Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"Tango Tea Party" at Novo

Sunday night, March 15th, after the EGG party at nearby resto Le Cap, Joey and I headed across the square to dine at our new favorite place, Café Novo, when we encountered a clueless young American looking for a supposedly nearby youth hostel. We studied his map but couldn't really figure out where the place was. But, coming to the rescue, I boldly pointed in one direction and ordered: "Go down there!"

Off he went, waving to a gaggle of young ladies, huddled in a doorway and heavily laden with backpacks. And Joey and I came in to Novo, where we were warmly greeted by the waiter, Gabriel.

As Joey and I dug into our dinners, the front door was flung open, and the girls and their backpacks stormed in, looking confused ... but hungry. So, we invited them to join us at our table. Apparently, their travelling companion, PJ Roukis, was lost somewhere, and they were tired of waiting for him. They stashed his bags in the doorway across the square and decided to hook up with us.

Eventually, PJ was found and joined our group.

He was a young man with "attitude," but I soon talked him into calming down and trying the exotic-looking beverage one of the girls was enjoying. I told him it was "Tango Tea" and deadly potent. Nervous, skeptical ... but very macho ... he decided to accept my challenge and try the drink. Gingerly he lifted the little glass to his lips, and we all started pounding the table, shouting "Drink, drink, drink!" and "Down the hatch!". He gave a timid look and then downed the drink ... which, of course, was just plain old tea. As we laughed at his gullibility, he glowered at us. By this time, the kitchen was closed, and poor PJ had to settle for one of the fantastic desserts that Gabriel brought out on a plate. We all scarfed them down and agreed that it had been a fine evening.
The next morning, the visitors were heading back to the U.S.: PJ back to his native New York; the girls (Brittany Henry, Sara Stirton, Marian Michalson, and Allison Accarie) to South Dakota, where they're students at South Dakota State. When I heard they were travelling on dreaded USAirways, I gave them a special, deep-felt "good luck" wish, which they agreed they needed, having come over on the Atlantic's worst carrier. (A few days later, they sent me pix of the "meal" they were served onboard; I can be forgiven for thinking at first that I was looking at the result of some terrible lab experiment rather than a ... er ... "sandwich.")

Saturday, March 7, 2009

From NPR's "Car Talk": Here's A Good One

Better Identification of Stupid People

Here's a good one!

Stupid people should have to wear signs that just say "I'm Stupid." That way you wouldn't rely on them, would you? You wouldn't ask them anything. It would be like, "Excuse me... oops, never mind. I didn't see your sign."

It's like before my wife and I moved from Texas to California. Our house was full of boxes and there was a U-Haul truck in our driveway. My friend comes over and says, "Hey, you moving?" "Nope. We just pack our stuff up once or twice a week to see how many boxes it takes. Here's your sign."

A couple of months ago I went fishing with a buddy of mine. We pulled his boat into the dock, I lifted up this big ol' stringer of bass and this idiot on the dock says, "Hey, y'all catch all them fish?" "Nope. Talked 'em into giving up. Here's your sign."

I was watching one of those animal shows on the Discovery Channel.
There was a guy inventing a shark bite suit. And there's only one way to test it. "Alright, Jimmy, you got that shark suit on, it looks good. . . they want you to jump into this pool of sharks, and you tell us if it hurts when they bite you." "Well, alright, but hold my sign. I don't wanna lose it."

Last time I had a flat tire, I pulled into one of those side-of- the-road gas stations. The attendant walks out, looks at my truck, looks at me and I swear he said, "Tire go flat?" I couldn't resist. I said, "Nope, I was driving around and those other three just swelled right up on me. Here's your sign."

We were trying to sell our car about a year ago. A guy came over to the house and drove the car around for about 45 minutes. We get back to the house; he gets out of the car, reaches down and grabs the exhaust pipe, then says, "Wow, that's hot!" See, if he'd been wearing his sign, I could have stopped him.

By stand-up comedian Bill Engval
Sent in to "Car Talk" by Eric Shafer

My Birthday Trip to Amsterdam

Tom and I went to Amsterdam to celebrate my birthday (3 March). Unfortunately for Tom, we had to take an early morning train. He was not pleased. So, to assuage the pain, I gave him my iPod ... so he could listen to my radio comedy pieces. He laughed a lot, so I guess he liked them.

Our first stop was the Van Gogh Museum.There we were lucky enough to get tickets to the special show, "Van Gogh and the Colours of Night." We both enjoyed the collection very much.

Of course, after a certain point, Tom had to have a smoke break.
One of our favorite paintings was "The Starry Night."

Tom bought a poster for his mother ... his only purchase in the Gift Shop, despite all the temptations available.

Off we went to find some food! We were starving after all that art!

We found a very nice Italian resto and enjoyed risotto (not exactly Dutch, of course ... but filling).

The waiter took our picture ... and then gave us directions to a nearby "coffeeshop."

We made our way through the colorful streets ... and eventually found our destination. After a that, we zipped to the station and jumped on the train back home.

A Desecration of the English Language: "Quantitative Easing"

Every day I hear the English language slaughtered, usually by non-Anglophones, so I thought I'd become pretty immune. But recently, from the U.S. and U.K., came an expression that really makes my skin crawl: "quantitative easing." It's used to describe what the American and British central banks are doing to try to cope with the current financial crisis. Simply put, it just means printing money.

So, why not just say that, instead of making up this ridiculous expression that basically means nothing. Because, as anyone who took Economics 101 knows, when a central bank just prints money, it's a sign of desperation ... and a prelude to runaway inflation down the road. So, better to use a euphemism, with the assumption that we, the people, are so ignorant we won't understand what's really going on. But, guess what? Many of us do understand what's going on ... and resent, not just the watering down of our currencies, but the absolute desecration of the English language.

Shame on you pseudo-educated public officials and your contempt for the people who pay your salaries!
At the risk of ruining your day for sure, here is a description of "quantitative easing" from The Times of London:

Quantitative easing is a posh way of describing the practice of pumping money into the economy to encourage banks to lend.

The hope is that if governments print money, and inject it into the economy, people and companies will be more likely to spend. If they are more likely to spend, there is a greater chance that the economy will spring into life.

Take a bar-room illustration: the bloke at the bar with a fistful of dollars is more likely to splash out on a round than the man who is down to his last nickels and dimes. Even if the cash is borrowed, it is hoped that greater quantities of cash will breed greater generosity.

How does quantitative easing happen? A central Bank - such as the Bank of England or the US Federal Reserve - buys its own government-issued bonds, such as gilts, or bonds issued by companies or other assets.

As with any purchase, the central bank gives money to the sellers, many of which will be commercial banks. Commercial banks, with their accounts electronically credited by central banks, will then (hopefully) have the confidence to increase lending to customers as well as each other.

The term “printing money” is often bandied around in relation to quantitative easing. The practice of quantitative easing can be broken down into seven stages:

1) The Bank creates new money electronically in its accounts.
2) The Bank buys bonds (companies’ IOUs) and gilts (Government IOUs) from commercial banks.
3) The value of the bonds and gilts bought is now credited to banks that sold them.
4) The commercial banks can make new loans against the increased funding.
5) Extra lending boosts cash and credit flowing in the economy.
6) Extra demand for bonds and gilts from the Bank drives down interest rates for business and consumer borrowers.
7) Flows of extra and cheaper money stimulate growth

Government, or its agents in central banks, can also replace poor-quality money in the economy with good money. Old IOUs issued by companies that may welsh on promises to pay up are replaced with IOUs underwritten by the full force of the state, and its ability to raise tax revenues. This is also like printing money because the old IOUs become useless as a means of exchange.

Replacement, in other words, is akin to creating new money. And by boosting confidence some forms of money (that is, corporate IOUs and the like), it is hoped that confidence across the economy will rise.

While it may be a necessary emergency measure, the danger is that is quantitative easing leads to runaway inflation. And runaway inflation reduces wealth alarmingly.

A New Boutique in the Sablons: Wabi-sabi

Wabi-sabi is a new Arts & Crafts gallery in the trendy Sablons area of Brussels.

My good friend Ludmilla Kapitanova is one of the two partners.

Featuring jewelry, delicate fabrics, and artifacts from all over the world, Wabi-sabi offers one-of-a-kind pieces like this spirit house from Thailand.

Wabi-sabi is open Thursdays through Sundays from 14:00 to 18:00 ... or by reservation. New products arrive every week, so be sure to stop by regularly.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Hot Ad Campaign Blankets Brussels

Anyone moving through Brussels this week has been exposed to the hot new Diesel jeans billboard campaign. Commercial, of course, but also great photographic art.

My Favorite Podcast: "Street Stories" from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation

As some of my friends may know, I love subscribing to podcasts from all over the world. These, of course, are radio shows that can be downloaded -- for free -- into your computer and then be synched into your iPod or other MP3 player.

Well, I listen to many of these, and the best I've ever found come from the Australian Broadcasting Company Radio National's "Street Stories." These are so well-written and well-produced that they put you right into the action; following the rule for good writing, they don't tell you the story ... they show you the story, even though it's radio and not TV.

Here are links to some of my favorite shows:

Be sure to visit the "Street Stories" website to download these and other programs, as "Street Stories" has now been discontinued. But it's being replaced by a new show, "360," created by the same team, led by Executive Producer Claudia Taranto.

Chocolate Cake and Norwegian Poetry

My Norwegian friend, Knut, invited me over Friday night to drink "the world's best coffee." (The fact that he works for the Nespresso division of Nestlé might make him a little biased.) So, the deal was: I bring "the world's best chocolate cake" and he provides the coffee. Thus, I bopped into Van Dender Chocolatier, which won a gold medal for best chocolate in Belgium a few years ago, and picked up one of their signature cakes. Here's Knut right after I arrived; he couldn't wait to get his hands on the pièce de resistance.

Here is the wonderful Van Dender chocolate cake:

After we devoured about three cups of espresso each (various flavors -- all great) and an equal number of slices of cake, Knut hauled out a big book of Norwegian poetry and started reciting some of his favorite poems for me. The effect was ... mesmerizing! The sounds of the Norwegian language are like none I've ever heard before.

Knut was very proud of the effect he created with his poetry reading, as you can see from this cocky pose. Another highlight of the evening: going through a big picture book of the cathedrals of Europe (Knut used to be a cathedral tour guide) ... which led to our planning an outing to Germany in the spring, where we can visit some of them.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

An Evening in Leuven

I took the train to Leuven (only 17 minutes) and met my friend Joey at the very modern train station. He took me on a mini-tour of the city (it was raining kittens and puppies); here he is posed in front of the very impressive City Hall in Leuven's version of the Grand Place.
Joey and his new boyfriend.

We went to a cool cafe in the Old Market Square and then headed to the university to view a film on racism in England. Afterwards, I jumped on the train back to Brussels and had the first class car all to myself (but, hey, it was only for 17 minutes).

Monday, February 16, 2009

The February EGG Party

Sunday was the monthly EGG party at the restaurant Le Cap. Here I ran into friends Alessandro and Knut ...

... and then some of us headed to the nearby Café Novo for a late dinner.

A Visit to the COBRA Exhibit

Saturday my friend Gabriel and I headed to the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts for the penultimate day of the COBRA exhibit. This was a postwar movement centred in Copenhagen, Bruxelles, and Amsterdam.

The exhibit wasn't too exciting, but it was great to be back in the museum, one of our landmarks in Brussels.

My Marathon Friday the Thirteenth

What a day this was! Here's my schedule:

5:00 a.m. Wake up to a cold, cold house.
5:20 Send text to landlord, complaining.
6:45 Send email to landlord, complaining.
7:00 Walk to Gare du Nord.
7:25 Take train to Braine l'Alleud.
8:00 Take bus to Waterloo; start walking to school.
8:15 Slip on ice sheet in parking lot of Carrefour.
8:25 Arrive at school.

9:00 Begin teaching Victoria Diaz y Fernandez. Help her get her copy of SpeedLingua working (partial success). Translate rude English terms for her.

12:00 Finish class; cadge a ride from Victoria to the station.
13:05 Arrive in Bruxelles; tram to Avenue Louise; walk to school.
13:30 Begin class with Soumia Hmimach.
15:30 Finish class; head home.
17:00 Begin 15-minute rest.
18:00 Drinks with Ludmilla and Marilyn.
20:00 Arrive at Belgaña; greeted warmly by Tom.

20:30 Joined by Gergely.

23:45 Off to the wild party of Maui Am Vill.
4:00 Leave party; taxi home.
5:00 Go to bed, after a long, long day!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Shenanigans in the Kitchen

Seeking just a quiet dinner at Restaurant Belgaña, I instead got tossed into a crazy mock boy-fight with waiters Tom and Jimmy. So, in addition to another good meal, I got an entertaining two hours. Here are a few pix of our shenanigans.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

After Twelve Hours With Me, She's A Poet!

My recent student, Merel Olivier, was so inspired by our crazy two days together that she pounded out a pretty poetic essay in English. Take a read and tell me what you think:

Independence Day
By Merel Olivier

When I was younger I asked myself what will I be … but the nice song of Doris Day in "The Man Who Knew Too Much" left me with a “not enough” taste in my mouth … Even though I like to sing the song, “Que Sera, Sera,” ... Destiny ... Fate ... Yeah, well ... I’ve always been more a believer in “you make your own bed.” A little problem for a day-dreamer like me … My bed’s a mess. Or, as William Ernest Henley wrote: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul” ... but I’m hardly keeping the boat afloat.

Paradox: that’s my middle name ... what goes with it: Procrastination. “Tomorrow”: this word should be banned from all books! Carpe Diem: Seize the day. Since 1989 I’ve been wondering how. I don’t think I’ve got the right book.

I’m not lazy, just happen to be my own motherly mom living “ostrichly.” I’m not undecided, only passionate about too many things to be able to sacrifice one idea and actually end up doing none. I’m starving for knowledge but knowing all the answers hasn’t made me the Yoda of the Jeopardy of Life.

I’ve got my wake-up call ... yeah, about that, to wake up has always been hard on me. I’m more a night person. But in this case what’s difficult is literally the next step. I get easily distracted by all the mirages shimmering on this road.

“It’s the journey that matters, not the destination” I get the concept but from time to time it would be nice to get somewhere ... ‘Cause for me every bus stop on the journey is a little destination.

But I’m in the mud, and this gooey, sticky, drowning, swallowing muck keeps me breathless. “The best is not to move,” they say ... True, true ... but I’ve mastered that and I’m still in it.

Thanks to “and they lived happily ever after,” I’ve got this delusion that I can be saved by Love … but no Prince Charming in the entourage to save me ... even then, that never worked ... It’s just me ... no magic wand on the tip of my finger either … “Use the Force,” hum ... just me, me and my brains …

Brains, nice brains ... only used for “head-storms.” ... Little neurons, I order you to redirect the impulses into my fingers, arms, toes and legs ... so we can say, “she’s alive, Alive.”

I will move at the pace of my heartbeat, following the drums that I’m enjoying fighting so much.

Still, I have to organize my thoughts and plan my actions. For instance, yesterday, thinking of just going to bed, I undressed in my room before taking my jammies from the bathroom. Of course, I have to pass in front of the bare kitchen windows first …

It’s only the beginning of the trip, learning to love to lose, that’s a leap of faith that I’m willing and able to take … without mastering “The Art of Losing” along the way.

Soon, I hope to be declaring the independence day of the United States of my heart, mind, body and soul. It’s under construction. This unblank page is witness. And, as the song goes, “The rest is still unwritten.”

‘Cause like I jumped off the Atomium, I’d like to yell everyday for the rest of my life, “YYOOOOOOOHHOOOEEEE”!

Help This Man Find A Girlfriend

My good buddy and current flatmate, Gergely [GAIR-gay] Gallo, a Hungarian stud (1,90 m, 85 kg, blond hair, blue eyes, works out at the gym three times a week), is looking for a girlfriend. Interested candidates can contact me, as I'm acting as his pimp/translator (he only speaks Hungarian, of course, and English). Working as a senior IT engineer for a major U.S. corporation in Brussels, Gergely holds a Master's degree ... and, usually, a beer mug in his hand. He's a great guy, a sort of 2009 version of a Knight in Shining Armor. (Yes, really: he's a true Boy Scout.) So, ladies, what are you waiting for? (Or, Mothers, what are YOU waiting for?) The line forms here ...

Happy Birthday, Marie-Françoise

Marie-Françoise Bernard, pictured here with husband Rob Spruit, is celebrating her birthday today. Happy Birthday! She and Rob recently danced the tango on their local community TV channel (they live outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, although Marie-Françoise is originally from France and Rob is from the Netherlands) and are becoming area celebrities. I hear there's a chance they may be asked to do a regular TV show ... (If you want to see how well they can interpret the pure Argentine style of tango, and how comfortable Marie-Françoise is before the cameras, check out their little video here. (You may want to fast forward through the introductory chit-chat with the host, but your interest will definitely perk up when the dancing begins. Man, it's hot!)

Got A New Teaching Buddy: A Crazy Kiwi!

No, it's not a local custom for teachers at Call International to type wearing gloves or mittens. But, here we have one of my newest colleagues at the language school, Shaun Barton. He's a Crazy Kiwi from New Zealand (where else would a kiwi come from?!) who's freezing through our winter (when he's not typing, he wears TWO pairs of gloves). Yeah, yeah, it's warm and sunny Down Under this time of year, but, hey, this is Belgium, man! We're gonna toss down a couple dozen beers on Friday night, so I should have some good info on him by the weekend. (And here he is in his alternate guise: Maui Am Vill.)