Tuesday, June 30, 2009

It Gets To You

Merely a day after I returned rom my whirlwind tour of Belgium and Normandy, a few hours after I realized how nice it is to be home in Fixin, I made the decision to see Dijon. Dijon is, as one may know, the closest big city to Fixin, just 25 minutes away by TRANSCO bus. It is a clean, safe, and friendly city, although I have to admit I have some problems with Dijon. I find it to be rather dull and tiresome ater an hour or two. How many time can you walk around the Vielle Ville, before you recognize every place, have shopped in all the stores, and worst of all have run into about 15 people from your school?

You start to wonder if Dijon is really made up of 300,000 people and not 200. The midget that sits in McDonalds passes you on the main road and says, "Hello! I love America!" The skater punks in Place Darcy still can not do anything more than a Pop Wheely on their boards. The Moroccan bum still sits outside Chez Paule's, but with a new sign, "My children are hungry, please help!" Yesterday it said, "I am all alone and I do not speak the language well, please help!"
But when I went to Dijon the day after returning to Fixin, I went to do a little shopping, not exactly soul searching. I went to get a hair cut, not a reality check. I did not go to say goodbye to Dijon, seeing as I will be back there quite often in the coming days, yet my goodbye to Dijon started anyway.

It's weird how you have relationship with places, since they are not people and they can not love you back or even hate you back. With Dijon, like my year in France, I have ridiculous highs and lows. There were days when I could not get enough of the city, and days when the thought of going to Dijon made me angry. There is absolutely nothing to do in Dijon, and so much to do at the same time. After 6 months, I remember when Alex told me her Dad had JUST figured out she lived in Dijon, "Oh... like the mustard!"

I remember the huge protests that swallowed Dijon after the closing of the only mustard company located in the city. Or the many times that I ventured into the grand ville for a beer at Flannery's, but only ater Andrew and I did our ritual. We had to go say hello to the Dijon Chouette, or Owl, pop into H and M or a quick look, glance through the FNAC for the latest Bob Dylan CD. I still have not done all the things I feel I have to do in Dijon, but I just do not feel compelled to tour the Palais o the Dukes or tour the Mueaum of Archaelogy. I would rather listen to the guitar players in Place Darcy, get a beer at Flannery's, or bore mysel doing the same things over and over again in Dijon.

So you think you know a place like the back of your hand, it is safe and boring, but still comfortable. That's me and Dijon for you.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Nice and Night Trains

After the Aeronauts and I set off for the South of France, we arrived at the summer home of my Great Aunt Mika in Sainte-Maxime, Provence. As much as I would love to tell you about how excellent that experience was, the truth is, I felt that the time had come to return to Fixin, even if a part of me knew that is was silly. I was bound to be bored to death back home in Fixin, but I missed the R's and my messed up life in France.
On the morning of the 16th, as we hate a delicious breakfast with the whole clan, I spoke, "I think want to go to Nice today and then take the train home from there." Ronnie and Paule were visiblly annoyed, since I was supposed to stay another day and this new change of plans would entail a long car ride to the nearest train station. But they agreed to drop me off in Saint Rafael for Nice.

It was sad to say goodbye, since I had grown so very fond of my cousins over the past few weeks. They had so much for me and now I was returning, but Paule knew that I had to go back. She knew I missed L and everyone at home. She also knew that I needed to get back to Fixin for some closure to the year, which was not the best but needed to be finished.

They dropped me off at a station, where I took the local train to Cannes, my favorite city in the South. I got up because I wanted to formulate a plan. Throughout the year I have wanted to take a Night Train in France, I can not tell exactly why, except that I wanted to be able to say I took the Night Train in France. So at Cannes I purchased a ticket from Nice to Paris and from Paris to Dijon for the next day. Okay I paid extra, but also less because I would not have to rent a room in a hostel in Nice that night.

Finally arriving in Nice, I hopped on the tram for the Old City. After a quick milkshake at McDonalds, I climbed the old fort with a beautiful view of the sprawling city, a former Italian city that decided it preferred to be French. The place was full of tourists, and very few actual French people, but I really the ambiance of the city. It is a big French city with more Italian influence and recently Russian and English influence. The view of the old fort was incredible, even if I was soaked with sweat after the climb. I stayed a few moments and then redescended into the old village. After a long stroll along the Walk of the English, I decided to be daring. During my exploration of the old city, I bought Tomato Ice Cream. Tomato is my favorite food, but I am sad to say it does not make good ice cream.

I took a quick dip on the water, but it was not enough. I was overheatted and about to take an all-night train. It did not spell a good experience. Luckily I had some sleeping pills, which I eagerly took right before I returned to the Cannes station to take the train to Paris. I ate a quick dinner, before I boarded the night train. On the train, I was assigned to a car with all women, all of which were 40 years my senior and I would find had a problem of snoring. In a tiny compartment, 6 beds are piled one on top of the other for passengers. The train is also the slow and shakey kind that has you bobbin your head all night. Hours after the train had stopped, I still felt like I was moving. The pills kicked in pretty early, and I fell asleep barely an hour after the journey began. But they did last. I awoke at 3 in the morning, having had about 6 hours of sleep. I was not sure where we were, but I was able to watch the land pass by and the sun rise as we crept closer and closer to Paris.
When we arrived, I jumped off the train, kissed the ground, fought for power over my equilibrium, and then trekked from Paris St. lazare to Gare de Lyon. I had about 4 hours to kill, but with the greatest hunger I had ever felt in my life, I ate just over 4 pieces of chocolate criossants and almond bread, drank 5 coffees and 3 orange juices. I was pretty much shaking when I finally got on the TGV to Dijon.
The best that can be said: I at least accomplished that, and now I never have to take another night train again. Ever.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Paris or Normandy?

I think I have discovered my very least favorite place in the entire grand country of la belle France. I did not think I could despise a place more than the Pigalle Metro station in Paris, where every time someone comes in a 5 foot radius, my life flashes before my eyes. No one speaks French or English, or makes any contact with you in that grimy classless Metro station. I made the decision in April, when I was changing trains in Pigalle Station, to never ever set foot in the place so long as I lived. And mind you, this is coming from the same kid who has no fears whatsoever.

But fear for my life has nothing to with my new least favorite place in France. Not once should I have to fear for my life there, unless maybe if looks can kill. And I certainly received a ton of death glares In the beachside resort of Deauville, Normandy. Paule and Ronnie’s ranch is just a short drive away from the famous French seaside resort of Deauville. It is famous because it is a short TGV train ride away from the city of lights, and thus a very popular spot among Parisians on a long weekend. As I, unfortunately, found out.

After a morning of stomach troubles, I decided to put the incredible weather to good use. First I did a long hike through the Norman combs, where I found myself mostly yearning for my own Fixin combs. Afterwards, Yves and I hopped on our bikes and decided to bike to the seaside. We figured it would be as quick as an easy car ride. But after an hour and half of biking, the sweet arrival was the only thing that kept me from falling off my bike. I had lost Yves along the road, and I later learned he made it to Trouville, the sister city of Deauville, while I made it to Deauville.

As soon as my bike entered the area surrounding Deauville, I could tell I had entered an entire new world. The beautiful day had invited all the vacationers out into the sun, and since it was later in the day, most had flocked into the villages after a morning at the beach. When I say vacationers, I may as well tell you that everyone was from Paris on a nice weekend excursion to the shore. Thinking nothing of it, I hopped off my bike to easily navigate the crowded sidewalks. I was pretty sweaty after the long bike ride in the sun, and I was rather parched. My objective was to search for a supermarket where I could buy my favorite drink for excersizing, 0 Calorie Red Fruit Mineral Water, which has become a tradition to purchase during a long bike ride.

As I navigated the sidewalk, I was vaguely aware of the people-watchers at the ritzy cafes lining up on the streets. I could see from the corner of my eye, their eyes scanning this obvious foreigner in maroon Adidas sport shorts, wearing an ugly tee-shirt with visible sweat stains. My hair was tossed and wind-blown, and my cheap 12 Euro glasses, scratched beyond repair, sat on my head. I looked like an athlete who just biked 15 to 20 kilometers, not one of these classy flamboyant Parisians. A few people even made snide comments about taking a bike in the crowded streets, but I just pretended not to understand what they said.

When I finally found a Supermarket, my throat felt like sand paper, and I hurried into to look for my drink. I found it and paid twice the price I pay for it in Dijon, but I did not care. I rushed outside the store, and yanked off the bottle cap. Standing just beside a café, themed by the magnificent color purple, with paying customers that were willing to pay 8 Euros for a cup of coffee, I thrust the bottle upwards and began loudly gulping away. It was only after I drank half a liter of the bottle that I became aware that every customer was staring at me in pure and utter disgust. A few of men snickered loudly, while their wives resembled someone utterly scandalized. They were all wondering how lowly Deauville has sung to let in a character like me, sweaty, frumpy, and rude.

After I finished the bottle, I had plans to go to the beach and dip my feet in the Atlantic Ocean. I pedaled along the sidewalks of Deauville, just beside the glorious newly-built mansions overlooking the ocean. When I arrived at the beach, I jumped off my bike, locked it into a safe, and then began running towards the water. At some point, I realized I was surrounded by an ocean of bikinis. I felt so uncomfortable by the livid stares that I returned to my bike without even touching the water. I did not even look back as I pedaled as fast and as hard as I could to get out of that Parisian paradise.

Never again will I go to Deauville in the summer season.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Answer To The Pressing Question

I have grown up a lot over the course of this year in La Belle France, in so any ways, that I sometimes stop in mid-sentence with astonishment. Did I really just say there? Do I really feel that way? When did I become this person I am today? A lot has changed about me, but there is just one thing I want to discuss today.

I cannot remember the first time someone asked me the inevitable question that I now accept everyone wants to know. It is natural; of course, you do not meet many people like me. That is an all-American girl of 18 years-old that has spent a year in land of the rising sun and a year amongst the frogs. I no longer need to say I have a pretty unconventional life, but sometimes people are still just utterly baffled. They often want to know how it was possible to graduate High School having spent the two year’s abroad, the major difference between my three perspective cultures, family life in Japan and France, school systems, and huge culture shock experiences. But most importantly they want to know which country I like better, France or Japan.

It has taken me over 8 months to finally accept this healthy curiosity. 8 months, in which, I would have to work really hard to suppress my anger every time someone posed the question. Something like a ticking time bomb would go off as I would compile my answer. But a million things would rocket through my head.

It’s none of your business!
How could you ask a question like that?
Do you really expect me to compare the two countries, France and Japan, in a series of sentences?
Why ask such a thing, because I am sure you do not care that much?

I truly believed that the French who asked the question would fall into anger if I said Japan, while my host families in Japan would be upset if I said that more of my heart belonged to France. Later, I believed that it was human nature to ask such a question. People want to hear bad stuff, rather than asking me if I have had two wonderful years, they ask which I like better.
I formulated a quick response, to which I said to everyone immediately. “They are just too different to compare.” End of answer. Goodbye. It never left anyone satisfied, including me. While others would nod gently and not press harder for an answer, I would nod my head and give a little smirk. But deep inside, I really wanted to tell everyone the truth.

Sometime in the past month, perhaps because many people have stopped asking me which country I like better, I have fallen into the understanding that it is natural for people to want to know. It is merely only curiosity that drives one to ask that kind of question. It often has nothing to do with being nosy or expecting to hear the worst. And so, I am finally ready to tell the truth.

There is something about France that is indescribably intoxicating. A country of choice, peaking mountains, miles of sandy coastlines, row after row of the sweetest grapes in the world, and cities of history just waiting to be uncovered. Even on the coldest and grayest days of a harsh winter, France is still beautiful. And the lifestyle, after you finally get used to the bisoux, the relative ease, the barrels of fine wine and delightful cheese, the historical importance spewing out of every crumbling building. France has given me an aesthetic side and most importantly has taught me how to take of myself and the importance of pleasure.

But oh my Japan will always be the place where I was a young blue-eyed brown-haired, freckle-faced kid constantly being stared at in awe. Most people find that Japan is a closed society, but I never had that problem. I was loved from the moment I arrived in Japan, having always been surrounded by friends and family, people who showed a caring nature and compassion. And for the first time in my very life I learned the importance of having friends and how to be liked and loved. I arrived in Japan a shy and timid girl who never quite fit in anywhere she tried to be, and left a girl who was bubbly in every sense of the word.

So there is my answer. I prefer France as the country of pleasure, beauty, and culture, while I dream of Japan for the people, and the sense of belonging. Perhaps this will satisfy everyone’s pressing question.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Fine Wining

Eating with my cousin’s Ronnie and Paule almost always entails eating at an incredibly delicious restaurant with prices far too exorbitant for my taste. Never the less, I have not been disappointed yet, and instead I have begun to learn what it feels like to live the life of treating yourself well.

But one cannot forget practically the most important part of the whole meal. This is France, and I am staying with a family highly influenced by French culture. In fact, Paule tells me her father was a connoisseur of Burgundy wines, even though he was Flemish and not French in the slightest. You might have guessed it: the purchase of an excellent wine to supplement a delicious meal.

Paule and Ronnie both know that for the past few month’s I have lived in the middle of the action, or lack thereof it, depending on your point of view. They know I live just a few meters from all sides from sprawling French vineyards in the world’s greatest wine growing region (arguably.) They know I live in a town called Fixin, well known for its ‘tough’ wine’s, which only go well when supplementing a big juicy hunk of steak. They also know that I know the Cote de Nuits wine region like the back of my right hand. When a name of a small village is dropped in the region, I know it because more than likely I have tasted it, rode my bike through it, have acquaintances who live there, or something along those lines.

And so, of course, at each fine restaurant we eat at, a bottle or two or three is ordered to supplement our meal. With fish, we always drink white wine. When the rare sun pokes it’s head out from the clouds, and we eat a light meal of salad or some sort, always chilled rose wine is on the table. When Ronnie and Paule eat a steak, a good Burgundy red is always somewhere on our table. But none of us really likes the taste of Fixin wine, which Ronnie describes as, "closer to vinegar, than Burgundy quality."

What my cousins do not know, is that no matter how hard they try to impress me with their ordering of the best wines, I really do not know the difference. True, I know the different between cheap table wine and a 1990 Clos de Vougeot classique Grands Crus, but I have not reached the point of snobbery, like almost all of my fellow Fixin folks, who could tell the difference between a Fixin Hervelet and a Fixin Village, which are something like 5 meters from each other and apparently have vibrantly different tastes. I think it is because I have never had anything but the best wines, that my taste buds are not really attuned to the difference between a truly awful wine and a truly amazing one. I just know the amazing ones.

At Le Mere Poulard, the fabulous restaurant on le Mont St. Michel, Ronnie ordered a 2000 Clos Vougeot, which costed him about 300 euros, which is more than I have spent in the past 3 weeks of traveling on trains, food, and lodging. Of course it was utterly amazing, but even if it was god-awful, I do not know if I would know the difference.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Fine Dining

Paule and Ronny Aeronauts, my cousins, friends, and hosts of this nice travel occasion around Belgium and Normandy, have a well-loved hobby, in which they invest much time and money in.
They like to eat. And I do not mean eating in the sense that you put food in front of them and they gobble it all up no matter what it is, McDonald’s or Caviar. The Aeronaut’s are instead gourmands in search of the very best restaurants that our world has to offer. From what I gather, they will not eat at a restaurant unless it has been Michelin rated, which is a famous system that recommends only the very best restaurants.

With Paule and Ronnie, I have dined at a classy terrace in Brugges, soaking up the rays while devouring a delightful plate of fresh caught Eel. In the Zeeland’s, Netherlands, we dined at a famous tower restaurant overlooking the dykes and harbor, with incredible historical purposes. The Duke of Bourbon married his wife there in the 16th century, but more importantly, Paule and Ronnie took my grandparents to dine there many years ago. The excellent combination of Tuna and Cod, followed by a plate of Italian custard and strawberries, was magnificent.
Here in France, we sat beside the ancient church of Bayeux, and treated ourselves to a delicious meal. Paule and Ronny ate a specialty lamb, which you can only get on the seaside of France and the Netherlands, because of a special wind that blows salty nutrient inshore for the animals to eat. I opted for an excellent Vegetarian menu, which was just as delicious and probably even better.

But nothing quite compares to this evening after a wonderful touring all around Normandy. We started by viewing the powerful American Cemetery, and moved onto the Saint-Mere Eglise. Then onto the world famous Mont St. Michel, looming off the coast of Normandy. There we luckily got into the most famous restaurant on the island, Le Mere Poulard.

In 1874, Annette Poulard established an inn just inside the gates of the Mont for impoverished and starving pilgrims after their harking trek across the dangerous bay. She would sit them down and serve them her specialty; a big old fluffy omelet. It was not long before she became known as mother, or Mere. The legacy of her cuisine continues today, with her original inn and original oven. Diners can watch as chefs whip up the omelets over an open fire with classy ingredients like Lobster or Lamb. However, Le Mere Poulard is no longer for impoverished pilgrims, and today one must be willing to spend over 50 Euros a plates. This is ridiculous by my impoverished exchange student standards, but just right for Paule and Ronnie.

So of course, after the Abby tour, the four of us were seated in Le Mere Poulard for a meal. As usual, I sprung for the cheapest menu, which ended up being 35 Euros, minus the wine. I received a first course of delicious Tomato Soup, followed by Mere Poulard’s famous omelet with zucchini and tomatoes, and finally a small plate of fresh fruit and sorbet.

What have I learned? The cost may be steep for this edible legacy, but the history and quality is priceless.
Oh and one more thing I have learned from my experience fine dining: if you expect to be allowed to eat there again in the future, do not ask for ketchup. The first time, I mentioned ketchup; Paule shot me down and acted horrified at the concept of putting ketchup on a perfectly buttered, sautéed, and perhaps even gold-plated piece of fish.

As for ketchup on an omelet at Le Mere Poulard? Ronnie could have killed me when I flagged down the waitress to ask if they had any ketchup. And the waitress gave me the most disgusted look I have ever merited in my entire life, as she spat a firm, “Mais, non!” I could tell she wanted to add something about the restaurant not being McDonald’s, and that I ought to go there for some ketchup. But she had some restraint, which I suspect had something to do with the fact that she likes Obama (everyone in Europe likes Obama) or she got a good tip from some American’s in the past.

I guess I will always have a little American in me.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Dream Come True

Amidst all the visits to war memorials, tombstones of the fallen soldiers, and war-ravaged villages of the past few days of my Normandy Journey, something incredible happened. One of my greatest desires, tucked gently in the pocket of my closed up heart, was realized as Paule, Ronnie, Yves, and I trekked across the land to the border of Normandy and Brittany. There floating miraculously in the far distance lay the most beautiful and breathtaking thing I have ever seen in my life, something even more beautiful than even my wildest dreams could concoct. Le Mont St. Michel.

When little girls dream of France, I think most of them see the Eiffel Tower. I am not the best person to make this generalization since I have never been a normal little girl, and I never dreamt of France, other than a few hard feelings toward the country regarding their not-so-nice words towards my country in 2003. Deeply influenced by the words of the television and the teachings of my parents, I had resolved to never set foot in that horrid European country so-long as I lived. Well that worked out well, huh?

Due to a schedule error at my middle school, my first year of high school found me placed in French 101, where we never actually learned French. We did, however, study a lot of about the land and more importantly, the huge tourist sites. I remember having to do a report on le Centre de Pompidou in Paris. But someone else was given le Mont St. Michel, and they presented an amazing speech. They talked about the old pilgrims making religious pilgrimages across the grand bay. Some died in the crossing from quick sand and the huge tides that swept away the shores, and are often described as being quicker than a galloping horse. Those that did make it the Mont St. Michel arrived exhausted but mounted the steps to the Abby situated on top of the mountain. In the Abby, Benedictine monks lived peacefully in prayer in possibly the most beautiful place in all of France. From the walls surrounding the abbey, one could look out onto the bay, the shores of Normandy and Brittany, and all that is the Northern coastal France.
I clung to these words like a love-sick woman finally hearing the three words she has waited a lifetime for. And no matter how much resentment I felt towards France, a little piece of me yearned for that mystical Mountain and vowed to one day see it. But I did not realize how big that little piece really was until I finally stood at the foot of the Mont.
True to the Norman fashion that I have come to know over the past week and half, the sky was gray with ominous clouds that meant rain. There it was looming in the reachable distance, the tides subsided so that all we could see was the fine silt sand that has long claimed many pilgrim’s lives. The point of the and mountain, reaching towards the sky, holds a gold sculpture of Saint Michael, the archangel, as he slew the dragon, a sign of the devil. Though I am not a believer in the word-for-word bible, chills raced through my body, as I thought about the significance of the statue. Perhaps, the God of War really has protected and watched over the island, since it has survived the 100 Years War, the French Revolution, and both World War’s. A rock island in the sea, reaching to the sky and heaven , and I could not help but see how the mystical place held the best of the all these worlds we have.

We arrived at the the foot of the mountain, parked our car, and then went out separate ways. Paule and Ronnie had seen the Mont half a dozen times and are a bit too out of shape to take on the hundreds of steps that one is required to climb. Yves and I, with very little time before the abbey was bound to close, had to break into a short sprint up the hill. The narrow cobblestoned street bursting with tourist traps, was a blur in my hastiness. In a slow jog, I hurried up the stairs, often just carved into the side of the mountain and reached the admission desk long before Yves. I paid the fee and also purchased a headset to further understand the origins of the mountain.

I learned of the history, architecture, and lifestyle of the monks that inhabited the abbey. I feasted on all the historical significance, while indulging in the scenery indescribable. I often find that when I want to see something ever so badly, I make unattainable expectations, which lead to disappointment. But the Mont St. Michel never cease to amaze me and far surpass my high expectations.

As Yves and I returned to the foot of the mountain after the abbey tour, we strolled aong the ancient fortification walls with some of the smart tourists that had discovered the secret passageways to get there. My camera was plastered to my nose as I took over a hundred pictures of the mountain, but stopped to listen to an Irish or Scottish family standing just beside me. Actually, the father was from the United Kingdom, while the mother was from Germany or the Netherlands, as I could tell from the accent. Her children, little ginger’s, like their father, were tugging her along after Daddy.
“Ugh… slow it up. I do not want to climb again. Go ahead of me, “ she urged her kids, and then turned to me. “I suppose it is good that they are interested in culture, but honestly, it is just a rock with a religious place on the top. I do not see what the bloody fuss is all about.”
I smiled and replied, “Being here is a dream come true for me.”

She studied for a moment, and then replied, “You ought to set your dreams a bit higher than a rock on the French coast.”

Trust me, I have dreams much higher and harder to attain than seeing the Mont St. Michel in my lifetime. But the truth is, when a dream comes true, no matter how big or small, I remember again just how much life is worth living.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

65 Years

I wonder if it really is bravery to answer your country’s call and join the Army for war. So many of my fellow countrymen did in the 1940’s, in an effort to combat the Japanese and the German Axis forces. But what I wonder if bravery is really the right word for responding to Uncle Sam’s call. Because I am pretty sure Uncle Sam did not say in his criteria that these men might have to cut their lives, brilliant and shining, epically short at the hands of a machine gun on the beaches of Northern France. Or tortured to the point where death is seen as a God-sent in the far East.
I passed the 65th anniversary of Debarquement Day at the department in which my fellow Americans, among other Canadian, British, French, Belgian, and others, arrived to free occupied Europe from Nazi tyranny. My President, Barack Obama, also came to pay tribute to those that died and those that brought freedom from tyranny. And I was wholly disappointed in his speech. He spoke in tribute, of course, but also remarked of the many mistakes his fellow countrymen made on that fateful day.
Now I do not know about you, but on a day as sad and powerful as D-day, I want to hear prayers for the dead, patriotic songs, and stories from the veterans themselves. I am fully aware that our troops made some mistakes, and I am constantly reminded with every village I visit, how much havoc and destruction the allies wreaked on Normandy. Never the less, on this sacred day, we need to remember the bravery and sacrifice of the allies. Not their mistakes and failures.

One of the sites we visited was the thriving town of Arromanches, where a few days after the Debarquement Day, the British constructed an artificial port to transport goods into France to the troops. The remnants of the port still float softly off the coast, an eerie reminder of the pains the allies took to combat the Germans. But what really intrigued after a visit to the museum was the fact that the port was constructed after almost 2 weeks. Why? Prior to D-Day, the Allies could not be completely sure the landing would be a success. After all, historically speaking the 1942 Canadian Dieppe Raid was a disastrous failure, ending in either the death or capture of 6,000 Canadian troops. The lesson? The German Atlantic Wall was powerful, ready, and deadly.
But this got me thinking, something that everything I have seen in Normandy has prompted me to do. If the Allied commanders were not entirely sure of the success of Operation Overlord, did any of them ever think about the men they were sending off into battle? Did they ever stop to think that they could very well be sending of thousands of men to their premature and fiery death’s? Even though things went somewhat according to plan, so much could have gone wrong that it is baffling to me.

On another note, after I saw a nice film in the Arromanches 360 Dome about the war and today, I returned to a seaside café to find Ronnie and Paule waiting for me. When I plopped myself down in the seat and began to talk, Paule quieted me down instantly. I could tell she was eavesdropping in on the table next to her. The table was filled with three elderly German men, not old enough to have fought in the war themselves, but certainly not young enough to be history buff’s here for a good lesson. They were talking quietly, and from what I could tell, rather solemnly.

Back at the car, Paule announced what she had heard the men talk about. The middle man, a lanky blue-eyed blond fellow, was telling the other two that it was his first time in Arromanches, a place he had always wanted to visit because it was the name of the faraway seaside town in France in the letter from his father. The last letter from his father, postmarked June 3, 1944. His father, a German soldier, had been stationed in the Norman countryside of France, a place which he described as paradise and the farthest place in the world from danger. Not 4 or 5 days he later, he was shot dead by a British soldier in the struggle for Arromanches. He left behind his wife and sons, one in which had come to pay tribute to his father.

It’s a sad reminder of the horrible costs of both sides of the war.

Monday, June 22, 2009

All In The Name of Freedom

Is it not sad that old pig-headed men with little or no knowledge of the world around them make decisions behind closed doors that often result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent young men and women? Why does the world work as such, that those in indifference make decisions with powerful and dreadful consequences? And why, oh why, once these consequences have been met, are the men not aware of what they have done? No one said the world is fair, but why is there such a thin line between fair and a ridiculous outrage?

Yesterday, my cousin Paule and I traveled to Caen, capital of the region to visit the World War II memorial. By the end of the war, ¾ of the grand city had been destroyed, and during the Battle for Normandy, the city was one of the last Nazi strongholds in the region. It is a fitting home for the greatest World War II memorial in Normandy, and possibly the world.
The memorial is utterly breathtaking, painfully anguishing, bursting with information for a history buff’s excitement, and filled to capacity with items that would make anyone feel compassion. I cannot tell you how many emotions I felt while walking along the corridors of the museum, and hearing the voices of the soldiers and victims.

One special exhibit opened up the secret diaries and handwritten letters of the solders- no the boys- that fought and often died here in Normandy on the day that changed the world. Many had not finished high school and were barely older than myself. This scared me a little bit, because I realize I have done so much in my life already, but that there is still so much more ahead and so much more things that I want to accomplish in this life time. While those boys sat on their convoy’s crossing the English Channel, some even being sent to their premature death, I wonder, if any of them felt regret that their lives were being cut short. Did any of them cry and feel an utmost remorse at not being able to do everything they had wanted, to not spend just 5 more minutes in their mothers arms, or throwing the baseball with their father in the yard? Did any of them close their eyes and envision a future that would not happen? Not all of them died, of course, but so many did die before their time.

All to die in the name of freedom. Not just the British chaps or the American yankee’s, but also the German boys who sat behind the Atlantic Wall on the other side. Did they really know what they were fighting for, other than to make their country a better place for their future and for their family? Yet again, it is a case of old men in dark rooms making decisions based on their own personal desires and prejudices, with little or no regard to the consequences.

People say that World War I is the hardest to study because there are no clear right and wrong sides. A series of old parchment’s signed by bloody politicians, who had no idea what it all meant, brought millions of boys into the trenches to kill or be killed. While, these same people usually say that World War II was different. There was a clear good guy and a bad guy, super hero and villain, and a disturbed peace to be dealt with. But my question is the following: was there really a right and wrong with World War II? Yet again, there were a few old evil men that made murderous orders, but how can one say that the everyday German soldier deserved to die. More than likely he joined the army to make life better for himself and his family, which is something everyone does every day of their lives. And considering all the things that the allies did, I wonder if it is just to say that they were the ‘good guys.’ It is not as though the Americans welcomed the St. Louis boat filled with refugee Jews, did not intern the Japanese-Americans out of fear, or commit heinous acts of crime above the skies of Dresden.

All I have to say is that those that die in the name of freedom, die unjustly, and sometimes without a cause. It cannot really be freedom when it is the decision of our leaders in sealed rooms, that decide one’s fate. It is slaughter instead.

Thus 65 years have come and gone since the Battle of Normandy, which beginning on the 6th of June, 1944, codenamed Operation Overlord. These 65 years have been almost as turbulent as the war itself. Even though the memorial is itself dedicated to peace, I left the museum wondering is world peace is possible, and have come to the gloomy decision that it is not. The beginning of the memorial shows the ‘failure of peace,’ when the Treaty of Versailles was signed ending, “the great war to end all wars.” In fact, the treaty gave the world 20 years of a stalemate, and a brief stall in the First World War. After the World War II exhibit, one sees the After 1945 exhibit, which outlines the Cold War. As an American, it was interesting to see another country’s perspective of the Cold War. Even though I believe my education was very fair, I never got to see the perspective of the Soviet Union. It seemed that the American and the Soviet dream differed very little, as both countries believed their political system was the key to changing the world. The tug-of-war Bipolar planet of the Cold War was the first of the failure of Peace after World War II. Terrorism has taken it’s place on the contemporary world scale.
Everyday around the world, in each passing day, someone dies innocently by the hands of another. All in the name of freedom.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Morbid Thoughts

I have been thinking about death a lot lately. I could not give you an exact reason as to why I have had these oddly morbid thoughts as of recent, only that I have had them. It is odd because I am having the very time of my life, doing so much exploring and traveling of Belgium and Normandy, France, that it seems dumbfounding why I keep letting my thought astray to the notion of death. What is wrong with me, and why do I keep asking myself if my time is around the corner or many years down the line?

When you live in Europe some sort of morbid reminder of that little thing about life, is always around you. I can remember in my first month in France when L’s sister, Nati came to visit, the German lady from California. We visited the grand and intimate Notre Dame in Dijon, as Nati took the liberty to tell me some history of my new home, Dijon. There came a moment when I stepped upon a large warn-out stone, which I quickly realized was written in Latin. When Nati translated it, I found out that I had stepped upon the grave of another human, some sort of high man in the clergy. I sincerely felt apologetic and asked Nati if I had shown some sort of disrespect. She snickered at me and said, “This is Europe. You can’t walk two feet without walking on a grave of someone.”

I could not even begin to tell you how many churches I have seen during my Belgian/Norman excursion, let alone my entire year in France. Each occasion forces me to face the facts of religion. If there really a God? And, of course, is there really life after death? I see my younger sister so heartedly believe in her God, and I see so many others firmly deny his existence. I want so hard to believe in God, his love, and that when I pass away I will go to Heaven or even Hell. I want to get to see my Grandparents again, and ask my Grandma if she is proud of me for being the first of her children and grandchildren to learn her language. But I cannot feel this sense of sureness. I do not know if there is a God, and if there is, he has shown no proof to me.

I have learned though the tales of my cousin Paule that she was raised Catholic by her father, who was a diehard Catholic throughout his lifetime. Yet, on his deathbed, just before he passed away from Cancer, he said something that brought tears t Paule’s eyes. Father and daughter were talking about death, and Paule, who is self-proclaimed in non-practice, asked her father if he really believed in life after death and that they would one day see each other again. And he replied, truthfully, that he did not have any idea whether there really was life after death. Only that, we as humans always need to have to something to believe in.

In Rouen, the capital of the Normandy region, and also the place where the English captured Joan of Arc and burned her alive at the stake, Paule, Ronnie, and I visited a few of the sites. Paule then led Ronnie and I into the tiny cobblestoned streets of the Rouen that had not been destroyed by the fiery of the war. In the hidden section of the city, a wooden courtyard awaited us. Upon further inspection, we were able to see that the wood had been carved into skulls, bones, and many other figurines of death. “This place,” Paule explained, “was where you were supposed to come once you fell ill with the Black Plague.”

Before thinking it through, I rashly asked, “Why?”

“Well, it was so contagious back then. Those that had the illness needed to come here so as not to spread the disease to their families,” she explained not flinching in the slightest. As an afterthought, she added, “They came here to die.”

For a few moments, we all stood quietly absorbing the deathly relics of the courtyard before I asked if we could leave. I did not feel sick, but the mere thought of what this place saw, sent shivers flowing through my spine. As we left the courtyard, I whispered to Paule, “How many people died here?”

“We should not think those kinds of thoughts,” she replied, tugging me out of the courtyard, which she could tell had had a major impact on me.

I may be American by birth and blood, but my ancestors came from Europe. The history that occurred there has changed the world, without a doubt. 1/3 of Europe died from the Black Plague. 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. 450,000 British soldiers fell at the Battle of the Sommes. Those are just a few statistics, think of all the others.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


Normandy is a pretty intriguing place. It reminds me most of what I love about France. That is the simple concept that you have the power to choose exactly what you want and be able to get there in less than a day comfortably.

Feel like skiing? There are always open chalet’s dotted along the beautiful Rhone-Alpes region, just waiting to be used.

Need a little tan? Hurry on down to the South, and plop yourself on a beach on the French Riviera.
Time for some culture? Well open your wallet for a weekend in Paris.

Want to get away from the rest of the world? France offers many options for that. Normandy is one of them, as I have discovered waiting 15 minutes for the internet to load. But there is something special about Normandy that is really hard to put a solid finger upon. Perhaps it has something thing to do with the rolling halls just waiting to be uncovered, the exquisite charm of the thatched cottages in the local village, the integration of all the modern post-war architecture, the spotted occasional flags of the Allied nations hanging from Commonwealth cemeteries to tractors, or even simply of a rain-drenched war-ravaged region thriving in its own moderate way.

The setting of my Normandy tale takes place in the tiny hamlet of Pierrefitte en Auge. Although I did not think it possible, Pierrefitte en Auge is actually smaller than Fixin. But it is no less beautiful, and authentic. In fact, over the course of my exchange there is no place I have been so much like Fixin and so little like it at the same time. Both are small villages, authentic in every sense of the world, and lacking sophistication and modernity. Yet, it is amazing to think that both villages are a part of the same country. While tractors towing tons of grapes block traffic along the roads in Fixin, tractors carrying produce block herds of cattle along the dirt road in Perrefitte en Auge. Thatched cottages with dark stained wood and white clay create the cottages of the Norman setting, while thick rocks piled on top and then cemented together form the Burgundy atmosphere. While everything is spread out in Normandy, perfect for grazing cows, and the occasional horses, endless waves of vine after vine mount the rolling countryside of Burgundy.

Although this is my first time in Normandy, JF is from the region, and thus I have gotten a little bit of exposure to the culture. There is always the ever delicious Camembert cheese on the R’s counter top, and special occasions usually merit Apple Cider from Normandy. But being here in Normandy is a different story. This time I get to experience things first hand. For example, the town just next to Pierrefitte en Auge is called Pont L’Eveque, where they make a delicious cheese by the same name. Eating Pont L’Eveque in Pont L’Eveque is much better than eating it in Fixin (even if only to be able to say “I ate… in….”) I have also divulged my taste pallet in to the deeper Norman apple tradition. Rather than just drink delicious Apple Cider, I have been able to try Pommeau, a mix of Apple Brandy and Apple Juice, as well as Calvados, which is a type of Apple Brandy. Both make my esophagus burn, and my will stronger against drinking heavy liqueur, but I have at least experimented with regional specialty’s.

Normandy and Burgundy are pretty different regions, but when you throw in the French Riviera, which I have also spent considerable time in, as well as Paris for kicks, it is pretty flabbergasting how big and complex the little (by US standards) country of France is.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Among the Thick-Necked

People from Antwerp are said to be ‘thick-necked’ in French and Flemish. This means that they are proud, if not arrogant, of their city, land, and special culture. Antwerp, which is the capital of Flanders region, is a magnificent city. Even there may not be quite as many things to do in Antwerp, I think I could spend month’s exploring the little café’s and the ancient architecture of the lovely city. Being there for the few days that I have, has given me an understanding of the ’thick-necked’ people.

Since Ronnie and Paule’s apartment is too small for me to stay in, I have been staying with Mickaelle, her husband Jacques, and their 25 year-old daughter Olivia. They live to the South of the city, a 15 minute tram ride away from the heart of Antwerp. Their house is a sandwiched three-story home, with a small garden in the backyard, and a big living room with two large piano’s. Mickaelle, from what I have gathered, is an incredible pianist, and now gives lessons to students. But the most important part of the house, in my experience from staying there, is the Nespresso machine. Even though I am only at the house in the early morning and later in the night, it seems the family always has a mug of coffee in their hand for themselves and one for me. Perhaps it is because I spend long days traveling throughout the country of Belgium, walking and exploring the ancient cities in the warm rare sun. But each night upon arrival, I climb the wooden steps of the Mickelle’s house and jump into my warm toasty bed. I do not think I have ever slept so well in my life. Except by morning, as soon as the sun pours into the room, due to the lack of shades, I am quickly wakened. Time for another Belgian day.

On Sunday, May 31st, Benoit, Paule and Ronnie’s son gave me a tour of Antwerp with immense history lesson on the city and my family. He is really nice guy, and an excellent person to talk to. We shared stories about Australia, Asia, and America, while soaking in the sun and the ambiance of the city. That evening, Olivia and another cousin, Maxime, came to pick me up in the city. Before they arrived Benoit told me that the group of cousins I would be sharing a drink with that night were the French-speaking part of the family, and so they have a special relationship. Chuckling he said, Maxime is a flaming gay man, to which he added, “well there is one in every family.”

That evening with Olivia, Maxime, and other cousins Jill and Stephanie, I went to a bar with a group of really nice Belgian adults. They took it upon themselves to make sure I tried all the Belgian specialty drinks, which included Krieg Cherry Beer, Mae’s Beer, and for kicks, a Corona. It was an excellent night and I seemed to fit in with the Belgian’s a lot better than I thought I would.

Later in the week, I was fortunate enough to meet little Noah, Mickaelle’s beautiful grandson, and Romy and Arnou, the delightful grandchildren of Paule’s. It is interesting to see how relatives and Belgian’s raise their kids all around the world. Adoration does not even begin to describe the sparkle in Paule’s eyes when she sees her little Romy.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Been There, Run That

I have this little theory. I formulated it during my nice hour long run through the park in the South of Antwerp on Thursday. With my predictable tendency to fall in love with places and then announce that I have spent a considerable time living and learning there, I have decided to make more requirements. That is, I am not allowed to say that I have truly discovered a place, until I have run there.

Running is my sport, and it has been for almost 4 years now. It keeps me sane and grounded, and I
not exactly running shoes, but i didn't have a photo of those.
realize each time after a good long and tiring run that I live to run, and run to live. Even though I do not get much of a runner’s high anymore, the feeling of the pumping endorphine’s pounding through my veins after I finish a long the run through the luscious green combs of Fixin, is worth every moment. I try to run as often as I can, which is not everyday, but is often enough. And anyone who knows me well enough, will tell you that when I return from a well-deserved run, I am a different people. Te weight of the world lifts off my shoulders and instead all I can do is think about my feet pushing forward and the things pressing on my mind.

I get a lot of thinking done while I run. Even though I take along my I pod, my Selective Hearing has been honed over the course of this year in France, and I usually tune it out. I think about everything and anything, when I jog along. I think about strange my life, what with Japan, France, and all the traveling. I contemplate my future, and what I really hope to gain from this year and from this life. Running has helped me to decide the things that are in my control, the things that fate feels I can decide upon myself, which mostly concerns the little things.

My decision to count all of my Christened running spots as the places, in which I feel confident enough to say, “been there, done that,” mean that Essex Country, New Jersey, the Kochi prefecture of Japan, the combs and vineyards of Cote de Nuits, France, Antwerp, Bormes-les-Mimoas, French Riviera, and the Calvado’s department of Normandy, France, are places, I have made a mark on. Even though that mark may just be a foot print in the mud along a deserted old path in the forest, an exclusive Flemish park, or a site long holding the secrets of the Allied soldiers in World War II, I was there.

Or better yet, been there, run that.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

There Is Something About Antwerp

I am one of those people that can truly be happy anywhere and at anytime (except for my hometown in America, but there is a whole 'nother story there.) You could drop me in the middle of nowhere rice paddy on a small isolated dismal place in a strange Asian country. You could give me a spot in a tiny town of 700 people, surrounded by miles and miles of vineyards and very little to do. And I would probably love it.

But certain cities hold little keys to my heart, which places in the country side had not yet discovered. There is just some mythical charm about the city of London, my favorite place in the entire world, that has captured me and refused to let me go. My love-hate relationship with the City of Love never allows me to pass up the opportunity to go and explore Paris. It was love at first site as I crossed the boarders and entered into Munich, Germany for the very first time. And I am 99.99% certain that I am going to be spending a considerable amount of time in Kyoto, Kobe, and Osaka, Japan in the upcoming years as a Japanese language student.

But there is something about Antwerpen.

I can not put a label to it. I can not my finger on the exact draw that I have to the Flemish Belgian city of Antwerp in English, Anvers in French, and Antwerpen in Flemish. It is not a mythical wanderlust, love-hate relationship, love at first site, or yearning to explore every single little thing about the city. But the longer I am here in Flanders, residing in the house of my cousins just outside of the city, the hungrier I get to spend time in the city. Even after long days of exploring the medieval cities of Brugges and Ghent, pained knees from a morning of running, exhaustion from a night of new sleep, pressing hunger for dinner, I can not resist the lure of spending even five minutes in the city.

I first arrived in Antwerpen last Saturday at after 10PM, after a long and tiring day of exploring
Antwerp literally means Giant's Hand.
Brugges. The moment my eyes laid site of the brilliant Flemish architecture masterpieces of the Hotel de Ville, crowded bars and cafes, and facades of village houses, I was utterly hooked. A stroll along the river overlooking the bustling port with the gentle breeze whipping my hair, is the best way to enjoy the awfully delightful weather. There is a wonderful shopping district and a lack of souvenir shops, somewhat of a dream come true for me. I have completely figured out the Subway/Tram service, as well as the prime locations for people-watching, long strolls, tourist sites, and so on and so forth. I have a grasp on this city as if I have lived here my whole entire life, and I almost feel as if I have. In the Grand Place, on can see the finest example of Renaissance architecture in the Hotel de Ville, all the while while grabbing a Krieg Cherry Beer in the many surrounding cafes.

Also in the middle of the Grand Place is the stature of how Antwerp received it's name. Long ago in the time of the Romans, a giant used to demand a tax from the sailors and merchants. When merchants refused to pay, he would cut off their hands and throw them in the rover. This was until a young Roman guard decided to challenge the giant, and actually won, cutting off the giant's hand and then throwing it in the river. In Flemish Ant is the word for hand, while Werp is the word for throw. Throwing Hand City. If you do not believe in the Giant's story, there are other stories that are more easy to understand.

I think that my newfound obsession with Antwerp can be compared to the beautiful Antwerpen Cathedral. The brilliantly tall and white clean structure reaching to the sky in a wonder to anyone who sees it. But the Cathedral is far from perfect. It was designed so that there would be two large towers looming over the city, however there is just one. It was customary for the builders to build the second tower as a tribute to God and the work that they had received. But the builders ran out of money and could not finish the second structure. Still the Cathedral is breathtaking, even if it is left in an unperfect condition. For the same reason, this is why I am enamored with Antwerp. It is certainly not perfect, completely lively, bursting with history and beauty, but the city itself is astonishing in it's own right.

Monday, June 08, 2009

The Belgian Contingency -- Day 1

After I left Brussels and my best friend behind, I headed off into the unknown. The unknown is a
Antwerp and family.
scary concept for most people. It is something that one knows nothing about, or anyone along the way, or the places of the destination. Most of the time, the unknown is something people do not want to venture to or think about. But for me, the unknown is pretty much a daily concept. That is sort of how things work when you get on a plane to another country, you know very little about, and live with people, you have never met. This time around, I was traveling in the Flemish part of Belgium to stay with my second cousins, whom I had never met and knew very little about. As if a week in Walloonia, Belgium had affected me enough to think Flanders would be some sort of hellish disaster, I could not imagine what these FLEMISH cousins of mine had in store.

Turn out, the unknown is actually pretty cool.

At the Antwerpen Bercham station, a stocky middle-aged lady, Paule Nyssen, and her husband, Ronnie Aeronaut, came to pick me up. Hearing the Walloon's rip on the Flem's, I half expected their to be some sort of ghetto, shoot-out, three-headed monster, or some form of terror to be waddling around the station. But everything appeared to be human and peaceful. Immediately, I got wonderful vibes from Paule and Ronnie, but that may have been the English. Unfortunately, after three days with Zoe, my French had taken a nosedive. Sure we spoke French with her host family, and with each other in the presence of others, but whenever one of us got tired, English returned. And boy was I tired! A full day in Brussels really takes it out of you.

That evening with Paule and Ronnie, I got the very first taste of the Belgian Contingency. My paternal grandmother, Renee, had a sister named Mika. The pair had grown up on the Belgian consulate in Haiti, but had separated just before World War II. Mika returned to Belgium where she would meet and marry Albert Nyssen, while Renee would meet and marry an American serviceman, Mart Garner. Mika had 9 kids in 10 years, while Renee had 7 in a slightly longer span.

Oh yeah, they were really good Catholics. That might be obvious.

Mika's 9 children and Renee's 7 children are all hypothetically first cousins. However, Facebook did not exactly exist back then, and they did not have much of a relationship. The pond is a pretty big body of water and the cultures are vastly different. One of my Dad's biggest regrets is not getting to know his cousins a little better.

I had dinner with Paule and Ronnie, and one of their three children. The have three, Laurence, Benoit, and Yves. Only Laurence has children, two babies, that Paule just absolutely adores. Since Paule and Ronnie have just a small apartment in Antwerp, I would be staying with Mickaelle and her husband Jacques on the outskirts of the city. They have four kids, three boys and a girl, and now three grandchildren all within a month of each other.

Paule informed me that Mickaelle was her best friend, and it was pretty evident that evening when, over a glass of wine, we all talked about Paule and Mickelle's perspective voyages to America. I felt rather bad to inform that I was exhausted (or perhaps a little tipsy after so much good wine) Before I could sleep, though, Paule and Ronnie told me to ready by 10 the next morning. We would breakfast and then head on to Brugge, Belgium's Venice of the North, for some touring and seeing the city.

Mickaelle showed me to my room, and the world's most comfortable bed ever. After a quick shower, I fell into the deepest sleep imaginable.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Buddies in Brussels

Feet photos are great!
One part of me would love to talk about how much things have changed for Zoe and I, that suddenly we have grown up all due to our years abroad. However, very little has changed for the two of us, except maybe our outlooks about the world and our new favorite foods. Another part of me is thankful that things have not changed very much. How could I go on without a Mocha Frappucino buddy to rant about traveling with?

The infamous Mannekin Pis fountain.
One of my favorite quirks about Zoe, a trait that has not altered throughout her year in Belgium, is her complete obliviousness to things. She lives in Belgium, has been to Brussels over three times, knows practically every waffle stand in the entire country, but still has no orientation of the capital at all. And one thing that has not changed about me at all, is my temper and furiousness with Zoe's obliviousness. While she continued to wander around Brussels like a chicken without a head, I sat sighing heavily and making comments like, "Jesus, Zoe, if I had any idea that you were so clueless about this city, I would have done some research!" Nonetheless, I think we both had a pretty good day in Brussels.

When we arrived in the main station, we exited rapidly and visited the Grand Place, which as I have come to understand, every city in Belgium has. It had beautiful Flemish facades and was just crawling with historical facts to uncover. When I looked to Zoe with a questions, I was soon to accept that I would be spending that night on Wikipedia.

Afterwards, we trekked over to Mannekin Pis, the world-famous pissing boy statue. Since it is one of Belgium's pride and joy pieces, I was somewhat shocked to see that the statue was a size of my hand. Well maybe a little bigger, but much smaller than I had imagined. They say that this stature perfectly sums up a Belgian's raw humor. Afterwards, we decided to get completely lost on our way to Mini Europe, a tribute to European Union. When we FINALLY got there, after hitching a ride on the trams and not paying for the hitch, we paid the enormous entry park and entered.

Mini Europe is a theme-park type that represents all the countries in the European Union. I thought it was sort of biased because little Belgium had a huge representation in the park, while other countries had little or nothing to show. It was nice though, but it was something that one should see once and then never again willingly. The Atomium, the 1958 World's Fair showcase, which magnifies an atom something like 250 times, sat in the background of the little park.

This is my "Zoe, you're an idiot" face.
After our tour throughout the entirity of the European Union, sort of, we decided to head back to the main part of the city. We
bought some ice cream, Graham Cracker flavor, oddly enough, and then toured some of the Chocolate Boutiques for a gift for my cousins. I thought it would be stupid to give a gift of Belgium chocolate from Belgium to some Belgians, but Zoe assured me that they would absolutely adore it. I suspect that it was her appetite that would adore the chocolate.

At 6ish, Zoe and I said our goodbyes again. This time I was heading to Antwerp to stay with my cousins for a week, while Zoe had to return to Liege. We planned on meeting up sometime during the next week, however, so it was not a true sad goodbye, more like a "see ya later" type thing.

Which is really good. I hate goodbyes.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Zoe's Belgium: Liege and Maastrict

Liegois Waffle, not Bruxellois. Get it right.

Even though the reason Zoe selected Belgium as her first country choice was so that she could learn the Flemish language, she was placed in the French-speaking part. This never dampened her spirits very much, but living in the French part of the country, she has learned that it is not such a good idea
 to tell people about her desire to learn Flemish. After all, Belgium may be one country, reunited under one king, and one common law, but people in Flanders will identify themselves Flemish before Belgian, and the Walloons will not tolerate people who do not speak French.

Regardless, the first part of my trip was to explore and immerse myself in Zoe's exchange in Belgium, and thus, the first few days were spent in Walloonia. I arrived on Tuesday night and spent the evening catching up with Zoe and meeting her third and final host family (but first non-psycho one, apparently.) Our first supper was my two least favorite things put into one, Pasta and Meat. But in respect for the family and for Zoe, I sucked it up and ate a plate. This is the first time I have eaten meat in several years.

The next morning, Zoe and I went to school. Well, actually, her host family thinks we went to school. Actually, Zoe decided to show me around Liege, her host city that morning. We walked around Liege, which is a small gray and extremely industrial city. For an exchange student, poor and always searching for cheap alcohol, there is no better place than Liege. The Carre, a cobblestoned section of the city is overflowing with Jupiler signs, Krieg Cherry-Beer advertisements, and colorful names of hundreds if not thousands of different and delicious bars. Every Wednesday after school, one can find the Rotary students drinking at some bar or another.

But in the morning, Zoe just wanted to show me some of her favorite things. We climbed a massive stari case for a grand view of the city, not exactly the New York skyline, but the grayness was a constant reminder that we were still in Belgium. Next, we toured a variety of supermarkets, where I got a lesson on the importance of Belgian chocolate and it's affect on society and culture. Cote d'Or is apparently the best, followed by Galler. You have to be desperate to eat Milka, Nestle, or Kinder, which actually are my favorite three brands. When I asked about the status of Hershey, I felt as though I committed some sort of religious crime, which merited the label of heathen. After, Zoe pointed out all of the Waffle places that deserved merit. She also explained the different between a Bruxellois and Liegeois waffle. Bruxelle's are the waffles mounted with ice cream, wipe cream, and a variety of other interesting toppings. While Liegeois was simple, right out of the oven, with big chucks of sugar in the batter. Before our afternoon activity, our waffle discussions compelled us to invest in some true Liege waffles.

Hanging out in an impenetrable fort. That the
Germans took easily.
That afternoon, the Belgian Rotary and almost all of the exchange students in the district participated in an activity at some World War II fort. The fort was built to be impenetrable by anyone, except that it pretty much fell to the Germans after about 5 minutes. The soldiers say that they surrounded because there was no way to escape and the sound of the tanks rolling about the underground tunnels was too intimidating. Actually, the whole elaborate tunnel fort rather freaked me out, since I get Cabin Fever really easily. After about an hour, in the kilometer after kilometer fort, I was ready for some fresh air.

But the best part of the activity was definitely meeting the other students. Most were really nice and intrigued to hear about France and Japan. With them, I learned some interesting new things. In Belgium, you buy a ticket called a Go Pass that is a 5 Euro ride to anywhere in the country. You write the destinations on the ticket and then get it stamped. But these exchange students have found a way to beat the system. They have magic pens that white out the ink. Rather clever, no? I really felt involved and welcomed, and reminded Zoe just how lucky she was with her Rotary district.

The paparazzi chased me all the way to Belgium.
That evening, we returned home and planned for the next morning. It was to be another 'school day,' that actually involved a trip to the Netherlands. Maastrict to be exact. It was really only a 15 minute journey from Liege. We were somewhat unfortunate with the weather, a slight drizzle and constant cloud covering. We bought a map and followed a specially marked trail throughout the city. I would have like to stay and explore the city more, but it was not very pleasant and we had had enough by early afternoon.

When we returned home, I decided to put my baking skills to good use and make a Fondant au Chocolat for the family for dessert. Since I only recently learned to cook in France, Zoe was rather flabbergasted at my usage of the metric system. "Americans make everything harder," I said after she attacked the 'stupid metric system.'
As usual my cake was a success, and I received a review from Zoe's host mom that put the cake in restaurant class quality.

As if my ego needs to be boost anymore.

That evening Zoe and I, tired from a long day of walking and baking, lounged on the couch and watched Amelie, a famous French film that I have never seen. We went to bed thinking about the next day; a full day in the Belgian capital city of Brussels.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Look At Us Now

Zoe and me.
You know you have a good friend, when said person spends a full year of hellish high school listening to you rambling on and on about some strange Asian country that they have no desire to visit.

I suppose after listening to me rave about everything Japan and my experience as a Rotary Youth Exchange student, as well as my second chance to do it all again, that it was somewhat inevitable for
We are foul people.
my best friend, a certain Zoe Kroessler, to end up as an exchange student herself. In fact, I can remember the exact moment when the wheels in her head began to turn with the grease of a year abroad, she and I were walking down Sampson Drive in Verona on our way to Krauzers to get my daily lunch Hazelnut Coffee.

Our conversation, as usual, was about our escape plans from Verona. My application had been submitted and I was guaranteed a spot in Argentina with Rotary. At the time, Zoe had to choose between a number of small liberal art schools, none of which she was truly thrilled about attending. I had been trying to convert her to the dark side of exchange student-hood since Freshman year of High School, but it was at that moment that Zoe was finally ready to accept her destiny. Well that's a bit dramatic, but she did take my advice and contact Barbara Miller, the YEO of our district and ask if she could still apply.

During the month, we talked endlessly about upcoming exchange. Mine was going to be to Argentina, while Zoe had to choose between Brazil, France, Germany, and Belgium. I was a huge supporter of Belgium, even though I could not understand why she wanted to learn Flemish, which no one in the world could speak except the Dutch and the Flemish in Belgium. Sometime just before the Orientation, I learned that Argentina was a no-go for me and I was thrown into the country choice dilemma, yet again. The 25% Belgian in screamed to choose Belgium, but since it was Zoe's first exchange, the one spot in Belgium was given to her. Ironically, she was sent to the French-speaking part of the country.

A year has long passed since those hectic days of country choice and a year is a long time. I ended up
European exchange students in Cologne!
in Fixin, France, as you probably have read. While my dear friend Zoe ended up in Liege, Belgium, one of the big Belgian cities and the second largest in Walloonia, the French-speaking portion. She and I had planned on meeting each other at various time throughout the year, but being poor exchange students, that did not much happen. However, we did meet up one day in Cologne, Germany for an afternoon of Chocolate, Starbucks, Cathedrals, Museums, and Starbucks. (Almost exactly in that order.)

But I felt it was time to embark on our planned excursions. I decided to book a ticket to Liege and see Zoe's year abroad in Belgium. And that is exactly what I did, meeting a few complications with the French manifestations, of course. But I did get here to Belgium.

On Tuesday, May 26th, I arrived on a bitter, cold, wet, and gray beautiful Belgian day. I arrived early and waited in the station for Zoe. When I saw my friend, we took about 2 minutes to do the whole, "wow-I- Haven't-seen-you-in-a-long-time-so-you-must-be-differnet-and-whatnot," or something to that effect. But quickly after that we were back to our usual ways.

I met Zoe's host family, nice but rather strict folks, that live on the edge of the town. I was supposed to stay a week with Zoe, but they really did not want another kid living in the house. That was before they met me, however. I am pretty sure they liked me a lot, because my French has progressed to level of sarcasm and cracking jokes. Host families love jokes, and they also love to hear a little about their student from the home country. Zoe and I recounted our exchange, high school, and town life to the family. We picked on the French, while I told them a little bit about life in France. We also picked on Flanders a little bit, in my first experience with the Walloonia-Flanders problem that is currently
Clearly, not that much has changed.
plaguing Belgium. When Zoe mentioned her desire to learn Flemish, her host mom seemed scandalized.

The thing that most shocked me about spending time with Zoe was our new found language. While Zoe's language spoken is far greater than mine, I think my comprehension might be better. (Maybe not, I have a tendency to just play dumb and pretend I can not understand anything, though this is far from the case.) But the weird thing is those same two girls that once talked about desires to leave Verona and go to magical places far away, planning futures, gossiping, and so on and so forth, could now do it in French. I think it may be lucky that the two of us are able to speak with French with each other, though I doubt we will much unless to say something that we do not want others to hear. But in those moments of host family discussion, when I turned to Zoe, I sometimes found myself dumbfounded.

Are we speaking another language?

To each other?

It just goes to show that life never stop throwing random surprises one's way.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Burguny, Flanders, New Belgium, and the Rest

It all began in Burgundy. No, not my exchange, but the history of my life, my ancestors, and the face of the world. Sure, Burgundy was more or less a catalyst or extra ingredient in this bubbly chemical of the world we live in. But I am so amazed at everything I have learned.

Out story begins when the first born boy of the king of France, became king of France himself. His younger brother, receieving nothing, was actually given the title of Duke of Burgundy. Three generations later, and multiple acquisitions through arragned marriages, Charles the Bold took over the Duke position. His objective: attach Burgundy with the Netherlands to rival the king of France, whom he did not so much care for. He worked towards his goal, never sparing on his vanity and luxury for the fine life.

He was called the Bold for a few reasons. The Swiss annoyed his nephew, so he decided that the Swiss needed to be taught a lesson. He commanded his troops to battle, where he met a sour defeat. It was a bittersweat victory for the Swiss, but did very little for good old Charles the Bold. Regardless, Charles was power-hungry and acquied q multitude of posessions throughout his time as Duke.

Charles had one daughter, Mary of Burgundy. On her birth, he was sorely disappointed that his firstborn was not an heir, but he figured he would have multiple children afterwards. So the Duchy was to fall into the hands of Mary. But Charles was smart and planned to use this to his advantage. He tried very hard to marry off Mary to the Hapsburg House in Austria, in exchange for the title of Grand Emperor of the terriotires. But at the last minute his plans fell through.

His vanity eventually became his downfall and he met his death at the Battle of Nancy.

This is how the world changes.

The Burgundy region was divided by the Hapsburg House, in which Mary of Burgundy was forced into, and France. Neither side was satisfied with the results and the disintegration of the Burgundian state was a factor in most major wars in Western Europe for over two centuries.

Although Mary was killed a few short years later, she had a son, who would become Phillip the Handsome, husband of Joan of Castille of Spain. Although he died before he could make a major impact, the pair had 6 children. The oldest and heir to the thrown was Charles V, named after his great-grandfather.

Charles the V was a maniac Catholic that arrieved in Flanders and demanded that everyone convert to Catholicism or leave. A major brain drain occured when the artists, writers, and great historical figures left the port of Antwerp and arrived in Amsterdam, which was only a fishermand wharf at the time. Historical Flanders was but a protestant state, suddenly thrown into upheaval of Catholisicm. The strict rules would change Flanders for forever. Gothic churches were left but all their contents were destroyed if it conflicted with the anti-idol worshipping. Somehwere during this time, I can only guess, my own ancestors were converted from protestants to catholics.

Those that refused to change their religion, or accept this radical new religion, parted for Holland. The Netherlands were very tolerant of all religions, except those that were extremely radical and tried to impose restrictions upon others. Where did those crazy religious fanatics go, I ask? The Mayflower brought over a few, followed by the a significant amount of others. Many prisoners of petty insignifcant crimes were also sent to the American colonies. I can only assume the Garner part of the family was part of these criminals that got sent to America for punishment purposes, it is the only fitting way that could have happened. Afterall, an ancestor apparently stole a horse from a nobleman.

America, which at the time was known as New Belgium. Yes- I know we all learn the story of New Amsterdam and the Dutch finding New York, but it was actually a Belgian, a Flemish Belgian that had been persectued by Charles V.

Now on for the more personal part of the story.

Some years later, an extremely Catholic Wallonian politician was sent to Haiti as a consulate for the embassy, He had just one daughter, Mika, and another on the way. In the end there were three, Mika, Renee, and George, aristocratic Belgians. There is quite q few things that happened during their lives on the island, but we will fast forward to just before the war. Mika returened to Belgium, where she met a wealthy religious Flemish Heart Surgeon, married him, and had 9 children over the course of 10 years. Renee met a Merchant Marine soldier from America, a descendant from one of those problematic Garner's, and had 7 children. My Dad was one of them.

I truly a Burgundian, a Flem, a Walloon, an exile, an American and affected by Catholicism and Protestanism. Such a mutt.