Sunday, September 30, 2007

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The journey, part one

It was an absolute miracle that she had finally managed the packing. It had taken numerous elimination rounds but she finally had a set of clothes that she'd use for the coming year. Gosh, how on earth can you pack suitcases for a year anyway?

When she had been stuffing all her belongings in her suitcase with her mother, they had found that the wheel of the newly bought Samsonite was half broken off and about to fall off completely by the pressure of all the clothes. Visions of her underwear falling out at the tarmac turned her stomac around. Some phonecalls had been made to the store and also to the Samsonite factory which was only 10 min from her hometown anyway. After a nervous race in order to arrive at the store before closing time, they had been able to exchange the broken suitcase with one of better quality. And now it was late at night and she was ready. Ready to go to bed for the last time in a year in her own familiar bed. As if she'd be able to sleep.

The stress of leaving in the last weeks had resulted in multiple toilet visits, bad dreams etc, but her 8 year old dream would finally come through: she'd leave on a student exchange for one year to the other side of the world. She knew that she'd been inspired by her sister's enthousiastic stories and the great exchange student who had lived in their house before. She knew that her experiences would be different, maybe less good, hopefully better at some moments. She knew that some moments would be tough and that homesickness would be coming along as well. Now that her departure was so close, it was as exciting as it was extremely scary! Most of all it felt so unreal.

At the airport she had a serious look on her face and an big invisible nod in her stomac. When she gave her parents and sister a last hug before going through customs, tears welled up although she didn't want to cry when leaving. She didn't want them to think she was sad. She made sure that she waved enthousiastically with a big smile on her face when she crossed the brass line in the floor of the duty free section. That was the last spot were her family could see her walk away!

And then she was on her the big world of airports and flights that was unfamiliar to her. Even though she was 17, she had only flown once on a school trip and then she had just followed the crowd. Despite the advice her sister had given her multiple times, she promised herself to ask for instructions regularly at information desks regardless the fact that it might make her look like an idiot. The first flight to Frankfurt was very very short and she had four hours to transfer, so she relaxed a bit and listened to the conversation between 2 business men behind her talking about their mistress...Interesting start.

Once arrived in Frankfurt she started walking around in the hallway but she didn't see any signs for Air Canada. She walked up and down the hallway in which she had arrived, not knowing if she could walk 'too' far and exit accidentally. Convinced that she had to leave the hallway, she entered a very big hall with booths of multiple air companies. But there wasn't any Air Canada booth at all. She got confused about it. Her papers had clearly stated that she had to fly with Air Canada. Even the tv screens did not seem to show her flight. What was going on?
After a while she walked to the desk of Sabena to ask information. Sabena = Belgians = allies that would help a lost compatriot. They explained to her that she had to take a little skytrain to go to another building. Oops, she hadn't even realised that there were multiple buildings. In order to kill the time, she took that train up and down 6 times before checking in in the other terminal but the novelty of this pass-time wore off quickly. Finally she sat time in front of the gate where she waited while trying not to fall asleep. She was afraid to fall asleep.

Phewww, so far so good. She was on her way to the other side of the world. Once seated well, she engaged into a polite general conversation with the German man next to her. He seemed to understand her poor German well enough to keep the conversation going for a while after which he concentrated reading his newspaper again. Only 8 more hours to go....Food got served, they talked a bit more.

Then all of a sudden the man got up and went to talk to a stewardess and they disappeared towards the front of the airplane. A minute later a steward rushed to the back of the airplane , only to return with the first aid box. The man had not returned to his place yet. She didn't think too much of it yet and continued watching the movie. But then the movie got interrupted ...."if there is a doctor on board, please report to the flight staff".
She looked towards the empty seat next to her and then around, but nobody got up. She felt that it had to do with the man next to her and she wondered what was going on.

Fifteen minutes later, the movie got interrupted once more "Please, if there is a doctor on board, please report to the flight staff". The emptyness of the seat next to her seemed to grow and push into her space. She couldn't help wondering what happens if someone dies during a flight? be continued

If you want to read more soap opera stories, check out Brillig or walking kateastrophe, to find other participants.

Operational bathroom

After our work last summer here and here, we could start using our bathroom partially but the shower screen was still missing. Thankx to the work of Jan's dad we have since one week a fully operational bathroom with a large walk-in shower. I love it!!

We spent our day sanding part of the wooden floor and cleaning it in order to put the varnish on tomorrow. ....and in the coming weekends the other parts. You didn't really think we were bored already, did you?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

My middle name

While I was on vacation, Allie tagged me about my middle name. So here it is, with quite some delay. The rules are very simple: You must list one fact that is somehow relevant to your life for each letter of your middle name. (If you don't have a middle name, use the middle name you would have liked to have had.).

In Belgium you usually get 3 names (so basically 2 middle names if you want):

K: 'Kip' (says Jan) (look that up in an online dictionnary)

A: Allergic to grass seeds, house dust mites and nickle.

T: Tired...I never learn to go to bed at time. I just never do. So you'll often hear me complain that I feel tired. Often my own fault.

R: Romantic

I: Intelligent I hope at least

E: Emotional

N: Nuances: I believe nothing's black or white (well almost nothing) so I try to find the nuances in what is happening around us, seeing the other side as well.

F: occasionally Funny, so I hope as well

R: Religious, catholic

A: hmm couldn't find an A for hours, so I asked online friends. they answered: Affectionate, amiable and altruistic. Jan suggested 'ambetant' (another one to look up) :p.

N: 'Nuchter' = down to earth, rationalistic, practical

C: a rare Chocolate hater

I: Internet addict: msn, blogger, facebook, name it.

N: a hopeless Nostalgic thinking back about past trips and people I met

E: European

I am never very succesful in tagging other people, so just leave me a comment if you want to play!

Still no government yet

In case you were wondering: we don't have a government yet. Not anywhere near it either.
After the unsuccesful formation attempts of Leterme, the king couldn't even assign a new 'formator' (the one who leads the coallition negotiations and usually when succesful becomes the prime minister) as the political parties didn't even agree on who could become the next one. (and the king has no power to make decisions on his own). In order to win time he then had an unusual round of consultations of political veterans to get their opinion.

During the last weeks a political veteran (no candidate for prime minister) has been assigned the role of 'explorer'. The fact that the leaks to the media have been reduced drastically seems to me that things are getting more serious as you can't negotiate in front of the camera's. On the other hand, the positions of all political parties do not seem to have progressed the slightest bid so far.

While foreign press starts speculating more and more on a split in Belgium, whereas Monoploy has withdrawn its online enquiry about the most popular streetnames (as it might only result in a very polorised view and 2 different Monopoly games, so they fear at the moment), whereas polls are published revealing that more and more Flemish are pro independence (up to 40% now), ....somehow I am getting bored by it all. Geez, this has been going on for 110 days now, without much new things happening. It might surprise you all, but the political discussions are not an every day headline anymore (until things get moving again, I suppose). I am truly not following it so closely anymore either.

Personally I am surprised that all political parties are so stubborn as they seem to be. I would have thought that the hunger for power would have built compromises already. 'Belgian compromises', something we are famous for. The thought that nobody is giving in is worrying, it is creepy....because it would be the end of Belgium. A politician stated today "if Belgium ever would split up, it will not be by a big revolution, by big declarations of indepence, would happen because we simply conclude that we cannot form a national government anymore". We would have had long, crazy, difficult negotiations in the first half of the 80ies too, but these is the first time I live conciously through it.

Let me be clear: I do not want this country to split. (and I can't believe at all that 40% of the Flemish would be truly pro). Not emotionally but even less rationally because I don't think we would benefit from it. I am sure we would not benefit from it. Yes I am pro a new government reform as I am convinced that we can reorganise some things more rationally. That has nothing to do with an anti-Wallonian feeling. Foreign media don't distinguish Flemish demands from Flemish nationalists from Flemish seperatists....all very different nuances. Wallonian press can't make that distinction either. Yes sometimes we do act as if we are 2 different countries! Most of the time actually ;).

And yet, I don't believe we will split. Let's hope I never have to admit that I've been naive. there are strong powers directing us towards a split. But this country is in fact not splittable because of Brussels: Brussels cannot be added to Wallonia, Brussels cannot be added to Flanders, Wallonia cannot be without Brussels, Flanders cannot be without Brussels, Brussels cannot live as a 'capital mini-state', ..... Belgium is too small to split, gosh it would be insane.
No, there will be a coalition, when we are all dead soft by the eternal negotiations and talks and already happy that we get a government without being too upset about all the election promises that have been broken (as they have to be broken to make a compromise) (although the longer it gets, the more fed-up and extreme some opinions get as well).
Those parties have to form a coalition, they have to, they are condemned to govern together because we democratically decided it that way. You know what: they can't even give up and organise new elections since those elections would be judged illegal by our upper legal court. They have judged that our election districts are currently illegal and need to be split and reorganised. The last elections were on purpose organised just before the court's deadline as the last government couldn't agree on the reorganisation either. And that's still one of the most difficult negotiation points. Pretty ironic huh that they must have an agreement on that before they can even organise new elections?
I've heard some compromise suggestions already, that were shot down by the opponents immediately...but hey, 1 month ago nobody even suggested some painful compromise alternatives yet.

Hmm no I don't think we are splitting up yet. ...but I hope they start progressing a bit as it is damn boring right now!

The students are back

The yearly little trucks , station cars with chairs and seats sticking out of the back side, ...are back in Leuven. They are parked on the sidewalks and parents are unloading nervously lamps and chairs and boxes together with a lot of advice.

Yep, the academic schoolyear has started again. The university and colleges have started again and the parking spaces in the neighbourhood have gone down again. Aren't studens supposed to train to Leuven anymore? Tsssss. When I was a student , we all took the train. (haha, does that make me sound old :D).

Yesterday the professors paraded in their toga's again through the streets for the official traditional opening parade.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Tip of the day

* don't rub your eyes at breakfast when you are hardly awake yet => you risk that you rub something in your eye
* in case you have rubbed something in your eye, don't rub your eye any further but rinse it with water or some eye wash => there exists a risk that you rub some bacteria in your hurt eye, which could result in an eye infection

but hey...who realises all those things when hardly awake at breakfast right? Tough luck.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Maine, lobster country

After searching for covered bridges for a couple of days, we arrived in Maine where our focus shifted again for little harbors and lighthouses. We had reserved 1,5 days on Mt Desert Island near Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park (where North America's only fjord is!), the longest we stayed in any place after Boston and with hindsight, I'd say that was an absolute minimum because there is so much beauty to discover!

Once again the weather gods were a bit against us, planning a lot of icy wind, low clouds and lots of rain for 24 hours of our stay there. Grrr. But we made the best of it! Seduced by all the flyers and the little movies in the hotel, we went aboard the whale watching boats. Hey, they day before they had seen 4 different types of whales, so I was really excited. We had been whale watching off from Tofino on Vancouver Island and had seen one whale from distance so this would be sooo much better!

However the whales kept hiding for us...or more likely due to the hail and rain and icy wind, all passengers stayed inside as much as possible where the windows fogged. I simply think it was impossible to see any whale around, even they might have been nearby. More and more passengers started to feel sick and their sight and their smelll made my stomac upset as well despite my motion sickness pills I had taken, so I fled to the outside deck as much as possible anyway. I was absolutely freezing there but more healthy. So the trip wasn't quite as shown on the tv spots, but I suppose we should have realised that ourselves with the given weather predictions. The rest of the time we drove around the island, checking out the multiple little harbors, views, the lighthouse, ... and the weather improved all the time so we did have a chance to see it with some blue skies as well. Unfortunately there was no time left to do some hiking on the many many available trails anymore.

After Acadia National Park, our descent towards Boston had started along Maine's zigzag coastline. More (lobster) harbors and lighthouses came our way. Little by little all postits out of our guidebooks disappeared which felt rather saddening, and less and less postits remained to be discovered.

Breakfast in Belfast: check,
walk in Camden: check
lighthouse on Peninquit Point: check
eat a big lobster: check

Our last 2 days progressed really quickly and we approached Massachussets again quickly to spend our last evening in bewitched Salem.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

We are back

We have been in Cambridge, Worcester, Stockbridge, Brunswick, Porthsmouth, Bristol, Londonderry, Bath, Belfast, .... but also in/near Moscow, Jamaica, Hanover, Mexico, Bethlehem, Canaan, Vienna, Calais, Athens, ... Gosh gosh what a big trip we did ;).

Now we are fighting fatigue and staying up just a couple of hours longer to adjust to European time again. We didn't sleep all that much on our night flight. Then the arrival in Brussels was a b it eventful : waiting 20 minutes for our bags (how usefull to get a priority sticker) to find one bag broken and to arrive in the darkness in the trainstation as there was a power outage in the airport of Brussels. What the hell? Glad we arrived before the troubles although they've been limited apparently. Anyway, it was good to come home again after 2 weeks.

I am afraid that I am too tired to complete my stories about my trip now though, but I will in the coming days. Right now I've started to add pictures, so be sure to come back and to scroll down!!!

Covered bridges, white steeples, hills

Driving through Vermont is very relaxed. I felt at home immediately! The turning roads with villages and little stores along the road, the hills and the woods, the creeks running down along the road.... it all reminded me very much of British Columbia, only with more and older villages. Even the pouring rain the first 24 hours in Vermont couldn't spoil my joy.

And then going through up to the White Mountains in New Hampshire towards the east strenghtened the analogy with BC. The White Mountains aren't nearly as high and spectacular as the Rockies, yet they also hold some beautiful treasures as flumes, lakes, trails, views, rocks, ... Only a pitty that we did not see any other wildlife beside playfull squirrels and a couple of road kill racoons and skunks.

These days we had planned less distance to cover, so we had the time luxury to stop anywhere that looked interesting enough to stop: a Vermont maple syrup sugerhouse, a Vermont cheese maker, an very old fashioned general store, a Christmas store (I always mock the fact that these exist in the USA: all year round Christmas stores... yet with the cold pouring rain outside it felt totally right to hop in and enter a totally different peacefull warm cosy world !! But I still think it would be weird to go Christmas shopping when it was hot outside!), the Vermont bear factory, ... We searched the map and hunted for all covered bridges that were more or less along our route. We adore covered bridges :).

We also did some short hikes in Vermont (dancing in the grasses their near the Von Trapp lodge, pretending to be Julie Andrews) and in the White Mountains to find some falls and... some covered bridges of course.

Very typical Vermont is also its tiny state capital Montpellier. Gosh, I knew it wasn't big, but it just felt like a small village with a very oversized state building in the middle. Where else in the sometimes so paranoid USA could you find a parking spot directly in front of the state building, walk through the gardens, walk inside through the open front doors to be welcomed there by a very nice lady handing out leaflets and inviting us to have a look around on the first and second floor on our own where the senat and house of representatives is meeting? Nice! What a welcoming simplicity after going through an airport security like screening to visit the USS Constitution in Boston or after almost getting refused a beer because we were only carrying our Belgian identity cards rather than our international pasports? (ok, those were the 2 incidents where we got the most security hassle, otherwise it all went pretty easy though).

As total predictable tourists we also toured the Ben & Jerries factory which was fun but my pessimistic guess was correct : the free sample we got at the end was chocolate ice cream. Booohooo I don't like chocolate. Why doesn't ever anyone consider the possibility that someone might not like chocolate ??? So I decided to go into the shop next door and buy myself some ice cream : Cherry Garcia apparently the most popular B&J tast ever. Cherry ...that would be nice. Only I did not get the expected red ice cream scoops but some balls that had had a caramel pinkish color full of ...... chocolate chips. Grrrrrrrr. Why is there chocolate in something that was supposed to be a cherry ice cream?? I give up: Ben & Jerry's seems like a cool brand, but their taste names are too confusing for me and almost all their tastes seem to have some chocolate in it. Jan had to eat half of my ice cream once more and I was glad to eat something else to get the taste out of my mouth.

The Berkshires in the fog

Well, the hot weather was clearly over and some more crisp fall temperatures had arrived. My shorts that I had put on optimistically in the morning got quickly changed on one of our first stops back in Massachusetts and I allowed myself to put on some 'fashionable' white socks that I could sneak out of the suitcase quickly in the black sandals. Geeeez what tourists are wearing these days ;)

We had the choice to go back in time in the historic village park of Sturbridge or in the Hancock Shaker village...the latter became our choice, curious who those Shakers really were. Cruising along in the old barns and schoolbuildings and general store etc, I was reminded of Fort Steele in the Kootenays. Such buildings always make me think to walk around on the set of shows like "Road to Avonlea", "Anne of Green Gables" or "Dr. Quinn Medicine woman". I just see the women running around with their big skirts, hanging up the laundry to dry together or baking big pies while man with straw heads work the lands. It all looks such romantic settings but that's probably neglecting the lack of comfort that would kill this modern generation. Just imagine...they didn't even have blogs in that time ;). Those Shakers are quite interesting though, definately not a very "commercial" religion if not they would have allowed marriages producing children in their communities and not depending only on new converts to fill their communities. Nevertheless they seem to have been very successful for a long time.

Our ride north through the Berkshires and then our drive along the Mohawk Trail did get spoiled a bit due to a heavy fog that came down from the top of the hills (and also because ALL access rouds to Mt Greylock turned to be closed ...for 2 years for roadworks !!! 2 years ... could they not do 1 road at a time and keep the access to the summit open?). As a result, the probably magnificent view we were supposed to have around the hairpin turn and the summit east of North Adams on the Mohawk Trail appeared to us as a big grey white wall. We saw nothing at all. At that point I was happy enough to see the lines on the road just in front of us to make a safe descend again. Fortunately the valleys still had a clear view and we can imagine the stunning beauty that will be revealed in the coming weeks when all the fall colours are out on the trees!

Our hunger for historic well-preserved villages was not fed enough so in the evening we had another nice evening walk in historic Deerfield as well. Yihaaa another filmset like environment where my imagination could be released.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Civil War today

The ride from Provincetown to Newport, RI was much busier and longer and slower than we had anticipated so I felt really relieved when we finally got there. We realised that our plan to visit both Newport and Providence was probably a bit far stretched so we visited Newport at ease. We picknicked at the harborside, strolled through the old center, ... and gazed at the castle-resembling mansions there. When we thought we were on our way back along the ocean drive, I noticed a sign "Civil War today" at the state park entrance.

The park was not mentioned in any of our guidebooks so we weren't exactly planning to stop there but the sign made my head turn around abruptly. "Stop stop, there is civil war in the park". With a big U-turn , we entered the park about the time that the civil war was going to end. How nice that the civil wars in the USA are nowdays nicely scheduled and planned ;-). Although not entirely because the clean-up had started up earlier because it might start to rain so they had chosen to pack up a bit earlier. Ach, those soldiers ;-)...woooosssieees.

Despite the disappointing lack of war going on, we joined the tour of the fort in Newport and we got a really excellent tour that lead us beyond the main square that you could visit on your own. We even got to do a little bit of the many tunnels there with flashlights. Coo-hool. It was a very impressive fort and I don't get it at all that it is not mentioned in any of our books. It should!

In the mean time it was late in the afternoon and we didn't feel like a rushed visit to Providence anymore, so we did drive straight by it. Next time we'll give it more honor for sure. Upon arrival in Woonsocket, we realised that having your B&B address in our hands doesn't always guarantee getting there easily without directions. Clearly we had memorised a map but none of the reality seemed to match our mindmap. At every so many blocks we seemed to recognise the park where we had to turn left :). Several people were so kind to point us... in totally the wrong direction. However that way we ended up at the doorstep of the local fire department who was so kind to us as to escort us all the way to the B&B (quite in the other direction than we were driving obviously) (no not with a firetruck... with an anonymous car). Thankx to the Woonsocket fire department we got at our destination of the evening. They rock!

I can recomment Pillsbury House B&B by the way to travellers ever needing a place to sleep in northern Rhode Island! You get spoiled at breakfast!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Battling the heat along the Massachusett's coastline

Already when waking up and enjoying the view over the Charles river from our hotel room, we could feel it was going to be a hot day. Fabulous !!!!

Our ventures started almost by a goose attack when a bike passing us nearly hit a goose on the sidewalk who then on its turn flew against our legs, batting its wings frantically before it then dived into the river. The rest of our walk passed MIT up to the Harvard Campusses was less eventfull. I felt very very humble though realising that those kids clearly feeling so at home at these campusses are pretty damn smart :). Yet the surroundings were so static, historic and peacefull and yet vibrant that I almost felt like starting to study again.

By noon it was too hot to continue to walk that much so we followed SMID's suggestion and headed back to the harbor where we boarded the Boston Harbor cruises and headed out with our noses in the breeze to some of the islands in the Boston bay. Very relaxing !!! Although Boston is nice, it was even better to get out of the city.

Driving out of Boston the next day was a bit harder, not due to the bad reputation of the Boston drivers. No not at all, Belgian drivers are far worse. But signalling in Boston sure could improve a lot !! Gosh, by the time we found the entry to the Interstate we needed, we had already toured around a bit. But we ended up on the correct highway southbound to land in the sticky heath at Plymouth. After a brief visit to the Mayflower II, we finally headed to our final destination of the day: Cape Cod. I was very excited about that !! Yet the first impressions weren't as positive : I cannot recommend 'scenic highway 6A' at all! What's scenic about a winding slow road with only fisherman's houses along. The villages that I expected was just an endless line-up of houses along the road and the ocean views and harbor views that I also expected were completely missing. Hmm wasn't Cape Cod a peninsula with beaches everywhere and harbors etc? So where were they? Not visible on highway 6A and not signalled anywhere else either. The fact that we were both very hungry, probably made us more grumpy thant needed anyway.

Fortunately the upper Cape with its dunes and lighthouse made it up again. And Provincetown was simply vibrant, alive, funny, cute and very very gay ;). It was so fun walking up and down commercial street and check out the many little shops and the harbor etc but the later it got in the evening the more straight couples like Jan and me became a minority. A fun open-minded (and very Democrat anti-Bush) little town!!