Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Excursion to Brussels

For my first European trip outside Paris, I decided to go to Brussels during the weekend of Toussaint. (In France, everyone gets at least All Saints' Day off, if not an additional week and a half for students who are high-school age or younger). As I only spent a little less than three days there, I took the time to do a lot of planning in advance in order to visit as many museums, taste as much food, and see as many sights as possible.

One of the first things I noticed in Brussels was how very different it was from Paris. After exiting the train station, one can see a gorgeous cathedral built in the Middle Ages, a window-covered modern office building, and a 1920s art nouveau structure, all within a couple blocks of each other! Haussmann definitely never made the trip to Brussels... The city certainly has its charm, though, and I benefited from its small size by taking several walks around the city to see the many cathedrals, parks, and public buildings. The St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral was perhaps my favorite church, with its soaring spires and impressive "pulpit" (forgive my lack of Catholic terminology), though I was also impressed by the sheer size of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, which was built in the early twentieth century.

Apart from the hidden treasures inside the city, I also visited several museums and famous sights. Among my favorites were the Atomium (built for the 1958 World's Fair), Mini Europe, the Musical Instrument Museum (where I saw all the "ancestors" of my favorite instrument, the piano), and of course the Grand Place (the main square in Brussels where one can find the town hall, a large church, and many little shops and restaurants in the 17th-century buildings). There are so many more things to see in Brussels than I realized, but I managed to visit a surprisingly large number of sights. Of course, as a political science major, I could not make the trip to visit Brussels without seeing the buildings that house several of the institutions of the European Union. Although most of the buildings were not open for individual visits, I was at least able to visit the European Parliament. Although we were only allowed to see the main chamber, I still enjoyed a "behind-the-scenes" glimpse into the world of European politics.

I could not talk about my time in Brussels without at least a brief note about the cuisine. Although I never had a real meal with strictly Belgium food, I did make sure I sampled many of the foods that are thought of as typically Belgium. Of the food I tried, I was probably least impressed by the "French" fries, which did not taste very special to me. The waffles, on the other hand, were even better than I had imagined. I tried both a light, crispy, rectangular Brussels waffle in a café and a hot, gooey Liège waffle, which I bought at a street stand. They were both absolutely delicious; I do not think I will be able to appreciate American waffles at breakfast as much as I used to! Last, but by no means least, I ate about a year's worth of chocolate, as I simply had to sample a little bit of chocolate from all of the major Belgian chocolate boutiques. In the end, my favorite chocolate came from Neuhaus, the creators of both the Belgian praline and the ballotin. My favorite Neuhaus chocolates were probably the truffles, with their perfect balance of bitter chocolate powder and creamy, sweet filling. It makes my mouth water just thinking about it...

Well, that is a little bit about my first venture outside France. It was a tiring three-day trip, but undoubtedly well worth the fatigue for the enjoyable experience!

Friday, November 5, 2010

A Little Bit of the "South"

Hey, everyone! I apologize for taking a particularly long time to post anything, as I have been doing a lot of traveling and studying recently. To try to make up for it, I will add several posts at the same time with extra pictures.

A couple weeks ago, I made my first trip outside of the Paris area since I have been in France. My host father has a family house in a little village near Limoges, which is a few hours south of Paris. We left on a Thursday morning, which was a little complicated due to the strikes that were still taking place (surprise!), but we got to Limoges with enough time remaining to see the town before lunch. Limoges is not a very large town, but it is full of cathedrals, bridges, and entire neighborhoods that date back to the Middle Ages. It was fascinating to see how well preserved all these areas are, and I took plenty of pictures. I am still impressed every time I see a church or a house in France that was built centuries ago, long before any Europeans had even set foot in my own country!

After our brief visit in Limoges, my French "father" and I went to the picturesque nearby town of Aix-sur-Vienne. The countryside was so beautiful, and I certainly enjoyed breathing the clean country air for a few days. It took a while to clean the house (which was crawling with spiders initially, as houses built in the 17th century apparently have more openings than modern houses to let in little "visitors"...), but after about an hour we were settled in for the two short days we would have there. Visiting Aix-sur-Vienne was a very nice change from my life in Paris, even though I certainly love the city. Everyone we encountered was very kind, they spoke with a "southern" accent (which is great for foreigners like me since they pronounce every single syllable!), and everything was much less rushed than in Île-de-France. It was almost a little like the South, actually...

Speaking of the South (and for my French readers, I mean the good ole' southern USA : )), I gave my host family a little taste of chez moi the weekend after my trip. My host parents were both eager to try some American cuisine, so I decided to make some homemade biscuits for them. Even though I was using my dad's fail-proof recipe, I was still a little nervous about all the conversions I had to make. Nonetheless, they were nice and fluffly, golden-brown, and delicious! More importantly, my host family seemed to really enjoy them, and it gave me a chance to tell them a little bit about what life is like back in the South.