09 May 2007


Midnight has rolled around again, so it's no longer my birthday. But it was a very excellent one, the kind that's chock-full of treats and goodies.

Twenty-four hours ago, M. and I were playing Trivial Pursuit (I know, we're dorks), and an alarm started going off. We looked at one another, and then realized the alarm was playing Happy Birthday! Months and months ago, when we got the free picture frame/alarm clock gizmo, I must have set the "birthday" feature in anticipation of this very moment, and then forgotten about it. How cool is that?

And then, in another delightful surprise, I actually won the game of (Spanish) Trivial Pursuit. M. had gotten all six pies, as he tends to do, what with his being a history genius and all, and was circling around the center, while I was agonizingly slowly getting my pies. Somehow (that somehow includes generous hints from my husband, who often grants me a "correct" even when I've stupidly made random guesses and then realize I actually know the answer), I won the game before he managed to get the right combination of dice roll and answerable question. Woot!

When I woke up this morning, I was greeted by a breakfast of freshly-cut fruit, toast, cereal, coffee, juice, and--don't tell anyone--cookies. Then I went to French class, and got more than 100% on the test we were handed back. It said "parfait" on the top. I didn't tell anyone it was my birthday, but I felt like the birthday girl anyway.

I met M. for lunch at the top of the Musical Instruments Museum (or Musée des Instruments Musicales...it's MIM either way). The restaurant has amazing views of the city, and we lolligagged until he had to head back to work. I strolled through the Sablon on my way home, and listened to This American Life on my iPod.

After the Mr. got home from work, I got presents! I love getting presents! Who doesn't! He did a wonderful job, noticing this weekend at the spa that my old backpack was zipperless and falling apart, and so I have a fabulous new backpack to take on the trip to the US and any future hiking endeavors. He also noticed that I always have cookbooks lying around the kitchen, and so I got a great cookbook stand, which I am honestly super excited about. And flowers, and chocolates, and a frangipani tart. Mmmm.

Then we went for dinner at Racontes-moi des salades, a great restaurant specializing in--you guessed it--salads, which was super yummy. And when we came back, we ate that frangipani tart, with candles on top. Well, we ate it after the candles were removed, but you know what I mean.

And then (I told you we were dorks) we watched Lost on DVD, which M. had rented on his way home. You see, friends had loaned us the first one and a half seasons, and now we're kind of hooked, and we had to know what was going to happen, so now we're renting. It's a vicious cycle. A perfect end to a perfect day.

And a perfect beginning for the last year of my twenties! Since every year of my life has been even better than the last, I am wholeheartedly looking forward to this one.

07 May 2007

The bride and groom wore white

I'm eating a restaurant lunch with M. and looking around the room at forty other people, all identically dressed, like us, in white bathrobes and slippers. I'm wondering why everyone is acting like this is so normal, but then I remind myself not to ogle and to play it cool. Sure, bathrobes. Right on.

Was I hallucinating? Having one of those weird dreams where the line between public and private is crossed, repeatedly? No, actually this scenario is perfectly explicable, and true: we went to Spa this weekend. Not just "a spa," but "Spa," the town in Belgium where the word spa comes from! And also where they bottle the Spa brand water, which comes in three versions: non-sparkling blue bottle (Reine), "naturally sparkling" green bottle (Marie Henriette), and sparkling red bottle (Clementine). After quaffing several of the green bottles, we noticed that the fountains labeled Marie Henriette throughout the spa? Their marble was covered in RUSTY ORANGE-BROWN GUNK. One assumes that this water has been scientifically proven to be safe and all, given that people have been drinking and bathing in it for, um, centuries, but: orange gunk?

This trip to spa was a wedding gift from one of our friends who had given us a "day at Spa" gift certificate, which we only now finally got around to using. Goes to show how our weekends have been this year--you'd think we'd immediately find a day to spend being pampered and shuffling around in white bathrobes and ingesting spa water. But it took ten months. Still, it was just the right moment, because my birthday is tomorrow, and so it was kind of like a post-wedding pre-birthday thing.

Spa is situated in the Ardennes, close to the German and Dutch borders, and it took us two hours by train to get there. The modern spa facilities are at the top of a hill overlooking the town, so we got to take a cute little funicular that brought us to the top. Once we signed in, we were ceremoniously given the bathrobe and slippers that we were to wear the whole day, plus a little chip that we wore around our wrists--holding it up by the doors gave us access to the areas denied to the regular pool-goers. Our treatments and lunchtime had already been scheduled, so all that was left to us was to show up on time for the treatments and to figure out what to do in between.

First up, I had a "douche thermale." Now, in English, this sounds really scary, I know, but "douche" just means shower in French, so don't worry. Actually, though, it was a bit more unpleasant than I had anticipated. I was made to stand in a sort of round marble alcove like some Venus on a half shell in a bathing suit (and yes, the marble was yet again stained ORANGE-BROWN), and a "spa technician" aimed a powerful hose at my nervous self. The thing HURT! He sprayed up and down my legs (I was sure I'd have bruises), then my stomach, arms, sides, and back. The force of the water nearly pushed me forward, and my arms moved involuntarily when he sprayed them. It only lasted ten minutes, and I was kind of relieved when it was over. He asked if I wanted to repeat the process with cold water, and I emphatically shook my head NO. It was bad enough with the water at its natural temperature of 32 degrees celcius.

So I was relieved to exit the douche thermale and find M, who had been enjoying a "bain carbogazeaux" (more on which later). We strolled over to the "relaxation room" where we first stretched out on wooden chaise longues with panoramic views over the town of Spa, and then entered a pitch-black area with black lights, "soothing" music (you know, the rushing water, twittering birds, swooshing chords, yoga-meditation type) and piped-in aromatherapy (something a bit too piney for my taste). The chairs were awesome, once we figured out how to use them: you could tip back and be suspended in the air, perfectly cradled. Under the black lights, you can hardly see anything except rows of bizarrely glowing bathrobes and slippers, all eerily hanging in the air. Before we knew it, time for our next appointment: massages!

I had been having a sore neck and headaches last week, so I was really amped for the massage. It was excellent, but unfortunately, didn't feel like she really worked the neck area, and also the bed didn't have one of those face-holes, so my neck was twisted the whole time. M. had a face-hole for his, but he had the same reaction to the lack of force of the massage. We concluded that the masseuses probably don't dig in super hard unless directly instructed to, because if they did they would be exhausted by the end of the day. Still, I came out feeling like jelly, and so it was a perfect time for lunch, a really nice soup and salad buffet, and the scene of the bizarreness that is a group of adults refinedly eating in their bathrobes.

After lunch, we went swimming. The indoor/outdoor pools really are awesome, sort of like a water-theme park but without the cheesy fake palm trees and cartoon characters. Lots of different areas that bubble up and splash and do fun things at different times, pipes that pour water over you, or cause waterfalls that you can duck under. And jacuzzis! The water was a perfect temperature (I think the same 32 degrees as the shower), and we had a great time swimming around and floating (was it just me, or was the water more buoyant than normal water?) and dunking and laughing and intertwining.

Then it was time for our last appointment. M had a "bain niagra," which was basically a sort of jacuzzi bath, and I had the "bain carbogazeaux" that he had had in the morning. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to take a bath in your favorite brand of sparkling water? In a gleaming copper tub? With a view of treetops and sky? Well, let me tell you: it's wonderful. All the little bubbles burble up around you calmly, making those cute tiny little splashes on the surface. Behind my back, the bubbles would get trapped, and then come chuckling up all at once. The little pearly bubbles collected all over my skin, so I could trace shapes and letters on my stomach or arm by erasing them with my finger. The water was warmer, at 36 degrees, and boy, those twenty minutes felt like five. I was resentful when the little beeper went off, telling me my time was up, but I also hopped out like hot potatoes because I was scared one of the spa people would come in before I had my bathrobe properly on.

We still had a large stretch of afternoon left, and we still hadn't checked out the sauna, steam bath, and progressive jacuzzis. The idea is that you heat up in a warm bath, take a sauna, hop into cold water (!), then warm, then go into the steam bath, hop into cold water (!), then warm, then warmer, with rest periods between each. Here's what I did: warm bath, check. Sauna, five minutes. (The whole time I was freaking out because I felt like I couldn't breathe and that my lungs were being scorched.) Cold bath: toes dipped in. (EEE!) Warm bath: aaaaaaaaah. M went into the steam room but I stayed put, feeling like I had done my part. You know, for the collective sauna-Northern European thing.

While he finished the whole process, I went back to the "relaxation room," and promptly fell sound asleep. (We had gotten up at 6:30 am to catch our train in the morning.) When M woke me, about forty minutes later, he had to seriously shake me to bring me back to consciousness. Maybe I need a "relaxation room" in our house.

To finish off the afternoon, we had some rosehip tea, and made moon-eyes at each other, all swoony with our day of relaxation. After a hot shower, and dressed again, I felt like I could barely walk. Also, I was quite the internal furnace, what with all the warm waters; it took a good hour or two before my body temperature went back to normal. We took the funicular back down to the town, wandered around and then caught the eight o'clock train to Verviers and then on to Brussels.

I kind of miss the bathrobe.

Ten things I miss about America

Here's the caveat: I think if I made a list of the things I don't miss about America, it would be a lot longer. A lot. Oh and also? My family and friends are what I really miss, more than all of these things together, and since it's not really a "thing," it's not on the list.

I guess I've been thinking about America because I'm going there! In three days! To see the new baby niece or nephew who is going to be born, possibly on my birthday! To deliver a very great, but as-yet unfinished paper at a conference! To attend a cousin's wedding and hang out with the humongous clan that is our family! Ahem. Yes, the ten things:

1. Front porches. I suppose there are places in Europe where people have front porches, like maybe on farms? But mostly, not so much. I miss the big front porch of the House of Love in Bloomington, which had a saggy green velvet couch where we would sit in the fall and spring and read the things we had to read (being English dorks and all), and watch the people rattle by in their muffler-less trucks and motorcycles (being Indiana where there are no car inspections and all) and that scruffy shirtless sunburned guy with a big belly and tiny shorts and a bandana around his neck who would ride by on his bicycle every day, his knees akimbo because it was too short for him. And I miss sitting on the wicker furniture on the front porch of my parent's house in Vermont, which in the summer is just blanketed in my mother's flowers.

2. Cinnamon gum. Did you know that Europeans don't chew cinnamon gum? I bet you didn't! Now you do. Cinnamon Trident is my favorite, and I stock up in the US. I gave some to a friend the other day, and she screwed up her face and wasn't happy about the burning sensation in her mouth.

3. Public radio. Yes, I can stream it online, which is fine and dandy. And yes, I can upload a whole bunch of NPR podcasts and listen to them. All of which I do. But there's something disappointing about being six hours away, and hearing Morning Edition in the afternoon, the morning weather in the evening. Some evening shows will play in the wee hours of the morning. Thus, the podcasts, but they are also sadly disconnected from all of the little bits and pieces that surround them; you can, for example, choose to hear a whole bunch of NPR snippets about food. But what you miss out on is the serendipitous: I love public radio for introducing me to music I would never otherwise hear, to news I would never otherwise know about, to voices I would never otherwise listen to. Self-selection sort of wrecks that.

4. Grocery store baggers. Here, after your groceries come through the checkout chute, they land in a postage-stamp sized area, where you scramble to shove them into bags yourself, and get your wallet out and pay, all at once, because there is barely room for one bag, let alone several. And when the purchases of the next person in line come barreling down the chute while you are still fumbling with your purse or stuffing the bananas into that grocery bag, there is nowhere for them to go, and everything gets jumbled and the next person gets annoyed. I think the unwritten rule in Europe is that you buy five or less items at any given time.

5. Shoes in my size. I have a hard enough time finding shoes for my size 11W feet in the States. But here, it is impossible. The upper limit of what some stores have in stock, and this only rarely, is size 42, and I can only sometimes fit into a 42, depending on the brand. So I guess I am fated to do all of my shoe shopping Stateside.

6. Yard sales. Pop quiz: Q. What do people do with used furniture and used clothes here? A. They leave it on the curb. There are a few thrift store-type places, but they are oversaturated with goods, and I think they are considered to be for "the poor" to shop, not anyone who thinks reuse/recycle is a good thing (or one man's trash is another man's treasure). We had a houseful of furniture in Barcelona to give away, and no one could take it. Where did it end up? On the curb for the trash truck. It's disheartening. There is no such thing as the yard sale phenomenon, because first of all, no one really has a yard, and second of all, the whole concept is quite alien. I think in part, or in the past, people tend to buy and use their things more carefully and keep them longer, but this is changing, what with 5-euro shirts at H&M and 3-euro lamps at houseware stores.

7. Religious freedom. This may sound strange, being that the states of Europe, like America, are democratically pluralistic, and nominally, one can practice any religion one likes. However, I have the feeling that, more than in the US, there is a deep secularism and a real skepticism about religion. This is in part understandable, given, to take just one example, what the conservative Catholicism associated with Franco did to Spain. Those kinds of legacies play out in many ways, but in part results in fewer young people involved in Christianity, and also the embattled stance towards practicing Muslims, as seen in the veils-at-school debate. Increasingly, religion of whatever kind is seen as something belonging to immigrants, to "others," faith seen as something suspect and dangerous, and not something positive, something that brings people together. When in the US, I feel that people who don't share my beliefs are at least respectful and even curious about them, but here, the attitude is more of derision and even anger. Fortunately, we have been lucky to find some wonderful spiritual communities where we are living, but the sensation is that these are fewer and farther between than in the land of born-again Bush.

8. Black beans, decent salsa, refried beans, good tortillas...oh wait. What I mean is, I miss Mexican food! And I miss Annie's Macaroni and Cheese. I discovered a little "American" shelf at one of the grocery stores here. The food that is on it is: marshmallows, peanut butter, marshmallow fluff, barbecue sauce, brownie mix, Hershey's chocolate chips (6 euros a bag!), real vanilla extract, Arm and Hammer baking soda, Old El Paso enchilada sauce, salad dressing, microwave popcorn. I wasn't really excited about any of those things except the vanilla extract and the outrageously expensive chocolate chips, but it's an interesting portrait of someone's idea of American food.

9. Space. Now, generally I think it's a good thing that Europeans have found how to live compactly. It's better for the planet for us not to assume that we can use up as much space as we want, from big SUVs to big houses to lots of trash and the space to bury it, from big box stores to things spaced farther apart so we have to drive to get there. But... I sometimes miss the feeling of openness that exists, even in cities, in the US. I miss not having to squeeze in everywhere.

10. The right to complain. And doggy bags. And free water. These are grouped together because they all have to do with restaurant etiquette. The last of them I've basically gotten over, but it also means I end up drinking less water when we go out, because if a glass of wine is the same price as a glass of water--what am I going to order? The second means that I eat more, because there's no taking it home. Fortunately portions are more reasonably sized. And the first one is related to the fact that waiters are paid well, which I think is a good thing. And not that I'm a regular complainer anyway. But it's the feeling that you could if you wanted to. We ate at a restaurant in Strasbourg with M's parents that we chose not for its stellar menu but because of its proximity to the train station. And after perusing the placemat menu, I announced, "this place is so American!!" What made me say so? Right there on the menu, four clues: 1. a big welcome and a free salad! 2. all-you-can-eat side dishes! 3. a note to the effect that, if your meal isn't ready on time, it's on us! 4. a note to the effect that, if you aren't completely satisfied with your meal, please let us know! It was a little dizzying, I have to say. I had the momentary sensation of what Europeans must feel upon arriving in America. Too ... much ... faux ... cheerfulness... beep beep beeeeep...

Fortunately, these ten things I can live with, especially because there are definitely more than ten things I love about living here, and thus rather tips the balance towards being happy with where we are. I remember having a discussion with my brother when we were backpacking around Europe for a month, back in 2001. He held that I wouldn't like living in Europe, and I maintained that I would. We sort of got stuck at that, and I don't remember what our supporting arguments were, but here I am, and here I will be, at least for a good while.