medieval Bruges / Brugge and chocolate insanity

I have found Belgian Tallinn! Or to be more precise, the Belgian version of Tallinn’s Old Town. The shape is more or less the same and probably even the size, but instead of being surrounded by ancient town walls, this one is surrounded by canals. I’m talking about Bruges (or Brugge in Flemish), a small town near the western coast of Belgium.

Since my previous Sunday was free, I found a travelmate and went on a day trip. Bianca is a total sweetheart, a Finnish Swede who is spending some time in Brussels as an au pair. We both loved the tiny medieval town to bits, despite the insane amount of tourists and some grumpy locals who hated tourists. Our “favourite” was a shopkeeper who stared at us for half a minute or a minute while we chatted and tried to decide what we should buy and then asked sharply whether we plan to buy anything or we just want to chat. She looked so pissed off! After that we of course didn’t want to buy anything from her, so we just left and stared at each other in disbelief for a moment. So rude! Sorry for interrupting your precious alone time while you’re at work…

We didn’t let that ruin our day, there were plenty of other chocolate stores around. In fact, we weren’t able to walk even for five minutes without seeing another shop crop up! Bruges is a total paradise for someone with a sweet tooth! We definitely do, so we kept on squealing and pointing at amazing things in stores and telling each other we should skip that one and not spend any more money. Well, that failed miserably. We didn’t buy any of the generic Sinterklaas / Christmas sweets, but we did get some pralinées and amazing dark chocolate and rock candy and… Soon we had big paper bags with sweet stuff.

(This photo of me staring at the sweets was taken by Bianca. Go and check out her blog! http://biancasoderlund.blogspot.be/ – it’s all in Swedish, but she does have some awesome photos that you can check out even if you can’t speak a word of Swedish.)

We got really lucky with the weather. It was pouring down in Brussels in the morning, but by the time we reached Bruges, the skies were almost clear and the sun was shining. Perfect weather for being a silly tourist and taking a ton of photos! Some shots even ended up looking so nice and warm that I could have sworn I was enjoying Estonian summer. The only distracting thing was my thick coat and a hat, but at least I didn’t need gloves! I can’t remember a November day in Estonia where I would have been able to leave the house without hiding my hands in warm gloves first.

In addition to buying some rather expensive chocolate, we also stepped into a nice café that had tons of delicious-looking cupcakes on display. We decided to be cheapskates though, so we only took one cupcake each and even refused any drinks. Why would we take a drink if it costs as much as an already overpriced cupcake? So we just sat in the cosy café and chatted over the cupcakes, the perfect break from walking around and ogling at every chocolate store on the way. Ignoring all the delicious stuff in stores and walking on was so much easier after getting something sweet in my stomach.

For some reason Bruges confused me a lot. I kept thinking that I was in a tiny town in England, some things reminded me of my trip to Cheddar. At the same time it could have been somewhere in The Netherlands as well, I was already accustomed to seeing canals in Dutch towns and I had only seen one measly example in Brussels during my two months in Belgium. But you should never tell a Belgian person that their hometown looks like something in The Netherlands. I’m pretty sure you’d get beaten up or at least subjected to a deathly glare.

After enjoying the chocolate stores and canal views for a while, we wanted to find the central square of the old town. We actually walked through it without realising it was actually the square we were looking for. I had been expecting something grand and beautiful. Instead we found a square where you could barely walk since the middle was built full of some roofed thing where people were selling their paintings and jewellery. It was so disappointing that I didn’t even bother taking a photo of that. We went and explored some more canals instead.

As it started getting darker, we tried to find a place to eat. We had almost decided on a nice-looking restaurant where you could get soup + lasagne + créme brûlée for 11.50€, but we got scared away for a creepy-looking man smiling and waving at us, trying to invite us in. We returned some time later, hoping he would have finished his food by then… only to find he was actually one of the waiters. The food there was amazing, but the waiters seemed a bit creepy, discussing us in Italian half the time and calling us pretty little ladies. I do like compliments, but those guys crossed the line a bit.

After eating, we wandered around for a bit more, but we had seen most things we wanted to and the sun was nearly gone, so we headed back to the train station to take our hour-long ride back to Brussels. The day was a total success – we saw a beautiful town, got some Christmas / Sinterklaas shopping done and found a lovely companion. I’m meeting up with Bianca again tomorrow to bake together and eat some dark bread. My parents sent me a package that (among other things) included some actual rye bread! I’ve been missing it so much. Since Bianca is also a fellow fan of mint (and especially mint chocolate), we’ll have dark bread and mint chocolate and cake tomorrow. Sounds like a wonderful morning to me!

After that morning food orgy, I have to start working again to do another 10-hour day. But that’s the last of the four very long workdays this week, Friday is free and then I’ll be on my way to Nijmegen to see Matthijs, play board games and go to gigs. Ewert and the Two Dragons is playing in The Netherlands this week and I’ll be there!

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: