Almost a year ago I decided to embark on a mission to reach out to members of my family who I don’t know. I’m not talking about distant cousins or anything. I’m talking about first cousins and second cousins, and I’ve had a special focus on my mother’s side of the family since she doesn’t seem to keep in touch with anyone. She wishes it were different, and yet, I don’t know if she feels like she can reach out to anyone now that so much time has passed since anyone has made the effort. So I’m doing it.
In December of 2011, while on a trip to Key West, I stopped in Boynton Beach, FL to visit with my great aunt Ellie (short of Eleanor). We had a nice visit for just a day and a half, where she filled me in on some of the family history. I got the highlights, because that’s what she can remember, and she doesn’t sugar coat a thing. At nearly 90 years young, she’s like Bill Maher and doesn’t have time for being politically correct. If she doesn’t feel comfortable about minorities….she’ll tell you, and if you makes you uncomfortable she’s sorry, but not really. As we get to know each more and more through this blog, you’ll see that this is the kind of attitude I respect, because…well, it’s pretty much me.
At one point during my visit, she grabbed her behemoth laptop (30 lbs Dell Inspiron from 1992) and she showed me how she Skypes with her grandchildren in Singapore and New York, and one of her daughters who lives in Belgium.
While Skyping with my 90-year-old great aunt (which was a trip in itself, because, as you can imagine, simple concepts like microphones, digital cameras, and wireless technologies are incomprehensible for people of her generation), her daughter Diane was nice enough to offer her home for us to stay in if we ever found ourselves passing through her neck of the woods. Little did she know, Jonathan and I would take her up on the offer less than a year later.
Flash forward to today, and we took the Eurostar train from St. Pancras station in London to Brussels Midi, which took us about 2 hours in total. I was a baby the last time I met Diane so I wasn’t too sure of who I should be looking for, but she spotted us no problem, because it’s hard to get rid of that American Tourist sign that seems to follow us anytime we leave the country, and we embraced.
“Welcome to Brussels,” she said, giving us both big warm hugs of welcome, “hold on to your wallets, because there’s a lot of pickpocketing here.”
Immediately my idea of Belgium is a little on the defensive, but I’m already seeing some of my own paranoia in this relative I’ve never really met, which in a sick way…is comforting. She introduced us to her tall husband from Holland Ap, which is short for Albertus (how one is a condensed version of the other we’ll never know), and together we headed out to explore the city.
Both Diane and Ap said it would be easy to see the highlights and restaurants in Brussels in an afternoon and we’d heard the same from others, so our plan was to grab a quick bite to eat, walk around to some good lookout points, see the Le Gran Palais, walk around some old famous squares, purchase some world famous Belgium chocolates, some waffles, mussels and frites, and then head out to their home in Waterloo for a relaxing evening of more chocolate, waffles, mussels and frites!
Throughout the day we learned more about the division between the French and Dutch speaking Belgian population and how there really is some animosity between the two groups. Sort of like the Canadians who speak French and the rest who don’t (I’m seeing a trend here). The King apparently is the only unifier as of now, since he’s both French and Dutch, but the dichotomy really permeates every facet of Belgian life, which I thought was hilarious. Especially since Ap and Diane represent this division themselves (she speaks French, and he’s from Holland) and they’re not afraid to poke fun with each other about it.
We went to lunch at Café Leffe, a small restaurant/café near the judicial building and we shared a traditional Belgian dish called waterzooi, which is a stew of potatoes, carrots, cabbages, garlic, cream, leeks, and chicken legs. It was awesome and perfect for dipping a rustic white bread into on a chilly winter day.
We also shared a salad, which we figured was a healthy alternative to the pounds of chocolate and waffles we were going to eat later. The salad was interesting. Very plain in many ways: romaine lettuce, a few tomato wedges, and a cucumber slice or two; but the focus was a crepe purse filled with potatoes and brie with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.
We stopped for chocolates and pralines at Neuhaus, which is like the Starbucks of chocolate shops. They’re on every corner and sometimes two on one block. Their product is superior to Godiva in my opinion (or at least the Godiva we have in the US) and they’re known for their window displays, but they’re not that much cheaper than Pierre Marcolini which is the best of the best and ridiculously priced.
Before leaving Brussels we did a little more walking around. The Grand Place is one of their most spectacular open squares with ornate facades lining three sides and the Town Hall lining the fourth. Back in the day (in some cases several hundred years ago) these buildings housed the various guilds in the city. The feel of the old world is permeates every inch of the giant square, but the buzz for something a little more intriguing pulled us to another world famous Brussels site just a few blocks away.
Possibly more memorable than the Grand Place is the Manneken Pis statue (actually translates to Little Man Pee). I pushed my way through the crowd of tourists (it’s amazing that a statue like this gets more attention than most of the museums in Brussels!) and I took the opportunity to let my “stupid American” self emerge and I strategically posed in front of the statue.
Later that evening we went to a popular seafood restaurant in Waterloo (La Moule à Gogo) and Jonathan got his mussels and frites. He ordered them vin de blanc style which is very typical (celery and onions in a garlicky white wine broth) and they served it in an untypical quantity for the us. He put down a giant pot of mussels, which is three times the size anything you would get in the US, and two large mixing bowls for discarding the shells…yum!
Diane and I both ordered the same thing, so they served us tableside out of the single copper pot they cooked it in. We got the La Blanquette de Lotte et Saint-Jacques, which was monkfish and scallops cooked perfectly in a white cream sauce with garlic, leeks, potatoes, and string beans. Perfect for stealing some of Jonathan’s fries and soaking up all the flavorful bits.
We enjoyed a nice Sancerre white wine, which I liken to a California sauvignon blanc. It went really well with the buttery mussels, scallops, and monkfish.
For dessert, we ordered an il flotante and a La dame blanche au vrai chocolat (vanilla ice cream sundae with chocolate sauce). We were told both are pretty traditional Belgian desserts. The ile flottante was really interesting. It’s a light meringue floating on top of a rich vanilla bean crème anglaise.
The ice cream we got was basically a vanilla ice cream sundae, but instead of gooey thick hot fudge drizzled on top, they actually just pour hot chocolate on top. So the chocolate topping is runny and thin, and gets cool pretty quickly from the ice cream. Both were delicious and the perfect end to a seafood dinner.
After dinner we got back to their house for some photo sharing time and some hot tea. I gave Diane and Ap a bag of Ghirardelli chocolates as a little “thank you for hosting us” and then immediately realized how stupid of a gift chocolate is for people who live in Belgium. Being one of the chocolate capitals of the world, it was, as Diane joked, “like bringing sand to the beach!”
The next day it rained so we toured the battlefields of Waterloo from the car and had a nice warm minestrone soup that Diane made. It’s so cold where they are, and as is typical in Europe, everything is smaller than in the US, that she put the covered pot of soup out on her apartment balcony, because it wouldn’t fit in the fridge. I thought that was awesome, and realized I’ll never get a fridge that big living in California.
In the early afternoon, they drove us back to central Brussels and we took the train to Paris! Thanks Diane and Ap for being such gracious hosts. It was wonderful having our short and yet sweet (I’m marzipaned out if you can believe it!). Hopefully you’ll enjoy the chocolates I gave you when you have a hankering for some chocolate that’s waxy and dry.