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.


Thursday, June 4, 2009

American food is delicious.

You only realize how delicious it is when you miss a few staple meals for an extended period of time. During my one month back in the states I had to "catch up" on all the foods I was missing out. I'm pretty sure I over did it, which is good cause it means I won't want anything in the categories for quite a while.

1. Cheese Balls: 1 enormous barrel, I don't really want to talk about it.

2. Dunkin Donuts: Cinnamon Coffee w/ Milk and Sugar does not taste like coffee in any way. It is also delicious and warm. Unless it's iced (also refreshing when my first day back in the US was 90 some degrees), in which case it is not warm.

3. Bagles: Ham & Cheese on a Salt Bagel. This is a classic combo that I've had for years, the Salt Bagel is a slightly new addition but the sandwich keeps hunger away for two full meal times.

4. Fried Chicken: Popeye's spicy blend & Biscuits. This is probably the grossest meal on the list as it consists of mostly fat and or fat. The grease is unimaginable... the biscuits are essentially layers of butter with salt in between.

5. Cubano: At the corner Cuban restaurant where the waiters barely speak English... a great roll with pork, ham, pickle and cheese. I'm not sure why I keep going back to this sandwich, though it does only cost 3 dollars. The best possible bite is right at the end, with a small amount of pork and ham, but a lot of pickle and cheese.

6. Buffalo Chicken Cheese Steak: From the famous Hoagie Haven in Princeton. A basic chicken cheese steak with a ton of Tabasco and blue cheese dressing.

7. Burrito: The last and probably biggest mess of all the cravings. My favorite combo includes spicy pork, rice, black beans, all kinds of salsa. Also... lots of cheese, guacamole and sour cream. I haven't attempted to eat one of these with my hands in years, fork and knife are key. I do enjoy a bit of Green Tobasco as well.

I will post up pics of these disgusting concoctions later as my stolen Internet isn't ideal for uploading photos.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Season Two

I'm back in Belgium.  I've written emails to my family and friends saying I'm back in the "+32."  That's my dumb slang utilizing the Belgian country code; I like to think that I'm clever sometimes.  Anyway, it turns out I was being a little optimistic suggesting I was all but done with my Visa.  Long story short:  I wasted a return flight and got a new flight for NO reason.  The result was my girlfriend leaving for Brussels by herself for five days.  I like to think it was better that she got to see parts of the city on her own so that she could discover things without my biases.  Then she may be able to show me things in the city that I lived in for three months prior.  She spent a little time looking for a long term apartment for us as well as being a tourist.
Once I arrived back in the city we did a bit of walking and more apartment searching.  We were both desperate and unknowing but ended upon this cool little one bedroom.  Its about 400 square feet with one front room (bedroom / living room / office) and one back room (kitchen and sometimes bedroom).  There were two caveats with this place: one we knew before we paid our security deposit, one after.  Before we moved in, and something that is pretty obvious from the photo:  No furniture.  Oh, we're also on the third floor of a walk-up.  Walk-ups don't usually phase me, but these stairs are so steep I actually feel like I'm climbing a ladder.  (Mom & Dad: we'll find you a nice hotel in the area cause I don't think it'll be easy for you guys to get up here.)  So, no furniture in our new apartment and where do we go?  IKEA!  Seriously, this is where you go when you want cheap stuff in Europe.  Its like a nice version of WalMart with no creepy people... well there's Eurotrash but I don't understand French still so they're still just "exotic."  We were able to stock our kitchen with cooking supplies, two sets of eating utensils and two bed rolls for under 100$.  That's Dollars, not Euros.  We've got to do another trip to get "furniture" so we aren't sleeping on the floor, and so we have chairs.  I'll go through a real breakdown of the "minimal kitchen" we've stocked in another episode for now I'll go onto the rest of the apartment.
The second caveat we learned about the first night we slept in our apartment.  We spent the majority of the day moving our stupid amount of luggage from our temporary spot to our "permanent" spot (including the stairs) so we were pretty spent.  Except when we got the apartment it was the middle of the day, and the three bars and restaurants that are immediately beneath us hadn't opened yet.  We're right near St. Gery, which is one of the major nightlife spots in Brussels.  Also, it just happens to be a big Jazz weekend... so there was plenty to keep us awake in our apartment all night.  This is the moment where our kitchen (in the back) became our bedroom for a short while.  Well, no matter what, we're pretty happy with the apartment because its pretty close to everything in the center of the city.  I'm also about five minutes from my office... and that's worth the cost of the apartment by itself.  Even with a trombone player standing right outside my apartment I will still get more sleep because of its office proximity.
I think Wednesday I will write what I promised and put down all the crap American food I ate while I was home.  *Spoiler alert* cheese puffs and fried chicken.  By the way, all you nay-sayers who thought the Waffles had calories:  I lost over 10 lbs while I was in Brussels.  Belgians don't lie:  Waffles are 0 Calories and 0 Fat.  Eat as many as you like when you come visit.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I'm alive and well.

I'll apologize to everyone for the recent month long outage.  Here's the deal:  I had to return to the US.  I last left with some words about an equine delicacy and a big french mess.  Immediately following an extended work session I went to deal with "visa stuff," only to learn that 7 days later I would be escorted out of the EU back to the US.  I basically had to rush to get all the paperwork done in Brussels that could get done there and then fly back and WAIT until my visa was ready.  

That brings me to a month of silence.  I'm sure it was based on a little disappointment that I had to cut my adventure a little short with a hiccup but in addition I didn't have many exciting things to write about.  Since I've returned every day is Saturday.  It is a wonderful break, but not one I was prepared for so it wasn't entirely welcome.  I will shortly write an update on what I've done while I was home.  It will mostly be about the disgusting but necessary food items I've digested while home.  But I will be scaling back my writing a little bit.  Once I return to Brussels (on May 21st) I'll be there for almost a year and it won't be as "new" as it was in January.  I'm still going to be as American as possible and maintain a healthy amount of exploration into embarrassing myself.  But I will only be writing 3-4 times a week.  I plan to write M-W-F and the occasional weekend.  This will allow me time to prepare and set up pictures and such.

I've also been a bit silent about the whole deal because I didn't want to write about how I "hoped" things were going.  Today the final piece of the puzzle (working permit) was completed.  I will be turning in the final paperwork for a Visa by the end of the week and returning to Brussels Visa in hand.  What you see in the image (which is a little small) is a piece of paper that says I can work in Belgium for up to ONE year.  I need to renew if I stay beyond that.  I'll explain a lot more about how this works in a following post as this is more of a teaser.  I will also be writing a post soon detailing all the 'catching up' I have done in the US as well as leaving Belgium shenanigans.  I'll say this much, 8 hours in Dulles Airport is not awesome.  

Thursday, April 16, 2009

I was so hungry, I could eat a horse.

So I went to the butcher down the street and bought a horse steak...  I've been planning this one for a while.  Both the horrible joke, AND the consumption of horse.  Once I was told that there is a chance that any steak you are eating in a restaurant could be horse... I went out LOOKING for horse.  But in my searching, I've learned that "restaurant with horse" is not the best possible way to find what I was looking for via GOOGLE.  In the end, its best to go to the source and ask them.  
My idea was to stop at a good looking butchery and ask what restaurant would be best for a foreigner to try out horse.  I got way ahead of myself when I realized the only word I could communicate in that sentence was Horse... Cheval.  The Butcher knew NO English, and all I could really say was, "I'd like some horse."  He put a hand up (in a cartoonish way), left, and upon returning had a steak in his hand and insisted, "Cheval."  Ok, I guess I can just cook it myself... why didn't I think about that sooner.  It was priced about the same as a medium cost beef steak:  4.50 Euros for around 300 Grams (which is plenty for a serving).  
I was planning on a steak dinner for Easter, with some new experimentation, but I decided to go with my classic tried and true steak cooking method.  Sear in a pan with some oil, salt and pepper... nothing more.  I was told to be careful with the horse as it is much more tender than beef and tends to over cook quickly.  After doing a bit of research I also learned that horse can contain half the calories of beef by weight, and almost double the protein.  Its like a super steak... but how did it taste?  Hard to describe, but it was just different enough to exit beef territory.  It was extremely tender, and had a very slight gamy taste.  This was a mixture of venison and beef.
Horse isn't something I'm going to be looking for constantly, but its always fun to find culturally accepted things that just aren't available in the States.  Next week?  Waffles...

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

"Waffle Breakfast" or "The 25 Hour Day"

Its been a while... I'll admit it.  I've posted about 13 days LESS than I should have this month according to my average for the first two months.  As you can imagine... this does not bode well for the rest of the daily habits:  no blogging, no pushups, no spending reports, no french.  Bleh.  But If you remember from one of my previous posts I described one of my new habits/celebrations as the post-all nighter waffle breakfast.  In the past two weeks... I've eaten a LOT of waffles.  That said, this will be a post about a multitude of concerns that pushed me towards extra waffles and a "25" in the Wednesday column of my time sheet.
I'll start at the beginning:  In the past three weeks, three people from my project team (of six) have left.  Those three people were also the people who had the most long term experience with the project.  It is also important to mention the fact that I have had four deadlines since the beginning of April.  Oh... and my project manager got chicken pox and was out of the office for about six days during the last two deadlines.  That sets the stage a little bit, imagine too much work with a shrunken inexperienced (on the project) team.  At each of the previous meetings there have been so many changes that we have edited essential building elements (elevator location, entire building dimensions and proportion blah blah blah).  That is our given environment, next I'll give a list of very generic requirements for this project:

1.  Renovation to an existing building in Paris (we are adding a "new building" on the roof of an old warehouse/factory)

2.  This is a "master planned" project.  One team of architects set up rules, and about six other companies are each designing their building to fit within the rules.  Our company has Two buildings, I am in charge of one of them.  The master planners coordinate all project teams, they also change things for the lower floors which will be commercial space.

3.  I have one neighbor, with whom I share a wall.

4.  There is a restaurant shoved into the bottom two floors of my building... but I am required on floors 3-7 to go to a lot limit that is on TOP of the restaurant.  This means I have a mechanical shaft (for the stove) running through my building to the roof.  This mechanical shaft is as large as my bedroom in my apartment in Jersey City.  

5.  We have a client beyond the master planning team who have their own set of requirements.

6.  These clients are building "social housing," or super cheap government subsidized housing.
6a. In social housing EVERY apartment needs to be handicapped accessible.

7.  The client is also a savvy developer and has been making a lot of money for a long time building social housing, their requirements are intense.

8.  We are contractually obligated to create a certain amount of square meters of housing as well as a certain number of apartments in that square meters.

8a.  There is a chart that shows us how many apartments of each TYPE there needs to be (5% studio, 25% 1br, 35%2br, 30% 3br, 5% 4br)... also a sub chart that shows us that more importantly we need to have a mixture of 3&4 bedroom apts that adds up to 35% of the total.

9. Each apartment type has a prescribed number of rooms, each room has a prescribed maximum area, each room also has a minimum dimension for window space.  

10.  We need to have a magical efficiency ratio.  We measure this by comparing the rentable space (literally the floor that you can rent... not space inside walls) to the total built space.  This has to end up at 87%  The calculation has a lot of complicated gimmicks and loop holes but this is the basis.
10a.  This requirement makes me pull my hair out.

*11. The BBM (big boss man) needs to like the look of the project.

I starred 11 because it is a general office requirement, but makes this process unbelieveably more complicated.  Usually social housing is designed as just that... social housing.  I believe that when the project was conceived it was unknown what housing type we were working with... thus it was unrelated to its eventual programmatic function.  So... hopefully if you've made it this far you have a sense of the complexities of the drawings, as well as the environment we are creating these drawings for.
About twelve days ago (soon after the three senior project team members left) a co-worker and myself decided to start from scratch.  After a full three months of people working on it prior.  With six days before a monthly presentation to the master planners.  This was a response to a mis-understanding of apartment sizes and a requirement to cut the building from 5000 square meters (50,000 square feet) to 4400 (44,000 square feet... hopefully you're all catching the math).  We had to keep the same number of apartments. We had to keep same rentable to built ratio.  We had to keep the BBM happy, with a very similar form.  
In addition to this, a consultant that will be on site working our project through the built stages stopped by the office and begged us to try to simplify the process and to use rational thought to make it work.  We were excited by the idea, out of 63 apartments in the previously presented edition there were about 55 unique apartment types (this means a lot of drawing... a LOT OF DRAWING).  After thoroughly disproving the ability for the previous building to be "fixed," we consulted the rest of the office for some fresh ideas.  A few mentioned that the access to the apartments, or the public corridors off the elevator, seemed a little large or unnecessary.  From there we drew about ten quick schemes of re-approaching the elevators and hallways in new ways.  We found one we were happy with... but we had to also imagine a way to fit all the correct apartment types at the right size as well as keep the right percentages.
After our very basic sketches we spent almost four hours doing MATH in an attempt to predict the reality of the building.  If you've made it this far you'll be rewarded to know:

A.  Our ratio of rental to built space = 85%  We were almost disappointed but,
B.  We cut the total area down to 4300 square meters... 100 more than they asked.
C.  We fit in 64 apartments... the last version only had 63 apartments.
D.  Our apartments are within 5% of the "prescribed apartment size"
E.  We have about ten different apartment types with minor variations on each.

I mentioned "about twelve days ago" for a specific reason.  While, I know the exact time and date that we made the decision to re-work the base elements of the project I also marked 25 hours on my time sheet for a single day... making it quite hard to consider it a measly twelve days.  That week deserved quite a few waffles.


Check me again tonight. I should be filled with a shiny new post... Promise.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Spending Report: Week 10

There are going to be two weeks relatively quickly here but oh well.

Overall:  68.20

Restaurant:  18.10
Groceries:  17.80
Fun:  14.00
Transportation:  8.00
Miscellaneous Food:  4.80
Stuff:  3.50
Beer:  2.00

Restaurant:  This was lunch and dinner for a few days because of some late hours and au revoir parties.  Not bad for multiple meals, but I should be cutting it down post April.

Groceries:  This included a 3.50 Euro bottle of wine and a bunch of onions.


Transportation:  Au Revoir Liz night = Beer and Taxi's

Miscellaneous Food:  I was pretty sick so I downed a few bottles of good juices through out the week.

Stuff:  My previous 3.50 Euro umbrella suffered a fatal accident so it needed to be replaced with another flimsy 3-5 use umbrella.

Beer:  Beer.

I started off really well last week doing both french (over an hour two days in a row) and physical stuff (like 150 sit ups and 90 push ups).  Then I got sick on Wednesday and I'm still getting over it now... I'll blame some Belgian devil weed that decided it was pollination time.

This week was considerably worse as I'm still sick and I've been pulling mega hours again.  The time change was not kind to my sickness, but sun until 8pm is very welcome.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

What do I do?

I thought maybe I should finally talk specifically about some of the work I'm doing.  I've avoided talking and showing the work I've done up until now because of the starting exhibition date of the work:  Tomorrow.  Now I can show you guys what I worked on for the first month of my time in the office.  I'll explain it a bit tomorrow, but for now just pictures.  Most of the drawings I had a very direct relationship with .  IE there was a team of three for the majority of the project, and a team of four for the final night of work.  Only two of us were permanent fixtures in the project.  I took photos of the recently completed model, but took no part in building it.  My computer model was used to build the physical, but the whole thing was done by the BXL model building team: Congratulations guys, you did a great job.  If you happen to be reading from northern Holland... you can go see the exhibition opening tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Lets take care of some tasks!

The previous weekly spending report will return tomorrow, its been a busy few days.  For now I'll cover two of the fun events from the past few days.  #1 Successful European Bank Account event.  #2 The Worst Apartment I've Ever Seen.  I capitalized them for dramatic effect.
I didn't work on Tuesday and took care of some of the items on my "to do list".  A quick side note:  I went to the US Consulate to get finger prints.  It was on "Consulate Row,"  which is a long street with a ton of security and lots of different consulates.  Each member of the security force had to stop me on my way and all I really wanted to do were finger prints.  I got it done, Step one complete.  Lesson learned?  The ring finger is pretty useless when you're trying to control it alone.  Moving on, the next step? Paying rent.  I've finally been requested by my landlord/flat manager to pay my rent correctly.  The past two months I've paid in cash, and this time the flat manager decided to not let me be lazy.  I went to finalize and start using my European Bank Account.  
I accomplished three things during this trip:  1. Depositing money into my account.  2. Receiving and activating a card.  3. Payment Transfer.  The first was the simplest, I gave them my account number and a bunch of cash.  They told me the money would be noticed by the internal computer system within 20 minutes.  The second step was easy, I didn't even have to show ID.  I gave a separate person my account number and they handed me the card... which the clerk referred to as "she" because again, there is no gender neutral pronoun in French (I have to make note of gender based references to inanimate objects as they usually fascinate me).  I put a PIN on the card and signed for it and I was good to go.  I then went on to step 3 which was the most interesting.  I went to a different bank (because it took 20 minutes to get there and was on my way home) and went in to use the automated banking service.  I had a little personal desk and computer that I put my card into.  I was able to do account referencing and investing, but more importantly was money transfers.  This is the main way to pay bills in Belgium.  I was able to input my landlords bank account number and set the account to personally pay him on a specific date with a receipt.  SO!  Bills paid.   I've also got to say I learned about an incredibly unnecessary Belgian card system.  I'm not entirely sure what it is called, but I can load a preset amount of money (under 50 Euros) to my debit card on the "chip" in front.  With this I can pay small fees at most convenience stores and really most contemporary shops.  I wouldn't need to use my pin and it is instantaneous.  But here's the weird part... if your card gets stolen or lost, you LOSE the money you've preset to the card.  I'm pretty sure I've heard of this before:  Cash... weird.
The second event of note was apartment searching.  I've finally found a "reliable" source of apartments to scan through that has a reasonable selection and is still in English.  Prices are included along with photos and lots of other info.  It isn't an individual real estate service, but an index.  The caveat being that you deal with a second individual not linked to the index.  Anyway... There is another American in the office that I discussed looking for an apartment with.  Two bedroom places are much cheaper per person, but he was on a short time frame and we weren't restricting ourselves to two bedrooms only.  He eventually signed on a one bedroom today because he had to get a place for April where I need a place for May... oh well.  But this isn't a story about what he got... this is the story of the WORST APARTMENT I'VE EVER SEEN.
We should have been tipped off by the single photo included on the website looking out the window.  We walked down to meet the land lord and take a look at the 670 Euro Two bedroom Apartment.  Before entering I'll make note of the context: Avenue Anspacht is like the crappy part of Broadway that goes past Chinatown.  Its crowded with people looking for awful urban discount stores.  I believe there was a dollar store (euro store) about two storefronts down. Upon entering, I was relatively impressed at the in-progress upgrade to the foyer of the building.  Then we walked through the second set of doors into the foyer of a 1990's urban horror movie.  There was no "finish" material to be seen.  The floors were original, unfinished lumber and we had to walk up six flights of stairs past a few very nice looking (or really scary) gentlemen.  I'm pretty sure the door wasn't even a door... but a piece of plywood with a door knob hewn into it.  We entered the apartment to see that there was still no "finish floor."  Maybe you're unsure what I mean by "unfinished" floor.  To make it easier: generally you can't see through the floor boards into the apartment below, untrue in this occasion.  
I also made note that the land lord was very creative with his listing of square meters on the index.  Within each of the bedrooms (that couldn't have been 6'x10') there was a loft above the entrance.  I recognize that this is common in New York to achieve a sleeping space and still have a fully accessible bedroom.  Those aren't usually made with 2x4s and plywood.  I believe he used these lofts to add square meters to his listing.  At this point I've become a master of apartment sizes in meters because I've been drawing them for the past two weeks constantly.  The developer I'm working for would be impressed to hear that this land lord fit 64 square meters of crappy apartment into a 45 square meter space.  Also, physicists are soon to question his ability to fold space and time.  I've been pretty generous (nice) while describing the apartment so far.  Onto the negative side:  it reeked of what I imagine death smells like.  I may have achieved a lifetime of asbestos poisoning in a single sitting upon entering this place.  My American co-worker didn't have the patients to be nice to the land lord and I only humored him for about two minutes.  We soon left and Ryan said to me, "Thank you Scott.  That could be the worst apartment I've ever seen."  I will forever be proud of that moment.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Flowery Experiments

I've been sick for a few days and wanted a good bowl of soup for dinner tonight.  Sad news for me:  canned soup sucks here (many might believe it sucks in the US, but you need to try it in Belgium to know how much soup can really suck).  So I did a bit of research and decided to make myself some french onion soup.  No time to consult my uncle so I went with an old favorite:  Alton Brown.  A mixture of his advice and some of my random side steps and we've got a solid bowl of happy warm onion broth.  
At the store I ended up with a bag of onions, I didn't look for anything specific.  I got a nice baguette and some cheese.  I can't remember what I got, but it was a nice soft french cheese to melt on the baguette.  I got a bottle of white wine.  I got some bouillon cubes.  I was specifically told not to do this by Alton, but he wasn't shopping in Belgium so I've gotta work with what I've got.  
The overall process was really easy with the only painful part being the onion cutting.  I followed Altons process of prepping all the onions to start and leaving them cut side down on the board.  This meant that the major pain was during a relatively short period of time.  I sliced the onions in a radial manner to make nice little half moons... not sure why I was supposed to cut them this way, but it was fun.  While I was doing all this I had a diluted chicken broth started on the stove.  Then I put a bunch of butter in a big pan and used the "low and slow" cooking method for the onions.  After about half an hour of light sauteing I ramped the heat up to get some caramelization (or almost burn) on the onions and then put in a bunch of the white wine.  After letting the white wine reduce I added the chicken stock.
The final addition was the cheesy toast... it ended up really good, and not too salty at all.  The color wasn't great because I didn't caramelize the onions enough to give it the nice deep brown, but otherwise it was hearty and made me feel warm.
Anyone who's enjoyed the food editions in the past should go back and find the older food posts and head to the comments.  My uncle has finally "stopped by" to comment and you can see some real criticism in place.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

To do list:

I'm sick so I'm gonna keep it real short tonight... but i've got a to do list that will hopefully provide some interesting future posts.

#1.  Acquire a work visa!

#2.  Look for a new apartment.

#3.  Sign up for real French classes.

I should also mention I don't think I'm sick, but maybe allergic to some mutant European vegetation.  I've never really been one with allergies before... but this sickness comes just in season.

Also, fun story... I forgot to sign into my blogger account in English so the spell check is correcting me straight into Dutch.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I enjoy hot chocolate too often.

I'm a sucker for hot chocolate, I won't lie to anyone about that.  But when I saw this new hot chocolate medium... I was astonished.  Simple concept:  put Belgian chocolate on a stick and melt it into a cup of hot milk.  Not hot water, hot milk.  Also, while stirring the choco-stick you can sneak a bite or two of the melty chocolate bits straight off the spoon/stick.  I first saw a stack of flavors in my favorite chocolate shop near my office metro stop.  
I soon found a tourist locale where one can purchase both the stick AND the hot milk at the same time.  I ventured with the Honey & Seasalt which was probably unnecessary, I should have gone with a simpler flavor.  There wasn't enough salt to cut the sweetness the honey added to the whole business.  Never the less, it was thick, creamy and a great warming treat on a cool day.  I noticed that there were also liquor based concoctions that I may try on another occasion.  As the chocolate melts it allows the liquor to flow freely into the brew.  This said, I think we need more innovation in warm chocolate beverage delivery.  Thoughts? 

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Another co-worker is leaving. Goodbye Liz, you leave a big American legacy behind.  I was invited by Liz to a Girl Talk show and having been to the show before, I knew it would be a good time. Brussels was nice, we went to the Botanique venue.
Now, this venue was awesome.  The show itself was in a rotunda (a big cylinder) that couldn't have been more than 40 feet across (or 12 meters for the Europeans).  This meant that the "standing room" was about as large as the stage and by the end of the show they were one and the same.  Also, I was standing in the back... and During the show Gregg Gillis (girl talk himself) decided to grace my shirt with his man sweat.  He jumped down from the stage and hopped around into me... I may never wash my shirt again I'm so honored.  Then again, I got chocolate milk on the shirt today and I don't want it to stain.
Also, instead of french tonight I'm mentally roaming around online classes.  I'm watching a class on "Introduction to Starcraft and Competitive Gaming."  Droz was right (16 years ago) when he said, "you can major in gameboy if you know how to bullshit."

Monday, March 23, 2009

Sell everything you own.

Seriously.  Before you consider the big move across one of the oceans (or Mexico) please look at the solid objects you own.  Trust me when I say you don't need 90% of them.  Near the beginning of this blog I wrote about "things to do before you leave."  The list talked about banks and other "on paper," things to consider.  I think this is more important, but not as easy to do.  Sell everything... and then when you feel comfortable with how much stuff  you have, sell more.   I certainly didn't follow my own advice and brought WAY TOO MUCH with me.  I'm eyeballing my three pieces of luggage that are overfull with stuff:  Clothing, wires and books.  
It's important to note that I love books, and I read often... my library is unnecessarily large and full of books I want to read.  I knew I couldn't carry three book shelves worth of stuff with me overseas so I put a bunch in cold storage, promising the books I wouldn't abandon them and that someone would read them soon.  I sold a huge portion of the library and sold my entire childhood collection of video games.  This step was very necessary for me to feel the "cleanse" bug and soon after I felt good trashing everything I had.  Not only was this a pretty good source of bonus cash, but it helped me rationalize leaving things behind.  It started the process of mentally preparing myself to change my day to day existence into something new.  I still ended up with a bunch of books that were on the top of my mental "list to read."  The library was a starting point and it extended to a lot of the stuff I had avoided trashing for years.    
I began a process of examining things that I thought I needed at all times.  I brought about 18 paperback books with me and 3 DVDs.  I brought a gameboy, two external hard drives, cameras (digital & slr) and a cache of charging/converting devices, daily clothing & "nice" clothing and some bedding.  One of the pieces of advice I read in a book suggested taking a list of books / movies you want to consume and just rebuy them in the new place when you need them.  This makes a lot of sense as I haven't gotten through nearly as many of the books as I'd like.  But now, when I finish the books I donate them or sell them.  Once I've finished a novel there is no reason to keep it.  If it is non-fiction and something I'd like to reference I plan on scanning the important parts and backing them up.  If I need to reference it in the future, I can probably find the same book in a library.  I've also realized I was a little over-ambitious with the "nice" clothing.  I think I packed about 90% more than I will ever use, and I could have saved myself a few pounds on the trip over.
I'm writing about all this as I begin to look for a new apartment and contemplating moving the same three pieces of luggage again.  All I want to do is sell or donate enough to bring myself down to one large bag and a backpack.
Ok, well today I did about an hour on Rosetta Stone learning a bit about plurals and conjugation.  Its pretty useful to help picking up on the sounds of plurals since its a bit more subtle than I'm used to.  I've also been looking at details the past few days in French, and hopefully soon I'll be able to tell a contractor what materials he should use... but not be able to say "Hi, how's it going?"  Also, this past Friday I went to Pecha Kucha night (a Japanese presentation style for designers).  This was a fun event because there were English, French and Dutch presentations.  Among the francophone presenters there was one Canadian, one French and one Belgian; I was very able to notice the difference between each of the regional variations on French and it was fun to hear them so close to one another.  I also realized that I can get the general idea of a presentation in French, but in Dutch... whoa, I have NO idea what's going on.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Spending Report Week 9

*Announcement* Rotterdam won, it will be the first trip though I still don't know when it's gonna happen.  I found out I can take a round trip on a bus up there for 22 Euros which is a very good price.
I've officially been in Belgium for two months today.  Brussels decided to celebrate by having a no-jacket weather weekend.  I had a day planned with a cool walking tour of a neighborhood I haven't been to:  Etterbeek.  I did something dumb though, I checked my camera after walking out of my apartment to learn that it was dead.  Thus, a good day of tourism un-documented.  I means I'm just gonna have to go back and do it again... (maybe it was a good mistake, I really enjoyed the area).
Personal Development:  Not bad, push ups and sit ups were done on schedule.  On the other hand, French... not so good.  At this point I'll chalk it up to laziness and re-plan this whole thing.  Starting Monday I'll put a tiny extra post purely to explain what I've studied on a day to day basis for french.  Maybe the daily writing commitment will help.

Spending = Good.  In fact, I brought it below last week.  I did an average mix of take in lunch and a lot of cooking for dinner.  My "celebratory" lunch today didn't break the bank either.

Overall:  57.39

Restaurant: 19.70
Groceries:  18.47
Miscellaneous Food: 15.82
Beer: 3.40

Restaurant:  This is really only two lunch days and some pizza today.  I went to a place where you order pizza by weight and had a big chunk with some nice buffala mozzarella on top (not melted).

Groceries:  The usual, I'm going to go to Gare Du Midi tomorrow (big market on Sundays) to get some good cheese and some produce to add to the week

Miscellaneous Food:  Waffles et al

Beer:  I had to celebrate St. Pattys with a few Guinness.

This was an interesting week for money though as two opposing events occurred.  #1  I got my tax return back (yay).  #2 One of the largest weekly changes in the dollar EVER (boo).  Essentially all the growth the dollar made in the first seven weeks I was here was erased on the eighth week I was here.  Luckily I pulled a bit of cash out last week so I have a reserve but if I have to pull any out soon I'll lose an extra 10 cents on the dollar UGH.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The BIG map

Check Spelling
I wanted to give a little idea of where I am on the bigger map.  I've marked places I've been to in Green and places I want to go to in Red.  I don't necessarily want to go to Groningen but the first project I completed for the office was there... so I thought I'd put it on the map.  So far I've stuck to the classic Flemish travel destinations in Belgium, with Liege as a Wallonian destination.  Koln (or Cologne for the Americans) is the closest major city within a train trip into Germany.  I've marked Rotterdam and Amsterdam as my northern trips, Rotterdam first.  Then London and Paris are pretty obvious choices.  The most interesting part about this map is that the furthest place (Koln) is Two hours and twenty minutes by train.  Paris is only 1:22 but is one of the only trips you've gotta book in ADVANCE.  If you guys had voted Paris for the sooner trip I'd be outta luck as the cheapest round trip was still over 100 Euro (not worth it).  I found out if I book at least 15 days in advance I can get it closer to 60 Euro on the Thalys (super fast train).

We shall see how all this works out.  Until tomorrow!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

the expat ARCHITECT.

Yes yes, I've been missing the posts based on the title.  There are a few reasons,  #1 once I get home the last thing I want to think about is work.  But more importantly is #2-  Sometimes it is difficult to separate what I'm doing as an architect versus what I'm doing as an employee of an office.  I don't really want this to end up being a blog about the company I work for, but about my experiences learning about a culture by learning how to design for the people within the culture. 
I bring this up after spending quite a few hours drawing apartments for French (Parisian) social housing in the past week.  The new project I am on is fortunate enough to have two completely separate guidelines:  The Master Plan and the developer client.  Each presentation we prepare has to be aimed to appeasing the coordinators of the plan while showing the developer we can make them money.  The rules from the developer are especially confusing and detailed, but have helped me get a 1:100 grasp on Metric.  What I mean is that until now I've been converting meters-feet in my head whenever someone gives me a dimension, I haven't had to be that precise just yet.  But this past week I've been shoe-horning 6 lbs (or grams) of apartments into a 5lb (gram) bag.  This means I've gotten more accustomed to seeing a hall as 90cm  instead of 36 inches.  I did specify that I'm comfortable with metric at 1:100 (or 1/8th scale)... this week I'm starting on details which will help me understand materiality proportions in metric as well.
In order to work on the apartments, the developer designed this fancy little chart which ranges from T-1 to T-5.  T-1 is a studio where a T-5 is a 4 bedroom apartment.  Each of these apartments has specific square meter counts PER ROOM in addition to minimum dimensions for handicapped accessibility.  So, in the past five days I've been drawing and putting puzzle pieces into the footprint of the building we've designed and hoping that they all fit.  It is tedious and boring  but an incredibly effective learning mechanism.  There is also one more little rule that seems increasingly more obscure to me:  There has to be two doors between the living room and any bathroom.  I guess this is the french fart barrier, or at the very least an aural separation between bathroom and living room.  That added rule makes the space planning geometrically more complicated and sometimes my head hurts while I'm trying to make some of the larger spaces.
I'm glad I got a fart joke in there.  Also, European daylight saving is different, but  its also going to be much different for us.  I realized today that the sun doesn't set here until almost 7pm anyway and haven't had daylight saving yet.  Next week the sun will be up LATE... summer late hours should be great with all the extra light.  As long as I'm not drawing T3's.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Cool Food

After a long week at the office I wanted to relax a bit on my Saturday.  I also didn't spend much so I thought I'd maybe splurge and go out to a nicer restaurant and try some fun foods.  After looking through my guide book and taking some local suggestions I decided on comocomo.  This is a tapas bar that takes a huge influence from restaurants in Japan.
COMOCOMO is Spanish for "how do I eat," which is fun to say.  The Restaurant serves Pintxos is explained as different from tapas because they are meant to be eaten with your fingers.  What this really means is that they put something normally eaten with a fork, onto a small piece of bread.  This doesn't necessarily work with all the dishes but I mentioned a Japanese influence, this occurs in the delivery (not the bread).  The entire restaurant is like one big bar that wraps around.  What makes it unique is the conveyor belt that also weaves its way around the space.  I went for lunch, I've learned this is the best time to try great restaurants, and was luckily placed right in front of the chef.  He spoke English and was very helpful with the dishes.  The idea is that the chef prepares a bunch of small colored plates of food and places them on the conveyor.  The colors represent a category of food (black = meat for example) and you pay based on how many dishes you've consumed by the end of the meal.  This is commonplace in sushi restaurants in Japan and the system is almost exactly the same.  Pay per dish, at COMOCOMO they have set rates for 3-6-9 dishes and any extra dish is 2 euro.
A quick run down:  1. Pork, Bacon & Potatoes, 2. Quail breast & Mint, 3. Sobressada, Cheese & Honey, 4. Manchego, Honey & Quince, 5. Quail Leg & Star Anise, 6. Lamb Rib & Rosemary, 7. Frog Legs & Sesame.  By far the most memorable dishes of the night were the Sobressada with Cheese and Honey, the Quail Leg with Star Anise and the Quail Breast with Mint.  The rest were very very good, but seemed like something I may cook for myself... pedestrian dishes.  Before the good is the bad: the Frog Legs weren't great mainly because the sesame completely over powered the frog itself, I was basically eating a sesame chip with a little bit of frog.  Also, the lamb rib with rosemary... it was good and is a classic pairing.  Instead the dish needed to be considered a Pinxtos (eat with your hands) so they put it on a piece of bread.  It still has a rib in it.  You can't eat it with a piece of bread underneath.  The redeeming quality was that I watched the chef cook the lamb dish start to finish.
Ok, Sobressada is a Majorcan (Spanish island) pork sausage and with this dish it looked to be taken out of its casing and just used as a ground spiced pork.  The cheese was... unnecessary but the key to the dish was the honey.  The contrast between the spice of the paprika and pork and the sweetness of the honey was beautiful.  I could have eaten seven plates of that one dish and been very happy.  The Quail Breast & Mint was nice.  I'm pretty sure the mint was put into a yogurt or mayonnaise, but the absolute subtlety of the cool sweetness was very refreshing on a nicely cooked savory quail breast.  I liked the Quail with Star Anise because it was a slightly different take on the chicken drumstick that I've had so many different ways.  The flavor of the dish seemed very Indian, but much simpler, I imagined that star anise is a major portion of the spice within a curry based dish.
The food was but one part of the journey.  I got to sit and watch a chef prepare a huge portion of appetizer portions and he explained each one as he placed them on the conveyor belt for me.  I spent an hour and a half drinking some wine, watching him cook and tasting some small plates.  For under 20 Euros... I wonder if a certain uncle of mine would care to comment on the idea as this post is mainly for him.  I want to try some more interesting places about... apparently Horse Steaks are relatively popular here so maybe I'll try to find one.