to. The eldest son (Hendrick) wants to visit me while I'm in Brussels, and I've assured him he's more than welcome. So you may hear more from my new German friends!