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Archive for the tag “Belgium”

30×30: Lesson 12: It’s about the process

I’ve written about this multiple times before, but I’ll write about it again: those two weeks in July 2010 when Lynn Palermo and I backpacked in western Europe in order to follow what had been the Western Front of World War I.

Those fifteen days beneath France’s cloudless skies still rank among some of my most eye-opening and humbling experiences. Lynn and I had begun our trek in Dunkerque, France (after not having seen each other for a year or so), then carried on to Ypres, Belgium (a city that was 90% destroyed in battle), and entered back into France by foot. From Amentières to Reims, we carried our packs along shadeless highways and between beet fields, zigzagged from village to village by following the church steeples, and stumbled over cemeteries tucked in forests and chapel yards.

We took the train whenever it was most logical, washed our clothes in hotel sinks, asked for directions and occasionally got lost, spent hours in silence only to pass hours more by singing, and cooled off in the dairy sections of grocery stores whenever the heat got too intense. We talked with strangers, slept in the shade, biked through forests, and wandered around public squares.

And I fell apart.

I wish this post was about the lessons I learned amid the grass-grown trenches, the damp caverns, or the threadbare villages with memorials to their fallen sons — although those places did provide strong, tangible evidence toward the pointlessness of war. (A discussion on peace merits a different post.) Instead, the greatest struggle for me during this trip was the seeming aimlessness of our wandering by foot, day after day, for hours on end, not knowing exactly — although this was the point — where or when we would land.

It was in Compiègne, France (where the Armistice was signed) when Lynn asked me what was wrong, and I blurted out that I really wanted to make a plan. Did she have any expectations for dinner? Did she wanted to remain in Compiègne for two nights or did she want to leave tomorrow? Where were we going afterward — was it Reims, or had I heard her say something about the Chemin des Dames? Was there a bus or train to either of these places? Had either of us checked the weather?

Lynn was genuinely surprised. “For me, it’s about the process, not the destination,” she said. “I’d rather not plan because then you’re open to whatever happens.”

In my life, I almost always curse the process. The training that goes before the half marathon. The schooling that comes before the degree. The climb before the summit. Too often, I brush off these moments as time wasted — obligatory dues to be filled before I can attain that which I feel I merit.

However, Lynn was suggesting that the process is almost more important than the place you end up. In other words, can the pain of the run be more important than the finish line? Can I look at the fatigue of grad school and realize that these days are actually moments to be treasured? Is it possible that I’ve already attained what I’ve been waiting for?

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

Exit Glacier, where I inscribed "It's the Process, Not the Destination" on the wall. 2012.

Exit Glacier, Alaska, where I etched the phrases “It’s the Process, Not the Destination” into the emergency shelter wall. 2012.

Not like Mom’s: Authentic Belgian waffles, Waffalonia, Pittsburgh

"The Antwerp"

“The Antwerp” with speculoos ice cream, April 2014

I happen to be intrigued by almost everything about Belgium. Geographically, politically, and historically lodged between Holland (the country that introduced me to Europe) and France (the primary country that speaks the language that I study), Belgium is the intersection of Europe at which I feel most myself. The French accent seems softer here, and the humor, brighter. In Belgium, Lynn and I began our walk along the Western Front in 2010, and I had my first argument in full-blown French (avec “vous” et tout) with a bartender in 2007. Wine as the national beverage is traded for the beer that links me to my boyfriend, and the land smooths into long wide fields that carry me back to my family’s Pennsylvanian farm.

So of course I was going to love the authentic Belgian waffles Waffalonia (Oakland and Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh), which serves up hearty, sweet waffles stunningly unlike those onto which my central Pennsylvania grandmother douses chicken and gravy. Instead, these Liège-style waffles are made from a yeast-driven dough and stuffed with imported sugar crystals that caramelize under heat.

It may be lost on many Pittsburghers that these waffles are named after Belgian cities and displayed on a menu that recalls a European railway schedule, but I used pass through Antwerp (here with speculoos ice cream and chocolate syrup) by train in 2007, and I was enchanted by the cobblestones streets of Bruges (here with strawberries and whipped cream) when I was fifteen.

Beyond the memories, the waffles are to die for. Pressed to order, the waffles are topped with fresh fruits, syrups, spreads, or locally-made Dave and Andy’s ice cream.

French student-approved

French student-approved, April 2014

Squirrel Hill
1707 Murray Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15217
(412) 521-4902

4212 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
(412) 685-4081

Magnum ice cream bars, Compiègne, France

I used to think I was accustomed to heat from growing up on the farm and unloading hay bales in high-barn heat, but that was nothing compared to this.  It was July 2010, and I was backpacking along the Western Front of World War I with my companion Lynn.  The trip consisted of walking for 10 or so miles a day and visiting still-flat battlefields, towns that had been razed, graveyards of boys younger than I — a cultural experience which taught me that people behave differently toward each other when war took place in their backyard — but I was also unprepared for the heat and France’s lack of air conditioning.  On the farm, you could work for a handful of hours then come inside to stand in front of fans spinning behind screened-in windows, but in the north of France, I could find no relief.  We would stop for a baguette sandwich at a brasserie — no air conditioning.  We’d walk into a small store selling fruits and vegetables at the end of town — only the doors were propped open.  In Compiègne, we stayed two nights in a small hostel above the Rue du General Leclerc with two windows open to a breeze which did not exist, and each night I wrapped the sheet around my knees and willed myself not to move so that I’d become cool enough to sleep.

On July 9, Lynn and I biked to the forest where the Armistice was signed that had ended World War I.  The cool of the forest and the breeze of biking brought a bit of relief, but on the way home, the heat flamed off the pavement, and my feet sweated so much in my flat shoes that I could barely keep them from falling off.  I didn’t know what to do.  I remember thinking vaguely that people who had lived before the dawn of air conditioning had survived before.

“We stopped by the river, ditched our bikes in the shade, and laid down in the grass with our hats over our faces like an impressionist painting,” I wrote in my journal on July 9.  “I was so hot that it almost was painful to move.  A slow breeze pushed the air along. A father and son fished to our left.  Downstream, the air was filled with splashes and children’s screams.  We biked reluctantly back into town and bought two chocolate ice cream Popsicles and ate them slowly in the shade. We did not talk — I was too hot to. The chocolate melted thickly and gagged in my throat, and my body oozed with it.  For the first time in life, I sucked on the ice cream, drop after drop, because I needed to savor.”

When there are no easy options to becoming cold, you have to resort to the techniques of older times: lemonade, sprinklers, and swimming pools. For Lynn and me, this meant that we’d eventually stand up and bike to a French store called a Monoprix and linger by the refrigerated cheese section, me carrying a 4-pack of yogurt around on my arm that I never intended to buy and rubbing pinches of salted ice from the fish display on the back of my neck.

But I will most remember the Magnum ice cream bars, Belgian chocolate ice cream bars which were recently introduced to the US, and how Lynn and I had shared ice cream not just on that day but also on others: ice cream (after we’d tasted the famed, monk-brewed beers) at the Abbaye de St. Sixtus outside of Westvleteren, Belgium; ice cream that we ate on the edge of a French small town that I no longer remember, ice cream in Albert, France, after touring the small but good Somme 1916 Trench Museum.

A few days ago, I ate a Magnum double chocolate bar, purchased from Target, anticlimactically in my apartment after a few solid hours of cleaning.  This time, it was more of an indulgence than a method of cooling down — thick chocolate ice cream with fudge rimmed with a double wall of Belgian chocolate. However, when I bit into the bar to test the chocolate by its crunch, I could still hear the echo of the gravel beneath our hiking boots.

Albert, France, July 2010

Albert, France, July 2010

Friday Photo: Bruges and the Belgian Friterie

Belgium, February 2008

I was fifteen when I first tasted it: French fries “drowned in” mayonnaise, as explained by Vincent Vega in the 1994 movie Pulp Fiction.  It was a Sunday afternoon in Holland in July 2000; my brother Chris and I were visiting my three cousins, and my uncle allowed us to watch TV while munching on our lunch of oven-baked fries and slim finger-length sausages.  My cousins eagerly dipped their food into mayonnaise that they’d squeezed from a tube, and I tried it, too — the greasy, salty fries pleasantly warming the sweet mayo into an altogether-new taste sensation.

Little did I know that years later, I’d be back in Europe in 2008, sharing the double-fried fries with my boyfriend from a paper cone on the street of Bruges, Belgium, as mentioned Friday, February 24 in the New York Times.  This time, however, I was more adventurous, choosing the curry sauce, the mayo and relish, and pickles on the side.  I love the picture above not just because the shopkeeper of this Belgian friterie is … er … clearly gearing up to make our order; I love the photo for its imagery.  The colorful array of French fry condiments are in large glass jars in the case next to raw meat patties, pre-rolled for frying; on the left side of the case is the line-up of cold drinks including Jupiler beer.  The offerings of sandwiches and fried fricadelles are written in Dutch on the back wall.

While Dutch and Belgian food can be elegant, this photo shows another side of Europe — the one that is not built up by our imagination into something too pretentious to handle.

Cafe Bruges
16 North Pitt Street
Carlisle, PA 17013

(717) 960-0223

Sun–Thu 11:30am–9:30pm
Fri–Sat 11:30am–10:30pm

Friday Photo: Markets Around the World

I am fascinated by stores: sparkling cheap jewelry made to look expensive only in bright lighting, polished plates in geometric shapes, the shelves of spices in the baking aisle, the spines of new books.  I adore entering a Sheetz and twirling amid the Twix bars to my right, and suddenly being distracted by the Chex Mix to my left then realizing that I could buy any flavor of Red Bull that I want.  I don’t even know if Red Bull has flavors, but it doesn’t matter!  It’s all within reach!  Look at the colors!!  Everything’s possible!!!

On this Black Friday, it would seem appropriate to comment that I’m an ideal shopper, except for the fact that I only love looking at stores, not buying the products within them.  In my opinion, a group of people can be best understood through the act of buying and selling, because this action discloses a culture’s needs and priorities, perceived or otherwise.  In Chile, stores selling similar products are located in the same area of the city — a mall of hair salons, an alley of hot dog vendors, a street of antiques — to increase efficiency.  In France, bakeries open early because fresh bread is bought almost daily. In Italy, I’ve heard that it’s bad luck for a street vendor to lose his first sale of the day, so he’s often willing to negotiate for a lower price.  In Trinidad, boiled corn, still in the husk, is available on the side of the highways — you just veer off on the shoulder and roll down your window.  When buying and selling, convenience, need, creativity, and want all come into play.

On Black Friday in 2007, I was stuck on a crowded train between Luxembourg City and Brussels with a woman who was on the phone directing a jewelry purchase in New York.  Today, however, in honor of my friend Kara who posted a similar set of photos on her blog, I post a few photos of markets around the world, where what’s on sale reflects somehow we somehow all live through our consumerism — for better or for worse.

buying breadfruit in Trinidad

shopping district in Lille, France

cheese market in the Netherlands

calves for sale at the Greencastle Livestock Market in Greencastle, Pennsylvania

buying morning newspapers in Santiago, Chile

Friday Photo: Doritos Birthday Love

“What do I find priceless about [Pennsylvania]?  Fall colors.  Open spaces.  School buses.  Soft cookies.  Bacon.  Beautiful Hollywood cinematography.  Swedish fish.  DORITOS NACHO CHEESE.”
–  my journal, March 8, 2008, Talange, France


In the course of human events, I’ve learned that my deepest life loves seem to be more evident to me when I’m abroad.  I remember sitting on my creaky wrought-iron bed in my apartment in Talange, France, with my journal splayed open before me, thinking, “Yeah. I could KILL for Doritos.  Like, right now.”

But I’m not abroad, not right now anyway.  I’m living a moderately-controlled, semi-normal life, with a structured job teaching grammar.  But what I’ve found is that my secret passions, the ones you don’t bring up in polite conversation, still come out — in my grammar sentences, of all things.

“You see,” I say, facing a class and beaming, “‘Doritos’ is plural.  So when acting as a subject, ‘Doritos’ would have to be paired with the plural verb, such as in the sentence, ‘Doritos are my favorite snack.'” I write the sentence on the whiteboard in squeaky black marker.  “What if you flip it around?  ‘My favorite snack is Doritos’?  Then Doritos becomes the predicate nominative, making the verb agree with the subject, which is now singular.  Neat, huh?!”

But to be honest, I’m not the type of person that has a stash of Doritos snack bags in the pantry for lunches every day.  I’m not even the one always responsible for those bright sparkling bags of chips that show up mysteriously at your appetizer table, the bags that I always somehow seem to finish.

I rarely even buy Doritos.  Except for that time in 2008 when I was in the deserted town of Beersel, Belgium, with my boyfriend Jon, and we noticed that Spicy Thai Chili Doritos were actually sold in Europe.  (I seized one bag which we shared for lunch with some pigeons and a bar of chocolate.)  Or that time that when Jon and I accompanied Anne Timothy to Newark Airport at 2:00 in the morning, and I made Anne buy us Doritos when we stopped for gas.

Today, my eighth grade students surprised me with a gift for my upcoming October 12 birthday: six brightly-colored bags of Doritos in multiple flavors, which they insisted I “save for later” while they divvyed up the streamers and chocolate icecream pudding cake.  As they ate, they were surely thinking merrily about Doritos as direct objects and objects of preposition, receivers of the action in passive voice and givers of the verb in active.

But I was thinking about the Doritos, and how maybe my students know something I don’t acknowledge.

When teaching, I am in denial of a lot of things: the constant worry that I’m interesting, the worry that I really don’t know what I’m talking about, the concern that I’m nothing but a French grammar Eiffel Tower freak.  I acknowledge openly to a lot of people that teaching is a tiring job, sometimes too tiring.  But despite this, I also deny that I secretly love having a classroom because through it I have the ability to share with my students what I don’t share with other people who are close to me: stories about growing up, the fears I held in high school, the poetry I wrote at age 15.

I know my students through their behavior, attitudes, and grades, but they also know me, too: the lies I told my sister Andrea about eating soap (and how this relates to trust), the emails I get in my inbox (and how the grammar of some of them helps me detect fraud), the difficulties of teaching in France (and how French relates to English).

As I teacher, I overemphasize and underemphasize facets of myself in order to make a point.  But with a gift of Doritos, my students pinpointed something different: that they knew me too in a different way than some.  By giving me a gift of a part of myself that I thought was an exaggeration, I realized that they had found a truth.  I was excited to have six bags of Doritos for my very own.  Like, I’ve-been-stranded-in-France-for-six-months excited.

“What am I supposed to do with all these?” I asked the students, feigning confusion.  “Save them for the Super Bowl?”

Yes, I thought.  The Super Bowl.  American upon American.

I opened a bag of my sacred Spicy Thai Chili, took a handful, and humbly passed the chips to my left: breaking bread with those who had read me between the lines.

Doritos Birthday Love, October 2011

Tales of Pennsylvania Peppermint

A few months ago, I bought a tall can of organic dried peppermint from the Broad Street Market and tucked it into my cabinet next to the espresso machine.  I think I bought the peppermint tea purely out of nostalgia. I hadn’t drunk mint tea in years.  I, in posh old age, had graduated to chicer beverages like green tea or French pressed coffee, or–my usual at The Scholar in Harrisburg (the only place where I have a “usual” of anything)–an americano.  In 2005, I had learned to drink coffee on my aunt Colleen’s back patio in Holland while eating some gourmet European chocolate dessert and watching the sun set, and afterwards, I used to boast that learning to drink espresso was somehow intimately connected to growing up, alongside other admirably adult tasks like learning to eat with chopsticks or driving aggressively in heavy traffic.

But mint tea was actually my first hot beverage. About every other morning when my farming father got up early to milk cows at 3am, my mom would treat our entire family to a big breakfast–“dippy” eggs, toast, and homemade strawberry jam.  She had one flowered teapot that she’d fill with dried mint leaves picked from bank at the end of our lawn, and she’d fill a teacup and place the sugar bowl next to my plate.  Cradling the cup of weak-colored liquid in my palms, I’d sit with my siblings on the kitchen heat register that pumped the room full with boiling warmth.  I’d wonder what could ever be better in the world: I had a family around a kitchen table lit with yellow light, the sweetness of pink-red jam, and the way the butter-soaked toast buckled beneath the weight of egg and yolk.

In the summer, my mother would pluck fresh tea leaves from the bank and boil them in an open kettle on the stove, eventually filling a pitcher with the sugared liquid and ice cubes as a breeze fringed with the smell of cut alfalfa blew in and out of the kitchen screen door.  In July, when my grandmother picked sweet corn to sell by the dozen under the shade trees in front of my cousins’ farmhouse, my brothers, sister, cousins, and I capitalized on the increased in traffic and sold the same cold mint tea in plastic cups for 25 cents each.  One year later, when we set up the business again, we adjusted the price to 30 cents for inflation.

My older brother Chris once gathered armfuls of mint leaves and spread them on newspaper in our garage like my mother would lay out peaches to ripen, and when the tea dried, he packed the leaves carefully into plastic freezer quarts and stashed them somewhere for my mother to use.  For the rest of my junior high and high school days, dried mint tea seemed never-ending, like the Biblical story of the woman with the bottomless jar of oil which provided everything for her until she had no more pots left to fill.

But my parents eventually graduated to Eight O’Clock Coffee and I to chai lattes and Maxwell House International Cafe Decaffeinated Sugar-Free Swiss Mocha, piling the red-lidded tins around my dorm room to display my intellect and my taste in fine things.  Tea bags marked my growing up which then were replaced by fair trade coffee in wide-mouthed mugs at the Kind Cafe in Selinsgrove, Italian hot chocolate drunk with Ellen Witoff while overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, then Vietnamese coffee at Garden Vietnamese in Harrisburg, as if beverages could map the footsteps of a departure.

In 2007, after accepting an English assistantship position in Talange, France, I bought espresso at 5:30am during my layover at the airport in Milan, Italy, due to a promise I’d made my boyfriend, and I sipped it standing up while surrounded by dark-haired businessmen.  From there, I flew to Luxembourg where I took a train north to sleep off my jetlag at my same aunt’s familiar home in Holland.  When I woke up–proud and adult for having traveled from Philadelphia to Milan to Luxembourg to Brussels to Rosendaal, the Netherlands, in a single day of French, Dutch, and Italian–Colleen and I drank Dutch koffee from black and white patterned mugs while sitting again on her back patio.  Afterwards, she walked me around her backyard and garden to show me the new landscaping that I hadn’t seen in two years, and Pennsylvania peppermint was there.

I don’t really remember the details–how the plants had been brought through customs, or whether or not they’d been a gift from my grandmother–but I remember that they had been from the farm in Pennsylvania. When I moved to Harrisburg in 2009, the first gift I asked my younger brother to bring was a plant of peppermint from the bank from my family’s backyard.  He brought it to me in a grocery bag with the dirt stripped from brittle roots.  I placed it carefully in a pot in the sunroom next to the Thai basil, like a ceremony.  I just watered it a moment ago.

These days, I drink peppermint tea only at nights, especially cold ones, cupping my hands around the little black and white mugs that Colleen bought me in Holland to match hers.  I drink mint tea only with honey.  As I sip, I remember making tea in the evenings in Talange with my German roommate Tobias as the French winter wind blew desolate around our apartment.  I remember the raw honey given to me that same year by a French teacher named Catherine, who had a family member had a beehive, and how certain she had been to make sure the glass jar was always refilled when I wanted more.  I remember the Moroccan tea ceremony that was performed for me on the day before I left France in 2008, with its imported mint leaves and frosted tea glasses and ritual pouring.  I think about drinking tea with Rachel Fetrow after she returned from Senegal during our junior year in college, or the tea shared with Alli Engle on the frosted winter morning when I arrived in Chile this past June.

I think about the voyages away and home again.

Metz, France, June 2010

Harrisburg, ‘Hardship,’ and Tropical Storm Lee

I have been homeless once before.

Okay, okay, not in the dirty-in-the-gutter kind of homeless, where the money in my pocket is all I have to my name and I am sprouting an unshaven beard.  And as I write this on a dreary, barely-raining day, my cat is purring in my lap and I’m sipping coffee out of a mug bought on clearance for an exhibit of Roberto Cappucci’s innovative dress designs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that ran in the spring.  But outside my window, the Susquehanna River is rising due to Tropical Storm Lee and is anticipated to crest at 29 feet by tomorrow evening, bringing the water, by some estimates, to my front porch.  School’s been canceled for today, and I have packed a suitcase to leave.

The packing process reminded me of last summer, when I stuffed all I deemed important into a hiking pack and set off with my friend Lynn Palermo on a 15-day walking trip along the Western Front from Belgium into northern France.  The walk in itself was amazing: our path curved through farmer’s fields, wound along country roads between pointed-steeple villages, marched up mountainsides, and stomped across borders.  We passed through Ypres, a Belgian city that was 90% destroyed by 3 battles; through Aizy-Jouy, a tiny French town where most of the young men were killed in combat; la Caverne du Dragon on the Chemin des Dames where the fighting took place underground, the underground tunnels chiseled at Arras to hold 24,000 men before a surprise attack.  I was stunned at the scale of destruction experienced by normal people whose descendents described the effect of growing up beside the graveyards, the effect of still unearthing shells when planting flowers each spring.

But what also struck me about Lynn’s and my trip was the process of displacement.  After day 1 in France, I knew I had packed way too much to be carrying: I had too many water bottles (read: heavy), despite the heat; too many extra snacks (also heavy), despite the need for energy.  By day 2, I had thrown away tour books, ticket stubs, any extra maps, and the heels I had cut off from my insoles to make them fit better.  I think I even tossed a couple tissue packs which could have weighed, like, less than the change in my wallet (Euros are freakin heavy), but in my mind, they had become ludicrously unnecessary.  (Why would I ever have packed such silly things “just in case”?  Well, if I ever came to a toilet without toilet paper, well, I’d figure out a way around it, that’s for sure.)

But when you are carrying the weight of your possessions, your mentality changes.  Every item which I kept in my pack was selected deliberately, a process which whittled my belongings down to what I deemed essential: my journal, my camera, one water bottle, a rotation of clothes, some toiletries, and my portion of food. On day 3, I was longing to be among those who had a key to their own apartment and who slept in the same place every night, but by day 15–when we walked into Reims, France, the city of champagne and the crowning of French kings, I abhorred the idea of owning more than what I had on my back.  I had determined my difference between luxury and necessity.  I realized I was capable of living with very little, less than I’d anticipated.  It was liberating.

When I packed this morning, it’s too easy to say that I packed the sentimental (a tin box with stones from Ireland, my journal that my sister purchased in China that I filled with writings on Chile) along with the necessity (clothes for school, toothpaste, ungraded eighth grade essays).  Of course I did.

But what I noticed this morning, my choosing what to leave and what to take–just like my act of packing for voyages before–wasn’t a panicked take-only-what-you-can-carry.  My packing took over 3 hours with a couple of coffee breaks with Roberto.  I am not in a refugee camp in Kenya.  I am not fleeing as bombs are dropped on my home.  I am not displaced for my ethnicity or religion.  I’m not even one of the residents evacuated from Shipoke this morning, and, frankly, I have enough money to buy a night in a hotel room or Chinese take-out or a half-gallon of Turkey Hill graham slam if I find my relatively-undramatic situation too depressing.

Layers of luxury still shield me from true deprivation.

When reading Robinson Crusoe with the 11th grade lit class last week, I asked them to consider the commentary of Rick Steeves in his book Travel as a Political Act, which states: “In the midst of relative affluence, Americans seem to operate with a mindset of scarcity–focusing on what we don’t have or what we might lose.  Meanwhile [impoverished people] embrace life with a mindset of abundance–thankful for the simple things they do have” (89).

I then asked the eleventh grade to consider the Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor.”

I had meant to show them the lesson that I already learned.  But now, sitting with my suitcase and car keys and an empty mug, I ask myself if I am still willing to do the same.

north of Reims, France, July 2010

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