Monday, October 31, 2011

A Secular Catholic Church

France is a secular state. Here is a Catholic church we went to in Lille. At first thought, it seemed like a typical old Western European Catholic church. Then, a few things were encountered that I have not seen before in churches. Though, not necessarily in bad ways:

Guy Sleeping on floor:

Children's play area in church:

Not so typical Catholic art, let alone for a church:

Looks like a typical European church at first glance:

Large art exhibition in the church seemingly not so religious oriented:

Friday, October 21, 2011

Awesome City!

I've been taking some time to try to put my opinion of Gent into words. When I first arrived, it didn't take more than a few days though to really begin to understand some of the truth to all the amazing things I had heard about it before I arrived.

Although fairly small at 250,000, the city has a much bigger feel to it. Around each corner in the city seems to open up a new plaza, a new canal, or a new impressive row of buildings or houses with fascades hundreds of years old and each unique in their own way.

And although the city has unique history, impressive architecture, and an incredibly beautiful setting with many canals, boats, alleys, and cobbled streets (making me wonder why movies are not shot here), it is the addition of the life of the city to the already amazing setting that makes it a really great place to live.

Recently I met a couple of Belgians from Brugge. Brugge is a famous tourist city in Belgium that is known for it's impeccably amazing historical center. Tourists flock here. But this couple said it pretty well in that Gent has most all that Brugge does, but it is more of a living city. Around every corner in different neighborhoods are bakeries, frituurs, coffee shops, flea markets, restaurants, pubs, and shops. There are 50,000 or so students, but the rest of the population is working. It feels young, and students live in all parts of the city, but it does not feel like necessarily a student city. There is much more too it which is why many Belgians choose to live here.

The city is proud for being the first city in Europe to declare Thursdays as 'vegetarian' day. So no meat served in schools that day. They prohibited cars in the city center, so walking or bicycling is easy(the best forms of transport since it is a fairly small city). On top of that they have a fantastic tram and bus system. They have free wi-fi outdoors in 20 places in the city, so you can sit on a dock by a canal or in a park and surf the web. They regularly have unique festivals taking place in the city center. The best of course, so far, was a big symphonic orchestra playing on a floating stage in the central canal, accompanied by a light show! There is a big music scene, and you can find lots of venues to watch live music, which is one reason that they say Gent has the best rock scene in Belgium.

And although the weather is often drizzly or overcast, I'll sure take that over the snow and long winters of Sweden and the crazy weather in Edinburgh.

Oh, and the beer is unbelievably great...the reputation has certainly stood its ground. Plus, from Gent, you can get to about 4 countries each within 2 hours or less :)

Take your pick, they're all going to be delicious (just watch out for the high alcohol content!):

Not a bad place for free wi-fi:

My favorite bakery:

Just one of the many regular flea markets:

Going through antiques at another flea market:

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Gent By Night

Gent is absolutely beautiful at night. I have heard that they hired special engineers and designers to illuminate the city in a unique way. The combination of old buildings, fascades, and canals with the lighting make it fun to just wander around town at night.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Belgian Hazing

The Belgians like to haze new students in their social clubs (which are similar to fraternities as I understand but not really) and from my outside perspective society seems to accept it as perfectly normal. It is a common occurrence these days to bicycle down the main student street in the city(which is also a fairly decent auto artery through the city) and see random acts of hazing. People painting each other, people offering strangers to pay 50 cents or a euro to smash an egg onto their head, and even the following gem. Let's just say these knuckleheads are lined up in diapers and white t-shirts, on their knees on the edge of the sidewalk, with a beer in front of them. Then someone tells them to chug the beer and when they finish they have to place the empty can on their head. I guess being subjected to public humiliation makes you cooler? Like I said, knuckleheads. The entertainment value, however, is an added bonus on the way to class.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Eating with Style

Netsanet jokes that if you have a really good friend in Ethiopia, you may never need to do any of the work to feed yourself.

I experienced this one evening when going out to dinner with Netsi, Sanit, and one of their friends in Bahir Dar. As a guest, she decided to feed me, making huge scoops of injera and placing them into my gaping and patiently awaiting mouth. Just sit tight and wait for them to do all the work!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Spanish Food Coma

One can't go to Spain, and particularly the southern coast, and not try as many tapas as possible. It is simply and explosion of tastes in every dish. And when you go to the right ones, the ingredients are meticulously selected, and the menu incredibly varied over the food spectrum. Luckily, a funny Spanish guy working at the hostel, and food nut himself (he's Spanish...could be in his blood :) ), took us to one of his favorite local tapas restaurant for a proper deliciousness to price ratio, tucked nicely away from the more touristy tapas places.

While I couldn't try EVERYTHING as I would have preferred, my favorites remain the classic patatas bravas, Gambas (big ass shrimp!), and squid in whatever amazing sauce they serve it in. But, the type and variety of tapas in Spain is simply too narrow and restricting to reduce it to such a small list. Guess I gotta go back and try more!

These are probably the tastiest potatoes I have ever had my entire life. The sauce is a dream. I think I had to take oxygen breaks eating this:

Thursday, October 6, 2011


Well, I'm not exactly and architectural guru, but I guess Barcelona's Gaudi was pretty innovative even for today's standards:

Super Tomatoes

Some years ago I remember seeing a TV show about truly ridiculous events and festivals around the world. One festival, a massive tomato fight, look completely absurd, so I told myself, I must make it to that some day.

Fast forward some years...the day I arrived in Barcelona last month I discovered that La Tomatina was to take place that week, my only week in Spain! Although near Valencia and about 5 hours away, I held no reservations and made and immediate reservation on a bus from Barcelona to the festival.

I met a guy from Sacramento and two Canadians on the bus who would be my La Tomatina partners for the day. I was told to expect everything to get ruined by tomatoes, so I purchased the cheapest t-shirt and shorts I could find. I debated over the no shoes or sandals option, but someone told me you would just lose the sandals, so I went with my tennis shoes and hoped they would be wearable again some day.

After arriving in the tiny town of Bunol, we walked a few kilometers down a big hill amongst the thousands of other potential tomato throwers to the central area of Bunol, filled with tiny streets lined with 3 story apartment buildings.

The fight was to start at 11. As we entered the center area into even narrower streets, the residents of the town, from their roofs, poured buckets of water and hosed down everyone entering. Final chance to get clean before getting completely tomatoed.

We waited nervously but excited in the crowd on this long, narrow street, not really knowing what to expect, except that trucks would come through with all the tomatoes. A horn sounded, and it marked the start time. We looked in the distance 2 or 3 blocks, over the sea of people, and saw the first truck beginning to enter the street. Everyone's first reaction at seeing the truck was simply "How the HELL is THAT truck going to fit in THIS street!". When there's a will, there's a way.

Going at a steady 1 or 2 miles per hour, the first truck pushed its way down the street through the people. Rather, the people got smashed against each other and into the buildings, enough to be uncomfortable but not hurt. As in, my face in smeones oarmpit, butt on a butt, arms to arms, unable to move anything except possibly your head up and down.

The first dump truck passes and as it went, helpers inside tossed tomatoes into the street. Within 5 seconds of the first truck passing me, I jumped into the clearing created behind the truck for more space, and I was instantly nailed in the face by a semi-crushed tomato from somewhere. My most nervous thought already came to realization, because my glasses fell off! I was hoping for at least 5 or 10 minutes of clear vision! Nope, I got merely 10 seconds!

I picked them up quickly and clinged to them for the next hour. Four more trucks passed slowly, people chucking tomatoes every which way. When I could occupy enough space, I would grab a handful of juicy, seedy, tomatoes, and pick a direction and hurl it. Forget about specific targets in the crowd of thousands of people. Tomatoes were had in the head, plus plenty of tomato juice in the hair, ears, eyes, eyebrows, and any region or crevice of the body imagineable. By the end, the tomatoes were all crushed and the height of the juice in the street was above the ankle. My clothes were 100% red and wet, like I had jumped into a bathtub, and my feet and fingers had become prune-like. After the last truck passed and the sound to stop came, some people just decided to simply swim in the leftover tomato river!

And although the tomato juice stung in my eyes and I couldn't see crap without my glasses, there was not a second of that hour where I was not laughing at the ridiculousness of the whole thing. One of those situations which is something so strange and unusual that you talk to and make/break quick bonds with random strangers around you, cause you are all in the same boat experiencing the same strange thing.

I didn't dare take my camera into that tomato sea, so here are a few shots from someone I met on the bus:

Random people with my Sacramento bus acquaintance...You can see how covered in tomatoes everyone gets:

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Belgium has Beaches?

As the weather is unusually nice in Belgium these days, yesterday I took a quick 35 minute train trip to the West Flanders coastal city of Oostende. Known for it's crowded beaches, we decided to then opt for a quieter beach and took the tram 20 minutes or so outside the city to a small town called De Haan. 'Cute' or 'fairytale' might appropriately describe this tiny town. The beach itself was quite nice. The Belgians, being comical in their beachgoing nuances, erect large partitions to shield themselves from the wind, making the beach look like a maze. The October water was borderline just have to jump in at this point or it is a bit of a cold and painful process.

De Haan:

The social hilarity of this beach for me is seen in the the sellers. In contrast to Barcelona, with it's thai massages and guys making mojitos out of backpacks (immigrants in both cases just trying to make some money), here you get a definitively Belgian baker in a full on white bakers suit with whistle selling rolls! In the summer, reportedly they are even selling Belgian style fries. I'm not sure if it says something about the amount of immigrants or available jobs in Belgium, or maybe just the high expectations the Belgians have to seem for what is socially acceptable in their society, but a funny sight nonetheless.

In contrast to De Haan, Oostende is a city of some size. The waterfront is full of seafood sellers. Not to mention escargot stews! Yum. And good waffles. A nice water promenade, and even a sizable center area with a big cathedral. You know you've been in Europe too long when you see this cathedral and you say 'Meh...just another cathedral...'

Lovely wind blocking partitions:

Laura and Monika, enjoying a mix of lobster, shrimp, and crab:

Fish row:

Stewed snails! My first time trying snails...chewy...

Oostende sunset: