Royal Greenhouses in Laeken – there’s something hairy

Royal Greenhouses in LaekenExactly a month ago, the royal greenhouses near Brussels were open for the public for a short while. Seizing the opportunity, I met up with my friend Thomas and arrived at the gates a bit before they were opened. Getting up before 8am on a weekend may be a bit insane, but at least we managed to get there before the massive crowds took the place over. We could actually walk on our own without being pushed forward by the crowd. Yes, the royal botanical gardens are very popular. Partly because they are only open a few days per year.

Royal Greenhouses in LaekenThe greenhouse buildings are in the beautiful art nouveau style and they really do look magnificent. Only a small part was open for the public, so I enjoyed the tiny part of the park that we were allowed to visit and took some photos there as well:

Royal Greenhouses in Laeken Royal Greenhouses in Laeken Royal Greenhouses in LaekenThat tree looked as if it was from an old horror movie, so I had to try it in black and white. Yup, old movie. These were the only outside photos, the rest is all from inside the greenhouses. A recurring theme throughout the exposition was “hey, this is hairy!”. Seriously, I’ve never seen that many hairy plants in one place. Some looked like monkey trees:

Royal Greenhouses in LaekenAnd yes, they were soft to touch. I tested. A bit after seeing those lovely hairy palm trees, we entered the more tropical areas. Of course my camera couldn’t handle it too well, so I sat there for a while with a foggy lens. Looking through the camera, it seemed as if I was in a sauna. Snapped a photo of Thomas as proof of the sauna-effect:

TRoyal Greenhouses in LaekenOnce the fog disappeared, I could take normal photos again. And then I discovered this little fella:

Royal Greenhouses in LaekenThis is the happiest-looking tree trunk I’ve ever seen. Such an adorable omnomnom-face. Also, I really loved the plants they used for covering areas that would otherwise have been empty. There were lovely light green “plant carpets” everywhere. They change the plants every now and then so they would look fresh and young. An example of the carpet:

Royal Greenhouses in LaekenSince I don’t really have much to say about most of the flowers, I’ll just show some photos of what I saw there. I really enjoyed the parts where flowers were hanging from the ceiling, it looked almost like a fairytale tunnel.

Royal Greenhouses in Laeken Royal Greenhouses in Laeken Royal Greenhouses in Laeken Royal Greenhouses in Laeken Royal Greenhouses in LaekenRoyal Greenhouses in Laeken Royal Greenhouses in Laeken Royal Greenhouses in Laeken Royal Greenhouses in Laeken Royal Greenhouses in Laeken Royal Greenhouses in Laeken Royal Greenhouses in Laeken Royal Greenhouses in Laeken TER-6669-130427And a compulsory mirror-photo, of course. (They really should clean the mirrors there more often.)

Royal Greenhouses in Laeken

wandering in Antwerp

in Antwerp train station

A long long time ago (read: the beginning of March) there was a trip to Antwerp. One of my sisters came for a visit in Brussels and on the weekend I took her for a day trip. Mairi and I were joined by Kristina (a lovely au pair with irresistible ginger curls) and about an hour later by Matthijs who came from Netherlands, so in Antwerp train station the group was together. Did I mention in my previous Antwerp-post that the train station there is absolutely gorgeous and crazy?

Antwerp train stationSo, that is the beautiful part. And the crazy? It’s multi-layered. There’s four floors where you can board trains. So when you look up, you see higher floors with trains… and it looks batshit crazy. But why should you have trains only underground or on ground level when you could go higher as well… So when you look at the next photo, know that all of those floors contain trains.

Antwerp train stationWe headed to the centre to take some photos and walk around. I annoyed everyone with talking about pies. Last time in Antwerp we had gone to a bakery with Matthijs and they had amazing tiny cherry pies. I had been dreaming of eating another one of those ever since. Of course I got disappointed when we reached the bakery – they had no crumble pies anymore. Lattice pies look nice, but there’s a distinct lack of crumbles. I like crumbles on my pies. Have I mentioned I love crumble pies? Anyway, after driving everyone insane, I didn’t even get to eat what I wanted. The lattice pies tasted nice as well, but they weren’t what I had been dreaming about.

Antwerp / AntwerpenWe had no certain plan, so we just wandered around, chatted and took photos. When Mairi wanted to take some money out, we discovered that the ATMs there hate Estonian bank cards. Or at least the one that Mairi had. Despite there being enough money, the annoying machine kept repeating there is no money on the account. In the end Matthijs came to rescue – there were no issues with Dutch cards.

Antwerpen

Antwerpen Antwerpen

Of course no trip is complete without spotting some strange graffiti. That day’s discovery? Pedobear twins. With bonus pink toilet paper.

pedobear twinsMairi was supposed to take some videos over the next week and she had brought something special for that: a lens from a copy machine. It gave a very cool effect when looking through and I was able to fit all three trip companions in one photo, standing right in front of them. Unfortunately the lens never made it to the videos. Mairi’s fingers slipped and the lens crashed to pieces on the ground. She was so sad about it, but we had no replacement to take from anywhere.

lens

Antwerpen

To get some lovely views over the town, we decided to visit MAS (Museum aan de Stroom). It’s a huge building with a glass spiral around it, so you can walk up the stairs and see beautiful panoramas. Entering the museum cost some money, but the spiral had free entrance. So we decided to do just that and walk up to the roof.

Antwerpen MASAs you might see from the photo, the glass was not quite ordinary. It was in waves all around the building, so inside the spiral you could walk into the wavy corners and feel almost like you’re in a separate room. Of course I took the chance to take some photos of Mairi and Kristina while they were occupying the corner.

in MASSome views from the roof:

from the roof of MAS  from the roof of MASfrom the roof of MASMatthijs had a wide angle lens with him and we wanted to take a funny looking close-up with the girls. Didn’t work out quite as how I had imagined, but here it is:

on the roof of MASThis has been a very photo-heavy post, because the trip itself was more than a month ago and I can’t remember everything anymore. But I hope the pictures speak for themselves. I’ll try not to leave a month-long gap between posts again.

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!)

the band, the crew and the hobbit

Antwerpen

Continuing with my very late blog posts in order to catch up with all the photos I wanted to share here. In December, I had a lovely day in Antwerp with Matthijs. We wanted to see Ewert and the Two Dragons in the evening and also check out the lovely Belgian city, so we went there in the morning to walk around and enjoy the sights. It was close to Christmas, so light time was limited. As we wanted to take photos, the first place we visited was Sint Annatunnel, a pedestrian tunnel to get to the other side of the river Schelde.

The escalators in Sint-AnnatunnelThe entrance to the tunnel was via old wooden escalators. They looked amazing and as I read now, they are from the 1930s. So much better than those chunks of metal everywhere else, these had the elegance of older eras. After taking the long escalator ride down, we had to walk more than half a kilometre under the river to get to the other side and ride similar old escalators back up to the daylight again.

Sint-Annatunnel

Sint-Annatunnel

The view from the other side was magnificent. Our timing was perfect as well, it was just before sundown and the colours on the river and the centre of Antwerpen were beautiful. We took photos of the town (and a few of each other – what else would two people with cameras do than torture each other with them?) and tried not to fall down from the high riverside structures we were climbing on. Considering that the temperatures were slightly below zero and everything was icy and slippery, it wouldn’t have been too difficult to slip and fall.

Matthijs in AntwerpenWhen the sun had begun to set, we walked back through the tunnel to explore the city centre a bit. That didn’t work out too well though, because it was already getting dark and we didn’t have time to see everything we wanted. So instead we only took a look at a few selected places and then headed for dinner. I wanted to meet up with my friend Karl who happens to be the tour manager of Ewert and the Two Dragons, but obviously he was a bit busy with the upcoming gig because of his work duties.

christmas market in Antwerpen

After dinner, we went back to our hotel to put some things away and check how to get to Trix, where the concert was held. Eventually we figured out what trams we had to take and where to walk, or at least we thought we did. When we stepped off the tram, we of course realised we have no idea what direction we should take. Thanks to some good guessing, we finally found our way in the dark and got to the venue. I have no photos from there, because I didn’t want to carry my camera around and left it in the hotel. Matthijs is focusing on gig photography anyway, so I left the concert cameraman duties to him.

Antwerpen and ScheldeThe gig was awesome. I managed to see Ewert and the Two Dragons four time that month, partly because I love the music and mostly because it was a good opportunity to see Karl, who is travelling around with the band and almost impossible to see in Estonia. Especially when living abroad, it’s very nice to meet up with your friends like that. The highlights of the concerts were not the relaxed atmosphere and awesome music, but the moments spent with Karl and his relative Siim (who was the merch guy for the European leg of the tour). I had missed my friends so much.

Antwerpen and ScheldeWe met up with them the next evening as well in Leuven. As usual, I have no photos of that because I’m too short anyway to see over the crowd, but Matthijs took some photos of the band during the concert and even some group photos for them after that. I managed to get my “fangirl picture” as well, after seeing them live for five times already. As Karl was already kneeling on the ground from previous group photos, I just claimed his leg as my seat for the photo. This caused some joking among the guys, with Matthijs saying he is allowing that and Karl winking and laughing that he should see the next pose then. Thanks to the guys goofing around, I have a laughing derpy-face on that photo. But I don’t care because I’m with my friends and my favourite Estonian band.

Ewert and the Two Dragons and crewSo there. The band, the crew and the hobbit, as promised in the title of this post. I’m out of photos to share for now, so next posts will appear when I’m finally not ill anymore (spent five days with a high fever and I’m slowly getting better now) and have had a chance to go out with my camera. I’m pretty sure there will be no posts this weekend, unless I decide to spend my train journey back from Nijmegen writing about long-distance relationships. Why? I’m going to Nijmegen to celebrate our second anniversary with Matthijs. Two years together and not once have we lived in the same country. Life is strange.

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

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: