Saturday, October 30, 2010

Happy Halloween!!

I have a couple of videos to share, but want to begin with this one (because it's only appropriate...and because I love it)...

Classic. :)

According to my host parents, Halloween isn't really celebrated in France. Stores have tried to make it popular, but most people don't buy Halloween-themed merchandise or decorations since they don't celebrate the holiday. I guess that makes pretty good sense.

Nevertheless, you can still find Halloween costumes and decorations if you're looking for them...

I took this photo yesterday in Algers, which is about an hour southwest of Le Mans. We went there in the afternoon to explore the city.

My host mom and me outside of an old church, in a picturesque town between Algers and Le Mans.

We walked around this castle from the 16oos, but unfortunately weren't able to go inside.

I absolutely love the look of this building, which my host dad said is typical Normandy style.

After sunset, I traded my walking boots for dance shoes...for tango lessons! My host parents are serious tango dancers and even have special shoes that are only for tango dancing.

A video of them in action...

New friends--Froger and Constant. We gravitated toward one another since we were just about the only people under the age of 50, haha.

Froger did a homestay in Minnesota last year (the whole year!), which is where she first learned how to tango. She & Constant both have excellent English and I enjoyed chatting and dancing with them throughout the night.

At one point while we were talking and watching people dance, a man who must have been about 80 years old came up to me and said, "You are American? Will you dance with me? I have never danced with an American will be exciting!" Haha!

Well...I was going to post a video from last night of professionals doing a tango demonstration, but I'm having technical difficulties with that. Grr.

Overall, last night was a fun night of trying to tango/trying not to look ridiculous on the dance floor!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Painting, dancing and keeping busy

When I asked my host parents about their hobbies, they were quick to answer.

My host mom likes to paint. The room upstairs next to mine is set up as her studio, and her beautiful paintings are on display all over the rest of the house. Every Wednesday evening, she attends a paint class to learn new techniques...

I went with her to observe the class. Their exercise was to crumple a piece of paper and then paint the outcome using different colors.

Some people chose to work on last week's assignment of painting an object--such as the red jacket in the above picture. Even though the lesson was in French, I enjoyed walking around, watching everyone's progress. I also spent time drawing a sketch that I might *try* (key word) to paint with my host mom in her studio sometime.

In addition to art class, my host mom also attends a weekly English class. She really wants to improve her English, and having conversations with me is the perfect way for her to do that. :)

Since she doesn't work, we spend a lot of time together during the day--cooking, walking, visiting friends, shopping--and practicing English the whole time. Today she said, "I am very tired. Speaking English is so tiring!" Haha.

When I asked my host dad about what he likes to do in his spare time, he said (and I quote), "My number one hobby is rock n' roll club. And my number two hobby is--how do you say?--gliding? Oh. Paragliding."

Rock n' roll club and paragliding!? Nice.

Unfortunately, it's not the right time of year for paragliding, but it's never too cold for rock n' roll. :)

I went with him to his dance class the other night and had an absolute blast!! I tried to upload a video of him dancing (he's a really good dancer), but it's loading waaay too slowly to post right now.

What I can post now is a YouTube video of my host dad's favorite singer, Johnny Hallyday. After dinner last night, we watched a DVD of one of his recent concerts. So Johnny is still performing, and he now sings several different genres. But here's a video from back in the day of the only song of his that I recognized...only in French...

Hopefully, next time I'll not only have a video from "rock n' roll club," I'll also have a video--or at least some pictures--of tango dancing! Apparently, tomorrow afternoon we're going to a town an hour away to sightsee and dance the tango.

Should be interesting. Stay tuned... :)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Bonjour from Le Mans!

Meet Yves & Liliane Ory--the couple I'm staying with for the next month in northern France--helping them with English in exchange for room and board...

He's a computer programmer and she's a housewife. They have a daughter my age who lives in Paris, which is about a two-hour train ride from here. (I took the train here yesterday after taking a bus from Brussels and a train from Leuven before was a long day! It was made longer by my train from Paris being delayed due to striking. Ugh.)

Anyway, I'm happy to be here, staying with such a nice couple in a lovely home...

Even though it's a country home, they live close to the city center. It's about a 30-minute walk, which I did with Liliane this afternoon.

My bedroom, where I'm writing from now. :)

Walking around Le Mans, trying to get familiar with the territory...

Le Mans is well-known for it's annual automobile race--just like Indianapolis!

The main cathedral is such a beautiful building.

In addition to exploring the modern area lined with shops, we also strolled around the historical section, where there are cobblestone streets. I've also eaten chocolate here already, so this means I don't need to change the title of my blog. :)

Last night for dinner, we had chicken & rice with zucchini, served with a baguette. My host dad says it's not a proper meal without bread. When I told him that I like a type of sweet bread with zucchini it it (Mom's homemade zucchini bread = yum!), he said, "Zucchini!?! In zee bread!?! Non non non." Hahaha

After the main course, we had a platter of different types of cheese. I thought that might be dessert, but then my host mom pulled out chocolate-covered flan! Oooh la la. We had caramel-covered flan tonight as dessert.

Two kinds of flan two days in a row--that's a first. :)

We had a cheese spread again tonight before dessert, this time served with wine. (And a baguette, of course.) So French! My host dad is serious about his wine; he has a list of exactly what's downstairs in the cellar and how old each bottle is.

So my time living in France--which is something I've wanted to do for years--has started out as a great cultural experience, and I love that! Learning about different cultures by experiencing them first-hand is definitely the best way.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Brussels, Gent & Antwerp

During my stay in Belgium, I've been using Leuven as a base and making day trips to other cities.

Although I flew into Brussels last week, I didn't get a chance to explore it until Thursday. Brussels is the capital of the European Union, and is considered a melting pot of different cultures. However, seventy percent of people in Brussels speak French, and I kind of felt like I was in France when I first arrived. French (and some German) is spoked in southern Belgium (Wallonia), and in northern Belgium (Flanders) where Ashlee lives, Dutch is spoken.

I started out at the BIP (Brussels Information Place), where I basically learned how great & wonderful Brussels is. :)

I was definitely impressed by the BIP Expo, which had several interactive exhibits, including a giant map of Brussels. By clicking on the name of a specific region in the city, that area of the map would light up and a video would play. I especially loved that the Expo was free!

I picked up a "walking guide" at the tourist center and followed it around the city...

The flag flying on top of the Royal Palace indicated that the King was in. I decided not to pop in to say hi.

This is one of several parks in the city. Notice the rainbow by the fountain--the first rainbow I've seen in Belgium. (I saw them frequently in Ireland! Ah, I miss that magical place.)

There was lots of construction everywhere. Ashlee was definitely right when she said that Belgium is constantly under construction!

The tour ended at this arch, where there was a nice overview of the city from the top...

The town of Gent is about an hour train ride from Brussels. It's a student town (like Leuven) with cobblestone streets and several churches.

I loved the night view of St. Michael's bridge...

Antwerp--which is also in Flanders--is an alive city, where many people go to shop.

Ashlee and I went there yesterday in search of a leather jacket for her (we were unfortunately unsuccessful).

We enjoyed perusing the jewelry in the diamond district.

We also went to this castle and took an audio tour of the famous painter Peter Paul Rubens' house.

When I haven't been traveling around northern Belgium, I've been hanging out in Leuven feeling like a student. My time here in Leuven has felt a bit like a study abroad experience, which I never had in college. I've had good discussions with Ashlee on a variety of topics, and I've spent time at cafés reading, writing and preparing for my teaching job in France.

I leave for Le Mans, France (via Paris) on Monday morning, and I'm excited for Part 3 of my adventure in Europe! Au revoir for now.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A serious sweet tooth, indeed

Yep, it's yet another post about sweets. :)

But you have to expect that from someone visiting Belgium. And from someone who not only likes to eat dessert first, but has also been known to occasionally eat dessert meals due to her sweet tooth...err teeth.

Anyway. I found this article about Belgian chocolate, which is what I wrote about last time. Not only are the chocolates here delicious, they are also beautiful--an "art form" as the article says.

This little shop in Leuven is busy every time I walk by it.

Or course, the waffles here are also kind of a big deal...

This is the "tea room" (that I can't pronounce the name of) where I had my first Belgian waffle in Belgium--definitely a historical moment. :)

Ashlee and I sat next to the window, which as you can see, is decorated for Halloween. Funny, since Halloween isn't really celebrated here.

And this is a little taste of heaven.

Truth be told, I was surprised that my "waffle with fruit" was topped with fruit cocktail instead of fresh fruit. But it's all good since I like fruit cocktail, too.

Next, I need to try a waffle from a street vendor, which Ashlee says are wonderful even though they're not served with sauce or fruit.

Here's the waffle section at the supermarket. Waffle cookies with a carmel filling called stroopwafels (which are from the Netherlands) are also popular. I tried one today and thought it was delicious.

I noticed that the bread section of the supermarket has a machine at the end that slices the big loaves--pretty cool.

I absolutely love sniffing out bakeries and looking at all of the different treats. Actually, I don't have to go into a bakery to smell the desserts--even the outside air smells sweet. No joke.

If only the weather were tropical (it's unfortunately cloudy & cold), Belgium would be my kind of paradise!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Working on my "To-Eat List" in Bruges

Today was a lovely, sunny autumn day to visit the beautiful town of Bruges, and I'm so glad that Ashlee and I decided against making the day trip yesterday, when it was dreary & cold.

According to Ashlee, Bruges is a must-see destination for anyone visiting Belgium. It took us an hour and half by train to get there, and we spent all day walking around, admiring the picturesque town with its canal...

Just like in Leuven, I thought, "Ah, it's so cute here!"

As you can (kind of) see in the background, work was being done on the main church. Ashlee said that there's always construction being done in Belgium since the buildings are so old.

It might be hard to tell from the photo, but those swans were HUGE! We kept our distance.

The central plaza--the Market--was alive with activity. We sat near the statue to eat the "kip curry" (chicken curry) sandwiches we had packed and some of the amazing chocolate we had bought.

We saw several carriages throughout the day.

We also saw an interesting display of photography in the street.

As we walked around, we ducked in and out of several chocolate shops, trying different kinds of truffles and other treats. We were glad to find out that we could buy the small chocolates just two at a time instead of paying by the gram/kilogram, since it was better to sample exactly what we wanted that way.

My favorite truffle of the day was the crème brûlée flavor, which was incredible; it gets a 6 on a scale of 1 to 5.) :) As Ashlee said, "I feel like I'm eating something illegal!" it was that sinfully delicious.

Since Belgium is famous for its fine chocolate, waffles and fries, I have more of a To-Eat List instead of a To-Do List!, haha. It's a good thing I've been doing a ton of walking!

Belgium is also well-known for its beer, but that doesn't interest me like the other three do.

However, on Saturday night when I went out with Ashlee and one of her friends, I did try a beer I liked, called Kriek. But I liked it because it was cherry flavor & so sweet that it was almost like Kool-Aid.

I think it's interesting that each kind of beer has its own special glass, as you can see in the above picture of the beer wall.

We visited the Choco Story museum, where we learned guessed it...the story of chocolate--its history and development.

Ashlee as a cocoa bean. :)

My I had my first batch of fries in Belgium topped with andalouse sauce (which is hard to describe, but kind of reminded me of Thousand Island dressing.) I bought these fries from a street vendor, which is the traditional way to get them. Fries were actually created in Belgium, and Belgians don't like it when they're referred to as French fries!

My first Belgian waffle in Belgium--which was another historical moment--was yesterday, but I'll write about that another time... :)

Goodnight for now (it's midnight here, but only 6 p.m. at home) & sweet dreams!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Lovin' Leuven

I'm happy to say that I made it here, to Leuven, Belgium without any problems.

When I left Dublin yesterday, it was a dreary, dismal day--which matched my mood. I was not happy about leaving Ireland and saying goodbye to Jarlath.

It was crazy how once the plane rose above the clouds, the view turned from downright depressing into this...


I spent the plane ride reflecting on my time in Ireland, and also gearing up to meet my friend, Ashlee...

I'm staying at her apartment and hanging out with her whenever she's not busy studying. (She's working on her doctorate in comparative theology.)

This was the view that greeted me from the train station, when I first arrived. (Except that it was dark out.) I knew right away that I liked this place. It's cute and quaint! :)

Ashlee took me on a walk around the city this afternoon, and here are a few photos I snapped during the tour...

Cobblestone streeets! (Hence, the new name of this blog. I'll get to the chocolate treats part a little later...)

This is called "the beetle on the needle." Ashlee and I agree that it's pretty ugly. (More ugly than pretty! haha)

In addition to the beetle, there are several "weird statues" (Ashlee's words) around the city, too. This is one of about five or six that I've seen so far.

I've also noticed lots of bikes around here...

...and LOTS of tables & chairs outside cafes. Ashlee said that in the warm evenings, it's hard to find a seat--which is hard to believe since there are sooo many seats!

Another one of the "weird statues."

Lovely architecture. :)

We walked through an area that used to be a convent. (See the little nun statue on the top right?) Now, it's an area where professors and students live.

After the walk, we went out for dinner (I had delicious lasagna) and then to a super cute cafe for my first official Belgian chocolate...

Hot frothed milk, served with a chocolate on a stick (used to swirl in the milk) and a chocolate truffle. So. Lovely.

I'm looking forward to more lovely chocolate treats in the very near future... :)