A Musical Spring in Belgium

A couple of nights ago, I was invited by a nice new friend, whom I like, to a concert — classical music, which I also like, so I accepted. Only later did I find out that the concert would be in a private castle and that we would likely meet the old Belgian aristocracy who live in the house.

Well, how about that?

So I dressed up, evening clothes and my sky-high heels. I met my friend for dinner at a nearby restaurant, La Maison du Cocher. I was very impressed with the service; the gentleman who waited on us was, I think, one of the owners, or at least he acted like it, which of course is a good sign. And the food was good. A side note: if you are a vegetarian or vegan, you won’t find a lot of (read: any) restaurants outside of Brussels with anything besides a vegetarian salad on the menu, and some places, like this lovely restaurant, will have nothing. But if you’re lucky, and the restaurant is good, as this one is, they’ll make a nice vegetarian meal for you. But don’t try for vegan — they won’t know what to do with that at all.

But I digress.

After dinner, we headed to the Chateau Morval, which isn’t actually a castle, but rather what we would call in the US, a “mansion.” It’s an 18th century residence that was built to replace the former family residence. No telling how many rooms, but it is enormous. There were folding chairs set up in rows in one of the rooms, with a big grand Steinway at one end. The room was grand, too, with high ceilings and old rugs, and hundred year old (or more?) paintings on the walls of family ancestors. As we found our seats, we passed a pair of chairs that had sheets of paper on them reading “Ct et Ctesse d’Oultremont.” The owners of the castle.

Nice.

The Count of Oultremont

The Count of Oultremont

The concert, the opening of the series called Printemps Musical de Silly (that’s the town, “Silly,” not the, um, silly town. Or maybe it is silly; I don’t really know it. In any event, this first in the concert series was, as we say in the southern US, a humdinger! The pianist was terrific, a young Belgian named Jean Capelle. The baritone, another young Belgian, was the exceptional and prize-winning Sebastien Parotte. The soprano, again young and again Belgian, was world-class Julie Mossay.

Soprano Julie Mossay

Soprano Julie Mossay

So other than being Belgian, what did these three have in common? They are young! Because the Printemps series is intended as a showcase for young talent. But their youth is a ruse to draw you in, and make you suspect nothing. In fact they are ridiculously talented, far beyond their years, and not just in music. The two vocalists are gifted actors who have clearly done a lot of stage work. They sang an hour and a half of comedic duets and solos, complete with body language that made the French lyrics inconsequential for my friend, who is just beginning to learn the language. And of course, they sang wonderfully.

Sorry the photo is grainy; iPhone pics inside.

Sorry the photo is grainy; iPhone pics, you know.

Afterwards there was a lovely reception where we did, indeed, meet the Count’s family. His sons, both older men themselves, were charming and friendly, and my friend and I were the only Americans there, so we drew some attention, in a good way.There was champagne, orange juice, chocolate, hors d’oeuvres. We met some interesting people other than the aristocracy, too. It was an altogether lovely evening.

I was so impressed, I bought a season ticket. It goes right up to the end of the school year, and there’s something every weekend. I’m pretty excited. But I’m not sure it will top this night. Here’s a sampling.

Deci Dela

My friend and I, decked out for the evening.

My friend and I, decked out for the evening.

Here’s a link showing information about Printemps Musical and with a photo of the castle.

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What Betsy Saw (Subtitle: Spring comes to Belgium)

This is Betsy.

Betsy on ottoman best

Betsy is a senior dog, probably twelve or thirteen at least; she is likely a Chihuahua-Pekingese mix, known as a Pikachu. She likes a lot of things: cookies, treats, soft food, eating off a fork or spoon, sleeping, sitting in the sun, my cats, barking at cyclists and at other dogs, and sitting on my lap. But what she likes most are walks. Short walks, long walks, walks in the cold, walks in the heat. Betsy loves walks. And her favorite walks are ones like our walk today: 65 degrees Fahrenheit, sun shining, little or no traffic on our country road. And this is what Betsy saw today on her walk.

Horses!

Pretty gate leading to a house up the road

Pretty gate leading to a house up the road

Ivy starting to grow up the corner of a house

Ivy starting to grow up the corner of a house

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Neighbor’s flowers starting to bloom!

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Brave little yellow flower on the side of the road

These little "daisy-like" flowers are everywhere.

These little “daisy-like” flowers are everywhere.

Look closely and you can see the local chateau behind the trees.

Look closely and you can see the local chateau behind the trees.

Blue sky: a rarity in Belgium

Yep, those are flower buds!

Yep, those are flower buds!

Springtime is finally coming to Belgium. Betsy is happy about that. So am I.

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Bouillon and its Chateau-Fort

I decided to head to Bouillon when I saw a picture of the castle on Facebook. The photo showed the castle at night, and it was stunning. This week offered an opportunity to go, and the castle did not disappoint. From the dungeon’s torture room to the views of the Semois River, it was spectacular.

The Chateau-Fort from the banks of the Semois.

The Chateau-Fort from the banks of the Semois.

The Chateau-Fort sits predictably over the town of Bouillon on the narrowest part of the peninsula created by the Semois River.

The Chateau-Fort sits predictably over the town of Bouillon on the narrowest part of the peninsula created by the Semois River.

The Chateau-Fort of Bouillon probably dates to before the tenth century, but there is no proof of that. We do know for certain that it was in the hands of the House of Ardenne until 1096. The Ardenne Duke, Godefroid, sold it that year to finance his part in the first Crusade. When he departed from the Castle headed for Jerusalem, it was with the hopes that he would return and buy it back.  Unfortunately for him, in spite of having conquered Jerusalem, he died there in 1100. It is said that he was named “Defender of the Holy Sepulchre” because he refused to wear a king’s crown “where Jesus Christ had worn a crown of thorns.” As a Believer, I find that particular statement startling and confusing; Godefroid held a belief in my God, yet he managed to kill thousands of Jews on his way to Jerusalem and thousands of Muslims when he got there. Hard for me to fathom, but that’s another post, and another blog.

In the Salle de Godefroid, a large cross was found under the floor. It is highlighted now by glass blocks.

In the Salle de Godefroid, a large cross was found under the floor. It is highlighted now by glass blocks.

The torture chamber in the dungeon of the castle.

The torture chamber in the dungeon of the castle. The cylinders with spikes on them are a particularly nasty-looking RACK. The hanging weight is how it was tightened.

The prison, in the dungeon, near the torture chamber.

The prison, in the dungeon, near the torture chamber. Look closely at the chains hooked to the wall.

The views from the tower are spectacular. On the one side, the town of Bouillon. On the other, the lovely mountains of the Ardennes region. I visited in late winter, so the trees were not beautiful, but thanks to my maternal great-Aunt Katherine, I learned years ago to appreciate the unique beauty of this season, especially as it allows for views that summer foliage spoils.

The Semois River and the Pont de France.

The Semois River and the Pont de France.

The Semois from another perspective, over the town of Bouillon.

The Semois from another perspective, over the town of Bouillon.

Still another lovely view of the Semois

Still another lovely view of the Semois

And finally, one more.

And finally, one more.

This is a trip I recommend. At just under two hours from Brussels or from Mons, it’s worth the journey. There are several brasseries and a tearoom with quiches and sweets and a rich selection of teas. Go. Take your camera. And your love of history.

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Boys Will Be Boys

So most of you know I’m a teacher. A Spanish teacher, in fact. Occasionally a French teacher, but a Spanish teacher in a secondary school for eons. As a Spanish teacher, I sometimes show a movie that has some relevance. In level one classes, that means a culturally relevant movie in English with Spanish subtitles or vice versa.

A few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to show part of a film, and I chose one of my favorites, Selena. This was Jennifer Lopez’ “breakout” film in the starring role of Selena Quintanilla, Tejano musician who was wildly popular in the 90′s. For those of you who have never seen the movie AND don’t know the story: SPOILER ALERT!!! I’m about to tell you what happens, so you might want to go watch the movie then come back to this, because it’s a really fun movie. Just sayin’.

Anyway, we watched the first hour or so and the bell rang, and curriculum being what it is,  we never got back to it. As we are now approaching our Carnival Break, the students begged me on Tuesday if they could finish it. I said, “okay, if you’re really awesome today.” And naturally, for the first time this year, they were. (Not really. It might’ve been the second time. Or maybe the third.)

So today I showed the rest of the movie. Throughout the fifty-five or so minutes, one macho boy, a seventeen year old with hormones raging particularly high, kept making good-natured but mocking comments, complete with wiping away fake tears. “Oh, it’s just so, *sniff sniff* touching,” and so forth. Now remember, this is far enough in the past that most of these kids don’t know who Selena was or how she died, and they weren’t around to see the outpouring of love there was for her afterwards.

When the ending began, with what looked like real news footage of the crime scene and standoff with her fan-club president/killer, everyone, and especially this one boy, was completely silent, eyes glued to the screen. The atmosphere in the room was thick with emotion. No apparent tears, but clearly empathy reigned.

When the movie ended, I immediately put on a youtube video of the killer proclaiming her innocence on 20/20 a year after she had been sentenced to life. “It was an accident,” she said, describing how the “accident” happened in what was obviously an elaborate lie. This big, strapping boy thrusts his hand at the screen and calls out sarcastically, “Right, I went and bought a gun, called Selena and told her to meet me, then I just happened to point it at her and it just happened to GO OFF!! Whatever! Who is she trying to kid?” Etc. etc. etc…

I had to keep myself from laughing out loud. So happy to see that even big, strong, macho seventeen year olds have a sensitive side. Bidi bidi bom bom!

Bidi Bidi Bom Bom by Selena y los Dinos

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Blogging about Life

Now that I’m active on both my blogs, I have a hard time deciding what to post where. I’m still trying to see how and what I decide. If you follow here, on Americana en Europa, you probably like reading about cool stuff I see and do when traveling. That’s what this blog will continue to be like. From the light and fun to the deep and moving, I will post my experiences as an American living, working and traveling here in Europe.

For those of you who are more interested in the spiritual side of life, in dealing with things that make us human, things that make us grow, and in what living feels like no matter where you live, I’d like to introduce my other blog, What Living Feels Like.

I started writing What Living Feels Like ten days after my mother died. I wrote it pretty regularly for a little over a year, and it helped me heal as much as one can after a sudden, unexpected and heart-rending loss. I’ve written on it rarely since then, but the posts have been meaningful, at least to me. Perhaps it will be meaningful to you, too.

Stay tuned here, too. Hopefully the experiences here will enrich you as much as they do me. If they do, please post a comment. It helps me to know when something I say means something to you! Thanks for reading!

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All I Want for Christmas…Next Year

I read recently that airline passengers’ number one desire is kid-free flights. I’ve long felt the same way, but no more than on my way to the US this year to visit my family at Christmas. The following was what I wrote a half hour before landing.

For the last seven and a half hours I’ve been bouncing and shaking and literally vibrating as the six year old behind me kicks my seat, jabs my upper buttocks with his incessant feet, and pounds his meal tray, the one attached to the back of my seat. Not only that, between him and his toddler sister, I’ve had not fifteen seconds of transatlantic quiet.  Before takeoff, I generously offered a nearby open seat to a nice young man who was sitting in the center seat, and he, perceptive fellow, already feeling the beginnings of sneaker toes embedded in his back, hopped right over there. Now, I hate the center seat; I once flew transatlantically between two fellows who knew each other and talked across me the whole way, so I genuinely wanted to help him out. But I can’t pretend my motives were altogether altruistic. I was hoping for an empty seat beside me for the extra room and perceived privacy. And then. (She sighs deeply.) And then about four hours into the already miserable flight (thanks to the Ritalin-deprived hyperactive munchkin behind me), the gentleman on the other aisle seat moved over next to me and let a woman, I suppose his wife judging by the way they don’t speak to one another but seem to share space and the daughter across the other aisle (who is now sleeping soundly on two seats), move into his former seat.  

That was the trip from Europe to the US. Of course, I had to return home to La Belgique.

When I arrived at RDU and was checking in, I noticed a bulkhead seat open on the long leg from Philadelphia to Brussels. A BULKHEAD seat. The holy grail of coach class. $99. Cheapskate that I am, I asked the agent if he’d comp it to me. No, he couldn’t, but if I waited until just before boarding and check at the gate, they might, if it were still available. So I did just that. Just before boarding, I asked the agent if the bulkhead seat was open, and would she change me to it. Sure, no problem! She took my other boarding pass, the one with my exit row seat (exit row=extra leg room), ripped it up, and handed me the new one. I boarded, had a nice, uneventful flight to Philly, killed time in the airport, and headed to the gate for the flight to Brussels. I found my seat, stopped dead, and couldn’t believe my eyes. I looked at my boarding pass. 7A. I looked up at the seat label. 7A. No way; how was this happening? 7A was a window seat. A WINDOW seat! No exit row, no bulkhead, and possibly the most crowded row on the plane. I picked my lower jaw up off the floor and closed my mouth, shook the incredulity out of my head and turned to find the flight attendant. “Um, uummm… pardon me,” I said. I managed to politely ask her to investigate, and she did…and found nothing except that my seat was indeed 7A, window seat, not a premium seat, not an exit row, not a bulkhead. “I can find you an aisle seat, though,” she offered, and I gratefully accepted.

I know, I know, stupid, right? I asked for the change at RDU; I should’ve known to ask in Philadelphia. So live and learn, as usual.

I foresee a letter to US Airways in my future. A letter which makes clear my dismay at being told one thing and then having something altogether different happen, something entirely opposed to what I wanted. A very nice letter, and carefully worded to mention Mary, the helpful flight attendant, but which also mentions that I’m a dividend miles member and fly this airline at least once a year and often twice. And which also makes the suggestion that perhaps US Air might want to consider kid-free zones on transatlantic flights. And might offer that option to us for a nominal fee…

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A European Christmas

Lately I’ve visited a couple of Christmas markets. There is nothing like Christmas in Europe – the decorations, Gluhwein, people out in the cold with friends. Of course, it’s not all that cold where I am; but even where it is, it doesn’t deter the hardy Europeans from getting outside. Like New Englanders, I think, they know that if they wait for good weather, they’ll be inside all winter, so they bundle up and out they go!

Skaters in freezing Cologne, Germany

Skaters in freezing Cologne, Germany

Most markets run throughout December until the day before Christmas Eve, when they tend to close down en masse so that workers can spend the holidays with their families. And if you don’t like crowds, you probably won’t enjoy them unless you prepare yourself in advance or go early. The crowds develop after 11:00 a.m. or so and they are often so thick you can barely move! For this reason I don’t do very many markets in a season; one or two are all I can handle, especially those of the German variety.

IMG_1400

Crowds just inside the Aachen Christmas Market

Last night, I went to Brussels, where Sainte Catherine’s Market is less crowded than most. This particular market is beautifully decorated with red lights in the trees  and complete with a big Ferris Wheel.

Sainte Catherine Market

Sainte Catherine Market

This time I rode the doggone thing, and it was great! Five euros gets you five times ‘round, and the views are spectacular!

The View from the Ferris Wheel

The View from the Ferris Wheel

There was a rather large ice rink with folks skating away on slushy ice. The booths with things for sale were mostly hawking items made in China, and there were a lot of food stands. The Gluhwein was fair; the warm white wine was better, Alsatian, one of my favorites. And I met Charlie Chaplain!

Charlie Chaplin and Me

Charlie Chaplin and Me

Between Gare Central and the Grande Place in Brussels

Between Gare Central and the Grande Place in Brussels

The Grande Place puts on a terrific show at Christmas, as I’ve written about before here.  This year was much better than last because they have a REAL TREE again. Last year’s monstrosity of lighted panels created a controversy that stupidly had not been foreseen. A centuries-old environment demands a live tree! And this year’s light show did not disappoint! See a video of it here.

The beautiful live tree in the 2013 Brussels Grande Place

The beautiful live tree in the 2013 Brussels Grande Place

Brussels' Hotel de Ville during the light and music show.

Brussels’ Hotel de Ville during the light and music show.

Last year, I went to Koln (Cologne) Germany with a friend, just after Christmas, so we missed the markets but saw the most incredible store windows, still decorated for the holidays!

Animated store window

Animated store window in Cologne

Pretty little Nativity scene in a Cologne store window

Pretty little Nativity scene in a Cologne store window

In spite of how much I love the Brussels market, it is no match for Germany at Christmas; the German markets remind me of my teen years when I lived there with my mom and sister. My stepdad was in the US Army;  he did a tour in Aschaffenburg, and we came along. Nostalgia and memories flood me at the German markets, thinking of my mom and how much I miss her – she went home to be with the Lord three years ago. So I walk through the German markets with a head swimming with memories, running my thumb along the ring on my left index finger, the very one she bought me thirty seven years ago at the ChristKindle Markt in Nuremburg. How it makes me smile to remember! [1]

Aachen, Germany, Market

Aachen, Germany, Market

Aachen booths sell all kinds of arts and crafts, as well as the made-in-China variety.

Aachen booths sell all kinds of arts and crafts, as well as the made-in-China variety.

Flammekuchen, cracker thin crust pizza cooked to order, yum.

Flammekuchen, cracker thin crust pizza cooked to order, yum.

Nuremburg is also the market where my perception of Santa was scarred for life. It was there that a Father Christmas, decked out in long red tunic and beard, tried to sell me and my high school pals hashish! Santa was never the same for me after that… I have never returned to Nuremburg since. Maybe next year!

Valkenburg St. Nick


[1] If you want to read about What Living Feels Like when you are suddenly without your best friend and Mom, here is the first blog I wrote: http://whatlivingfeelslike.blogspot.be/   It isn’t easy to read, but I think it’s meaningful, and it has ministered to a couple of friends when their moms passed away.

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