don’t poke the bear!

lonely treeI am a bear. As soon as winter arrives, I crawl in my cave and hibernate, leaving the safety of my room only when I really have to be somewhere else. In my mind, winter associates with silence, cold, emptiness, loneliness and illness. All the worst months of my life have been during wintertime. So it’s no wonder I fell into that pattern even during my year abroad. Snow arrived and suddenly I didn’t want to leave my room or talk to people or blog or do pretty much anything that didn’t involve being curled up in a blanket, drinking tea and watching endless episodes of my current favourite series. Don’t disturb the bear during the hibernating period.

Brussels

As I was cooped up in my attic room, I began to realise that I had reached the breaking point in my au pair life. Every new job seems brilliant in the beginning, you’re eager to go in and tackle everything. At some point you realise that your amazing new job has plenty of flaws you didn’t see at first. I reached that point this year, taking care of Minnie who was ill pretty much all the time and as a result didn’t sleep well. An unslept Minnie meant my workdays changed from minor challenges and going to the playground to a constant battle with a child who was too exhausted to pay any attention to what I was saying or to even care that I was trying to talk to her. Complete mayhem and lots of screaming from a kid protesting against everything. And woah, can that girl scream! Brussels Falling face first onto my bed after an especially bad workday I began wondering how can some people do this for years. I don’t mean the parents, though I have utmost respect for people who raise their kids with patience and care. I mean the au pairs – they are living in the middle of someone else’s family, they are a part of everything that goes on, be it the kids’ illnesses or relationship trouble or family trips or… you get my drift. They are not a part of the family, but they take part. How can some people do it for years? Do they not get a longing for a family of their own, something where they are all-in instead of being with one foot inside a strange family and with the other foot in some weird mixture of their new  personal life in a strange country and the life still waiting in their home country?

dried plants

I’m very grateful for this opportunity and being able to experience a completely new way of life in a new country. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely don’t regret my decision to be an au pair. I just feel that this job has a due date and I’m rapidly moving towards it. I have learned a lot here and had loads of fun. Nevertheless, I can’t shrug this nagging feeling that this is not my family, I’m an outsider and my family is waiting elsewhere. No matter how welcoming the host parents are or how much the kids love you, these are not your people.

garden path

My au pair experience has taught me that I definitely don’t want kids in at least the next four years; I’m not willing to give up such a big chunk of my own personal life for the kids. But it has also made me realise that I really need my own family life now. I don’t mean moving back to my parents’ place, I’m now way past that point. I mean starting a new family. Just me and Matthijs. The kids can follow at some later point when we are both ready for that. I’m not. Not yet. I just want my own tiny family with the man I love and our own private home where we don’t depend on the whims of others.

snowdrops

So now I wait. I still have a bit more than three months left in Brussels and I plan to enjoy that time the best I can. After that it’s time to move back to Estonia, prepare for the university exams (I have decided to start with a master’s degree this autumn) and then get ready for moving once more. I’ll temporarily get back to my parents’ place for another month and a half until Matthijs gets to Tallinn with his belongings and we can start working on the apartment that will be our home for the next few years. I will finally have my own home. I will finally be able to live with Matthijs! By that point we’ll have had 2.5 years of being in a long-distance relationship. About time to put an end to that and start living in the same country. And the same town. And the same apartment. In our own home! I’m so excited!

snowdrops(The photos in this post were taken at the beginning of February. I really thought winter was going to end then – the snow was gone, the snowdrops were showing their beautiful white blooms… but no. There were two more periods of snow after that and we’re facing another one this weekend. Whoever told me Belgium was a warm country with a short winter was lying! Still not as bad as Estonia, but I don’t care. I was promised 15-20°C for March!)

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Bianca, Brussels and lots of houses

The worst part about making new friends here is knowing that you’re only in the same town for a limited time. At some point either they leave or I leave or we both leave. I know it’s inevitable, but it doesn’t stop me from being sad that Bianca is moving back to Finland. We only got to explore two towns together! We were supposed to see so much more than Brussels and Bruges! To make sure that we would miss each other even more, we arranged a meet-up today to walk around in Brussels together and take photos. I thought it was going to be cloudy and rainy, so I left my Canon 600D home and took the tiny “soap box” instead. I regretted it dearly when the sun came out.

Palais de Justice / JustitiepaleisOur first stop was the Law Courts of Brussels (Palais de Justice / Justitiepaleis), but unfortunately the entire building was covered in scaffolding and didn’t really look that nice. The doors were open though, so we stepped inside to admire the view and check out the postcards. The prices were ridiculous and the salesperson was more interested in checking his texts than dealing with annoying customers. I still bought one though, because I haven’t sent my nephew and niece a card in ages.

the ceiling of the law courtsBiancaThe massive building stands on a hill, so we had a nice view of the town from there before descending to the lower parts in a glass elevator. There was a man playing the accordion in front of the elevator, though I didn’t even notice him at first. I have gotten so used to street musicians (though often the term “metro musician” would be more correct) that they are pretty much a normal part of town scenery to me. Most often I see them in metro trains and usually they play the accordion. I have also seen performances on flutes, violins, harmonicas and some other intruments though and the newest addition was today on my way back home when a guy walked in with speakers, put on some music and sang along.

BrusselsOur next destination was Place du Jeu de Balle / Vossenplein to lurk around at the flea market. Bianca was looking for a nice decorative glass bottle to take home with her and I wanted to find something special to get her as a present. In the end we decided on an interesting-looking hourglass that also had a compass on top of it. I hope that she will put it somewhere in her room when she is back in Finland and think of her funny little hobbit friend every now and then when she sees it.

hourglassThe golden paint is partly chipped, but that’s alright, gives it a bit more character. Bianca found a nice glass bottle as well and tried to haggle for it, as is common at a flea market. Seems like that salesman hadn’t heard of that tradition though, because his response was very snappy. I was hoping to find a nice Kriek glass from the market, but unfortunately we saw none of those. We did however see creepy skull culptures, piles of old clothes, a ton of random cups and silver spoons and some unexplainable items that we passed rather quickly.

Place du Jeu de Balle / VossenpleinPlace du Jeu de Balle / VossenpleinHappy with our findings, we continued our journey towards the south. We saw a lovely little castle and Bianca wanted a photo of me. Her request for a pose: “the most touristy pose you can think of!” I’d like to think I delivered what was asked for. I mean, I even have a bonus camera hanging from my wrist, what more can you ask for?

tourist!

I have probably mentioned it before, but I love the houses in Brussels. There are some seriously ugly ones, but in general I really like the style here. It isn’t even just one style, it’s a colourful mixture of everything you can think of. The best one from today: a house that is a tree. Or a tree that is a house. Take your pick.

house / treeThe further we got, the more expensive the houses looked. Also, the trees started looking very strange. I hope they will look more normal once spring comes and everything is green again, but at the moment they are strange bumpy creatures. Close-up, they have camouflage pattern on them.

Brussels

Brussels

bumpy camouflage tree

To finish our lovely walk, we headed back to the centre and sat down at a cafe. Unfortunately I have no idea what the name was, perhaps Bianca can help me out with that later. The prices weren’t exactly the cheapest, but everything was oh-so-good. I had a lovely quiche, apple pie and a minty mocha. I don’t normally take food photos in cafes, but this looked too good not to document. Look, my drink has fresh mint on top! Heaven.

foooodWe hugged each other and promised to try to arrange a visit this summer when she is in Finland and I have moved back to Estonia. This isn’t the last time we are seeing before she leaves though, we are going to play some board games tomorrow evening. It was how we met and it’s how we are going to say our goodbyes for now. I’m going to miss her, she has been my best friend in Brussels and I hate to see her go.

Avenue de Tervuren / TervurenlaanBecause the weather was so nice, I didn’t want to spend the entire journey back home in a metro train. So I left the underground three stops too early and had a nice walk. Notice the lack of snow! I’m so happy about that, it was a nightmare to pick Minnie up from kindergarten with the pushchair wheels doing nothing but get stuck on the snowy roads. Plus I just hate snow. But now I can have walks outside again without feeling like my nose is going to abandon me because it’s too frozen to survive. Farewell snow, glad to see you go! Actually, this was the biggest amount of snow I saw on my way back home:

farewell, snow!

Some people have still not realised that January is almost over though. There is a house on my home street with one slightly annoying christmas decoration still hanging around. And literally hanging, as you can see:

santa is fallingLet the poor santa go, he needs to return to his people. But on a different topic: I took a photo today that for me symbolises Brussels. A beautiful old building next to a construction of glass and cement next to a house being renovated next to some random house next to… and of course there’s some random stone blocks on the ground, because everything needs renovating and reconstructing. Voilà, Brussels in one image!

Brussels

why I hate trains

train station

Christmas break has ended and I’m back in Brussels, working as an au pair. The journey from Charleroi airport to Brussels was a bittersweet one. On one hand, I had said goodbye to my family, friends and Estonia and it made me want to cry. On the other hand, I was going from icy Tallinn to +8 degrees in Brussels to do the job I love, so I should have been smiling. I just stared out of the window of the shuttle bus, listened to Radical Face and tried to hold the tears back.

The entire journey lasted for 12-13 hours (bus from Tallinn to Riga, waiting at the aiport, flying to Charleroi, taking the shuttle bus to Brussels), but even despite that I was still certain that flights are better than train rides. How come? Well, I can present a list of reasons.

  • You can close your eyes once you have boarded an airplane and wake up when you land, thus making the journey seem extremely short. On the train you have to keep an eye on where you are or you might wake up in a random town in the middle of nowhere.
  •  You don’t have to stare at your belongings all the time, fearing they might get stolen. On a plane, you put most of your stuff away and the things you keep on you are under the chair and quite difficult for others to reach. On a train someone can just walk by, snatch your suitcase and jump off the train just as the doors are closing, leaving you staring at the thief while the train takes you away.
  • You don’t have to navigate the labyrinth called “a train station”. Seriously, airports are so much easier. Though this might be because I have had more flights than train journeys.
  • You can always get information in English (I’m talking about European airports though, I haven’t travelled outside Europe much). This eliminates the possibility of a situation where you’re standing in the middle of a huge train station in Paris, tired and close to tears, and still have to be able to speak perfect French because nobody understands you otherwise. Or hey, Italian train stations are fun as well! (Not.)

Want another reason for why I hate trains? I’ll tell you a story. In December I had to take a train trip from Ghent to Brussels. It’s a short trip, 35 minutes max. Worrying that I’d be late for work, I took an earlier train than I had planned. Well, that plan backfired majorly. I got on the train, it started moving… only to stop about 15 minutes later. And then there was an avalanche of announcements, each giving different information.

According to the announcements, there is a short delay, the train is returning to Ghent, the train is going to Brussels, there will be replacement transport, the train will go back to Ghent, the replacement transport is on the way, there is a disturbance on the tracks, the train will continue to Brussels, the train will take everyone to the next stop where we could catch a new train, there is a serious problem and the delay may be another hour, the police is evacuating half of the train, the train will take everyone to a different Brussels station than planned. Now try to understand that! And all the time, other trains were passing by on the tracks next to us…

Later I read from the news that three wagons got detached from a train between Ghent and Brussels. Guess which train I was on! By the way, I may have been in one of the detached wagons that was later left on the tracks, because I was asked to change wagons after we had been sitting for a bit. Everything was in Dutch though and I hadn’t slept much (I had been to a Muse concert the previous night), so it was difficult for me to grasp all the details.

Anyway, I got home three hours later than planned, cold and hungry and thirsty and needing to pee (because the train had no toilets) and I was completely late for work. I vowed then to never start liking trains, because trains suck. An airport has never reduced me to tears because I have no idea where my flight is departing from or what time it goes. It has happened several times in train stations though and I’m normally pretty good at figuring out where I have to go.

For those who want to practise Dutch and/or just see a video of that unfortunate train incident, here’s the news item: http://www.deredactie.be/cm/vrtnieuws/regio/oostvlaanderen/1.1507813

a happy christmas frog

festive frogMerry Christmas! I know I’ve been absent for more than a month, but I’ve had very busy times. Couldn’t blog on weekends as I was travelling and was too tired to blog on workdays. If I have the time during my christmas break, I’ll write all the posts I wanted to put here before. There’s plenty to post, starting from lovely photos from Antwerp and ending with a really unfortunate train ride that made me even more certain that trains are terrible.

In the meanwhile, go and check out the interview I did for Mike’s blog! (Link is here.) Mike is an au pair in Germany and his blog is a mixture of life as an au pair and the travels of a young person with some extra topics mixed in – pretty much like my own. Recently he has had a guest blogger and several interviews with other au pairs on his blog, but make sure to scroll down and read some of his own writing as well!

au pair life

In Brussels, it’s still autumn. If you compare this to my other post with autum colours, there’s been quite a change. This photo was taken a bit more than a week ago, so now the colours have changed a bit yet again, leaves are mostly orange or red (with some trees remaining yellow) and some trees have nothing left. My health seems to be the same. It’s mostly in orange or red (meaning danger-danger, ill person coming!) and sometimes retreats to yellow. I’ll probably be without any problems somewhere in spring.

My host family has been joking that they should send me to “an old people’s home, because you would suit that so much better!”… thanks! Why? Well, I either hurt my back with carrying very tired Minnie back home (15 kg is a lot for a tiny woman like me!) or some cold damp air attacked it. Anyway, I was out of business for a few days, spent it mostly in bed and crying or nearly crying from pain. When I started with work again, I had to explain to the kids that I can’t lift them or play the airplane or carousel or anything like that because my back hurts. Fortunately they didn’t test my limits much, I didn’t even have to run after Minnie with a buggy as she was kind enough to actually walk next to me when I was bringing her home from kindergarten.

How to keep kids entertained when you can’t play their favourite games and run around with them? Invent something new! Today when I bring Minnie back from kindergarten, the house will be haunted. I drew some ghosts on paper and cut them out so I could hide them all over the place and have the kids hunt for them. I have done it once before as well, they absolutely loved it. Mickey preferred daylight hunts, but for Minnie things got especially exciting when I drew the blinds and handed her a flashlight to be a proper ghost hunter. Last time there were only ten ghosts, but this time there will be ten ghosts and ten tiny colourful monsters. Minnie saw me making those last night and this morning she said she can’t wait to get home from kindergarten and gave me a big hug and a kiss. It’s great to see her so excited!

Otherwise it’s all same old. Wiping bums, emptying the potty, reading the same T’choupi book for the 54th time, running around in circles and chasing each other, watching Barbapapa cartoons for the 23rd time, drawing and painting (and of course not only on the paper…), bathing the kids and later drying the floor, cooking and then watching kids refuse eating anything because they decided they saw some carrots in the food and decided they hate carrots that day, fighting with kids over getting them dressed for going outside and later fighting over taking the jackets and mittens off… But I’m used to all that by now and usually when things start turning towards a battle of wills, I just distract them in some way or turn it into a game.

By now I have some experience in taking care of kids while I’m quite ill as well. One of the best ideas I had was to lie down on the sofa and say I’m ill, so the kids have to be doctors. I then invented some funny-sounding diseases that I had and the kids used everything they found to take my temperature, give me a lot of injections (=bumping a chestnut on me and doing a funny sound) and tie me up in bandages. All I had to do was to explain where it hurt and take the injections like a grown-up (aka making funny welping noises to make the kids giggle). And I didn’t have to move at all! Magical game.

I’m not sharing any photos of the kids, so this post has just a few random photos of Brussels. When Matthijs was visiting for the weekend, we walked around a bit and I finally saw that one canal in Brussels. It was boring. At least we saw het Kleine Kasteeltje (on the right on the photo), which is now used as accommodation for asylum seekers until their fate is decided.

We also had a nice board game evening with some people from Couchsurfing. Since we had nine people, we split in two groups to play. I was in the leading position in my group’s game (Power Grid) until the very last turn… when I realised I had made some very bad moves and ended up being the last. I’m not sure whether others were more amused by all that or pitying me. Grrh, stupid coal plants, I should have replaced them with nuclear plants earlier! The other group played Elfenland and I snapped a photo of them:

autumn leaves and the military museum

Autumn has arrived. It has always been one of my favourite seasons. Everything is colourful, I get to wear an array of pretty tights and sweaters and scarves and hats… though to be honest, I wear most of these during summertime as well. Hooray for chilly Estonian summers! Anyway, autumn has conquered Brussels. I was rather miserable for a week when it rained nearly constantly, so I found myself hoping every day when I had to pick the older kid up from kindergarten that those dark clouds would have mercy on me and stop raining for that hour.

Most of the time the clouds were merciful and allowed me to do the kindergarten trip safely. There was one time though where I ended up thoroughly soaked. The kids didn’t have much of a problem, Mickey was sitting in the pram and Minnie was on the pram stand, so I had to push both of them uphill for the entire way. I was soaked with rain and sweat by the time we reached home and my cheeks had morphed into tomatoes. Hey, at least I got a free workout!

Last week was my busiest one here so far. I had Monday off (so I had an extended weekend that I spent in The Netherlands with Matthijs, hooray for some couple time!), but I was working all other days. On the weekend, FrenchDad and EstMum left for a little weekend trip and I was alone with the kids. It wasn’t as bad as I had feared it would be, the kids behaved surprisingly well. I did not appreciate the 7am wake-up-call from them on Sunday morning, but I could deal with it. In any way, it was more pleasant than was was to come that day: breakfast didn’t seem to agree with Mickey and he ended up vomiting. On everything. Twice. Even after my jacket got washed, it still smells like puke. Maybe after the next wash it will be okay again. My laptop seems to be non-smelly again though, that’s good.

I made the most of the free time I had on some random mornings/evenings last week, getting out of the house as much as possible. One morning I decided to visit The Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History. The Dutch and French names aren’t much shorter: Koninklijk Museum van het Leger en de Krijgsgeschiedenis / Musée royal de l’Armée et d’Histoire militaire. Anyway, the museum was in the park you can see on the two photos above and the entrance was free. The latter was the main reason why I decided to visit that particular museum as I was running out of money.

The first areas of the museum were very interesting to me. Old uniforms, swords, funky-looking helmets… what’s there not to like? I mostly walked around just looking at things, since the exhibition notes were mainly in French/Dutch and the English texts were short, if they were even there. I was in no mood for brain-twisters, so I decided to be happy with just looking and no reading.

The museum looked too cluttered to me. It seemed to devalue every piece on show, because there were too many things to look at and you couldn’t really devote your attention to one outstanding piece. It was a huge collection of everything and anything army-related, but instead of feeling like a comprehensive showcase, it just resembled a messy warehouse of random items.

Some things were showcased a bit better than others, like this tricycle that belonged to King Leopold II. One of the most fascinating parts of the museum for me happened to be a bit further away though. I loved the display of old helmets. Most of them look a bit ridiculous now, but I guess they were stylish in their own time.

I enjoyed the areas of the museum that were dedicated to older times. I can’t stand guns and rockets and bombs etc, they seem cowardly and brutal to me. A good old swordfight feels more courageous and noble, it’s an honest face-to-face fight. Unless you stab someone from behind, of course. Taking what I just wrote into account, you can probably see why I didn’t enjoy the areas with newer war machines as much. Wars with swords and bows were in the distant past, but guns and tanks are too fresh and raw even for me, though I haven’t personally experienced war.

This gas mask reminded me of Sharon, my friend from Israel. She once told me that her earliest memory was being in a bomb shelter with her family, everyone wearing gas masks. This is no distant past, this is the first memory of a young woman from Israel. So this display was too close and scary for me.

There were also some actual big tanks on display, but I chose to take a photo of this small colourful machine. Even though I tried to get a photo of a big tank (it’s just outside this picture), I couldn’t bring myself to do it, besides it happened to be too big to properly fit in the frame. Having no personal experience with tanks, that display still managed to make me feel so anxious that I pretty much fled that room in hopes of finding a display that seems a bit more safe.

While wandering around between airplanes, I kept wondering how could some people stand in front of a tank to protect their country when I couldn’t even bear standing next to an unmanned and out of use war machine. Even my own father took part in a human chain protecting Tallinn’s TV tower when Soviet powers threatened it with tanks. I already had huge respect for my dad, but after seeing an actual tank with my own eyes, I respect his bravery even more.

I didn’t stay in the museum for long after reaching the areas dedicated to modern wars. It was all making me a bit too anxious, giving me vivid mental images of what war was and is like. So after just a short hour in the museum I fled, deciding to explore the town a bit more instead. As always, I returned from my expedition with a new photo of a graffiti in Brussels:

of castles and toilets

A few weekends ago I was in France. Getting to Paris from Brussels is ridiculously easy, you take a train and in 1h 15min you’re there. That is, if your train does leave when you assume it does. When I got to the train station in Brussels, I saw that my train was delayed by 23 minutes. Alright, should be enough time to get a snack and go to the toilet! Wrong. The train arrived a few minutes after the scheduled time and left shortly after that. I’m so glad I was paranoid enough not to leave the platform, so I noticed when the train pulled in. Why on earth would they say the train is 23 minutes late when the actual delay is about two minutes?

When I arrived to Paris, things got only worse. It’s around 8pm in a major train station in the capital of a big country, so one could assume the ticket office is still open, right? Wrong. I think I finally got help from a security guard who pointed me in the right direction. After some difficulties with getting the public transport ticket from a machine and some difficulties with breathing when walking to the right stop (nothing tells you better that you have arrived in Paris than strong smell of pee), I managed to get to the other train station where I was supposed to catch a train to Fontainebleau to attend the 25th anniversary of European Youth Parliament. In the next hour or so I thought I would never get there.

Ticket offices were of course closed (welcome to Paris!), there was strong smell of wee in half the places in the train station (welcome to Paris!), the ticket machine I tried did not recognise the place I wanted to travel to and I was all alone in a big train station in a foreign country. Just when I was about to burst in tears and accept that I’ll spend the rest of my life (or at least that evening) in that smelly train station, I noticed a guy who was clearly from EYP and also about to go to Fontainebleau. Together we figured out which ticket machines to use and how to get the necessary coins to buy our tickets, because of course the machine accepted no paper money and no bank cards (welcome to Paris!).

The rest of the weekend went in a similar fashion and by Sunday I was completely fed up with the French way of (not) organising things. Also, have you ever been to a public toilet in France? Even in a big fancy theatre it’s apparently normal to:
a) lack a toilet seat
b) lack toilet paper
c) have splashes all over the toilet
d) have blood smears on the floor / wall (yes, it was ladies’ toilet!)
e) have all of the above

I was nearly crying with joy when I had coffee in a nice restaurant-cafe on Sunday and discovered they had a normal toilet. They had toilet paper! They had a toilet seat! There were no splashes of any kind anywhere and no smeared blood! It was an actual toilet! My travel-mates would have laughed at me if they wouldn’t have been too busy with rejoicing over the glorious toilet as well.

All of that aside, I actually had a nice weekend. It was great to see my old friends from EYP and have random chats on topics ranging from cakes to political issues. The concert in the evening where EYPers sang was absolutely beautiful. I think the highlight for me was meeting the creator of EYP. Bettina Carr-Allinson held a lovely speech about the difficulties she had to overcome when creating the organisation and it really touched me. I went up to her later to give her my personal thanks for creating a youth organisation that literally changed my life. It got a bit emotional, because EYP means a lot to both of us, but from different perspectives of course. For me it’s an organisation that helped me overcome my shyness, learn about the EU and political issues and find friends in every European country.

In addition to all official parts of the event we had plenty of free time to spend as we please. I chose to spend my Saturday morning in Château de Fontainebleau. Since I could find nearly no information on the castle in English, I just took a small booklet that had at least some English writings and walked around, looking at the excessively decorated rooms and hallways. This is the castle from the outside:

Every monarch who has lived in this castle has made some minor or major changes to the building. The best known part of the castle is probably the fancy staircase, ordered by Louis XII and designed by Jean Androuet du Cerceau. When I told my host family where I’m going, EstMum said she has probably been there, but the only thing she could remember was the horseshoe-shaped staircase.

Most rooms were very dimly lit, so it was difficult to get good photos inside. I can show a small selection of better photos I got, though I wish there would be more good ones.

 

And of course Napoleon’s throne room:

The throne looked very small and uncomfortable to me, but the room was fancy and made me think of some old children’s books with throne rooms quite similar to this. And of course I have an obligatory tourist shot with a a fellow EYPer:

That’s it for now, I used the kids’ naptime for some fast blogging and they will soon wake up. I have even survived my first night alone with the kids now! It was okay, though I kept waking up because I thought I had heard one of the kids crying. They finally did wake up at around seven in the morning. Yes, my workday started at seven on Sunday morning. But it’s okay because I think I’ll have tomorrow off, unless EstMum has a lecture she has forgotten to mark in the calendar. I might even be able to finally check out Atomium! I haven’t been in that part of Brussels yet, so I’m hoping for nice weather and a free day to explore that area as well.