Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Belgium's Secret Garden

 Dear Belgium,

It’s taken over two years to gather the courage to express how I feel.  I’ve often found myself struggling to identify and understand your unique qualities.   The weather mimics your peculiar ways.  In one moment you’re happy and full of sunshine, and then, with a slight twist your mood shifts.  Often your streams of light are replaced with dropping temperatures, followed by rain, and on some occasions, as if trying to make a point, you spit hail. You have perplexed me, Belgium.

She’s got a secret garden
Where everything you want
Where everything you need
Will always stay
A million miles away

Secret Garden by Bruce Springsteen…. 

You draw me close only to ultimately push me away. In our two year relationship you’ve reminded me of the multitude of emotions we humans possess.   Like the day you sent an unexpected stranger into my home.  Or what about the day you gifted me a water leak in my kitchen that rivaled Niagara Falls (and took a year to be remedied)?  And what gives with the astronomical water bills that followed?   And what about last Christmas?  Remember the grumpy Belgian postman you delivered to my door that gifted me a bill and a slip of paper to pick up a package.  Do you remember what happened when I showed up to pick up my parcel?  I was told there was no room to hold my box marked “Christmas Gift”, so it was shipped back-to-sender.  My sister’s painting traveled across an ocean, just for you to smugly turn it away. 

 But here is the thing, just when I think our relationship has reached the brink, just when I think  you’ve gone too far, you hold out your hand and offer a breath of respite and compassion. 

When I feel defeated and beaten, and want to pack up my bags and leave, you display an affection that warms my heart and makes me forget the discomfort you’ve caused.  Do you remember the random Belgian people you’ve sent my way that have reminded me how wonderful you are capable of being?  Like the day I was walking near my house and invited in to have beer with strangers?  Or the time our landlord surprised us on Christmas Eve with bread that resembled a swaddled baby Jesus?  And don’t forget the man on the tractor that helped pull our van out of the mud.  He looked like he walked right out of a Vincent Van Gogh painting.  And even the old man that stumbled into our home unannounced turned out to be a nice memory.  Suffering from dementia and having been lost for 24 hours, he had only wandered in for a drink to quench his thirst and to escape the bitter cold.  The police claimed our unlocked door had saved his life.  You sent these souls into my life knowing they would sustain and refresh my weary heart and mind.

I know I’m often guilty of wanting you to change so I can better understand your ways.  I’m sorry.

Now I can see the appeal of your secrets, the qualities that are impossible to define.  The little lines on a map that attempt to define your space have been cut, carved and walked on throughout history.  I’m just another speck. Someone passing through.  You know how this story ends.  I won’t stay.  Just as you begin to open the gates of your garden, I leave. 

Finally I see beauty in your passive stillness.  You’ve gifted me random kind strangers.  You’ve allowed me to meander through your countryside.  And you’ve introduced me to a golden (actually brune) liquid that leaves me with a foamy mustache and a goofy grin.   Your qualities could never be explained on paper - although I try.  Maybe this is part of your secret? While I may never understand your ways, I have come to respect and accept them. 

With Love,
Judy Rae

Monday, December 2, 2013

All I Needed to Learn About Belgium I Learned From a Kindergartener

In two years I’ve learned an abundance about Belgian culture and cuisine while also learning the French language.  I didn’t need to enroll in expensive classes and it didn’t take a lot of my time.  All I needed to learn about life in Belgium, I learned from a kindergartener. 

Ecole Saint Louis is nestled between a drive through liquor store and a tiny church. The two child-like figures on their signage resembles a porcelain Precious Moments figurine.  Simple and quaint are two words that come to mind.

Enrolling my three year old Isabelle into a school where neither of us spoke the language was interesting, to say the least.  The first year tears were shed.  Hers and mine.  I convinced myself we would both be okay.  It wasn’t hard to do.  The kids were cute as buttons and the teachers were always courteous and professional.  Never had I seen a classroom of such well-mannered children (which was also a flag of concern).  How would Isabelle fit in?

There were many days I felt unprepared and inadequate.  Like the day of her first field trip.  Driving up I noticed a yellow city bus waiting to pick up the kids.  Mass transit? There were two teachers and no parent helpers.  I learned quickly that it is not customary for parents to partake in their kids’ education, at least not in pre-school.  Parents are advised to quickly drop off and by no means enter a classroom a minute before school is officially over.  I’m a slow learner, it took a year of downward glances accompanied by pursed lips for me to get the message from my daughter’s teacher, Mme. Sadrine that parents should stand outside the door and wait for her to decide when class was over.  Rain, shine, sleet or snow, a parent is expected to wait.

I also learned about kissing.  After my daughter’s second week, I was pulled aside.   While it is proper to kiss, it should be reserved for the cheek.  My daughter had been going for the lips, a big no no!  And a year into school, I learned Mme. Sadrine had been holding out on me!  It took her scolding me to learn she had tucked away enough English to inform me why my daughter had been crying when I left.  Again, it was the kiss!  This time she was guilty of not giving her teacher the customary kiss on the cheek.  Mme.  Sadrine explained it’s a habit all kids do upon arrival and departure.  She felt Isabelle’s tears were brought on because she wasn’t sealing her arrival and departure with a kiss.  I left that day thinking the teacher had no idea about Isabelle’s needs.  How could she think my daughter’s sadness was brought on by the fact her mother didn’t make her kiss the teacher?  I felt like I had set Isabelle up for failure by placing her in a place neither of us understood.

Guess what, I was wrong.  I tested the teacher’s hypothesis.  I explained to Isabelle it was customary to kiss her teacher on the cheek when she arrives and leaves school.  By this small act, I’ve learned it’s how Mme. Sadrine manages her students.  The kiss isn’t necessarily out of cuddly affection, but necessity.  It announces to the teacher the comings and goings of her knee high students.  She watches them like a mother hen.

Isabelle is now into her second school year.  We have both learned a lot.  She now understands proper kissing habits.  She speaks French fluently and knows a range of Belgian traditions like: Pere Fouettard, the Easter Cloche, and Sorcieres.  She’s gone on trips to the beaches of Oostende and discovered art through various museums.  Recently she not only toured an Andy Warhol exhibit, but also created her own Warhol look-alike painting.  She’s even ventured to local farms where they sampled homemade cheese and bread.  Last week her class made pumpkin soup, tasted it, then packaged it in pretty glass jars to bring home and enjoy. 

Soon our family will attend the school’s annual Christmas fete.  A delicious dinner will follow a holiday performance by the kids, along with a visit and gifts from Saint Nicolas.  The children, along with parents, grandparents, teachers, and even the school crossing guard will be wearing smiles.  The merriment is contagious. 

I can’t help but feel good.  Not only did Isabelle and I survive the first awkward year, but we’re better for it.  Our French has improved along with a better understanding of our surroundings.   And when the Christmas Fete celebration comes to a close, Isabelle and I will both head over to kiss Mme. Sadrine’s cheek and wish her Bon soir!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Discovering Provence


M.F.K. Fisher- “When shall we live if not now?”
After living vicariously through writers like Peter Mayle and M.F.K. Fisher, I took it upon myself to shelve the books and discover firsthand the wonders known as Provence.

For lovers of wine, the drive to southern France is breathtaking from Belgium.  Dijon, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chateauneuf du Pape, and the Rhone Valley are just a few of the names synonymous with the voluptuous grape vines you’ll pass as you wind your way towards sunshine and warmth, but this trip was about something more intoxicating than a glass of maroon hued liquid.  This trip was about finding a distant memory of something out of reach for most parents with young children.  This trip was about finding Relaxation. 

Relaxation is tricky.  Just when you think you’ve found it, up pops its nemesis, Discovery.  Discovery doesn’t mean to intrude in your quiet space, but nonetheless it does.  As we visited with the owners of our rental, Isabelle and Pierre, it became obvious that we had a plethora of exciting places to discover within arm’s reach. 
Our family got into a groove, we ran ourselves silly from dusk till dawn, then retreated to the comforts of our cave in the evening.  In one week we hiked up to an 11th century abandoned fortress, enjoyed the Oceanographic Museum of Monte Carlo, where we could see both the Italian and French Rivera merging, and we sipped drinks in the Café Van Gogh, made famous by his painting called, Café Terrace at Night.  By week’s end we had also walked in the steps of nine Popes in Avignon, witnessed an eccentric man dancing on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, and munched on burgers at the newly opened Nice Hard Rock Café. 

Relaxation reared its head in small doses.  The nights were quiet as our family sprawled out exhausted from our day’s adventures.  Our 12 inch TV only picked up a few French channels and the internet was sketchy.  This allowed for our family to do something we rarely have time to do between work, school, homework, and soccer schedules.  We were able to enjoy unrushed conversations.

On the second to last day while sitting in the Café Van Gogh, my daughter accidently erased all the pictures from my camera.  Like a gazelle sensing danger, her older sister was quick to defend her younger sibling’s mistake by saying, “You know Van Gogh didn’t use cameras, he painted what he saw”.  This statement took me back nearly 20 years to a drama class in Seattle, Washington.  My professor said some events should stay within the mind, because a camera doesn’t always do a moment justice.  I think my professor was right, and lucky for us, Van Gogh did have a paint brush, and lucky for me, I’ve befriended a pen. 

Relaxation will have its moment in the Provincial sun.  One day it won’t be hard to find. I’ll most likely trip over it unaware that the passage of time has delivered it to my door step. I’ll hear it call my name loud and clear when I can no longer hear the routine sounds of four energized girls. And then I’ll wonder in fascination how I could ever have wanted to find Relaxation in Provence with a gaggle of youthful girls.

I will never forget dining on a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken under the Pont de Gard with my young ladies and their dad.  The image is ours, and ours alone.  No camera, paint brush, or pen required.  Thank you Provence for leading me to Discovery and in the process reminding me that Relaxation will come all too soon.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Living in Color


I am not a runner, so how did I find myself boarding a Saturday morning train to Brussels for a 5k run?  It’s simple.  This was no ordinary 5k and the people I would be “running” with weren’t ordinary either.  As a matter of fact, everything about the day was nothing short of extraordinary! 

I equate myself to Ferdinand, from Ferdinand the Bull.  This classic children’s book revolves around a big red bull that dislikes motion, he prefers to sit in the shade of trees while smelling flowers.  I like Ferdinand; walking and hiking suit my style.  Both allow me to get my heart rate pumping, while also allowing me the comforts of taking in my surroundings.

After learning several families from our community were signing up for an organized run that involved getting drenched, not in sweat, but with color, my interest was perked!   I discovered this run was different, as a matter of fact, running was optional.  There would be no timing.  And tutus and fedoras were optional. Nearly everyone participating would begin in a white t-shirt.  Along the 5k path there were five archways, each marking one kilometer.   As participants would near each archway, their ears would be greeted by upbeat musical tunes.  As they passed through, lines of Color Run folks would throw and spray colored powder onto anyone and everyone that entered their pathway.  By the end it would look as though bags of Skittles had exploded onto each and every participant!  As if this fun quirky event weren’t enough, I also learned the motivation behind so many families attending. 

Jan Workman.  Her name precedes her. I would like to say I know Jan personally, but I’ve only admired her from a distance.  She’s an active force within our community.  She’s involved in a Lifesaver assortment of activities.   I’ve often thought of turning her into a verb, “Don’t push me or I’ll go Workman on you!” 

Mrs. Workman’s stamina and persistence have trained her for another kind of race, the race against breast cancer.  She now finds herself keeping busy with chemotherapy and doctor appointments.  I don’t like the combination of words: breast and cancer.  Having been exposed to their ruthless behavior in the past (two of my aunts are breast cancer survivors) I want this medical term to feel small and defeated, I want it crushed!

What better way to crush the pavement than to have Jan Workman and loyal friends and family join in the Color Run in Brussels!   This event embodies the woman we had all gone to support.  There was a youthful spirit, positive energy, and enough colors to turn a rainbow green with envy.  Not unlike Mrs. Workman, the event was full of personality and attracted the masses (some 10,000 attended).  More importantly it reminded me why sometimes we have to coax our inner Ferdinand to stand up and move.   This woman of wonders is taking the bull by the horns and marching forward, and in the process, adding color to the world surrounding her. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Taylor Brush on Tap

His goofy grin, wisps of unmanaged curls, and curious nature might have you mistake him for an absent minded professor.  While he may not hold a doctorate degree, he does profess a love for the libation that is synonymous with Belgium, beer.   If you’re looking to brush up on your local beer knowledge, let me introduce you to an expert, Taylor Brush.

To say Mr. Brush is passionate about Belgian beer is an understatement.   He fondly remembers fishing with his dad on the lakes in South Carolina and being introduced to Yuengling beer (Yuengling & Sons is the oldest operating brewery in the US).  As time progressed, his college years not only educated his mind, but his palate as well.  With a nostalgic grin and a slight southern drawl he likes to reminisce about his early appreciation of Bass Ale while his college friends were cradling the cheaper, more readily available Milwaukee’s Best.  His taste buds matured over the years, but one thing has remained constant, his passion in attempting to understand the complexity and history in each beer.

 It would take moving to Belgium for him to truly begin to understand just how complex and unique Belgian beer can be.   Crossing an ocean not only gave him a new stamp on his passport, but he also gained an introduction and stamp of approval from notable beer expert and author Tim Webb.   Mr. Webb has published numerous award winning books on Belgian beer and was even asked one year to be an official taster of Westvleteren. These two creative minds teamed up a few years ago and created a documentary, “Beer Amongst the Belgians”.  If you love history and beer, this is utopia!  It provides insight into the communities and individuals that have passed down centuries of time honored traditions.  Along the way of discovering what makes Belgian beer unlike any other, it also weaves through the humanity behind your honey, amber, or chocolate hued beverage.  After viewing you’ll have a better understanding of the Belgian people.  Not unlike a good Belgian beer, the documentary will have you salivating for more (additional episodes are in the works!).

On three occasions I’ve experienced a beer tasting hosted by Mr. Brush.  Each tasting is tailored and unique. The host does a nice job taking into consideration your tastes and interest. In addition to sipping 10-12 different Belgian ales, you’re also given a personalized flier that summarizes each of the beers on tap.  This added touch is considerate while also informative.  If you’re looking for an extra special evening, you can also hire Mr. Brush to pair beers with a three course dinner prepared with beer from the tasting menu.  He cooks everything at his home, then brings and serves it to you and your guests.   Last year for my husband’s birthday I surprised him with both the meal and pairing. The flavorful steamed clams, chicken waterzooi, and dark chocolate mousse still linger.  As if the beer tasting, food, and Taylor’s passion for Belgian beer weren’t enough, he even provides and brings home most of the dishes! 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Brussels in Bloom

Local artist, Patricia Couton captures on canvas what I love about Brussels.  Viewing her paintings I feel like a kid in a candy shop. The colors are vibrant and alive, just like the city she paints.  Every door is a door waiting to be opened.  Ms. Couton is currently working on a book that uses notable landmarks within her artwork to guide visitors around the city she now calls home.

To see more of her work you can view the following blog... 


Tuesday, August 13, 2013


Driving up to the structure I’m taken by the landscape.  Everything is in balance.  The building is shaped in concentric squares and rectangles.  I notice the mix of white and silver, at times the two seem to immerse and appear opaque.  The green lawn surrounding the building offers a nice contrast to the subtle shades of haze.  The sleek, grey concrete walkway unfolds in a whimsical curvy design as you make your way to the entrance.  The grounds at one time were a coalmine; the walkways mimic the tunnels beneath the surface.  

After passing through security you’re engulfed in a large space containing several glass circular pods housing different social areas of the museum.  The one called “Picnic” has several tables and is used by guests that have choosen to bring their own sack lunches.  The space offers a nice mix of families, couples, and students.  The museum also has a casual café (a restaurant is being built).  Another pod houses the museum gift-shop with an assortment of books in French and English, jewelry, toys, postcards and stationery.  Each pod is like a fish bowl, open at all angles for those standing outside to peek in.  

In the Grand Gallery, I’m consumed by the immensity of space.  There are no walls separating the exhibits. As you make your way toward the furthest wall, you walk through the progression of the Humanities, from 3500 BC with the Sumerians Tablet to the magnificent 1830 French painting by Eugene Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People.  If you’re struck by a particular piece of art that leaves your mind yearning for more insight, rest assured, the museum has a resource pod with additional information on their collection. 

Unlike other museums, the lowest public level provides a peek behind-the-scenes.  At the bottom of the white curved staircase, stands a long wall of glass holding relics of times past, ornate golden frames waiting to house paintings, and pieces of ancient statues, many missing limbs. I saw dusty tiles and wondered where and when their journey began, it looked like a scene from Indiana Jones or Night at the Museum. 

 Curiosity can be rewarding, especially if that curiosity leads to other curious questions.  Through places like the Louvre-Lens the mind is given opportunities to flourish.  And until the end of 2013, your chance to flourish is free.  

Current exhibition: “Europe of Rubens” through September 23, 2013

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Monday, July 15, 2013

Diana Krall

Sitting under the stars of Ghent was a woman far from home.  She spoke fondly of traveling with her two children and husband across the ocean.  Her black attire was both practical and highlighted her golden shoulder length hair.  Her flawless porcelain complexion didn’t compete with color stained lips or overdone shades of eye shadow.  The understated diamond band adorning the one closest to her heart and sapphire locket around her neck, were the only hints of sparkle other than the night sky.  Within moments, this mother traveling abroad would illuminate the crowds that looked on.  Some people need accessories to enhance what they lack, in the case of Diana Krall, her voice and dancing fingers added spark far greater than anything found over a make-up counter or within a jewelry box. 

My first introduction to Mrs. Krall was 12 years ago in New Orleans.  She strutted out in denim jeans, high heels, and a fitted black tuxedo jacket.  She immediately claimed her seat in front of a sleek, black grand piano.  With a natural grace she crossed her legs, and in one seamless motion her fingers began to tickle the piano keys.  This memory has stayed with me for over a decade.  When my 40th birthday rolled around a few weeks ago, my husband surprised me with Ghent Jazz Festival tickets.  The night reserved would offer me another glimpse into the performer I had remembered so vividly from years past.

I questioned whether she still had “it”.  In 12 years, she’s added a husband and five year old twins to her schedule.  In addition she’s, well, older.  I don’t claim to have been a rock star, but can appreciate the grueling schedule.  How has the mixture of age and a family affected what I witnessed in New Orleans?
As her lean, black clad figure made it on to the stage, she beelined for the comforts of her companion, a wood grained piano.  Shuffling around the numerous sheets of music scattered over her piano, she joked about finding the perfect song to begin the night.  The choice, “Just Like A Butterfly Caught In The Rain”.   Melodies fluttered and transcended over the crowd.  Her voice was sultry, her fingers playful.  Like a chameleon, the music determined the artist's emotions.  Mrs. Krall flirted and teased with her slow calculated rendition of Tom Waits, “Temptation”.   She nearly had me in a dream state singing Bob Dillon’s, “Simple Twist of Fate”.   The trailing word “Fate” seemed to reluctantly leave her lips, it was beautiful, heart breaking, and fading.  Amazing, with a flip of a switch, this artist would seduce the crowd with her seductive lyrics, and then between breaths, summon the casual listener to melancholy.

Mrs. Krall has used what I questioned to be limitations and transformed them into another gift.   Marriage and kids, combined with the passage of time has created an artist who knows who she is and where she belongs.  Her confidence becomes a tangible element within her performance.  While I may never possess the ability to carry a melody or play an instrument that draws the masses, Diana Krall and I do have a few things in common.  We’ve both added two heart beats to our families since New Orleans.  I too, anxiously take my seat at a keyboard.  Her keys turn out tunes, while mine, words.  Leaving the concert left me on a musical high.  More importantly, I learned future decades will bear gifts that don’t come with a price tag.  It appears, if you surround yourself with love and a love for what you do, your natural glow doesn’t have an expiration date.  

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Paris, Perfume, and Popsicle Sticks

Serendipity- a "happy accident" or "pleasant surprise"; a fortunate mistake.

In celebration of my 40th birthday I invited 40 daydreamers to join me in Paris for a cup of coffee. I’d like to imagine what I lack in height, I make up for in imagination.  They were invited to email a picture.  I would paste their photo on a popsicle stick and bring their image along with me for the day.  My goal was simple, to gift myself a birthday to remember while allowing 40 daydreamers the opportunity to visualize themselves in a quintessential Parisian scene.  The events that transpired were filled with unexpected surprises.  

First was the lackluster response.  Only 13 people provided pictures (my own mom didn’t bother to email her photo).  It was deflating.  The upside was less work on my part and fewer popsicles for our family to consume (in retrospect, this was a disappointment to my girls).  So, with a handful of paper images on wooden sticks, I left on a quest to find a picture perfect cafe in Paris for me and my daydreamers. 

We started our adventure at a cake shop in the Latin Quarter.  Unlike the name of the district, nothing about the bakery pulsed with excitement.  No signs of a fiesta. I can’t fault the cake shop for the cake’s presentation, it was exactly as I had requested over the phone, chocolate with vanilla butter cream icing.  It stood tall and regal in a shade of pale yellow. This cake was sure of itself.  It wasn’t looking for anyone’s approval.  After all, it sat in one of the trendiest neighborhoods in Paris.  The etched mirror on the wall seemed to offer it one last view of its voluptuous backside before being cut and consumed.  An employee brought over plates and a cutting knife. She was so quick in her departure, I couldn’t help but imagine her angst, not wanting to see yet another cake, so grand in stature, be consumed by strangers.  I then noticed the most important element of the cake was missing, a candle.  Not unlike my fellow companions on popsicle sticks, I too am a daydreamer. In 40 years I’ve never missed my annual wish.   Unfortunately I hadn’t brought candles and the cake shop said they didn’t have any.   Not only would my wish be denied, but the glorious cake would not meet its ending with the pomp and circumstance it so obviously deserved.  Fortunately, my 13 paper friends seemed unfazed.  We ate, snapped pictures, and without fanfare moved on.

The next stop reminded me why I love Paris.  Entering into the parfumerie Marie Antoinette is like tip toeing into a jewelry box.  In place of a twirling ballerina, stands the owner, Antonio de Figueiredo.  Behind a smile with sparkling white teeth is a man filled with a passion for perfume and the history of its origins.    If you want to know what history, gossip, and fragrance have in common, this is the place to find enlightenment.  Want to smell like Marie Antoinette or Josephine Bonaparte?  Not only can he tell you about the fragrance, but he can share with you the stories behind the creation (at times scandalous).   I sniffed a dozen fragrances before this gentleman of scents guided me like a monk on a mission to what he called, “my scent”.   As he lightly sprayed a piece of paper, he began to explain why he believed this scent in a bottle was destined for me.  He said, it was a fragrance unlike any other.  It had mysterious notes not easy to identify.  He imagined me waltzing within a lavish court ball, my hooped frocks swaying gently, while soft breezes carried my fragrance across the crowds, intriguing everyone within scents reach.  Antonio continued to tell me about the original creator of the perfume line he was convinced should sit upon my shelf.  He explained the history, which involved Queen Marie Antoinette.   With confidence, he said this perfume "would carry me through all seasons".  It wasn’t filled with overpowering notes of jasmine, roses, or gardenia, for in the world stage of perfume, these botanical scents only marry with spring and summer.   Without a doubt, I was going home with this fragrance. Antonio's poetic visual combined with the luxurious aroma looming under my nose had me sold. 

After leaving the store, I perched myself on a park bench outside the shop to reflect upon the day.  It had started dismal and disjointed at the cake shop.  The missing candle on the cake rattled me more than I care to admit.  It amplified my fears, the fear that growing another year older meant I was another year further removed from hopes and dreams.  Does the passage of time rob hearts of their natural inclination to wish on fallen stars and dandelions?  So I didn’t have 40 daydreamers, what’s in a number?  So the cake shop didn’t have candles or treat me as royal and regal as the cake they placed in front of me?  All these were out-shined by the gift I discovered while shopping within the walls of Marie Antoinette.  It wasn’t the delicate glass jar filled with liquid flowers and spices that shook me out of my pity party.  It was Antonio.  He unknowingly reminded me why I had invited others into Paris.  Behind the stores whimsical red facade was a daydreamer!  At my side, I had a pocket full of 13 eager individuals who willfully came along to share in a day filled with serendipity. 

After arriving home, I took the remnants of the half eaten cake, topped it with one pink candle, and made a wish.  The day wasn’t what I had envisioned.  Lyrical tunes from The Rolling Stones traveled through my mind before drifting off to dream, “You can't always get what you want, But if you try sometimes well you just might find, You get what you need”.