The Expat Architect

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Thanksgiving EU Style.

I've been thinking about what I will do about thanksgiving since I heard about the previous office Thanksgiving: Overpriced fake Mexican food at ChiChi's. Mary and I decided we would attempt the task of cooking for thanksgiving with an added ambition... We wanted to introduce the Europeans to the concept as well. The logistics of the situation didn't fully soak in until I looked up "how much turkey do I need for 22 people?" on the google. The USDA suggests 1 pound per person fresh turkey. A few things went through my head: (1) Can I buy a turkey in lbs instead of kilos? (2) Where does one get a turkey? (3) How many thanksgiving recipes are written in metric conversion?

I then forgot what day thanksgiving was... only to remember about a week and a half in advance. The ONLY reason I remembered? A very good American friend from the beginning of my internship was flying from Berlin specifically for the event, and she asked me how everything was looking. Step one - write a menu, Step two - write a list of ingredients, Step three - look up new recipes for all the things that are pre-packaged and then get those ingredients. UGH.


Turkey (which is not bred for thanksgiving, difficult to find over 14lbs.)
Gravy (I have french friends, they should know how to make a sauce)
Stuffing (no stove top in belgium...)
Mashed potatoes (we're in luck, they love potatoes here - just not the right kind)
Corn Pudding (no creamed corn, no cornbread mix)
Carrots (if this isn't easy I'm going to have a LOT of trouble)
Green Bean Casserole (covered by previously mentioned American friend)

Pumpkin Pie (you thought there was a canned shortage in America? no one here knows what canned pumpkin means, why would you put pumpkin in a can?)
Apple Cobbler (more complicated than one would think)

Preparation began a little more than a week before Thanksgiving when I took my French co-worker to a butcher to discuss turkeys. We learned that it was going to be difficult to get a turkey above 7kilos (15.5lbs) and if we wanted anything larger she (the butcher) was going to have to fight to get it. It could take over a week to get something as large as 8 kilos. Alternatively she could get us two 6kilo birds, pull the meat off turkey one and stuff it into the cavity of turkey two... making a 10kilo meta-turkey. This was unacceptable, and expensive to boot... I decided to ask my boss for help. It started as a request for financial aid, this was an Office event so I thought maybe I could get a party budget. She graciously OKed my proposed budget and also did some phone calls and found me a turkey for half the price of the butcher. The major problem was the size: only 6 kilos (13.5 lbs) for 22 people was a bit short. If you use European standards we've still got plenty of protein (200 grams per person) but that's if the turkey is made entirely of meat. In the end we decided to just make extra sides to supplement.

I thought it best to prepare the pies well in advance and just reheat during dinner so Saturday before Mary and I went out pumpkin hunting. Our only goal was a pumpkin, some crusts and pie tins. We went out to the 'burbs for grocery store fun and looked around to the produce section. There was a large selection of pumpkins, none of which looked like a pumpkin. I need round, unnaturally orange gourd in order to recognize a "pumpkin." Unfortunately the largest one they had was short, fat and very reddish. They also had a "turban" pumpkin but it just didn't seem right. We were a bit upset, we had no idea what the flavor of this pumpkin was going to be. Then while looking for parts 2 and 3, we saw a fall display with JUST THE RIGHT PUMPKINS! They don't sell them to eat, they only put our iconic American pumpkin on display. Ten minutes later we had an English speaking manager with us trying to understand why we want to buy a display pumpkin... he grabs the biggest one and says, "sure go ahead." We end up with a 7kilo pumpkin (larger than the turkey we are supposed to get). Pie crusts seem easy enough, they have plenty of pre-made pastry stuff.

Pie tins are last... aaaannnnddd non-existent. How did it turn out pie tins are the hard part of this trip. #1 Europeans don't eat pie. Europeans eat tarts. Tarts are very wide. Tarts are very shallow. Tarts are not coincident with pumpkin pie. #2 Why would you ever buy anything to bake in only once? Grocery store brand tart tins were close to 10 euros and we had lots of pies to make, at least four. Our next stop? IKEA the land of cheap anything. We learned at IKEA that #1 Europeans don't eat pies and #2 Why would you buy anything to bake in only once. Luckily the Ikea version of this is slightly cheaper and while we were there we picked up the largest roasting pan (one might say turkey sized) we could find.

We went through recipes a few times, first for how to extract the pumpkin goodness from the large orange gourd in front of us. A few hours later we had a roasted pumpkin and some fresh seeds to munch on. We scraped, strained, pureed, re-strained all the pumpkin we could get and chilled while we prepared to bake our pies. Which was when we realized we had absolutely no measurement tools. None in standard, none in metric. We have spoons, and a stupid starbucks 8oz. thermos. We proceeded to calculate and measure with our ridiculous tools and got incredibly lucky that one recipe fit exactly in these strangely proportioned tart tins. Our 7 kilo pumpkin yielded three perfect pumpkin pies, perfect because they tasted like pumpkin pie. Were they good? eh, they were ok, but damn it a six hour pie is gonna be delicious no matter what. Apple cobbler? Complicated because of the tin issue but we ended up with two clamp based tins used for cakes or something. These came with our tart tins and seemed conveniently shaped for our extra pies. *spoiler* Europeans loved apple cobbler and destroyed the two pies instantly... pumpkin? not so much, we've still got a whole pie in the fridge that we were happy to escape with.

Wednesday night goal: Make the corn pudding and chop up a ton of veggies to reduce prep the next day. Wednesday night accomplishments: Seeing an awesome lecture by a Swiss architect and eating a Mitriellette (hamburger sandwich with onions and frits on top). I'll claim my excuse to be based on a lack of can opener, but it was just a bit of pre-cooking jitters.

Thursday: Turkey is delivered to the office plucked (a happy surprise) and ready to cook. I've got a great American co-worker who deadlined previous to thanksgiving so he was able to take the day off from real work and help me out. The two of us covered the majority of the dishes... with the mashed potatoes being covered by Mary at home and green bean casserole being covered by Liz at another location as well. One of the fun parts was cutting up all the bread to be used in the stuffing and corn pudding... you can't really buy croutons here. I sat in the model room and chopped veggies for a few hours and directed the assembly of the dishes. Once all the sides were ready we covered them with foil and hid them in the back and started the turkey. Lots of butter, lots of aromatic veggies, salt and pepper and we're good. A few of my co-workers enjoyed watching me stuff the turkey with carrots, onions and leeks.

I threw the turkey in the oven and crossed my fingers. I actually crossed my fingers before putting the turkey in the oven; I was uncertain it would fit. Everything cooked up perfectly, the skin was nice and brown and the legs jiggled loosely. During a consultation session with my uncle, he gave me some hints on how to cook everything, including testing the turkey by jiggling the legs to make sure they were done. I had some co-workers go out and get wine and bread and then I got my french friends to start a gravy. I don't think I gave very good direction as the gravy was SUPER thick and soon after dinner started closely resembled meat pudding. Another American co-worker was worried about the amount of meat we had on the table so he ordered some great asian pork with the skin fried. The whole meal came together very well, and there was a very American moment where everyone was completely slouched in their chair, hands resting on belly. A few continued eating... more people showed up and then we ate dessert.

It was a great thanksgiving and I'm very happy to have shared it with lots of new friends.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Lots of news.

I've been gone for a while. Not anywhere specific, just not here. I won't really speculate on why or if I will continue because I can't promise much. What I can do is give an update on my actual tourings since I've become a full time resident of Brussels. I hope to expand on a lot of what I've seen and done in the past few months, maybe even give some updates on the (ongoing) process of my visa. But for now just a teaser of the sites I've seen.

Where I last left you... Grandmas birthday:


More on each of these if/when I can.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Two days in Stockholm.

For July 4th this year I left Belgium to come back to the USA. I couldn’t really care less about the 4th, but this year was a special occasion. My family has come together to celebrate my grandmothers 80th birthday. Traveling 2000 miles for a 3 day weekend might seem a bit absurd, but my grandmother is part of my inspiration for living abroad. Through most of my youth, trips to my grandparents meant sitting in front of a slide projector seeing hundreds of images of worldly trips my grandparents took. After my grandfather passed away, I learned that in all my grandmothers’ travels, she never made it to the country of her heritage: Sweden. Later that year, I went on a trip with an aunt, an uncle and my grandmother. So this will be a special blog post, a description of two great days in Stockholm.

We stayed in Stockholm for about 10 days, and the trip ended almost exactly 2 years ago. I’ve written about the extended summer days in Brussels, but Stockholm is a completely different story. The sun doesn’t even start going down until 11 or 12pm, but even then it never fully sets. Two in the morning seems like dusk. We just barely missed the solstice parties that go on, but we got the benefit of the late nights. We celebrated July 4th by ourselves and it happened to be two of the most memorable days on the entire trip. These were days that my grandmother showed me that she was game for anything, and really showed me genuine interest in learning about her heritage first hand.

The morning of July 3rd we went through our normal routine of delicious Swedish breakfast: small pancakes (not pleta, but just small pancakes), a bit of muesli with yogurt (mine was lingonberry yogurt), and some cheeses and cured meats. I was accustomed to eating a large breakfast, but we ate so much filling stuff that we usually only needed a small lunch. My grandmother mentioned something about taking a ferry outside of Stockholm proper into the archipelago. We planned to stop at a small public island about an hour away at an island: Grinda. It seemed a bit like a local destination for beaches, and there was a school of kids going to swim. No cars are allowed on the island and they have to farm and tend to livestock for a small portion of their food. I’m not sure if there are any private residences, but there was a hotel on the island. This hotel served us one of the best meals I had eaten on the trip, which is impressive as my chef uncle was also on the trip as a culinary guiding force. Grandma downed a glass of champagne with us and we ate foie gras… at this point I can’t remember many more specifics. It was strange, the meal was memorable for its quality but I cannot remember for the life of me what I ate. We walked around for a good while, enjoyed some beautiful weather and got a little sun burned.

On our trip back we sat on the top of the boat in the sun, and got more sun burned. For the sake of comparison, I basically got sun burned north of Anchorage. This may come up in more blogs in the near future as I am a professional sun burn receiver, and have yet to receive a sun burn in Brussels. When we got back, Grandma needed a Fika. Fika is a late afternoon snack of a pastry and some coffee. I have no problems obliging to more delicious pastries with cardamom. During our Fika on the waterfront we discussed what we were doing that night. My Grandma seemed tired, but when we suggested seeing a Football game, her eyes lit up and she was ready to go. We went back to our hotel and changed, maybe I took a nap… and we headed out for the football match. We had an infamous “French hotdog” which I can guarantee is as French as I am. Getting to the game wasn’t easy, we had to take a metro… which was PACKED because of the game. Grandma had no issues sassing people if they ran into her, and she got much respect from the rowdy crowd. The game was great, but at the end of the night… we all just passed out from exhaustion.

The day before we left (July 4th) we all did a bit more relaxing, we just showed each other some of the things we discovered when we were on our own. Grandma showed us around Gammel Stan, or Old Town, again because it was her favorite spot. I took everyone out near the end of a metro line to see a Gunnar Asplund designed cemetery. We also spent a bit of time in the posh shopping district where we all got open faced sandwiches famous in Sweden. The most important event of the day was going out for drinks! We decided to go out to the Ice Bar, a small bar comprised entirely of… well ice. You may have heard about the Ice Hotel in Sweden, and this is an urban extension housed inside of a hotel. We were required to wear big silver parkas and gloves, and we each got one speciality mixed drink in a ice glass. We sat on deer skins on ice blocks, and my uncle convinced the bartender to give him a copy of the drink menu. This is the first time I was really able to drink with my grandmother, and we all enjoyed it for about… 15 minutes. After that we were so cold from sitting on ice we were ready to go. After settling on a nice Italian meal we all settled on a nice walk until it got dark (a few hours) and saw some new areas of the city. A good end to the trip.

Since that trip I have also seen my grandmother in Dublin, but I don’t know the next time she’ll cross over the Atlantic again. I know she’s got a bunch more trips in her, and there are still a lot of grand kids that need to see a small part of their own heritage as well, so I expect more Sweden trips in the future.

I dedicate this blog post to my grandmother: Happy Birthday! Thank you for giving me a great reason to go to Stockholm and give me the travel bug, I love you.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


I started using "google analytics" a few months ago just to track how often people read my blog. I soon learned that it also records where you guys are accessing my blog from so I wanted to share some of the statistics.

I've had visits from 14 countries: USA (obviously), Belgium (obviously), Portugal, Spain, Brazil, The UK, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Vietnam, Malaysia, China, Lithuania, Ireland and Denmark. There are about 35 countries that have accessed the site, but according to the records taken, these 14 countries actually logged a little bit of time reading the blog.

From Belgium: In theory about 53 different computers have accessed my blog from Belgium, most from Brussels. About 12 of those different computers could be me checking the blog from my office on whatever random computer I get that day. But otherwise, there are quite a few of you out there. Also on average you spend about 3 minutes per trip reading about my shenanigans. I've also got one reader from Northern Flanders. You should all let me know if I'm missing out on some magical Belgian thing.

From Copenhagen: Hi Guys... there are really only two of you... and I'm pretty sure I know who. I hope you're enjoying late days and Elderflower juice.

From Portugal: There aren't many individual readers here either, but the readers come from two different regions... Maybe Miguel went on holiday?

From Brazil: I have no idea who this reader could be, but it is pretty awesome that someone from South America spent time to read about an Americans awkward trip to Belgium. My sister wrote a blog during her short stay in Argentina, my Flemish blogger won't let me connect but it is also a good read.

From the US: There are a lot of you... for sure. There could be up to 65 different individuals reading from beginning to the end of the blog. When I look at the map, I've gotten real hits from over 15 states (16 to be exact... but one is listed as "not set"). I can recognize most of you from your cities, but from the looks of it there are a bunch of readers that I don't personally know. There are a few in Pennsylvania, Missouri, Virginia, Oregon, Connecticut, Washington, even some places in New York and New Jersey where I don't recognize the locations.

Thanks everyone for reading, if you're interested to hear about something specific... let me know! I've got some recent difficulties with posting via a busted laptop and shoddy *stolen* internet connections but the posts will continue. Up next is a slight retelling of a night involving American style barbecue, Belgian beer and tragedy.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

American Food: Pics!

1. Cheese Balls2. Dunkin Donuts3. Salt Bagel4. Fried Chicken
5. Cubano6. Buffalo Chicken Cheesesteak7. Burrito

Monday, June 8, 2009


I was talking to an old co-worker today and giving him my new address, he's planning a fall European tour and I suggested the usage of my (almost) couch as a stopping point. I suggested he stop by for a day or two on his way through Belgium as the big tourist spots are relatively close. The Grand Place, along with the Mannekin Pis, seem to be the biggest tourist spots in Brussels and I'm right around the corner. My friend asked if I spent a lot of time at the Grand Place, and I compared it to spending a lot of time in Times Square. I then realized that I live WAY too close to the major tourist attraction, but then started to make some more New York comparisons.
What other regions of Manhattan are within two blocks of me? I've got Chinatown... A little bit of SoHo and/or East Village too. Granted, each of these exist for only a few blocks... and its Brussels. Clearly there is no comparison, but the important distinction is the type of person within each zone is still pretty similar. Grand Place = tourists... St Gery (east village) = people way cooler than me... Chinatown... you get the picture. The major difference (besides both quality and quantity) is transition.
It seems like while roaming in Brussels, neighborhoods can change instantaneously. Near the finale of Season 1, I had to go to the Ministry of Work to start up my working permits so I can get paid. I also had to do this on the end of an all night marathon. No sleep = poor planning and decisions. I knew where I was meant to end up, and I knew where I was starting. None of the mass transit seemed to be any faster on paper than just walking so I decided to go on ahead. I didn't remember that I had to cross under the train tracks of the North Station... Its important to note that the Brussels Red Light District happens to be on the "wrong" side of the tracks. In this case the wrong side is the east side, or the side I was on. This place snuck up on me; 1. I had no sleep, and 2. I was supposed to be in the BUSINESS DISTRICT. Well... the point is that the "transition" between the main financial district of Brussels and the red light district is a train track. These sneaky neighborhoods continually weird me out, not that they're worrisome or scary places but the drastic change in environment is a bit harsh. Some of the neighborhoods end up being almost as varied as the change from Chinatown to Little Italy.
In other news, Waffles? Not ubiquitous in all neighborhoods. Frites? Everywhere.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Back To Daily

I've been back in Brussels for over a week. I spent a few days scrambling to get an apartment and then went straight back to work. I haven't really been out of work for 5 weeks ever before and I was starting to go a bit crazy. I was put back on my old project that was conveniently put on hold during the time I was away. This time around I get to do some design/presentation drawings though. Its a bit tough to imagine, but up until now (after all the square meter shenanigans) there were no real explanation drawings created. The drawings are a momentary distraction as I will also be put on a second French social housing project soon enough. In a few months I should know the french social housing system like the back of my hand... except I won't be able to talk to anyone living in them.
Other than a pretty sweet birthday party with Starbucks Coffee as a gag gift for an Italian co-worker, the week was uneventful. My girlfriend and I decided to celebrate our first "real" weekend with another trip to IKEA! It was a bit more crowded this time, but we had our game plan: Buy something to sit on as well as something to put things on. To clarify, we've been living in our apartment for almost a full week with mattresses as our only furniture. It's been interesting coming home every night to see some new improvised luggage furniture. Neither of us could last with a desk formed out of two pieces of luggage and a "chair" of books with a few shirts stacked on top. Similar to the kitchen gear, our goal was to minimize expense and maximize utility. We got two tables (one for the kitchen, the other for the office), two chairs, two metal storage shelves and a wooden storage/clothing hanger thing. We also got the mattress of a futon, but they didn't have the frame so we'll go another time. Our plan was to pay for a taxi service (flat fee of 30 euros, up to a stupid amount of Kilos), this is why we got the futon mattress without the frame. Everything rang in under 180 Euros, extending the cost of our apartment by about 15 Euros a month unless we can sell it all at the end.
I think we made out pretty well, but the place is still a little empty feeling. The proportions are VERY different than our previous place. We used to have a two bedroom that rang in around 500 square feet. It was simple, four 10x10 rooms around a central hall / bathroom. This apartment is pretty close to 400 square feet with only two rooms, no hall and a tiny tiny bathroom. That means the kitchen is much larger than we're used to, and the bedroom is HUGE. It is meant to double as a living room, but we still don't know how to efficiently use the space just yet. We've got a year to figure it out, but I'm not sure how much more furniture we'll decide to carry up our ladder like stairs. The place also needs curtains, not necessarily for the light but for the sound. We can still move our beds to the back room, but then there are PIGEONS! Seriously, those little winged rats make so much damned noise in the morning. Today we were woken by a pigeon death match on the roof next to ours. I'm also under the assumption that 7 foot tall windows won't keep the place warm in the winter, so we're looking into insulated curtains for long term usage.
Anyway, now that I'm trying to get back into the groove of things I should try to get myself into a shape. I won't say "get myself in shape again" because I definitely have yet to succeed at forming a shape. I've lost weight for sure, but I want to try to get healthier in general. Back to push ups? Maybe a jog or two? Total, not weekly. I don't know, there's also the matter of Tourism, Architecture, Money (ugh), French (double ugh). I've got plenty to DO in the near future, I've just gotta keep up writing about my attempts.