“Does this battery look weird to you?” I asked Stephen.
“That’s going to explode!” he replied.
“Does this battery look weird to you?” I asked Stephen.
“That’s going to explode!” he replied.
So far I’ve gone through life thinking I have a magical super power. I thought I had magical DNA worthy of study that somehow made me resistant to a scourge that has plagued humanity for millennia. I laughed when I saw the products invented to ease the condition I was somehow immune to. I almost used it as my fun party trick fact: I can curl my tongue, crush a pop can between my shoulder blades and cut onions without crying.
When I was back at my parents’ house in May, I was inspired to make caramelized onions. I wasted an hour of my life stirring onions on the stove-top, only to end up with charred onion crisps. But this week onions were one of Aldi’s Super 6 (1 kg for 39p!) and Stephen is traveling, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to consume copious amounts of onions and make my flat smell like a White Castle. (You’re welcome, neighbors). But this time I was going to do it the fool-proof way: in the slow cooker.
The recipe was easy: chop up onions, toss with melted butter, then set it and forget it (and stir it once or twice). Since I wanted to use the caramelized onions on my salad for dinner, I started chopping them right after breakfast so they could cook throughout the whole day. After I sliced the first one, I started to feel a burning in my eyes. This was unfamiliar. Was it allergies? Dust? Surely it wasn’t the onion, because I have a super power. By the fourth onion when tears were streaming down my burning eyes, I finally came to grips that my super power was no more. The pain was unreal. Even when I finished chopping the onions and they were on their way to caramelization, just walking into the kitchen made my eyes burn. Was the syn-propanethial-S-oxide airborne?!
The tears and burning eventually subsided and I was left wondering what happened. Why has an onion never affected me like this before? Was it because I usually cut onions at my parents’ house, where they’re often refrigerated and I’m wearing contacts, not my glasses? Are room-temperature cheapo Aldi onions particularly high in syn-propanethial-S-oxide in September? Is it because I rarely cut onions anymore? (Because I’m lazy and Stephen doesn’t like them, so I don’t often cook with them). And depending on how good these crockpot caramelized onions turn out, should I invest in these?
The other day I was talking to our porter about our trip to Belgium.
“Is it a good place for couples to visit?” he asked.
I told him it was if you like wandering around, exploring historic sites and eating delicious food (which we do), but I’m not sure what he meant. What makes a place good for couples? Plenty of nightclubs? Places to canoodle? Whatever the opposite of family-friendly is? I was puzzled.
So the jury is still out on whether Belgium is good for couples, but it’s definitely good for foodies, beeries and arties (I’m pretty sure I just made those last two words up).
We made Brussels our home base and then took day trips to Ghent and Bruges. We had planned to hit Antwerp too, but Stephen came down with a nasty cold so we decided to take it easy the last day. Plus, there’s probably a limit on how many medieval fairy-tale like towns one can take over the course of 4 days.
Though Brussels makes a good base, it’s two best sights — Manneken-Pis and the Grand Place — can be seen in the span of 10 minutes (20 if you walk slowly and take a lot of photos). Rick Steves says there are two types of people — those who adore Manneken-Pis and those who abhor him. I’ll let you guess which of us is the former. Here’s a hint: I read online that Manneken-Pis wears a costume a couple times a month, and was dying to see one. The first day we were in Brussels I looked up the schedule and saw he’d be dressed the next day, so I made Stephen walk out of our way before our train to Ghent just to see the little squirt dressed like “one of the Buumdroegers.”
I still have no idea what a Buumdroeger is (one who “carries the tree during the Meyboom plantation?”), but I had to see Manneken-Pis dressed like one.
Then it was on to Ghent. Ghent is the only Belgian city on our itinerary that I didn’t previously visit with my parents two years ago, so I was excited for something new. I had read that it was one of the most beautiful and authentic cities in the world, so expectations were a little high.
I would say it’s definitely beautiful and authentic in an Amsterdam-meets-Bruges way with slightly less tourists and more free toilets — which is the best, because my two complaints about Bruges are that there are too many tourists and a lack of free toilets. It seems no matter where I travel, I always end up on a quest for a quality toilet, whether that means a free one or a non-squatter.
Besides the free loos, the most well-known sight in Ghent is probably the Ghent altarpiece (the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) at St. Bavo Cathedral. When I was in high school I did a project on Jan van Eyck and the Ghent Altarpiece. It’s funny, when you’re 14 years old in Kentucky writing about a 15th-century work of art in Belgium, it all seems so far away and other-worldly — high school Renee never imagined she’d ever find herself on a day trip in Ghent, face to face with the world’s most stolen artwork. And yet there I was. Photos were not allowed, so here’s a picture from Google:
After lunch (mmm… Flemish beef beer stew and fries) we went to see the other side of Ghent’s art scene: Werregarenstraat, or Graffiti Street. According to Rick Steves (I told you, he’s my homeboy), they made graffiti illegal in Ghent except for on this one street so street artists would have an outlet. When I heard “graffiti street” I imagined crude images (remember the Lisbon wiener?) or gang tags, but what we saw was some serious art (and one crude Muppets image). It’s a shame these can be painted over at any time.
Our last stop in Ghent was Gravensteen castle.
It was built in 1180 and renovated in the 19th century. We did a lot of climbing and walking around looking at the art exhibit and torture devices inside. We also got some nice views.
At one point we were walking along a walkway with no guard or railing and at least a 10-foot drop. I should have taken a photo. My first thought was “Stay to the side and don’t fall.” My second thought was “This would never fly in lawsuit-crazy America.”
In short, Ghent definitely has a lot to offer for couples who enjoy charming architecture, castles, artwork (both old and new), and of course, free loos.
The days I get day seats to a matinee are some of my favorite days. I get my ticket, work for a couple hours, get sushi takeaway and eat in the park, then enjoy the show. Today started out well. I’ve been dying to see Stephen Merchant in The Mentalists. It was supposed to run until the end of September, but it’s closing at the end of August instead, so today was the last Wednesday matinee. It did not get great reviews and there were reports that people were still able to get day seats at noon, so I didn’t go super early to queue. I got there 10 minutes before the box office opened, just enough time to eat the overnight oats I packed for breakfast. Things were going well. I got my front row seat, then headed to the museum cafe to get some work done. I ordered some tea, cranked out some work, and the productive, positive day went on.
And then I went outside. It was London on-and-off-again drizzling all morning, and I was prepared for that. I wore my rain boots and brought an umbrella. Not even thinking and because it’s what I always do, I ordered my sushi lunch to go. I walked to the park I usually eat in and it was empty. This was because the skies had finally opened up and it started to pour. Every single bench was exposed and soaked. So I ended up eating my lunch while standing under the shelter of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. It was not my usual magical day seat lunch. Things were starting to go down hill.
My second mistake was basing my schedule on the usual 2pm or 2:30pm matinee start time when today’s show was at 3pm. I finished my lunch around 1:20pm, so I had time to kill. I decided to go to the National Gallery to look around and use their free WiFi. The rain was really coming down and I had to maneuver through hoards of tourists who acted like they’d never used an umbrella or seen rain before, which instantly put me in a bad mood. I came upon the National Gallery from the back and hurried up the ramp, only noticing once I got inside that I was at the National Portrait Gallery, which is next door. But at that point I was too wet to care — they had toilets and free WiFi too. As I stepped inside I was stopped for a bag inspection. They do this at many museums, and usually they just take a cursory why-even-bother glance. I’m assuming it’s just to make sure you don’t have any weapons. It’s a museum after all, not an airport or government building. I opened my backpack, showing the woman my laptop, water bottle, wallet… and Tide stick.
“You can’t have this,” she said. And suddenly I was having Heathrow “You brought too many liquids” flashbacks. Just as I was about to ask for a clear zip-top bag and insist that it was under 100 ml, she explained that she would hold it for me to pick up when I left.
“It can destroy the paintings,” she clarified.
You heard that right: my Tide pen could wreak havoc on priceless art, most of which is either behind glass, behind a rope, or under the watchful eye of plenty of employees.
I could hear Adam Carolla’s voice in my head shouting at the woman: “You’re a hero!” the way he does to power-high TSA workers enforcing trivial rules. I know her job is unbelievably boring (she doesn’t even get to “sit and look at the paintings” like Mr. Bean’s character did) and she was just doing her job, but the whole thing was just so, so stupid. For one, you know what else I had in my bag? An entire jar of peanut butter I had just bought at Whole Foods. I bet that could destroy the paintings more than my Tide stick. She didn’t even look at the bottom of my bag, where I easily could have had Sharpies or a lighter, both of which would do way more damage than laundry detergent. Did she think the stick was pure bleach? Even if it was, did she really think my intention was to rub it on the paintings a la Mr. Bean?
Maybe she was just taking extra precautions because of what that 12-year-old Taiwanese kid accidentally did to that painting recently.
Still, the rain had already put me in a bad mood and I was feeling really beat down. I almost said “Forget it, I’m just here to use your toilet anyway, I’ll go put the Tide stick on the bottom of my bag and use a different entrance, or go to the National Gallery like I initially intended,” but of course I didn’t. I let her confiscate my Tide pen and then had to meander around the museum for a half hour so it didn’t seem like I was just in it for the free toilet.
Thank goodness The Mentalists was hilarious and the sun was shining when it was over, but I guess if the worst thing that happens in your day is it rains, you have to eat sushi standing up and a power-tripping guard temporarily takes your stain stick away, your life is still pretty good.
Quick, tell me what you know about Portugal! Here’s my list pre-Lisbon visit:
1. They speak Portuguese there.
2. It’s on the coast of the Iberian Peninsula next to Spain.
3. Christopher Columbus and a bunch of other explorers were from Portugal. Although I just Googled him and apparently Columbus was Italian. I’m a bad American.
4. Cristiano Ronaldo the famous footballer [soccer player] is from Portugal.
5. Nando’s! (Cheeky Nando’s!) Although I just Googled Nando’s and apparently it was founded in South Africa and peri-peri sauce is from Mozambique. Why is it Portugal themed then?!
6. Lisbon is the capital.
That’s basically the knowledge I had of Portugal before we went there. And now I’m happy to report I can add a few facts to my list.
7. Lisbon is super hilly.
As far as I know, Lisbon has great public transportation, but we didn’t use it, because I needed to get Fitbit steps (and also I suppose exploring a city on foot helps you truly see it). We walked from Avenida da Liberdade to Miradouro Sao Pedro de Alcantara to get a nice view of the city. Google Maps said it was a short walk.
What Google Maps did not say was that it was up a very steep hill. (Although I guess I should have inferred a viewpoint would have to be high up…) Most people waited and took the trolley up and down, but most people don’t have Fitbits that track flights of stairs climbed (and hills count as stairs). So we walked up and down.
This post is going to be very photo-heavy, so click to read on.
You know how some parents make their kids smoke an entire pack of cigarettes to make them never want to smoke again? I think I did that to myself this past week with food. For nine days I basically ate nothing but carbs and sugar, from Portuguese custard tarts to Belgian waffles, chocolates and fries. Nothing was off limits, and now all I’m craving is roast vegetables. I never want to eat another waffle or praline again (…or at least not for a few months).
Our Portuguese and Belgian holiday was a success in every way that a holiday can be — for nine days I completely forgot about work, running and healthy eating, everything that consumes my daily life in London. It was a refreshing reprieve, but now that I’m back I’m realizing how important those three things in my life are. I did manage to run once while in Brussels at the hotel gym. The treadmill was in Dutch and all I could think of was Dr. Evil:
For most people, a dream holiday is lying on a beach. I am not a beach person. I would much rather lie in bed at a nice hotel with the comforts of free WiFi and AC. I did a lot of that this holiday, plus walking and exploring (and eating — have I mentioned the eating yet?). I think this was my first real walking holiday where I didn’t end each day feeling exhausted — in fact, some days I continued to walk in tiny circles around the hotel room to get even more Fitbit steps. I remember back in college my roommate and I went to Vegas for spring break. We tried to walk the entirety of the Strip, but crapped out halfway. We took “we’re crapped out” selfies (before they were called selfies) while sitting on a bench in the Fashion Show Mall. At the end of our trip my feet were so sore from walking that I literally crawled to the bathroom on my knees on our last night (my roommate has photographic proof). I was a hot mess hobbling around at the airport the next day — not because I was drunk or hungover like everyone else, but because I could not handle walking 2 to 3 miles a day in sneakers. Now I sometimes walk 2 miles around my flat in my slippers just after breakfast. One of these days I need to return to Vegas just to prove I can walk from Mandalay Bay to Circus Circus. My Fitbit walking may not have helped me lose weight (see above about waffles and chocolates), but it’s definitely helped my overall fitness.
More posts about Portugal and Belgium (with photos) to come!
Friends, I think something might be wrong with me. Today I walked to Oxford Street to go shopping (24,000 Fitbit steps and counting today!), as is tradition before I go on holiday. There’s just something about wearing new clothes in a new place. I was gone for five hours (5!) and I came home with a pair of off-brand Chucks (shoes), some socks, and a watermelon. (And a finger that is still somewhat numb from lugging said watermelon over a mile in a cheap Tesco bag). I went into so many stores. I tried on so many things. And yet nothing seemed worth buying. It either didn’t fit right or I realized I have at least three shirts that are too similar. That, and I think I’m getting too old for many stores. Why must all the shirts be crop tops? Why does everything scream “drunken hot mess at an outdoor music festival”? Why do the jeans have so many holes in them? When I was in high school one of my classmates told me my style of dress was “career mom.” I took it as a complement, though I’m sure she meant it as a diss. I like to think I dress better now than I did back then, but I can’t shake the career mom vibe entirely, despite the fact that I work from home in pajamas most days and have no intention of becoming anything other than a dog mama. In short, I have a closet — closets — full of clothing I barely get to wear that will happily journey with me to Portugal and Belgium next week, along with my new blue cheapo Chucks.
That’s right, next week we begin our August holiday, which in typical Renee and Stephen fashion is to two countries that are not geographically close and have absolutely nothing to do with each other other than the fact that they’re both places we want to visit. For some reason we procrastinated and struggled to decide on a destination this year (#firstworldproblems, I know). There are so many places to go and see, but it also turns out a lot of the world is hell’s-waiting-room hot and muggy in August, so we had to narrow our choices. I’ve been reading and writing about Lisbon a bit for one of my jobs and we’ve never been to Portugal, and Stephen’s never been to Belgium. I went with my parents to Brussels and Bruges two years ago, but I told him I would happily return to the land of chocolate, waffles, frites and lambic (aka fruit beer that actually tastes like fruit and not beer. Take note, Bud Light Lime!). I’m still working on a tentative itinerary with the help of my homeboy, Rick Steves. Is there anything that screams “American in Europe” more than toting around a Rick Steves book? Maybe wearing an NFL jersey with white socks and trainers, but I tote my Rick Steves with pride. Frommers and Lonely Planet just don’t compare. This time I’ll just be toting my Rick a little more discretely on my iPad, but not because I’m not proud to be an American, but because guide books are freaking heavy (and my finger may never heal from lugging that watermelon).