Archive | February, 2015

Back to Belgium

14 Feb

“Asking citizens of Ghent what they think of their city is a pointless exercise: you’ll find only unanimous love. And with good reason. Ghent is one of Europe’s greatest discoveries – small enough to feel cozy but big enough to stay vibrant and dynamic. It has enough medieval frivolity to create a spectacle but retains a gritty industrial edge that keeps things ‘real’. Tourists remain surprisingly thin on the ground, yet with its fabulous canalside architecture, wealth of quirky bars and some of Belgium’s most fascinating museums, this is a city you really won’t want to miss.” –Lonely Planet‘s 2013 Guidebook to Belgium and Luxembourg

From February 1-5, I was lucky enough to participate in a Fulbright conference on the European Union held in Belgium and Luxembourg. The conference was a great experience and a unique learning opportunity (which I will discuss in my next post) but the best part of my trip back to Belgium was returning to Ghent. To echo Lonely Planet‘s assessment above, Ghent is a yet-unspoiled European treasure. Following recommendations from my Uncle Brad, Michelle, and my professor Dr. Tony Godzieba, I spent four days in Ghent while backpacking around Europe during the summer of 2012. It remains one of my all-time favorite places, and this conference provided me the perfect excuse to return.

When I arrived at the Gent-Sint-Pieters train station on the afternoon of Friday, January 30, I was met by my friend and host for the weekend, Karen. Although currently studying at Ghent University, Karen was at Århus University last fall as an Erasmus student – the European Union’s study abroad program – and was featured prominently in a previous blog post. Karen and her two “kot” mates, Fien and Heline, were nice enough to offer me a couch to crash on for Friday and Saturday night. The Dutch/Flemish word “kot” is also an example of a Belgicism and translates to something like “digs” in English: it refers to a student residence, usually some sort of apartment, in the town where you attend university, and is distinct from your “home” – which is where your parents live. The distinction is important in Flanders (the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium where Ghent is located) because university students often go home on weekends – which is never far away in a country as small as Belgium.

After dropping my bags at Karen’s kot, we headed for the heart of the city to meet Heline for shots of Jenever at ‘t Dreupelkot. Jenever, also known as Dutch gin, is a juniper-flavored national and traditional liquor of the Netherlands and Belgium from which gin evolved. ‘t Dreupelkot offers limited elbow-room but a seemingly unlimited variety of Jenever flavors. Its proprietor, Paul, generously fills each shot glass to the brim, forcing you to take a sip of your shot at the bar before you snake back to your seat.

Next, we met up with Fien and her boyfriend Samuel for a classic Belgian meal of frituur/frites – better known to Americans as french fries (even though they’re really Belgian). Unlike the U.S., where fries are typically an unimpressive side-dish, frituur in Belgium are a carefully-crafted main course. The hands-down best frituur place in Ghent is De Gouden Sate, better-known to locals as Julien’s after the frituur shop’s late, legendary owner, who sadly passed away in 2013. The shop is open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. and caters to the late-night appetites of university students, who form a line outside the shop that can easily stretch for blocks.

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After scarfing down our frituur, we joined the crowds of people proceeding to the Ghent Light Festival, an impressive array of different light shows, displays, and interactive exhibits scattered throughout the city for the weekend I just happened to be visiting (pictured are Sint-Niklasskerk and Sint-Jacobskerk):

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Below are, from left to right, Karen, Fien and Heline beneath one of the interactive light displays (not sure who the random guy in the second picture is):

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To cap our night, we found a bar with live music called Trefpunt across from Sint-Jacobskerk, and to my absolute delight they were serving Westmalle Dubbel on tap. As I sipped one of Belgium’s finest dark Trappist beers, Heline looked at me and asked, “Do you ever stop smiling?” “Not when I’m in Belgium,” I replied 😉

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The next day, Heline departed for home and Karen and Fien had some shopping to do, leaving me to peruse some of the local establishments for a few midday beers. First stop was Kaffee De Planck – a barge docked on one of Ghent’s numerous canals – where I enjoyed the house brew Planckske, an amber ale, on the barge’s deck under a palm tree and a beam of sunlight – rare for the Low Countries at this time of year:

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Next stop was De Brouwzaele, conveniently located 52 meters away, complete with an old brewing kettle and the Flemish red sour ale Rodenbach on tap – brewed in Karen’s home town of Roeselare:

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After that, Karen and I met up and headed for Sint-Baafskathedraal, a beautiful 10th-century Romanesque cathedral home to Ghent’s greatest treasure and one of the most magnificent pieces of artwork in the Western world, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by the van Eyck brothers. The work, which was completed in 1432, is a 12-panel altarpiece which features some of the earliest known examples of realistic depictions of people and nature in three-dimensional perspective.  The detail is extraordinary – for instance, the van Eyck brothers painted 42 different identifiable plants and trees in the bottom panels, while the facial expressions of the singers in the top panels indicate the individual pitch at which each of them is singing. Here’s the inside of Sint-Baafs and the square outside it with Ghent’s Belfry to the left, on top of which sits the Golden Dragon (Gulden Draak) weather vane, a town symbol which lends its name to a locally-brewed dark tripel beer:

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Next up, a Belgian waffle from a street vendor, and a picture with Karen in front of Ghent’s old medieval harbor (see if you can spot Gravensteen, the city’s 10th-century castle, in the background):

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Later that evening, we were joined by Karen’s friend Kirsten from home, as well as Annelies – another Belgian who had studied abroad in Århus last semester – and Sacha, a French-Canadian studying abroad in Århus for the year. We hunkered down at Trappistenhuis, a beautiful, wood-filled, dimly-lit, 17th-century bar just off of Sint-Annaplein. After hours of conversation and several outstanding Belgian beers, I concluded the night with a classic dark Trappist brew – a Rochefort 10:

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The next day was an early one, since Karen had to leave for home and I had breakfast plans with Patricia, a longtime family friend and a truly wonderful human being who lives in Ghent. Patricia befriended my Uncle Brad when they both were traveling with Up With People back in the 1980s. In the summer of 2012, when I was backpacking around Europe, Patricia was my host for the four days I stayed in Ghent (despite never having met me before). During my stay, she gave me my own key and prepared breakfast for me every morning. On my last day before leaving, I told her that I couldn’t begin to thank her for her hospitality and that I didn’t know how to re-pay her. Patricia responded by telling me that when she was my age, she also traveled quite a bit, and was hosted and helped by numerous friends and strangers along the way, which was why she was so happy to host and help me. The best thing I could do, she said, is to pay it forward – to share with others the same hospitality and generosity which I’ve been lucky enough to experience throughout all of my travels. I’ve never forgotten what Patricia told me that sunny June morning in 2012, and I’ve shared her words of wisdom with many friends since then, so meeting with Patricia again – appropriately over breakfast – made me feel like things had come full circle, in a small but very significant way. It was great to see her again and pick up our conversation right where we had left off last time. Despite my attempt to pay for breakfast, Patricia graciously picked up the tab and, just like my previous visit, gave me a ride to the train station to send me on my way to Brussels 🙂

This blog post is not just a story, but also a big thank you, to all my friends, old and new, who have extended such warm hospitality, generosity and kindness to me over my past two visits to Ghent. I want all of them to know they are welcome anytime where ever I may be. And I sincerely hope that, money and time permitting, I am able to return to Ghent in mid-to-late July for the Gentse Feesten. But regardless, I know that with Ghent, it’s not “goodbye,” it’s “till next time!”

2012:

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2015:

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God Fødselsdag/Happy Birthday!

12 Feb

On January 10th, I was lucky enough to celebrate my 24th birthday with my Danish host family from my days at DIS. Birthdays are a big deal in Denmark, and much like a Danish Christmas, they are filled with traditions. I awoke on the morning of the 10th to a plate of Danish pastries (wienerbrød), hot chocolate, and the Danish flag Dannebrog proudly displayed on the table. Unlike the American flag, which is usually flown out of a sense of patriotism and never at birthdays, Dannebrog acts more as a symbol of celebration and tradition instead of nationalism, making it a mainstay at birthdays as well as other Danish celebrations.

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Luckily, I wasn’t turning 25. According to Danish tradition, if a person is unmarried upon reaching the age of 25, Danes are permitted and even encouraged to dump copious amounts of cinnamon on the person. But it doesn’t stop there. If you reach age 30 without having tied the knot, you’ll be the lucky recipient of a pepper mill made out of decorated oil drums, which is often placed in your front yard and adorned with taunting phrases. These traditions might sound crude and even cruel, but once you understand the Danish sense of humor, they appear entirely fitting.

In the afternoon, I was treated to a surprise gathering of my host dad Jesper’s parents Louise and Palle, who brought me a bottle of Italian red wine, as well as my host mom Lydia’s niece Marie Louise and her husband Bo and their one-year-old son Nord Valdemar, who brought me a jar of loose-leaf tea. Lydia prepared more hot chocolate as well as two traditional Danish birthday cakes – one a layer cake (lagkage), the other a gingerbread man cake, known as a kagemand – both with an abundance of sugar. Eating can only begin after the kagemand‘s throat is cut, during which all the guests are supposed to scream in pain (once again, Danish sense of humor). After seeing the fate of kagemand, I was relieved to have survived my first Danish birthday celebration 😉 A special thanks to everyone who helped celebrate my birthday!

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Rachel in Denmark

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