The Belgian Surprise

Belgium is one of these countries you don’t really hear too much about so it has never been on my bucket list. It happened that I was attending two weddings in Europe and had to kill the time in between somewhere.  Since my significant other has academic collaboration at the KULAK university in Kortrijk, we decided to hang out in Belgium and combine work with pleasure.

I have been getting progressively worse about planning trips and therefore didn’t even bother buying a travel guide or researching the top sights to see. I figured that we could wing it by asking some locals once we get there. And this is what we did. Winging it around Belgium turned out to be a wonderful experience!

Belgium has a really nice railroad system that lets you get anywhere in the country within 1-1.5 hours. The trains drop you off in the center of all the action of each city, then all you need to do is localize the main street and start strolling towards the main square, which is always called the Grotemarkt. The Grotemarkt always has a cathedral, whose size may vary with the wealth of the city (or perhaps the ambition of its former architects). Normally, it also has a city hall which is decorated with statue tributes of all the former mayors. I could never figure out at which year cutoff happened though (as in when did they run out of space?!)..

From the Grotemarket there are always opportunities to explore side streets, visit delicatessen shops or chocolatiers and discover cute architectural treasures.  There is really no need for a tour guide or a guidebook because one can just absorb the lively atmosphere instead.

Even though Bruges is the famous touristic spot these days (probably due to Colin Farrell’s In Bruges movie), my favorite city by far happened to be Antwerp. It’s much more lively, combines the ancient and the modern, has many wonderful museums and a rich history of being a port city transporting merchandise and immigrants to the New World. Especially noteworthy is the Red Star Line Museum which tells the stories of the 2 million emigrants who went to the USA onboard of the Star Line ships in the beginning of the 19th century. The museum focuses on their story, on that of the shipping company that transported them and on the city and port from where they embarked on this journey.

On this trip I also visited Brussels and dropped by some local friends’ house, getting to experience Brussel’s version of suburb life (beautiful!) plus surveying some of the most amazing dessert displays around town. We had a meeting in the university town Leuven, where I actually tried some of the best artisanal desserts possible.  Finally, since Lille was only about 35km from where we were staying in Kortrijk, we got to have a french experience by eating (French!!) fries in a nice garden bistro, visiting their fine arts museum and stocking up on some baguette and pastries from Paul (I know it’s a chain but it was still so so delicious).

Belgian culture is a mix of french and dutch cultures and this is something quite weird for an outsider. Even though it’s a small country, you may start your journey from Brussles to “Cortrei” and 1.5 hours later arrive at “Kortrijk” – meaning that your journey starts in a french speaking area. By the time you arrive, you’re in dutch Flanders region, where everything is in Dutch instead of French, even though your’e taking a train with the same railroad company. I have to admit that reading menus and figuring stuff out in French was much easier than in Dutch! (Good thing everyone spoke in English anyways..).





An Austin Moment

My college friend was in town from New York so we decided to check out the local comedy festival.

One of the acts happened to be a Houstonian stand-up comedian who lived in NYC and was going on a rampage about all the things he hates about it. He talked about getting angry at tourists for thinking that a New York Moment was going to the top of Empire State Building or hi-fiving a celebrity on the street, while for him, a New York Moment was finding a dead rat inside your fridge’s mechanism and trying to convince your landlord to get rid of it.

After the show, we passed by a cute Italian restaurant and decided to go in for a later dinner. “Wow, it really reminds me of some of the places I used to go to in NY,” I commented to my friend.

As we were finishing up dinner, I happened to look up at the wall in front of me and saw a GIANT rat running up to the ceiling and hiding behind the suspended speaker. Oh the screams I was able to produce…

The owner of the restaurant seemed horrified (I am still not sure how much of it was from seeing a rat in his restaurant versus me leaving a bad review). We of course got the meal on the house and promised we won’t tell anyone.

So yeah.. here’s an Austin Moment for you!

Austin, Rats in downtown, Comedy Festival, A new york moment

Brazilian Food, Austin Style

I go to a Brazilian restaurant in Austin and my companions ask me to show off my Portuguese so I turn to the host and ask: “Tem uma mesa para tres pessoas?” (do you have a table for three people?)

He looks at me with bewilderment like I just spoke Swahili to him. Then I try another approach: “Tienes una mesa para las tres personas?”…
Then he understands.

When I asked our waiter if anyone there spoke Portuguese he pointed at the adjacent room and said – “Yeah there’s is one Brazilian, he works in the taqueria.”
In Brazil I would have said: “Pó, você tá de brincadeira meu.”

I ignored the TexMex page and ordered Feijoada because I wanted to make sure that I go REALLY Brazilian. It was ok.

Feijoada, Brazilian Food in Austin

Now I Know Why It’s Important to Teach Biology in Schools

So I go to the grocery store to buy my first-ever protein shake. 
 As it’s the USA there are about 50 types of different kinds of powders and liquids, all with shiny letters promising all sorts of benefits. 
Then I see about 30 more kinds in the natural / vegan / gluten free / non GMO/ organic or whatnot categories that cost you 50% more for something that is half the size, all these have lots of green and white packaging that will sure make you feel healthier just looking at it. 

A nice store employee comes and asks if I need any help because I obviously look lost. I tell him that I want to buy a protein shake because I want to gain weight. So he points to one of the shelves and says I should get THAT one but “beware because it has lots of sugar.”

“Strange,” I say, “because it only has 3% daily value of carbs per serving…” (which is about less than half of the carbs in the average yogurt cup). 

“No, you have to look at the calories,” he says, “that shows you how much sugar it has. ”

Now, am I missing something or I learned the wrong things in Biology class (I know it has been at least 15 years since but still…)?

Finally, I ended up getting something that is called Muscle Milk, which has no milk, but has milk proteins (so confusing).


The real humans of my life – Boulder

The past weekend, I headed up to Boulder area, to visit a long time college friend, chef, and blogger, Shru Troup. Even though she doesn’t think so, she is quite an inspiration to us all. She and her husband left their fancy schmancy jobs and promising careers at a New York investment bank to start a new life in Colorado. They are both very happy, enjoying the outdoors, hiking, biking or skiing in their spare time. Shru did culinary school and one day she will publish her own cookbook for modern vegetarian and vegan cuisine (stay tuned and in the meantime check out her recipes on her blog). She also recently decided to explore the world of food trucks.

Shru driving "Tina"
Shru driving “Tina”

I had an exciting day at her work, operating a Mexican food truck, fondly nicknamed “Tina”. We started early in the Comida restaurant in Longmont, preparing all the ingredients with the very dedicated and funny kitchen stuff. I learned to use the deep frier as I made tortilla chips for the first time in my life.

After three hours of preparation and loading the truck, we headed over to a nearby office park. It was freezing cold but we served those tacos and quesadillas like champs. The brave customers, who came by despite the below freezing temperature, showed real dedication as well.

When we came back, Shru spent 2 more hours scrubbing out the truck because that’s just the clean freak that she is. After this, she “took a break” preparing 2 different desserts (pumpkin Pie and cinnamon ice cream), as she is also the pastry chef of the restaurant.  All the while, I was recovering from all the hard work by sipping margaritas at the bar or chitchatting with her colleagues.

The rest of the weekend was quite busy between celebrating my birthday by skiing (I still remember how to, surprise!) at Keystone, hiking in Estes Park (where I was supposed to spot some Elks but saw none), checking out the Boulder yuppie/hippie scene  and eating some great home cooked food (love having chef friends). I also got to try Nepalese food for the first time at the AMAZING Sherpa’s restaurant in Boulder. It was also very interesting to read all the interesting posters and check out the photographs around the restaurant. I learned for example that Katmandu (Nepal’s capital) is Boulder’s sister city.