I’ve Moved!

Exciting news everyone – I went and bought my domain name and I’ve moved my blog over there. From now on, I’ll be posting on curiousmeredith.com instead of this site which is curiousmeredith.wordpress.com.

I finally decided to take the plunge for a couple of reasons:
1. I wanted to have more creative control over the design and presentation.
2. I’ve wanted to learn more about web design and try my hand at it.
3. Having my own .com address looks more professional.
4. I’m aiming to take my travel and food blog and turn it into a small freelance business.

Thank you to all of my wordpress.com followers and email subscribers please come and check out my new site! Since I won’t be updating this site anymore, any readers who wish to keep up with my travel meanderings will have to re-subscribe for posts to be delivered to their email from my new website. I’ve made this easy and placed the Email Subscription form at the top right-hand corner.

Looking forward to your visit at the new & improved curiousmeredith!

Smartphone Tips for Expats

Traveling with a smart phone is glorious. However, bringing a locked smart phone from Canada was a terrible decision. I thought I could easily get it unlocked but what happened was the opposite. I had no idea the amount of red tape and rules I would uncover. Nonetheless, my smart phone had become a luxury I didn’t want give up.

Smart phones bought in North America are cheaper because they have a carrier-lock, a pesky nuisance that keeps your phone on the providers network. While abroad, your phone will be roaming, increasing your phone bill to atrocious amounts. To prevent this, many will “jailbreak” their iPhone in order to have the ability to completely customize their phone, find free apps, and install a carrier unlock so their phone will work with other SIM cards. A word of warning, unlocking a phone under contract will make your warranty invalid.

A jailbreak is not so difficult, but updates of your phone can prevent it from working and then it will need to be installed again. The iPhone can be unlocked with relative ease, as long as its modem firmware (or baseband) is compatible. A list can be found with a quick Google search. iPhones with a modem firmware of either 4.12.01 or 4.11.08 are locked with no solution.

If you have a modem firmware that can’t be unlocked yourself, you can call your service provider to ask about unlocking the phone. This is to gain access to the IMEI code. For me, the outcome wasn’t good; I was told I could buy out the rest of my contract for a price of $400 with the option to keep my phone number for an additional $30 a month. I didn’t go with this option because it is ridiculous compared to other mobile providers around the world.

My advice is to do your self a favor and invest in an unlocked smart phone. It’s more expensive but the mobility it provides is invaluable to the avid traveler. Mobile phones in most European countries are all sold unlocked and priced between €250 to €800. Afterwards, it is easy to find a cheap mobile provider to get a SIM card for a number and an affordable data plan. For example, in Belgium, the average 2 GB data + voice + sms package has an average price of €15/month.

There are a few smart phones that are known to be “travel-friendly” such as Blackberry and Nokia, which are typically used for business. If you prefer the higher-end web browsing and camera capabilities of an iPhone, but with more flexibility and a better price, consider buying an Android. Two great choices are Samsung and HTC; both are high-powered devices that are customizable with limitless free apps and more affordable than the iPhone.

Mobile freedom can be yours with some research and investment; believe me, the juice is worth the squeeze!

Learning Flemish: Positivity, Equality, and Empowerment

After two full weeks of Flemish classes, I have made a few more observations and conclusions about the Flemish from their language. I realize that these are wide, sweeping generalizations but they are observations that have I had since my first month in Belgium as a tourist in 2011.

1. The Flemish are “glass half-full” people
My proof: This week I learnt how to tell time in Flemish. To my surprise, the half hour is expressed to the upcoming hour instead of the one just passed. For example, 1:30 would be “half two” instead of “half past one”. I’ve analyzed this and concluded that the Flemish have a forward thinking mentality that doesn’t focus on the time lost but rather on what’s to come.

2. The Flemish are progressive thinkers and value gender eqaulity
My proof: This week I learnt all about personal pronouns and noun articles. Flemish is not gendered like say, French. For example “Zij”, the female pronoun, is also used for the general ‘they’ pronoun. Noun articles are gender neutral using “de” and “het”. Since coming to Belgium, I often find hints of gender equality and female empowerment in art, folklore, law, and in the mentality of the men. It’s common for women to be the breadwinner in a relationship and this has no reflection on their partner’s masculinity.

I’m taking my Flemish classes though a course at CVO Leuven, the local community college. I like to think of it as my Belgian version of “Community”.

I must clarify that my instructor is not this crazy. But, I enjoy how “Community” exaggerates the stereotypes of community college with its crazy personalities, ‘special’ instructors, and grown adults finding themselves in a strange dimension of responsibilities and adolescence. It’s not unlike relocating to a new country; suddenly finding yourself in a new city at age 25, feeling sophisticated and adventurous, then looking like a twat trying to put a 5€ bill into the bus ticket printer during rush hour.

I really enjoy getting to know my classmates because they too are in a new country and trying to learn the ropes. Originally, during my search for Flemish classes, I first considered the eminent educational institution of Leuven, the Katholic University, otherwise known as KU Leuven. But when I went to the Huis van het Nederlands Leuven, I was advised to take my course at CVO for a blend of practical and academic teaching at a fraction of the cost.

KU Leuven offers numerous Dutch courses that would cost around 180 € + books and my course at CVO was 60€ + 20€ for my book and photocopies. It was an easy decision, although I was a bit worried about who my fellow classmates would be and if I would relate to them. It was a case of the “first day of school jitters” because I found out the first day I had nothing to worry about.

The majority of my classmates (the men skipped out on photo time… go figure) photo courtesy of my classmate Airene

My classmates are a diverse set of people who come from all over the world; Colombia, Mexico, Morocco, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, France, Estonia, China, Hungary, United States, Poland, and Nepal. They all have different stories about why they came to Belgium. Some have lived here for 10 years already, whereas others have been here a mere 3 weeks.

I love chatting to the other students during breaks or after class because I learn crazy stuff about them! Honestly, in this course I’m not just learning about Flemish. I’m also getting a few lessons about globalization, cultural studies, adaptation, and a little here and there from the school of ‘hard knocks’; all from the stories my classmates tell me about their personal lives. It’s fascinating!

I have a large class of 21 people, but our instructor still manages to give attention to those who are struggling or need extra clarification. She’s from the province of Limburg and her happy-go-lucky attitude is in line with that of people from Limburg, or so I’ve been told by my friends from Vlaams-Brabant. She’s an exuberant and enthusiastic teacher, who doesn’t make me dread going to class and makes lessons quite fun.

So all in all, I’m very satisfied with my classes at CVO. Thankfully, I don’t dread doing my homework anymore unlike other language courses I’ve taken, ehumh… French. I’m really happy to have finally figured out that learning a new language can be intellectually and emotionally rewarding.

Learning Flemish: My First Impressions

In Vlaams-Brabant, my home province in Belgium, the Flemish language seems to be a blend of Dutch, French, and English. Here in Leuven, I have become accustomed to hearing all three. Probably more English than usual since my Belgian friends are very accommodating and will switch to English to include me in conversation. I’m so grateful for their efforts that I feel it’s time to make a genuine effort to learn their language as well. It boggles my mind how my friends can switch from Flemish, to English, to French, sometimes in one sentence. I’ve always been jealous of my friend’s language skills since I’ve had a considerable amount of trouble with languages in the past.

My journey towards learning a second language has been a rocky one. I was 16 when I enrolled in French 10 during my first year in high school, which resulted in a C+. Dejected about my apparent lack of French skills, I didn’t take French 20 the following year. Sadly, I made no attempt at a language until I was age 21, living in Finland and needing some language credits for my university degree. I decided to enrol in Finnish. It was very difficult, or maybe the exchange party lifestyle diverted my attentions, but I actually failed this course! Surprisingly, my failure in Finnish only increased my desire to learn a second language. All of my European friends spoke at least three languages and I felt small that I was limited to English. So I went back to French, studied for a year, and passed with a B+. Success!

… Or so I thought. How is my French now? Awful. I haven’t practiced at all and when I do speak I sound like Brad Pitt in Inglorious Bastards. So I’ve taken a French hiatus to learn Flemish/Dutch. I’ve been told the best way to learn a language is to have a boyfriend who speak it. Looks like I’m lucky to have the best learning resource there is!

My friends claim that popular culture has been the driving force behind their English skills. Television shows and films are always shown in their original language with Flemish subtitles. I’ve noticed that Belgians, especially the Flemish, love English humour as it is similar to their own. Dry, sarcastic, and a bit wonky (in a good way!). Because of this, Belgian’s speak English very well, polished with the current lingo. Most can already hold an English conversation before they begin studying English in school, which happens around age 14. Belgians are avid football fans and often read English to get the latest scoop on trades and player stats. Gamers use English in online communities like World of Warcraft and Starcraft. The more I think about it, the opportunity to practice English in Belgium is almost limitless.

I’m blessed that I now have the opportunity to learn Dutch being (almost) completely immersed. Contrary to my previous attempts at a second language, this time I’m going to approach the process realistically and acknowledge that it won’t happen overnight but will take time and patience. To keep my motivation up, I’m going to document my Flemish language journey on ‘curiousmeredith’ in hopes that those who are learning or have learnt a 2nd (3rd, or 4th) language will share their tips and tricks with me.

Current Learning Materials:
Prisma textbook & 2 listening CDS- Dutch for Self-Study
My Fella
Comic Books
Flashcards
Google Translate
Prisma – “How do you say this in… Dutch” mini dictionary
Flemish TV Show with subtitles – Het Eiland – A bit of a vibe similar to “The Office” but definitely with its own Flemish flair.

Initial Observations after completing Lesson 1:

1. Literal translations don’t work, context is very important.
Example: Ga je mee wat drinken?

Initial literal translation: Go you with also drink?
Context: Are you coming for a drink?

2. There are lots of little joining words that are put together to make a common sayings. Those little words and their role in sentence structure are still a mystery to me.

3. There is a big difference between the written and spoken language.

4. Concerning pronunciation, just relax! Flemish is not as “in your face” as English.

I think Flemish is going to give me a lot of mystery, fun, and challenges in the upcoming months, but I’m ready and willing to learn. Bring it on.

Ten Belgian Bands You Should Check Out

Here is a list of ten Belgian bands that I think the rest of the world should know about. This list covers a few different genres, featuring songs from the past and the present. For me, discovering the great music of a culture is one of the biggest pleasures of traveling. So here it goes!

Steak Number Eight

Young dudes rocking a mature sound with their own take on ‘Stoner Rock’ genre. Great to see live, headbanging all around!

Deus

I’ve been loving the older 90’s era Deus stuff recently. The album to check out would be ‘No More Loud Music’.

Black Box Revelation

Up & Coming rock’n’roll band, great live show.

Arsenal

Arsenal has been one of my favourite ‘chill’ bands for the past year. Absolutely love both their albums “Lotuk” and “Outsides”

Absynthe Minded

Described as “Europe’s best kept secret”… you can be the judge.

Admiral Freebee

I always feel so good listening Admiral Freebee! Check out all his albums, but to start, try his self-titled album.

Toots Thielemans

Legendary blues musician and the greatest harmonica player in the 20th century.

Netsky

A little taste of some Belgian electronic music, that doesn’t fall into the annoying drum & bass our ears have been accosted with on the radio these days.

Stijn

Check out his album “Euphoric” for some über funky jams

El Fish

Oddly enough, when I finished this list I found that it is devoid of women. I could have put Selah Sue, but I’m over her and her poofy hair. She’s a great performer (as seen below with Triggerfinger), but there has to be more Belgian songstresses out there!

I would love to see/hear everyone’s suggestions, tell me what you think!

Rediscovering Canadian WWI History in Ypres

Menin Gate

My parents came to visit me in Belgium for the week following Christmas. We explored Leuven and Brugge, enjoyed gluhwein and speculoos, and celebrated New Years Eve in the Oude Markt; but the highest on their “to do” list was a trip out to Ypres to visit Canadian WWI memorials. Both of my parents are members of the Royal Canadian Legion, an veteran’s organization dedicated to remembrance of our veterans and to serve to the community and country through various projects. Given their keen interest in WWI history, their trip to Belgium was a golden opportunity to visit the Menin Gate, Passchendaele, and the Tyne Cot memorial cemetery.

So we jumped on the train in Leuven, only for a mere 2 hours, to arrive in Ypres. We hoped to gain some perspective on Canadian participation in WWI and find the gravestones of four veterans from our hometown. With the help of our guide Soren, we accomplished all of our goals. He really went the extra mile and did a lot of extra research on Canadian military history for us. After the day was finished, Soren told us that we were his first tour – we couldn’t believe it! The whole day was organized so well; we saw everything we wanted and more, in addition to his impressive knowledge of the area and WWI history. Soren is also an artist and he surprised us with two pencil drawings to thank us for being his first tour. We highly recommend him; please check out his website, Passchendaele Prints for more information on his tours and artwork.

Canadian Memorial for Mustard-gas attacks - The Brooding Soldier

During WW1 (1914-1918), Canada was still a small nation of seven million people. By the end of the war, our nation had lost 68,000 soldiers. However, it is said that Canada emerged as a more confident and independent nation after their involvement in the war. During the fighting our soldiers earned much respect on the battlefield and earned more independence from British command. The respect for Canada resulted in being granted a seat at the Paris Peace Conference as its own nation rather than a part of the British Commonwealth and marked the beginning of a unifying national identity.

In Belgium, Ypres was the centre of a particularly long and intense battles between the Germans and the Allied forces. Ypres (Ieper in Flemish) history is full of tales of invasion dating as far back as Roman times because the location is militarily strategic. During WWI, Ypres was in the path of the German route to carry out the Schlieffen Plan, a plan to quickly defeat the French on the Western Front and avoid a two front war. Germany’s invasion of neutral Belgium brought Britain into the war, and Canada quickly sprang to arms in support.

The Battle of Passchendaele is particularly famous in Canadian history because our troops were instrumental in securing victory and earned 9 Victoria Crosses for valour; one being Cecil John Kinross who was from my hometown. The offensive was long and difficult. It began July 21, 1917 until November 6, 1917 when Passchedaele Ridge was captured after months of heavy casualties. During the battle, the Ypres Salient had been destroyed, the green field changing into a sea of mud making it impossible to dig trenches.

The Germans developed "Pillboxes" as trenches were no longer possible because of the mass amount of rain and mud

We were very fortunate that during our tour day the sun came out, but it was still cold and wet. It was a cold that would sink down into my bones; I can’t imagine how soldiers endured those muddy and miserable conditions for months in wool jackets and wet boots.

Hard to imagine this land was once completely decimated

We visited seven cemeteries, four of which have the gravestones of our fallen WWI soldiers. We visited Private John Barton in Oostaverne Wood Cemetery, Private Patrick Balfour Watson in the Railway Dugouts Burial Ground, Private William Cockbain in Tyne Cot Cemetery, Captain John Lucas Higginson in St. Quentin Cabaret Military Cemetery, and Private John Wilson London who is listed on the Menin Gate.

Tyne Cot cemetery


Under the arch of the Menin Gate

Soren showed us a few other interesting sites. There was Hill 60, where we were able to walk among the dips and hills that resulted from land mines.

Hill 60


Bunker at Hill 60

Gravestone of the real Peter Pan

The gravestone on the right belongs Lieutenant George Llewelyn Davies, who was the step-son of J.M Barrie. Davies was around ten years old when Barrie began to write the play “Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up”. It is said that Peter and the Lost Boys were inspired by George and his brothers. According to the tale, Barrie would tell stories to the boys about babies who died and went to live in Neverland and George exclaimed, “To die would be an awfully big adventure” which the most famous line in Peter Pan.

The German Gravestone is in the middle

While we were walking around the cemeteries, Soren pointed out some differences between the Allied graves and the German ones. As you can see the Allied headstones have rounded tops that give a more hopeful and peaceful feeling compared to the square and angular German headstones. It is hard to see in the photo but the stone inscription style of the German headstones is much more understated and muted in comparison to the Allied headstones.

Soren also told us that German WWI cemeteries are maintained by donated funds as opposed to being government-funded. I thought this was interesting and gave a bit of insight into the different perspectives regarding memory of war for each side. The German headstones and cemeteries give the visitor a sad and ominous feeling compared to the Allied headstones and cemeteries that give the impression of glory and achievement.

German Messines Mine Crater

This is a photo of a crater that was created during the Messines Battle. The crater, called Spanbroekmolen, was created after the mine was blown and is said to be forty feet deep!

The Bunkers of the Essex Farm Hospital

Above is a photo of Essex Farm, previously an advanced dressing station for those with serious wounds and now a memorial and cemetery. The famous John McCrae, author of the poem “In Flanders Fields”, was at this station as a doctor. He was inspired to write the poem after the death of his friend Alexis Helmer. The cement bunkers shown here were not built when John McCrae was there. The bunkers he was in would have been made of timber but the cement bunkers still give some indication to the conditions that the soldiers and doctors were in. It was pretty cool to visit in the evening, everything was damp, dark, and quiet. I definitely enjoyed my trip out to Ypres and would suggest that anyone with a mild to wild interest in WWI history to go check it out.

An eery photo of Poppies & Crosses left in the Bunker

Christmas in Belgium

This holiday season I was über lucky to be invited to Christmas dinner at the Billiau’s and to experience the holiday season in true Belgian style. In Belgium, Christmas is typically celebrated at home with a delicious meal; and I was treated to a traditional Belgian meal right down to the dessert. As part of my Christmas present from Billy, I was given an awesome cookbook “The Food and Cooking of Belgium” by Suzanne Vandyck and the following is what I have learned from reading and eating (until I could eat no more)…

Typically, the Christmas meal begins with aperitifs, a boozy beverage to share a ‘toast’ with family members and guests. The aperitif is fairly bitter in order to stimulate appetite for dinner as opposed to a sugary drink that ‘closes’ the stomach. The main course is often game, goose, duck, turkey, or roast lamb accompanied with a variety of vegetables and a potato dish.

The Billiau Christmas dinner featured many ingredients that are common in Belgian cuisine. Historically, since the Middle Ages, Belgian food follows ancient practices such as including a variety of mustards and spices in dishes. Over the years (centuries really), Belgian chefs have remained loyal to traditional Belgian dishes while being open to incorporating new ideas that will enhance their meals.

The following list features classic ingredients in Belgian cuisine. Each different ingredient compliments the other resulting in a lot of creative and tasty dishes.

Seafood – Belgians love shellfish, especially mussels (Moules) which are considered to be a national dish. A wide variety of fish species are brought in from the fishing boats into ports such as Oostende. Seafood is always fresh and plentiful offering a variety of choices such as cod, sole, herring, turbot and monkfish along with freshwater fish like trout and eel.

Meat, Poultry and Game – Meat is an important feature of Belgian dishes. Pork, beef, and veal are used often as well as chicken, pheasant, venison, wild boar, and rabbit. Meat is prepared with the addition of specialty beers or a combination of fruit and spices which compliment the meat.

Dairy – Despite being a small nation, Belgium produces more than 300 varieties of artisan cheese and dairy products that are enjoyed by Belgians instead of being exported. Perfect with bread and beer!

Vegetables – Belgium’s climate and geography has contributed to the availability of many different types of vegetables. White asparagus, Brussel sprouts, celeriac, kohlrabi, hop shoots, potatoes, and mushrooms are just a few! There are some veggies that are unique only to Belgium. A special vegetable is the Belgian endive (Witloof) that has white leaves that grows from the chicory root and is typically a winter vegetable and a feature of seasonal dishes.

A popular use for the potato is for the famous Belgian frites (fries). Frites can be served with ritzy dishes like mussels on a silver plate or as street food in a paper cone with lots of sauce. Sooooo yummy.

Herbs & Spices – Popular spices in Belgian cuisine are parsley, tarragon, sorrel, chives, bay leaves, sage, thyme, chervil, and saffron. Cloves, ginger, vanilla, and cinnamon are used lightly in baking except when making speculaas (the best little spice cookies ever). Nutmeg is popular in numerous potato dishes, sauces and soups.

Fruit – Apples, pears, blueberries, cherries and sour cherries, peaches, and plums are abundantly available. Apples are often used an accompaniment with poultry, game and sausage dishes. Cherries can been used in many ways such as in meat stews and beer.

Condiments – According to Suzanne Vandyck, “Pickles, mayonnaise, and mustards are Belgium’s most beloved trio of condiments, indispensable at any Belgian table or pantry, and used to enrich appetizers, soups, meat and vegetables dishes and a multitude of sauces.” I have fallen in love with mustards in Belgium because they are spicy and give a certain little kick to any meal or snack. The amount of different sauces available is actually astounding and makes it easy for anyone to add a bit of their own personality to the meal.

Bread – Breads come in a wide variety of grains and are commonly enjoyed as a meal when combined with cold meats and cheeses. Bread is very important in Belgian cuisine and is usually present at every meal; and I’m talking about a fresh soft baguette that is perfect with just butter, no yucky preservatives here. And don’t get me started on the deliciousness of Belgian broodjes (sandwiches)!

Chocolate – Belgian chocolate has some of the best chocolate in the world, thanks to their very meticulous chocolate process in which no preservatives, artificial flavours , or colouring are ever used resulting in high quality chocolate. Chocolate is enjoyed in many different forms such as pralines, candy, desserts, or even as a bread spread.

Beer – Beer in Belgium rocks my world. Belgium is equally famous for its beers as it is for chocolate. There are over 500 types of beer and around 130 breweries. There are pilsners such as Stella Artois and Jupiler, trappists and ales like Chimay or Westvleteren, and a wide variety of ales. But even with such great variety there is a unifying factor: the alcohol content is commonly around 7-8%. Whooopah! For a look back to my first impressions of Belgian beers please see my previous blog post “The Belgian Beer Special”.

Wine – If I am not drinking beer, I am drinking wine. I haven’t been in a grocery store that didn’t have a wide selection of high quality, decently priced wine compared to what I have to pay for wine in Canada. A bottle of wine is carefully selected to compliment the flavours of the meal. For special occasions it is common to have 2 or 3 different bottles to be paired with certain courses.

Liquors – The juniper-infused grain alcohol called jenever, is very popular in Belgium (especially at Christmas). It is usually drunk in shot glass in the evening as a nightcap or in a shot of espresso. Jenever is also used in cooking as a flavouring agent, offering approximately 200 different flavours such as cactus, passionfruit, and mocha.

And this is just some of what I have learned about Belgium food during my 3 months here… so much to learn… So many recipes to try!