January 8, 2015
I stopped updating this site after Lena and Steve's wedding. To see new stuff, go to www.jimandstephindurham.com or go to the All about Owen page by clicking here or on the banner above.

October 5, 2010
  We did it!  The wedding of the century is done, and was brilliant!  A year of preparation, and making a million decisions large and small, all paid off in a great ceremony and reception.  Lena was, of course, the best and most beautiful bride ever, and she and Steve made a wonderful couple.(click here for some pictures)  We (especially Stephanie) have been making numerous trips to Charlotte, getting everything in line.   During those we got a chance to meet and get to know Steve's parents Jack and Chris when they came up from Florida, and also his two sisters, who are living in Charlotte.  They were very sweet, and hosted parties and brunches and were just a great help.  

  The big weekend started when we went with my Mom on Thursday, and Lena and I went off to practice our father-daughter dance on the top floor of the parking garage.  It was funny to look up and see people watching from the windows of the hotel, but I am sure it was very touching, if not too comical.  Then on Friday all the brothers and sisters and their mates started arriving. That is always one of the best parts: to get to see and catch up with far flung relations and friends that you haven't seen in a while.  We had a lovely rehearsal dinner, and got to meet a bunch of folks from Steve's side of the aisle.
  By Saturday morning things were starting to reach a fever pitch, and we worried that Lena might just have a breakdown, it was so emotionally intense.  But everything fell into place, and by the time we were ready to walk down the aisle she was the perfect, glowing, beautiful bride.  The weather was ideal, the spot was just right, and the ceremony was funny, and touching, and tender.  I get chills right now, just thinking about it, and there was nary a dry eye in the house.
  After that, it was party time, and the reception was awesome.  There was great food, and an open bar, and talented DJ, and everyone, including the 80+ year old grandmothers, was out on the dance floor, shakin' it up.  Everyone had a wonderful time, and the only thing wrong was it didn't last long enough.  That's the best thing you can say about a party, and we have always had as our goal for a party that everyone says when they leave, "That was the best party we went to all year."  I am sure it was true this time!
  As the genial host, it was my job to welcome everyone, and I took the opportunity to toast the happy couple.  For the benefit of my sister, who somehow missed it ("Lincoln gave a speech?  What did he say?"), it went something like this:

As we have been preparing for this great day, it has been a time of reflection and remembering.  And one thing we of course remember is when Lena came home from her sailing trip to the Caribbean 5 years ago.  We asked how it went, and she said she had a wonderful time, and “there was this guy, and he was so fun, and funny, and smart, and Dad…he has his own house and he has his own tools!”
  And I thought, “This is good.”
  And since then, we have come to know Steve, and she was right, of course:  he is fun, and funny, and smart, and he has skills.  And we are just thrilled that he is now joining our family.
  And more recently, we have had a chance to get to know his family:  his charming and well travelled parents, and his lovely, and generous, and gracious sisters.  And we are delighted to be able to join their family, too.
  As we enjoy this wonderful day together, I am reminded of the saying that, “Parents find joy when their children find love.”  So let’s raise a toast to Lena and Steve, to their love, and our joy!

  So, it was all a smashing success, and a great time was had by one and all as we joined Lena and Steve starting out on the next stage of their lives, and their life together, and we all wish them every joy, big and small.

October 5, 2010
And of course, our regular lives continue on.  Since we have been home, we have been working hard on the house and grounds, reversing the effects of 3 years of entropy.  Mark did a good job of taking care of the place, and there was no permanent damage, but there was a lot of deferred upkeep that need attention.  Now everything is looking good, and the weather is turning, so I need to admit it is the end of my long summer vacation, and get serious.  Turns out that people heard through the grapevine that I was back, (thanks, Diederik!), and I was approached by my old colleagues in bioMerieux.  I am starting today with them in a job that is a bit smaller, and more local, than I have had in the past, helping push some new developments in my old product line through to release.  While it means I will have to start wearing shoes everyday, I am looking forward to it, and will keep you posted.

June 16, 2010
    Oh, we are so far behind in updating.  So, I'll leave the photos and details until later, and just give the big picture.  Some trips that need adding are: to the Hanswijk procession in Mechelen, a look at some crazy houses in Holland, a trip to Amiens and out to the Atlantic coast of France to see the neolithic stones, and a visit from my Mom, sister Hesh and her son Jack.  They waited until almost the last minute, but made it in the end and we had a great visit and were so glad to see them.  We went to the DouDou in Mons, Amsterdam, Delft, an open air museum, Brussels, Paris and Versailles, some caves and various places locally.  Whew!  My Mom is amazing, and I take great encouragement for the future from her example.
    And that was all while getting ready to leave.  It is getting hard, as we make our goodbyes and see and do things and see people for what may well be the last time.  We made our farewells in Amsterdam a few weeks ago, and this week we had a fun dinner at our friend Philip's house;  his wife Chantal put on a fabulous dinner, delicious and beautifully presented.  And we had the sweetest goodbye at work.  Everyone was so nice, and gave us all sorts of little reminders to take with us, and seemed genuinely to be ready to miss us, and not just because Stephanie was always willing to do the samples no one else wanted to mess with (sputum and poop).  There were some damp eyes, I can tell you.  We are segregating the stuff in the house (toss, give away, fly, ship) and closing up things with the bank, utilities, landlord, and the commune.  Patz is here for a few days, and this weekend we will go up to the North Sea for one last weekend away, then fly home next Tuesday.  We will rock 'til we drop!  Forward, always forward!

May 19, 2010
    Well, it's been a long time since writing, and there has been a lot going on, as we head toward the finish line.  We took a quick weekend out of town and went to Luxembourg.  Yes, I know, the excitement just never stops!  It was a lovely couple of days, and it was almost warm.  Luxembourg has a place in our history, as that was where we first set foot in Europe, lo these many years ago.  The cheapest way over for backpacking college students was to fly Icelandic Air, by way of Reykjavik, and land in Luxembourg.  I still remember coming down through the clouds and how green and lush it was.  And I remember standing in front of the train station, early that morning, about to begin my big European adventure, and two guys stumbled up and took a piss on the station wall in front of me.  "So, this is Europe," I thought.  A few months later, when leaving, we slept in a park in the city under a tall bridge, and we wanted to go back and see what it was like now.
    We drove there through the Ardennes, and stopped at a few chateaux and took a walk in the forest. It led past some ancient spring fed pools, which have apparently been watering people since pre-history.  It was all bursting with the darling buds of May, and very beautiful.  Luxembourg City is built on a high bluff in a joint in a river, and the old city has spilled over to the other side now, and there are several great, tall bridges over the gorge.  There are lots of fortifications and walls, and the rock is riddled with tunnels and caves for men and supplies, all made clear in a nice history museum built in several old houses.  It all results in lots of very dramatic views and we walked all around and up and down til we were pretty well beat.  In the end we couldn't really pin down where we had been, but it was fitting that we should visit again, after all these years.  And we didn't see anyone peeing in the street.
    Another big event a few weeks ago was Queen's Day in the Netherlands.  This day is to honor the Queen, and celebrate her reign, and is held each year on April 30.  Now, Queen Beatrix was born in January, but the weather then is rotten, and the Dutch are very pragmatic.  Anyway, the day starts the night before, and there are street parties all over Amsterdam, with people and music filling the streets.  It is appropriately called Queen's Night; on some streets we felt pretty conspicuous being together as a couple.  The next day, all over the Netherlands, anyone can sell what they want, without a license or anything, and the whole country becomes a giant flea market.  Everybody has their stuff out on a blanket on the sidewalk, and there are all sorts of crazy things to be found.  We came away with a weird old wooden tool of some sort, that we ask everyone if they know what it is for, and no one has yet been able to say with certainty.  In the afternoon, most of the sellers pack up, and the streets fill with people again, milling about, with music blasting out of bars, squares and boats, and beer flowing.  The canals are clogged with party boats of every description, and everyone, and I mean everyone, is wearing orange.  And some of that orange is so eye burningly brilliant it just about makes you cry.  When we told people we were going to be in Amsterdam on Queen's Day, the usual response was, "On purpose?"  Yes, it was time spent with about half a million drunken, carrot topped Dutchmen, but it was all in good fun, and a good time was had by all.

April 18, 2010
    What a calamity with this volcano!  The ironic part is that while this ash cloud is grounding all the planes, we have had three of the bluest, clearest, sunniest days ever.  It reminds us how accustomed we are to the airplane's grafitti, and how we have forgotten what a truly cloudless sky looks like. The Dutch are totally pissed off that the Icelanders are messing them up again.   I suspect Goldman Sachs is selling airline shares short, and arranged the whole thing to lock in their profits.

April 16, 2010
    Searching for some sun, and also to have a nice birthday trip, we took advantage of the long Easter weekend and went to Barcelona.  It is a lively city, of a comfortable scale, and bustling with activity late into the night.  We ate tapas and paella and seafood, and drank sangria, and strolled up and down Las Ramblas, crowded with people, even at midnight.  The center of the city is built on a Roman town, and some of its walls are still standing.  The narrow, winding streets are full of dark corners, and on Good Friday were  full of processions, led by "monks" wearing strange black habits with tall, pointy hoods.  There were Madonnas and Christs on great palanquins, swaying as they made their way from the church right out our window and on to the cathedral.  We took in some of the city's past in the municipal museum, and walked though some of the excavated Roman city, but mostly we enjoyed the weirdness of the Modernist architecture.  This movement was led by Antoni Gaudi, whose buildings take off where Art Nouveau ends.  Every surface is twisting and turning in strange shapes taken from nature, or just the artist's imagination.  The jewel is the still unfinished Sagrada Familia, a huge church designed by Gaudi, recognizable by its distinctive spires.  Eight of the planned 18 spires are finished, and look like drip castles at the beach.  Work has been going on for about 120 years, and with the application of modern computer aided design and construction, is scheduled to be completed in 2026.  Without these tools, it was thought it would take hundreds of years, as it is so difficult to fabricate the curving and irrregular shapes by hand.  Anyway, it is a strange but beautiful building, especially the interior, where multitudes of columns rise up and branch like gently curving trees.  One of Gaudi's themes is the use of inverted catenaries (the shape of a hanging chain) like the St. Louis arch, which are strong, yet graceful, and make a space light and airy and uplifting.  We visited several other of his buildings in town, and all are bent and flowing and fascinating, if a little scary.  He also designed Guell Park, high on a hill, which is a wonderfully colorful and totally twisted world of soft curves and endless mosaics. A great place to watch the crowds and look out over the city.
    Another local boy made good is Salvador Dali.  We went to his home town of Figueres, where there is an appropriately bizarre museum dedicated to his work.  The museum was established by Dali himself (never one to avoid self promotion) and has works by others that he collected, as well as some of his own.  There was an interesting exhibit of jewelry and pieces in precious metals.  Truly beautiful, and showing a new side to his talents.  The area there was the center of the Republican support in the civil war, and suffered when Franco won.  The citadel above the city was the last meeting place of the Republican government, and was partly destroyed as they retreated.  We had a nice lunch sitting out in the sun on the square, eating roasted mussels and paella, and it was a great side trip.
    So, we soaked up some sun and some culture and a good bit of wine, and after running yet another RyanAir gauntlet, we were back in Belgium, picking out these pictures to post.

April 1, 2010
    Well, we've changed our plans, and have decided to apply for Belgian citizenship and stay here permanently!  OK, that's just April Fool's.  We still come back in June, to the Stalinist hellscape that our great nation has become, now that people might not be bankrupted if they are in a car accident.
    Enough ranting!  We are actually recovering from a whirlwind visit by Stephanie's 2 sisters, Lisa and Susan, with one husband (Mark) and child (Ben) along as a bonus.  Whew, it was exhausting, and then it has taken some time to sort through the 2,500 pictures that were taken.  The advantage of digital pictures is that you don't have to worry about selecting your shots when you take them.  The disadvantage is the selecting later, especially with three shutterbugs along.  Anyway, we headed right away to Bruges.  We have talked about that a bit in the past, so not too much to add now.  It is one of the prettiest cities, and very well preserved, by virtue of the harbor silting up and its becoming a sleepy backwater for centuries.  Bad then, but good now.  
    The next day we took a brief look around Liege, and the big market there, before driving down into the Ardennes to Stavelot for the last Carnaval Parade of the season.  And it was the best we have been to!  Dozens of groups were in the parade, and they each came up with their theme, and made costumes and practiced dance routines, all in a charming little Walloon town.  Everybody took part, young and old, and they all seemed to be having such fun!  It was noisy and boisterous and silly, and culminated with the Blanc Moussis:  hundreds of men and boys, all in white with carrot nosed masks.  They descended on the crowd, making weird huffing noises, whapping you with inflated pig bladders, dangling dead fish in your face and stuffing confettit down everyone's shirts.  It doesn't get any better than that, I know.  Bringing up the rear was a truck with a confetti cannon that left everyone, and the streets, covered as if by snow.
    Back in Esneux, we made a day trip around the south of the Netherlands, visited a castle, and went to the Dom in Aachen.  The interior of the church was covered with beautiful mosaics, that had been recently restored, and that gave the place such an Eastern feel.  Charlemagne (Liege boy makes good!) based his court here, and it is always amazing to think of those who have gone before you  in these old places.
    But then we went even older, to Rome.  We had a great trip there, exploring the layers and layers, each one trying to outdo the previous in proclaiming its glory and power.  We stayed in a great apartment in what used to be a palatial town house, right near the Campo dei Fiori.  We strolled the market there, and thought about Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake here for proposing that we lived in an infinite universe filled with suns like our own.  What was he thinking?  We spent a couple of days wandering the Imperial ruins, and visited a lot of churches.  We especially enjoyed the relics, and Lisa was even able climb up the actual stairs of Pontius Pilate's palace in Jerusalem, trod by Jesus and stained with His blood, and supposedly brought back by the mother of Constantine.  We visited some of the oldest churches in Rome, from the early centuries A.D., and again, they look so much like something you would see in an Eastern Church.  We of course spent some time in St. Peter's, and I am still boggled by the scale of the place.  And at the urging of our friend Katja, Stephanie and I went to the Villa Borghese, which holds three fantastic statues by Bernini, all done when he was just a young man.  You cannot believe that such light and flowing and living creatures have come out of pieces of stone.  Another of the highlights of the trip was dinner at a little Trattoria on the other side of the river, in Trastevare.  The owner was so delightful, and the meal so good, and it was so much fun.
    Back in the north, we drove up for a day in Amsterdam.  Along the way, we saw a windmill turning and pulled off to find it.  It was a mill that Steph and I had visited before, but today the volunteer miller was there, and he gave us a top to bottom tour, showing how the blades are stopped, the sails adjusted, all about the mill itself and all sorts of other kinds of windmills.  He was a delightful character, and filled with passion for his hobby.  Amsterdam was cold and rainy, and we had some troubles finding a good place to eat, but in the end we did, and had one of the best rice tables ever.  We stayed out late, in good Amsterdamer fashion, visiting little brown bars, and the next day when the weather was better took a delightful stroll about the canals.
    Back in Esneux again, we took a nice walk along the river, and ate in the village.  Here are some pictures from Belgium, Holland and Germany.  The next day we were up and out early to get to the airport, and another visit had sped past.  We just had to go back to work to rest up!

February 28, 2010
    The sun broke out on Saturday, and we went to explore a nearby village, Fraiture.  It was a pretty day, and we even felt like Spring might be around the corner.  We rambled through a great example of the terrain around here:  rolling flatland with deeply cut valleys.  The highlight was revisiting an ancient tree that we had first seen soon after we got here.  It is a once magnificent linden, that has lost another big piece its crown since we last were there.  Steph loves to commune with the great trees here.  There is no great wilderness like in the US, but there are so many trees that have stood in a town square, or along an old path, or on an estate, for centuries.  They give such a sense of time's passage and our own place in it.  
    The taste of spring was just that.  We went out today to the city of Mechelen, in Flanders.  It is famous for its carillion, and we wanted to hear its Sunday concert.  The day started gray and rainy and got worse.  By the time we were in Mechelen it was a tempest of wind and rain.  We made the best of it and had a nice coffee and hot wine in a brasserie, and heard the bells from a side street to get out of the gale.  In the end, we retreated to the warmth of the car and home, but we will definitely come back and visit Mechelen again.

February 16, 2010
    There is a bar game where people try to name a famous Belgian (OK, it's not beer pong, but still).  Should you ever find yourself in such a predicament, this list will help you get free drinks.
Valentine's Day, 2010
    We are getting cabin fever!  The weather has been pretty consistently gray and cold since we have been back.  I don't think we have seen the sun more than a few hours in the whole month!  The part that is weirdest for us is the way it has snowed for that last week.  It just seems to be constantly snowing a little bit - sort of a snow drizzle.  It doesn't really accumulate, but it is enough to make driving iffy.  Again, today, it just keeps coming down.  What a calamity:  stuck in the house all day on Valentine's with your lover!
    We have ventured out, of course.  Besides walking and driving a bit in the area, we went to the town of Spa.  It is called the Pearl of the Ardennes, and has been known for its springs since Roman times.  It started to get tourists looking for a cure in the 1600's, and it became the most fashionable place for the well-to-do to retreat for some healing waters.  Notables like Peter the Great, Charles II and Victor Hugo all spent time here, and eventually the town's name became synonymous with a healthful resort.  It is also famous for being the birthplace of Hercule Poirot!  Now it is a quiet place, still with hot mineral springs to relax in, and producing millions of gallons of bottled water (enjoy the Spa adventure!) every year.  In the hills nearby is an area called La Fagne de Malchamps, with translates to something like Bog of the Bad Fields.  Lovely!  It is a big park, with the same sort of treeless grassland as the Hautes Fagnes, criss-crossed with trails and boardwalks where it gets too marshy.  This day, everything was frozen solid, and there was a hard, cold wind blowing.  We ventured up into an observation tower to get the lay of the land, but we are not used to such arctic conditions, and soon retreated.  
    The snow always gives the countryside a new look, and here are a few pictures of Spa, our walk there, and some places closer to home.

January 22, 2010
    Our return to Belgium was uneventful, and we had the prime bulkhead seats on a very crowded flight back.  Thanks again to everybody in Durham who made us feel welcome and missed.  We miss you, too!
    You can find the telling of one of the less glorious stories of the Belgian Military, and its strategic thinking, here.  There was furious fighting at the border when Germany invaded in World War I.  The Belgians were pushed back steadily until the King himself ordered the destruction of the dikes in West Flanders, flooding the fields and halting the advance.  The lines formed there lasted to the end of the war.  
    In the Thirties, the army determined that it would never be overcome like that again.  They would build a great ring of forts along the border that would be unassailable:  no artillery, no infantry could ever take them.  They were even designed to counter the newest development in the last war: tanks and poison gas.  The greatest of these was Eben-Emael, called Fortissimus, and considered to be invincible.  It was stocked and prepared to withstand months of attack, and commanded the passage from Germany just north of Liege.  But there was no planning for an air assault, and it was a complete surprise when fewer than 100 soldiers landed on the fort in gliders and disabled all the guns within minutes.  This battle was one of the first uses of shaped-charge explosives, that have a lethal effect on the thickest armor, and are a scourge in Iraqistan today.  By the next morning the trapped garrison had surrendered, and the mightiest fort ever made had fallen in less than a day. Like the more famous Maginot line in France, fighting the last war is seldom successful.

December 29, 2009
    We are back in Durham for Christmas, and it has been a rather disorienting rush.  We barely stepped off the plane before driving to Tennessee to visit with Stephanie's family, and then turned right around and drove back.  Fortunately, we missed snow leaving Brussels, and then on the drive west, and again back to Durham.  We could see it on the ground, and it made for some pretty scenery, but it did not make driving difficult.  Lena left a few hours after us, and by that time the roads were terrible, and cars were sliding all over the place, so they turned around and crawled home.  We also had to take a big detour up into Virginia, since the highway to Knoxville is closed due to a big landslide and rock fall.  All in all, we had a good visit, and everyone was well there.  We loaded up on salsa, which is the big project of Steph's sister and her husband, "Mr. Sunshine."  For those who know him, this is an ironic name, but he is making and selling some ass-kickin' salsa, a big hit with the boys.
    We were back in Durham for Christmas, and Lena and Steve came for a few days.  We did Christmas on Christmas Eve, and then the day itself came and went with little fanfare.  Since then, we have been working around the house, trying as usual to give everything a thorough cleaning, and repairing everything we can find that needs it.  We are trying to get some visiting in, but it is hard with everyone traveling and visiting their own relatives.  We will be here for another week, then back through the looking glass once again.  We are definitely making plans to return mid-summer, so we are starting to get that "this is the last chance to do X, so we better start planning for it" feeling.  
    It was nice to be in Belgium for autumn this year, and we took a lot of walks in the woods and around the local villages.  It was a pretty time of year, and here are some random pictures to share.

December 3, 2009
You may recall that a year ago I had a highly delayed train trip back from the UK.  For spending hours under the English Channel, I got a free trip through the Chunnel, which we cashed in to take a nice little vacation.  We took the train from Liege, and had a smooth and easy trip to St. Pancras Station in London.  The station was once slated for demolition, but was saved by popular opposition led by  poet John Betjeman.  There is a great statue of him gazing up at the vast vaulted cast iron roof  in the station, along with an interesting bronze commemorating the station during and between the wars.  The next day we made a brief tour of the St. Pancras area, and took in the beautiful illustrated manuscripts in the adjacent British Library before taking the Underground out to Heathrow  to get a car. Steph appreciates the challenge of driving in the UK as long as she has a good navigator which, of course, she does in me. Our goal was to explore the southwest coast of England, and enjoy the bracing sea air while looking for fossils.  Now, the weather is seldom great in November, but at this time it was particularly wild:  the weather lady on TV pointed to 60-70 mile winds, and we sure felt them!  But one thing we have learned here is to not let the weather stop you.  "There is no bad weather, only bad clothing."  It rained some but wasn't cold, and sometimes it was like a hurricane, but we stayed in the car during the worst of it, and it made the trip even more memorable.  We spent the night in Exeter at a nice B&B in a nicely renovated 125 year old townhouse.  Exeter is an old port, and has some outstanding parts from the age of Drake and Raleigh.  It rained a lot, and the cathedral was closed for a concert (does this sound familiar?) and the main tourist thing was closed that day, but we had some good food and the accomodations were pleasant and cozy.  We spent the next days driving the twisty little goat paths that pass for roads in this part of the country, all along the coast, and were glad it was winter.  We couldn't imagine how crowded it must be on a bank holiday in the summer.  At one point we went up on the cliffs above the beach, and there the wind was funneled up the cliff face, and at the top it would nearly blow you right off your feet.  It was wild and fun and exhilarating and we didn't get too wet.  We had several opportunities to enjoy such exhilaration over the 4 days, not least when the window blew wide open in the middle of a particularly stormy night.  We went from village to village, and enjoyed the wind and spray, and the holiday beach towns in the grey. We passed through the Chedder Gorge, with high sheer cliffs on both sides of a narrow gap.  We wondered how it was formed, since there was no river at the bottom.  We found out it was cut when glaciers in Wales melted at the end of the Ice Ages.  Then we got into the really old.  This part of the shore is called "the Jurrasic Coast" and is a showcase of geology.  You can see cliffs of chalk, studded with flint; of slate filled with fossil ammonites and shells; and of red sandstone from ancient deserts, packed with river stones washed out of mountains in what is now France, back when all the continents were packed into one. Those stones now cover the beach all the way to the east of England, and are beautifully colored, and make such a strange noise as the waves roll out.  We hiked up and down the beach, and filled our bags with rocks of all sorts.  Besides checking out the geologically old, we headed back in human time, too.  We visited Shereborne Abbey, which was started as a Saxon church, and has a wonderful fan vaulted ceiling.  The town was really pretty with many medieval buildings preserved because as part of a school they were spared by Henry VIII , and the golden light of the sunset was a special treat.  Finally we trekked through cow fields to commune with some 4000 year old stone circles and mounds.  We headed back to London, and went back in first class, hauling 135 pounds worth of rocks, cheese, cider, pickle, scotch and McVittie's. It was a fun trip, and may just have filled our "old-stuff" needs for a few weeks. We'll see (and you can see here)!

November 23, 2009
    Big News on the Home Front!  Lena and her sweetie Steve have decided to tie the knot!  She is proudly showing off a rock the size of an apple, and we are just thrilled.  My only worry is that she will wreck the car while gazing at it.  This is just in case there is anyone who does not already know.  I called my Mom when we heard, but since then every person I have told already knows.  Good news travels fast, that's for sure.  The date is not set, but will be next Fall.  I am not sure that D-Day was planned that far in advance, but it will be in Charlotte, and the nice places get booked early.  They have been to 19 weddings since they have been together, so they have lots of great ideas, and I am sure it will be a fun one.  It will be a long year to wait, but with an exciting finish at the end - we can't wait!

November 20, 2009
    Once again, Belgium leads the way!  After years of discussion and lots of big wheel possibilities like Tony Blair, the EU has chosen a mild, unknown Belgian as its first President.  The Lisbon Treaty, that set up the office, paints a picture of a strong position, to give Europe a more unified voice on the world stage, and enable it to take its rightful place leading the world.  In the end, the man was chosen for the same reason that Brussels was chosen as the location for the EU government:  Herman van Rumpoy will threaten no one.  There is no risk that the new EU President will be able to impose his will on any of the big countries, so after all the commotion, and hand wringing over the near (second) defeat of the Treaty, things will go on more or less as before.  And how is it viewed in Belgium?  The Flemish are happy to see one of their own in the spotlight.  The Walloons are worried; van Rumpoy was the Prime Minister, chosen after a year of dispute.  He was successful for the same reason he was chosen by the EU:  he ruffled no feathers, and pushed no agenda.  The Francophones are worried that this will open the way for the previous PM to return to office, and he was a staunch Flemmand who could not agree on anything with the French speakers.  We will see!
November 6, 2009
    One day,  while out driving around, we saw an incongruous collection of buildings and parking lots outside a little village.  We went back later to check it out, and it was Banneux, the Belgian Lourdes.  Here, in the winter of 1933, the Virgin Mary appeared to an 11 year old girl.  She was seen 8 times over the course of 6 weeks (despite that a big stone monument says 7 times), and only ever by little Mariette, even though others were with her sometimes.  There is a theme here that, with the exception of the occasional tortilla or tree trunk, She ususually appears to pre-pubescent girls.  She led the girl to a spring, and told her that it was dedicated to all the nations of the world, for the relief of their suffering.  A chapel was built, then a monastery and convent, and eventually an entire complex which is visited by thousands every year.  Many of these people are ill, and come hoping for a cure.  We drew some water from the spring to quench our physical thirst, more than our spiritual.  And what message did the Virgin bring to the anxious ears of the world?  "Pray hard."
    As we usually do, we took a walk in the area.  The map showed a series of chapels, and we thought we would check it out.   We found the monuments, but all but one had lost their tiles.  We did see one oddity, though.  We came on a patch of woods that reminded  us of walking in Durham:  there were pines with their tops broken off, big uprooted trees, and even a big oak that was all broken up.  It looked for all the world like a mini-tornado had touched down, although we had not had a notable big storm recently.  It was pretty strange, since they don't have the sort of big weather we do at home, or maybe is was another divine visit.  See it all right here!

November 5, 2009
    And the Belgians again!  

October 25, 2009
    A view of life from A.A. Gill, in the context of Europe, or at least Europeans:

"I've often thought that Europe is an allegory for the ages of man.  You're born Italian.  They're relentlessly infantile and mother-obsessed.  In childhood, we're English: chronically shy, tongue-tied, cliquey, and only happy kicking balls, pulling the legs off things or sending someone to Coventry.  Teenagers are French: pretentiously philosophical, embarrassingly vain, ridiculously romantic and insincere.  Then, in middle age, we become either Swiss or Irish.  Old age is German: ponderous, pompous and pedantic.  Then finally we regress into being Belgian, with no idea who we are at all."

    Well, I guess we are Swiss at this point.  And remember, whenever there is a joke, the punchline is always 'Belgium'!

October 24, 2009
    We are back in Belgium after a too short visit to Durham.  The highlight was Graham and Heather's wedding, and it was very lovely.  The service was brief but moving, and then the feasting began. Hmm, meatballs!  It was a chance to get the kids all together and dressed, so we took a few pics.  The house was standing, although the grass was impressive.  The cursed japanese stilt grass was everywhere, and it is going to be a long process to get the yard back looking like like a magazine.  At least a magazine besides "Beastly Home and Gardens."  My Mom and Steph's folks came to visit, and we got together and played cards and visited with the locals.  The boys are doing well: Mark was working some, and John had a break from school.  We celebrated two birthdays: Lena's 27th and John's 21st.  As my Mom says to me, "How can you be so old when I'm still so young?"  Steph spent a few days at the beach, and I worked in our office in Durham, but the rest of the time we felt like we were trying to fit 6 months' worth of repairs and chores into a week.  We are glad to be back in Esneux so we can rest up for a while.  As usual, some pictures!
September 30, 2009

    We are getting ready (ok, fixin') to fly to Durham for a few weeks.  We will visit with the kids, and my Mom, and Steph's Mom and Dad, and try to catch up with the folks in town.  And of course, the party of the year at Graham and Heather's wedding.  Closing things up here, Steph finished up some slides of chateaux and countrysides that she visited with Buff and Pats.  There are some beautiful country houses here. You see them here.  
    And one more weird thing:  I know it's past the peak of the story, but you remember Caster Semenya, the South African runner who was called out for being "not quite a woman"?  If you rearrange the letters in her name, you get "Yes, a secret man."  You can not make that stuff up.

A quick follow up:  a fun part of summer here is the parades.  There are lots, and everybody comes out to enjoy the weather and see their friends and neighbors dressing up in costume.  We went to Ath with Lena, and here's a few more pictures of that.  We also went to the parade in Outremeuse, in Liege, which is all about Tchantches and Nanesse, like we dressed up as at Carneval.  Here's some pictures of the colorful fun.

September 27, 2009

    A busy month has gone by since the last post.  Lena and her Travel Buddy, Claire, came for a too brief visit.  They spent a few days with us, then took off on their own for a few, then we met up for a trip to Switzerland.  It is great when visitors come and shake us out of our groove!

    Claire was Lena's room mate at App, and they had travelled in Europe together before.  They met up and flew to Frankfurt, then took the train to Cologne, where we met them.  They said the train ride was wild, as it was full of soccer fans coming for a big match.  The train was full of bottles, and met by squads of police.  We had a nice drink in a small square and lunch in a garden cafe, then climbed to the top of the cathedral.  If there is a tower, we will climb it!  It was a beautiful day, and the views over the city were excellent.  We took off the next day to the Ducasse, a parade of giant puppets in Ath, south of Brussels, that has been going on for about 500 years.  The parade had a nice feel to it, and in addition to the bands and old (and old time) soldiers, had great floats on wagons, drawn by beautiful, sturdy Belgian draft horses.  Everyone was in good spirits, and it was fun being with two such cute girls, as everyone turned an eye and wanted to chat them up.  We went on to Tournai, one of the great old cities of Belgium.  Despite having suffered a lot in the various wars, it has an outstanding cathedral and a famous bell tower.  We sat in the square and watched the passers-by, had dinner in a nice little place run by a hard working young couple, and made the long drive home.

    The girls went into Brussels for some siteseeing and shopping.  The day got off to a poor start in Leuven when they made the mistake of addressing the man at the train ticket counter in tourist French.  Now, here are two sweet girls, obviously not Belgian, just being nice, and he said "Do not speak French to me.  That is an insult here."  Wow.  Leuven is where, in the late '60s, the Dutch speaking faculty declared that the Catholic University, one of the earliest established in Europe, was henceforth a Flemish institution, and threw out the French faculty.  They went a few kilometers over the border to Wallonia, and chartered the first new Belgian city in 500 years, called Louvain-la-Neuve, or New Leuven, and set up their own Catholic University of Louvain.  I am told the library was divided by taking alternate books, so one has volumes A, C, and E, and in the other University, volumes B,  D, and F.   For the girls, the rest of the day got better, and they returned tired but loaded with booty.

    The next day, we delivered them to the train station, with tickets to go down into Alsace, in France.  They boarded fine, but the train was delayed in leaving, and they arrived in Namur late, with just seconds to jump onto the train to.....Brussels!  Oh, no, totally the wrong way.  This meant they ended up taking the whole day to get to Strasburg, and they missed out on a planned castle, but it was raining anyway, so it was good day to be indoors on a train.  A few days later, Steph and I drove down to Colmar to meet them.  The first thing you see driving into town is a 40 foot Statue of Liberty, since this was the home of its sculptor, Bertholdi.   The houses in town are all timber frame with the (usually white) parts in between painted various shades of pastel.  A nice and very pretty city, bursting with flowers.  From there we went down to Switzerland, and spent a few days in Interlaken.  We took cable cars, and walked all day on trails high above, and then down in, a perfect U-shaped glacial valley.  We went to Trummelbach Falls, where a gushing river of icy glacial melt water works its way, in a series of falls, through a cave in the mountain.  You climb up past thundering water and spray, going inside and out of the mountain.  Very dramatic!  There were perfect snow capped mountains all around, and the whole effect was as cute and Heidi-licious as could be.  The next day we walked through the woods above the lakes, and while the weather was cloudier, it made for dramatic views.  We toured around Thun, and its castle, and after a refreshing lunch by the icy river, we made our way to our hotel near Frankfurt..  The girls are hardy and hearty travellers, and were a joy to have with us.  Thanks for the memories!

August 18, 2009

    We visited last weekend with our friends Diederik and Karin Engbersen in the Dutch city of Breda.  They lived in Durham for a few years, then in France for a while, before settling back in the Netherlands for their boys' teen  years.  We biked around town, had a great dinner and a lovely visit.  While sitting at a sidewalk cafe, we saw an entirely new sort of biker bar, that you can see here.  A short drive away was an interesting little place at the end of a narrow, winding lane, on top of a dyke - a combination art gallery and farm preserve, filled with outdoor statuary of all sorts and old, heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables.  It was run by a garrulous eccentric with a great mop of white curls.  We wandered about, and had a glass of juice and chatted for a bit, enjoying a different sort of place.  Afterwards, we went to Leerdam, which is a small town famous for its glassmakers.  We poked our heads into a bunch of little shops, and saw some totally amazing pieces.  They were beautiful, but expensive, and to be honest, I would be afraid to have something so precious and fragile about the house.  Here are some pictures from the weekend.

    On the way home, we stopped in the towns of Baarle-Hertog and Baarle-Nassau.  This is a funny relic, a bit of history echoing down to the present day.  Baarle-Hertog is a Belgian town, but it is about 5 km inside of the Netherlands, and completely surrounded by its neighbor, the Dutch town of Baarle-Nassau.  Within its boundries are also isolated bits of Baarle-Nassau, making for islands inside of islands, and even I think an island inside of that.  There are a few other places along this bit of the border, with a few similar islands of Holland inside of Belgium.  Today this is a curiosity, but it used to be more of a bother.  Before the Euro, you would always need to have some Belgian and Dutch currency in your pocket, and there were differences about whether stores were open on the weekend, and the closing times of restaurants and bars.  This meant that at a certain time of night, everyone would get up and go across the street to keep drinking.  Because many homes and businesses straddled the border, it was decided that the front door would determine whether a building was in Holland or Belgium.  This would often change along with the tax laws, as people decided it was better to have their property in one country or another.

    All this relates back to the Middle Ages when part of the land was given by one nobleman to another and then loaned back again, in a classic lease back deal. But the lease didn't include all the land, and some bits were kept aside.  Ever since then it was a patchwork of claims that somehow never was consoidated.  When it came time to create a border between Belgium and Holland it was drawn based on these ancient claims, with historic lands of the Duke of Brabant going to Belgium and those of the Count of Breda and Nassau going to the Netherlands.  The land holdings of the nobles were particularly intermingled in this area, and it was impossible to draw a clean border between them.  So, more than 5000 parcels of land were examined and put into countries individually, resulting in the puzzle pieces still seen today.  There have been various attempts through the years to sort it out more sensibly, but these have always failed, and now everyone is so used to the idea that it will stay the way it is.  They have sorted out services, with one country handling the mail, another the post, one the water system, etc.  An interesting side effect of all this is that, because the area has always been under multiple jurisdictions, it has been hard to organize big projects.  As a result, it contains some of the least disturbed ecosystems in the country, and a great and unusual diversity of wildlife.  Though more united now than ever, Baarle is still an interesting town. 


August 12, 2009

    People here don't do Halloween, but they still enjoy getting into costume.  While Buff was visiting there was a medieval fair in the nearby town of Comblain, and off we went.  Sure enough, in a meadow above the town, under some rocky cliffs, a little tent village appeared, and lots of folks took the opportunity to get in touch with their roots.  There were a variety of vendors and tradespeople, and assorted odd-balls, more or less in character.  One funny, round jester always drew a crowd as he waved his very anachronistic toilet plunger, and another was constantly berating the passersby for not addressing him with the proper titles and respect he was due as the local Seigneur.  There was a battery of archers who loosed flight after flight of arrows into a nearby field.  They did not show the 250 yard range of the English as Agincourt ("We few, we happy few, we band of brothers") but they did rain down some destruction on the grass.  The highlight of the day was the tournament of mounted knights.  These people took it to the max, and were in full knightly regalia, including the horses.  They thundered about with their lances and slicing off heads to the delight of the crowd.  It all looked like great fun, and I guess the Middle Ages weren't so bad, as long as you overlook the cold, filth, hunger and disease!  You can see some pictures here.


August 3, 2009

    Such a long time without an update!  We’ve been busy with visitors and the usual at work, but have been trying hard to catch up.  So, here’s a few highlights. 

    Just after our last post, we went up into Flanders to celebrate Mid-Summer’s Night.  This is the longest day of the year, and as one of the main points in the solar year, it’s been a festival time since forever.  To get in touch with our roots, we went to an outdoor museum with dwellings and craftsmen from Neolithic to Roman times.  There were old (style) houses of logs and thatch like what people were living in here in ~3000 BC, up to when the Romans took control about 100 BC.  Living in them would be snug, I suppose, but like being in a hole in the ground.  There were people practicing all sorts of crafts.  My favorites were a group smelting out the copper from ore; even with fans to help the charcoal fires, the yield was tiny.  And a gang of burly blacksmiths, striking while the iron is hot, all in sequence around a circle.  The highlight of the evening was setting fire to a giant wooden man.  When he flared up at midnight (as it was just getting dark), the pagans danced in circles and called for a bountiful year.  Or something like that…we couldn’t really catch it all.

Buff Gibson came to see us for a few weeks, and part of that time overlapped with a visit with Patz.  All this stuff will be a bit jumbled, and we’ve grouped some pictures together.  The first big expedition was a trip to northern Germany and Denmark for the ladies.  Here’s Steph’s account:


    What a dream vacation I've just enjoyed.  My two closest friends over here and the open road ahead.  I couldn't resist the call and we three, Buff Gibson and Patz Laniak and I, left on Sunday evening and drove to Lubeck in northern Germany.  Lubeck is a lovely old town, once queen of the Hanseatic League and now recognized by UNESCO as a cultural treasure.  Today it is a bustling German metropolis.  We had a lovely evening stroll about the old town and enjoyed our dinner on the quay by the river.  Ah, what a lovely night as you'll see.  After doing some shopping and sight-seeing the next morning, we hit the road north into Denmark adn up the peninsula to the northern port of Aarhus.  The following morning we visited the second of our UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  These are places that have contributed in an important way to the cultural history of the world. 

    Jelling is the site of a stone ship grave site with two large mounds placed within the stone outline of a ship. Sprinkled between the mounds are great carved stones which are eloquent in their praises to King Gorm and his wife Thyra, parents of Harald Bluetooth,direct ancestors of Denmark's current monarch.  The mounds and stones date from mid-900's but the stone ship burial ground is far older.
    We headed east and south toward Copenhagen stopping at the third of the sites: the cathedral at Roskilde.  This striking red church houses the tombs of  most of the kings and queens of Denmark beginning with said Harald of the blue tooth, many  in ornate crypts glommed on the the ancient Gothic brick edifice. It sits on a small rise looking out over the fingers of water from which the Vikings began their voyages to far horizons.  We wished we'd had more time there, it was a lovely and interesting church.
    We drove on to Copenhagen where we spent a couple of days.  Copenhagen is a small city which is easy to walk around in or bike,  with most of the sights  within walking distance, a perfect place for a cruise excursion which it is for thousands of people.The photos show it best so I'll let them speak.   We turned south and left Denmark the Viking way, by ship.  I have great admiration for those brave explorers who fanned out across the globe in little wooden boats.  On our way home we got caught in the gravitational pull of Amsterdam and so we met up with Jim at the end of his work week and the end of our 4 day Daneland adventure. I had a great time, relaxing, fun and invigorating. I certainly hope my friends enjoyed themselves as much as I did.  Thanks Ladies!  


    So, we all met up and enjoyed a day in Amsterdam.  The more time I spend there, the more I think it is such a great city.  We had a nice, though short visit, including a turn through the van Gogh museum.  It was good to see Patz again, and there was even a brief visit with her brother Philip, who is living with his wife and daughters in Munich.  They were spending a few weeks in a lovely farmhouse in Belgium and Steph and Buff made a visit. 

    The girls also walked around Maastricht in southern Netherlands one afternoon while waiting for me to get in on the train.  It is a lovely city, with an odd red-stone church tower.  We also took the opportunity while Buff was here to go to Belgium’s second city, Antwerp.  This is a beautiful city in Flanders, built around what is one of the most important ports in Europe.  Near the water is a nice collection of boats, from gleaming hand built pleasure craft to great barges.  And a few really eccentric models, too.  There is a bit of the old walls (the Steen, or Stone), lots of little alleyways that have not changed in hundreds of years, and the largest Gothic church in the low countries above it all.  The church is huge with two aisles on each side, and when we were there a bunch of paintings by Reubens and his contemporaries, that used to all be in the cathedral, had been brought together again from museums all over.  The church is dedicated to the Virgin, Our Dear Lady, and a beautiful virgin can be found on many a street corner.  At least I assume they are all virgins.  In the main square is a statue depicting the mythical hero Brabo, throwing into the river the severed hand of a giant who was terrorizing the populace.  Some say the city’s name comes from the Dutch words for hand and throw.  More likely it is from the Latin name Antverpia, from ‘before the curve in the river.’  Not as romantic, but more Roman, and none the less, there are hands all over the place, from cookies to civic art.  We wandered all over the city center, and ended up in Cogels-Osy Lei, which is filled with incredible houses all built around the beginning of the 20th century for the super-wealthy of the day.  These are monumental places, in all sorts of whimsical styles, and with lots of excellent examples of Art Nouveau.  We need to do a picture series about all the great houses we have seen, so only a few are in this set.  Finally, we dropped into Brussels for a few hours, to let Buff get a peek at the Grand Place, and of course, the Manneken Pis, this time with no costume at all.  Here's a few photos of these great cities. 

    Mixed into all this were some hikes in the countryside, a big medieval fair with mounted knights and outings to great chateaux.  More on that later.  All in all, a fun visit that flew right by.  Thanks for coming to see us Buff!

June 22, 2009   
We just had a lovely visit from my sister Carolyn and her family (Mark, and their charming daughters, Hope and Nora).  They had lived in London for years, and if they go back and sign up every two years, they keep their resident status.  So, this being a year to visit England, and catch up with their mates, they also came over and spent a week in Belgium.  They, like many people, were pretty sure they had been to Belgium, but only on the way to somewhere else.  When they told people in London that they were going to Liège, the common response was "Why?"  So you can imagine we felt some pressure to show the place off to the best possible advantage.  The weather cooperated beautifully,  and the tourists were hardy (especially Carolyn, who had a hurt foot, but never complained!), so we tried to pack all sorts of stuff in, as usual.  Being the experienced travelers they are, they came under the Channel on the Eurostar, and caught a train to the beautiful new train station in Liège.  The next day, it was bright and sunny and we walked all around Esneux and up along the cliffs over the river, and Mark and I rode bikes to Tilff, were we met up with the girls for a cool one at a cafe on the square.  After that, I generously let Nora ride my bike back to Esneux, while I went back in the car.  It was a pretty day to just enjoy the beautiful village and countryside we live in.  We went the next day to Dinant, which is a ways up the Meuse from Liège.  It crouches at the bottom of sheer cliffs along the river, with a huge fortress at the top, the Citadel. Tucked up against the rock is an impressive church, with an unusual onion domed belfry.  It is a replacement, the original being squashed by a chunk of falling rock in 1227, leaving only a single arched door as a reminder.  Some of us walked, and some of us took "the world's shortest cable car" up to the Citadel.  This fortress was one of a series built by the Dutch in the early 19th century, also including Namur, Huy and Liège, each guarding one of the few bridges over the Meuse.  In exchange for being given the land that is now Belgium, the Netherlands had to fortify the boundary between France and Germany, to keep them each from invading the other.  You see how well that worked. In any event, the Belgians soon revolted and declared independence, so they could have their own country for others to invade.  Dinant has a long history of being on the wrong end of things, from 800 townspeople tied up and thrown in the river by the Burgundians in 1466 to 674 men, women and children executed by the Germans in 1914, with several other burnings and pillages in between.  More recently Dinant was the birthplace of Adolph Sax, of saxophone fame, and is also known for its very special cookies.  We bought one, and now suspect the whole thing is an elaborate hoax on tourists. They looked good, and would make wonderful heirlooms to pass down through the generations, rather like fruitcake.  They could not be bitten, could barely be broken, and sat in your mouth for ages before finally softening up enough to chew.  On the plus side, they keep very well.  We went from Dinant and visited Chateau Veves.  It was a great, castle-ey pile dating from 1410 with 5 big turreted towers.  It is still owned by the old family, although now they live in another chateau up the road, not to be confused with the huge, ruined one on the next ridge.  Veves has lots of beautifully furnished rooms, and even one with a moose head , and reminded us of the aristocracy we are not.
    Carolyn wanted to visit Bruges, featured in  the movie "In Bruges" (best line: "Ken, I grew up in Dublin. I love Dublin. If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me but I didn't and I'm not, so it doesn't."). However, since none of us grew up in Dublin, Bruges does impress us, being such a beautiful and well preserved city, especially under blue skies.  We mostly spent the day wandering about, and Stephanie and I walked nearly around the city, which turned out to be a pretty long way.  We saw an interesting exhibit about the Burgundian kings, who seem to be turning up everywhere these days.  We had a nice dinner of local dishes, and headed home.  The next day we went into Liège, and the ladies shopped while the gents took in some of the tourist highlights.  One thing I learned in Bruges was that one of the Burgundians (Charles the Bold) was pissed off at Liège, and as punishment took the Perron fountain, the symbol of Liègoise liberty, and carted it off to Bruges!  Fortunately, his daughter (Mary the Rich) brought it back, little the worse for wear, and the current version is still found in its ancient spot in the center of the city.  In all, a nice quiet day to rest up.
    Mark has a great interest (OK, obsession) about WWII, so we had to take a trip down into Battle of the Bulge country in the Ardennes.  We went to La Roche-en- Ardenne, a cute little village on the banks of the Ourthe, that has a great war museum (bettter than Bastogne), and a nice castle ruin built of odd flat stones,.  The village is all newly built, since the town was almost completely flattened by the Allies in the very closing days of the war.  Searching for that perfect gift for their hosts, Carolyn and Mark found it:  a bottle of rare "Crème d'Ecureuil."  This could be translated as either Cream of Squirrel or Squirrel Cream, depending on whether your thoughts run to blenders or rodent porn.  Either way, "Hmmm, good."  We left La Roche to drive waaaaaaay up a narrow dirt road, then walk deep into the woods to Cheslé.  This is the site of a Neolithic (700 BC) fortress perched high on the mountain top in a loop of the river Ourthe.  Lots of the original earthworks are still visible, and a bit of palisade has been rebuilt.  It was very peaceful and bucolic, and we had the entire site to ourselves.  It was really striking to look around from there, at the mountains and unbroken forest, and realize we were not way up in Appalachia somewhere, but right in the middle of densely populated Europe.  We've been regularly surprised at how rural and remote much of the country is.  Trivia note:  William Shakespeare's mother was Mary Arden, whose family emigrated to Warwickshire from their ancestral home in the Ardennes after being given land by William the Conquerer.
    Our last trip out was to Brussels, and we paid homage to the main sights in the Grand Place and to the Mannekin Pis.  This day, he was dressed as a butcher.  I was discomfited to see him there pissing away when he should have been chopping chops.  We visited a chocolate shop and got a demonstration about how the different kinds of chocolates are made, and they had some amazing examples to see and taste.  We also toured through the newly opened René Magritte museum.  He is my favorite surrealist, made all the more interesting by his decidedly conventional, bourgeois lifestyle.  He apparently had a falling out with his fellow artists because he insisted on staying with his original wife.  How boring!  You would recognize some of his images, among them a bowler hatted man with an apple obscuring his face, or a huge mountain of stone floating cloud like in the sky.  His most famous painting is of a pipe, with the words "This is not a pipe" painted below.  He believed that a painting is not simply an image, but a container for ideas.  
    All too soon, our visit was over, and our guests hopped on the train to head back to London.  We had a great week of visiting, eating, drinking, getting schooled by the girls in a variety of games, and getting to know more about Belgium than one would think possible. Here, as usual, some pictures.  Glad you could make it, and thanks for all the Squirrel!


May 31, 2009
    It's been a busy month, and so we are way behind on the updates, but I know May has been sweeps month on TV, so the millions dependent on this site for entertainment have had an alternative.  Where to begin?  We were in the States for a few weeks in May, and spent most of our time trying to jam 6 months' worth of lawn and garden upkeep, home repairs and auto maintenance into just a few weekends.  A lot to do, but nothing was in terrible shape; just the inevitable input of energy necessary to keep entropy at bay.  It was nice to enjoy the flowers that were in bloom, and spring is always a lovely time to be in NC.  My Mom made her semi-annual visit, on her way to Colorado.  It's always a pleasure, and this time things didn't get heated as we had nothing to complain about regarding the president, as we have for some years.  We had a few opportunities to play bridge and catch up with the crowd, and special thanks to all those who put on some sort of affair while we were there.  And of course, we always love seeing the little angels.  John was through with school for the year, and Lena came up two weekends, so we had a good dose of familial bliss while we were there.
    I went into work while in Durham, and got to enjoy the cool vibe of OncoMethylome West.  While there I got this link from my pal Joe Bigley.  At last, all is revealed about Joe Cocker's famous rendition of "A little help from my friends."  Remember:  "Hoggify!"  That says it all.  It reminded us that we had seen the touring show of "Lemmings" many years ago.  This was a National Lampoon satire of the music business, and featured Chevy Chase and others before they were famous, including John Belushi doing his take on Joe Cocker.  Ah, the good old days.
    Finally, or rather firstly, we took a trip to France in April for my birthday, and have some pictures to show for it.  We headed down through Luxembourg into Burgandy;  the first thing we stumbled on was some of the remains of the Maginot Line, which was supposed to defend France from Germany, so they could never be invaded again.  Unfortunately, the Germans just went around through neutral Belgium, and all the forts were for nought.  In fact, Belgium had made its own version, with a line of supposedly impregnable super-fortresses along the border, but those fell in days.  That's a story I will have to elaborate on sometime.  Anyway, we continued on south, and stopped off in Rodemack.  This is a pretty, walled town, which had a strangely Mediterranean feel to it.  We noticed the same thing in other parts of  Burgandy, and figured it was a residual from the long occupation by the Romans.  
From there we went to Domremy-la-Pucelle, birthplace of Joan of Arc.  It was a rather unremarkable village, except for the many large and dramatic statues of the Maid of Orleans.  Hers is a sad story, as she did all she could for her country and its king, and in the end was captured by the Burgundians and turned over to the English, who then burned her.  The point all this brought home was that while we think of Burgandy today as part of France, at the time it was a completely independent and adversarial state, and aligned with the English, who were trying to assert their dominion over the whole place.  It all makes you appreciate the brevity and simplicity of our history.  I am reminded of the joke when I told someone my kid was studying American History in school: he asked what they did after the first few weeks.
    We stayed in a nice little hotel in Dijon, capital of Burgundy, former seat of the powerful Dukes of Burgandy, and of course, center of the mustard universe.  Dijon had lots of old timber frame buildings, and a huge palace, with a tower we just had to climb.  Also, lots of the roofs had shiney glazed colored tiles, all in geometric patterns.  We had a lovely dinner in a restaurant named "La Chouette," which is the name of a little owl who is the mascot of Dijon.  She is carved into a corner of the wall of the church, and if you fit your hand in just so, your wish will come true.  Sadly, she was smashed by vandals a few years ago, but has since been repaired.  In the countryside, you drive through endless vineyards, and each little vine has been meticulously pruned and left with a single shoot tied to a wire.  A huge amount of hand labor, expended in the exercise of the vintner's art.  Unfortunately, the glory of the product is largely lost on me, as I have, let's just say, an untrained palate.  But, of course, we did enjoy a drop or two with our meals.  
    We made an excursion to the site of Vercingetorix's last stand.  He was a great leader of the Gauls, and raised an army to fight the Romans, led by Julius Caesar.  This was all the more remarkable since his father had been killed by the Gauls themselves because they thought he was getting too powerful.  Since Caesar's history of the wars in Gaul includes "I came, I saw, I conquered," you can guess how it turned out.  After a back and forth campaign that could have gone either way, Vercingetorix retreated with 80,000 men to a walled town and the nearby hills.  Caesar surrounded him with 40,000 men, built miles of fortifications to hold them in, and laid seige.  Meanwhile, an even bigger army of Gauls came to lift the siege, so the Romans built a second set of fortifications to keep them out.  They were able to keep both sides of this double ring intact, and eventually the Gauls were starved into submission.  It was a great example of the strength of the Romans through superior engineering, organization and discipline. Vercingetorix rode out of camp to surrender, and was taken off to be paraded about in Rome, and eventually killed.  Bad for him, but he now joins Joan of Arc as a great hero and founder of the nation of France, and there is a colossal statue erected in his honor here.
    Our one disappointment came when we went to the hilltop town of Vézelay.  It is renowned for having a ancient and impressive basilica, which was a principle stopping point for pilgrims going to Santiago de Compostela.  To get there, you have to climb up steep streets to the top of the hill, and we were joined by women in their high heels, families pushing strollers, little old ladies - a regular motley crew of pilgrims.  But when we got to the top, the basilica was closed, for a concert!  So, we were turned away, on Easter.  Honestly!  We poked around in several more towns, and took in lots of  beautiful, rolling farmland.  Finally, since it was Easter, we went looking for a lamb dinner.  But this quest was also in vain, and it was getting late and we had a long way to drive, so we settled on a kabab from a little shop.  In the end, it was good, and it was lamb.
May 3, 2009
    Stephen Gibson had some business in Switzerland, and was able to come to Esneux and visit with us for a few days.  He got a real taste of our life here, as we hauled out and drove around the countryside, looking at old stuff, and hiking up and down the hills until we were about to drop.  Steph picked him up at the train station in Liege, and they drove up to Maastricht to sightsee a little and get me on my return from Amsterdam.  They explored the Basilica of St. Servatius, who was the bishop in the 4th century there after moving from Tongeren.  The present building is from the 11th C., on the site of his original church, which was on top of a Roman temple, which was probably on top of a pagan spring or oak or something.  Sacred spots stay sacred spots.
    Friday was very pretty, and we took a drive to Annevoie, a chateau that had been in the same family for 10 generations.  Since the 17th C they have been working on the gardens there, and they are beautiful.  There are fountains all over, and since they are fed by natural springs, they run all the time, and have for centuries.  Besides the flower gardens, there were some great ancient trees to admire, too.  We were surprised to see the parking lot full of great old cars, and realized there was a road rally that day.  A little later, we stopped for lunch at a curve in the road, and enjoyed the show as we ate.  We also headed off to another chateau, at Spontin, but despite the indications in the tourist guides, it was closed up tight.
    Steve and I have an interest in geology, and Steph likes to hike through the woods, so we followed a marked Geology Walk in nearby Comblain-au-Pont.  One thing this area has in spades is geology.  The low countries are formed from the delta of the Rhine, and there were successive layers of sand (if it was at the mouth of the river), clay (if it was further out from the mouth) or plankton bodies (if it was sea floor) deposited, which eventually became  sandstone, slate or limestone.  These layers were then all folded up, and exposed by the rivers as the land uplifted.  Or it was all laid down during the Great Flood, your choice.  In either event, there are cliffs showing the twisted layers, and you can find lots of fossils and various sorts of rock, and there are quarries everywhere.  All this was well explained with "didactic panels" along the walk, and there were even some odd features like a deposit of sand that never formed into rock.  Interspersed were random bits of art, carved from the local stone, and using iron as seen in the quarries.  We ended up on the rolling plateau above, strolling though the bucolic farmland.  We paid a visit to our favorite local site in Anthines, and had some refreshment in the cellers and a look about the towers.  We finished off the day with a stroll (OK, climb) up to the hilltop of Esneux, before a typical Belgian dinner of mussels and frites.
  On Sunday, we went to a medieval fair in Grez-Doiceau.  We have seen others that were more active, and the grey weather didn't help, but it was a nice enough little town.  The highlight was a shot of  "bee pee," a honey flavoured liqueur, served up by a cute young lad in full bee regalia.  Later we continued our geology theme with a visit to the coal mine museum in Blegny, just north of Liege.  Coal mining was a huge industry in the area, and although all the mines have since closed, you can see the hills formed by the discarded rock all around.  The museum is on the site of the last big mine to close, and it still has all its machinery in place, left like everyone just walked away one day.  Our tour guide was a "Mario," one of thousands of Italians who came to work in the mine in the '50's.  The only problem was that he spoke heavily accented French, mixed with local dialect, and we could hardly understand him as he constantly teased Steph with jokes we didn't get.  Even though the work was incredibly difficult and dangerous, men cried when the mines closed.
    Finally, we stopped in Liege and took a turn around the city center.  After a final burst of tourism, we settled in at the "House of Peket" for a taste of the traditional drink of the city, a cool fruit flavored gin, at a sidewalk cafe.  Could be worse!  

May 2, 2009

    Last spring we went to see the tulips in Holland, and this year we have enjoyed a beautiful variety of flowers of all sorts in Belgium.  When Steve was here we took advantage of a sunny day to go for a drive and a visit to the gardens of Chateau Annevoie.  There were nice parts in the French, Italian and English styles, and there were fountains everywhere that were all fed by natural springs and a big canal at the top of the property, and all flowing steadily on their own for hundreds of years.  
    While the gardens were beautiful, a really nice surprise this spring has been the vast drifts of white flowering trees on the hills around our house, and also the rolling fields of flowering fruit trees just to the north.  Those in the forest seem more natural, but of course, nearly every tree we see was planted by someone.
    For a few weeks each spring, the King of the Belgians (that's right; he is not the King of Belgium, but of the Belgians) opens the gates of the palace at Laken in Brussels and lets the hoi polloi wander in to see the greenhouses and a bit of the grounds.  The Palace is not particularly noteworthy, but the greenhouses are.  They were built in the 1890's by Leopold II, designed by a pioneer of Art Nouveau, and his young assistant, Victor Horta, who went on the be a great name in design and architecture.  They consist of several huge domes, connected by great long tunnels of glass.  The domes are filled with enormous palms and ferns, and all sorts of exotic tropical plants.  This was all started when the King ruled the Congo, and people wanted to show off the mysteries of the "dark continent."  The scale of these old specimens, especially the ferns, was impressive.  Apparently the King was a great fan of fuschia, and there were scores of varieties, each more brilliant than the last.  The whole thing was a riot of color, in high contrast to the greyness of Brussels on a typical day.  As usual, you can see some pictures here.

April 24, 2009

    Our friend Steve has come to visit for a few days.  Today the weather was beautiful, and we went to visit the gardens of the Chateau Annevoie.  More on that later.  While we were walking around Esneux I was reminded that I had not posted some pictures I have of the village.  I found some old postcards of the area, and then found a lot more old photos on the internet.  It is fun to look at the scenes and figure out what is still there and what has changed.  I have put together a few pairs to compare.  You can see a few of the changes to Esneux since its hey-day at the turn of the 20th century.

April 18, 2009
    Our kids are often amazed at the incredibly fun and exciting things we do here in Belgium.  For example, sometimes we go out and look for......piles of dirt.  No, really.  The southern part of Belgium was part of the Roman Empire, and that boundary between the Latin and Germanic world is still reflected in the Walloon/Flanders division of the country.  Anyway, if you were a big shot Roman your tomb could be a big pile of dirt along the road.  And I mean big:  some of these are 30 feet high and 50 feet across.  I am not sure if that made up for the fact that these poor bastards were posted to the grey, rainy north while dreaming of sunny Italy.  It is amazing that they are still here, in the middle of some field, or behind a store, and they have not been eroded away by the rain, or plowed under by successive generations of farmers.  We first saw one along the road to Brussels, and looked into it further.
    They can be found all over the flat country at the edge of the Ardennes, and also around eastern France, and were made between about 100 BC and 300 AD.  Some have been excavated, and you can find relics in the local museums.  Before the Romans, around 3000-3500 BC, the local tribes also made burial mounds for their leaders.  These were walls of big stones, typically capped with a massive stone slab, and originally covered by dirt.  Now they can be found scattered about the countryside, often part of larger arrangements of tombs and standing stones.  It may not be Stonehenge, but they are pretty cool anyway.  A nice bonus when out looking is finding herds of cattle that also look positively pre-historic.  I am not sure if they have a special quality of meat, or if they are just kept as heirloom strains, but they would look right at home being chased by the hunters who built the ancient stone dolmen.
April 4, 2009
    When we first moved in, we could see that there was something built into the bank across from our house.  You couldn't really tell what it was, since it was all overgrown and full of trash and leaves, but I decided to take it on as a project. I needed this, since as renters there is nothing to do around the house except planting a few flowers in the garden.  Some clearing away revealed a stone fountain providing water to the few people living along the road, but also to people heading out of town.  I cleared away the plants, dug out all the dirt and trash, and cleaned off a lot of moss and mold.  Then you could see that there was an inscription carved in the stone, and that it was dated October 1895.  Meanwhile, I have repainted the lettering and kept the brush cut back.  The neighbors think it's a pretty odd thing to do, and we occasionally see someone stop and take a photo.  It turns out this fountain was part of a bigger project by the chatelaine of the local chateau to bring fresh drinking water to the people.  Besides a scattering of fountains in Esneux, she commissioned 25 cast bronze fountains for the streets of Liege.  She also established an orphanage and hospital, and the Commune of Esneux showed its appreciation by erecting a great stone and metal statue of Charity mothering her infants in her memory.

March 8, 2009
    We have been taking walks every weekend, and sometimes during the week, now that the light has started to return to Belgium.  The weather is still mostly rainy and grey, but if you let bad weather keep you home, you would never leave the house.  And we often find that we can leave the house in the rain, and in just a little while find ourselves with the sun peeking out.  Stephanie says this walking is to try to reduce some of the chocolate that we have accumulated over the winter, but I like to think it is just to get some air and take in the sights.  As was have mentioned, there is a great system of trails around here, all well maintained and marked, and we have a nice map we got when we first arrived.  Yesterday, we ran into a surprising and interesting variation.  Most of the trails are just thinly tread paths through the woods and fields.  This time we found ourselves on a section that was deeply cut into the forest floor.   That is a tip-off right away that the trail has been there for a while.  This one had little markers saying it was part of the Chemin St. Jacques, with a little scallop shell, as in Coquille St. Jacques.  Back home, we did some internet searching, and found this was part of the pilgrim's road from Charlemagne's seat in Aachen, Germany all the way to Santiago de Campostela, on the Atlantic coast of Spain.  The cathedral there houses the relics of the patron saint of Spain, and was a famous destination for medieval pilgrims.  Today, people make the trip by bus, which is not so impressive, or on horseback, and some even on foot or bicycle, which is quite impressive.  Other signs can be seen, too.  Near this trail was the Wood and Mill of the Chapel, although no sign of the Abbey itself, and there are still hostels found which have their origins in housing for the pilgrims.  I know it's a touristy thing to say, but it still impresses me to walk where so many others have, and so long ago.   And it makes our afternoon hikes seem pretty puny compared to walking through France, over the Pyrenees and then through Spain.  Just a lack of faith that keeps us home, I suppose.
    And here is a link to a great website with panoramic views from all over Liege.  Sent by our friend Patz, and worth a look.

February 28, 2009
    It's Carnaval time again in Europe, and we had two rather different experiences last weekend.  On Saturday we went up into southern Holland (they don't celebrate at all in the Protestant north) to the village of Neunen to visit with Chris and Liesbeth van Eekelen.  They came to see the Leek Parade in Tilff last year, and wanted to show how it was done in Brabant.  They were gracious hosts, and we had a great time.  Carnaval was a funny and raucous event, that's for sure.  On Saturday night, there was a big party in the community center, which spilled out into all the local bars.  It was like a giant version of our Halloween party: everyone was in costume, the music was loud, and plenty of beer was flowing.  There were local brass bands everywhere, wandering from place to place, and playing these funny Dutch songs that everyone (except us, of course) knew the words to and they all sang along with, shall we say, enthusiasm.  All the songs fell into one of two groups: one you swayed from side to side, and the other you bopped up and down, and everyone knew which was which from the very first note.  It was as if you had a wild costume party, and the whole town came.  
    A few notes on Neunen:  we had been there before, in 1976, when we were biking in Holland, and visited with the parents of people we knew, which was pretty coincidental.  It was the home of Vincent van Gogh, when he was a young man with two ears, painting somber pictures of peasants.  The problem for him was that this is a very Catholic area, and he was a Protestant, so he was harassed and outcast, and unable to woo the local girl he had his eye on, and eventually left.  Ironically, now the town is all "favorite son" about him, with a statue in the square and guided walks to see his house, etc.  I guess all is forgiven, at least on the town's side. Another item:  inside the big hall in the community center was the 30 foot high trunk of a giant tree.  Apparently it was the tree in the town center where the judges held court over the centuries.  When it finally died of old age, they cut it down and hauled it inside, for old time's sake.  Anyway, we threw ourselves into the festivities, and of course, were in costume.  We wanted to go as something related to Liege, so dressed up as the mythical mascots of the city, Tchantchès and his wife Nanesse.  He sprang from the paving stones of the village on the other side of the river, was a friend of Charlemagne, and is a common character in marionette plays that are very popular here.  He is always shown with a distinctive little hat, red kerchief, work coat and with a red nose and cheeks from overindulging.  His wife, who is the real boss of the family, is wearing a shawl and matching kerchief, and also red cheeked.  We don't know if anyone there knew us from any other Dutch farmer, but we knew.  
    The next day was the town parade.  The theme was Bankrupt and Ice Cold, since a lot of people in Holland had invested their money in Icelandic banks.  All the groups and their floats were full of puns and word play on banks and money.  Chris and Liesbeth had the difficult task of not just translating, but trying to explain why something was a joke.  It was amazing how many things people came up with.  Everything was presided over by the Prince of the Carnaval, who afterwards will return to his previous role as manager of the local supermarket.  It was all very charming and fun, full of local flavor.
    On Tuesday, actual Mardi Gras, we went to the Belgian town of Binche.  This claims the most famous and traditional of Carnaval festivities, with roots back at least to the 14th century, and the whole event has been named part of the World Heritage by UNESCO.  Binche is otherwise a rather drab and run-down industrial town, that has lost much of its industry, so this is the big event of the year for them.  The main characters are the Gilles, who have to be born and raised in the town, and who join the groups that their great-great-greats belonged to centuries before.  They have certain strict rules: never go out without an accompanying drummer, never sit in public, never get drunk.  That last sums up the difference between the two parades, I guess.  During the big Mardi Gras parade, the Gilles don enormous ostrich feather hats, and I do mean enormous, and march, or rather creep, down the streets, throwing oranges at the crowd, and I do mean at.   All in all, we can't recommend it.  Every group was dressed essentially the same, all the bands seemed to be playing the same song, is was way too self important and not enough fun, and it got ugly as these guys were throwing oranges as hard as they could right into the crowd.  As we walked about town before the parade we had noticed all the windows covered with protective screens, and then we understood why.  People were getting hurt, mothers were trying to protect their children, and it seemed rather joyless and mean spirited.  Halfway through we left, figuring it was just a matter of time before getting a broken nose or black eye.  So, if you are in Europe at Carnaval, our advice is: go to Holland, or at least to Stavelot or Malmedy, or even Tilff.  Either way, here's some pics.

February 7, 2009
    We have been through the whole circle of the year, and watched the seasons from our house in Belgium.  Besides the rise and fall of the river, we see the changing hillside across the way.  At the crest of the slope is a distinctive stand of trees, and here's a set of pictures taken of it during the past year.
    Today we braved the chilly weather and went to the Val Saint Lambert.  Just up the Meuse from Liege, this was the site of a great abbey, closed down following the French revolution and sold off to industry.  It became what was the world's largest and most renowned maker of crystal and glassware.  In the early 20th century as many as 5000 people were employed making 120,000 vases, glasses, and decorative artifacts of all sorts every day.  One odd tid-bit:  when they wanted to make a small number of pieces, they could be formed using a wooden mold rather than one of steel.  But, it was important to use only pear wood.  Go figure.  Early in the 19th century it was developed into almost a city of its own, with generations of workers living in company houses, buying at the company store, and with the children in company schools.  It was progressive for its time, although we can see the workers were thereby completely dependent on their jobs.  Today, what's left of the houses is now subsidized housing and there are fewer than 100 workers. In the face of intense competition from Asia and eastern Europe (remember all the crystal in Prague), they depend on tourism and support from the region.  A remnant of the factory is operational, there's an historical show, demonstrations of glassblowing and an exhibit of beautiful glass and crystal objects, large and small.  We bought a small vase, but for us the real treasures were found in a big trash heap out back where we found a lot of interesting bits of broken glass.  A few pictures from Val St. Lambert can be found here.
    This was also a big social weekend for us.  On Friday night we went to hear a band in the ancient Chateau Avourie in Anthines.  The venue was fun, to think of all the people who had listened to music in that hall before us.  Unfortunately, the band's sound system was poor, and  it was hard to listen to, and we didn't stay very long.  But, we did take the opportunity to wander around a bit and wonder at the marvelous (marvel at the wondrous?) great oak staircase in the big tower.  Then, on Saturday, we went to the housewarming of a colleague in Antwerp.  She moved into a town house that she described as being in the "Belgian Brutal" style.  Her husband is an architect, so that makes sense.  I guess I would call it austere, rather than brutal, but it was all straight lines, and no frou-frou.  We have never lived in a city, and it would be weird for us to be so tight with so many people.  But, it was a good party, and we got to visit with the spouses of some co-workers, and eat some good, catered in, Moroccan food.  

January 25, 2009
    Well, everyone is all abuzz with Obama mania.  It's Obamapalooza, the Barackolypse!  People here are very excited.  We, and it seemed everyone else, watched the ceremony live.  Mark told me I got an invitation in the mail, and I could have gone up for some sharing time with 2 million of my closest friends, but I just couldn't squeeze in a trip for that.  We were talking at work about what we would do first thing if we were president - my favorite answer was to demand to see the alien.  "I know there is one!"  We have been getting congratulatory e-mails from people here, and everyone wants to know if he's going to be up to the (mighty big) task.  Let's all hope so.
    I know it was cold in Durham in the last weeks, but Belgium just went through 2 weeks of some of the coldest weather in ages.  It steadily reached between -20 and -15°C at night, which is right around 0°F, and any way you look at it, that's cold!  It snowed a few times, too, and that stayed around, so it was really pretty and a nice change from the usual grey of winter.  The coolest part was watching the river freeze.  It never froze across, which would be amazing, considering how fast it moves, but the banks started to ice up, there was a steady stream of ice floes, and the old canal froze over solid.  Needless to say, we did not go skating.  The Dutch were all excited, since canal skating is a major traditional activity.  The amazing part to me was how many people spoke casually about the times they had fallen through the ice.  Just the thought of that is enough to keep me away!  Here's a few pictures from around Esneux.
    Once the weather warmed up a bit, we were back to the usual: cold, grey, rainy, windy and just downright nasty.  OK, so no one visits Belgium for the weather.  Yesterday it cleared off a bit, but wasn't really nice, so we made an outing to the Royal Museum of Central Africa near Brussels.  It is a big, dusty, old fashioned museum, established around 1910 to display some of the exotic human and animal life in the Congo, and to celebrate Belgium's bringing the light of civilization to darkest Africa.  In fact, the history itself is pretty dark.  From the 1870's to 1908, the Congo was the private possession of the Belgian king, Leopold II, and it is always at the top of the list of examples of the brutal abuse of a colony by rapacious Europeans, carried out under the guise of helping the savages.  Millions died, and vast wealth made its way north, leaving ruin behind.  To their credit, the Belgian government eventually took the colony away from the king and tried to offer some actual aid.  By the time independence was declared in 1960, half the people could read and write, but there were still almost no Africans with any real experience in running the country, government or private.  Recently, of course, the Congo is in the news again, and still suffering.  
    Anyway, the museum had lots of stuffed animals and scary masks, and had a new, though rather small, section inserted to show some of the history and admit some of the sins.  They are planning a big renovation in the next few years, and I am sure they will make it much more PC.  It was interesting to learn more of the life of Henry Stanley, of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" fame.  He was a Welsh bastard, moved to New Orleans at 18, fought on both sides in the American Civil War, reported on the Indian Wars in Missouri,  and then headed off to Africa as a reporter, eventually being the first (white) person to traverse across Africa, through the jungles of the Congo basin.  He was then hired by Leopold to go up the Congo River and make "treaties" with the local chiefs, which of course were then used to take everything for the king.  I do bring this up when any smug Europeans mention how the US treated the Indians.  You can read more here and here, and it's pretty interesting, but grim.  And the creepiest part about the museum:  When I told people we had been there, a common reaction was an expression of disgust, and  talk about how there used to be stuffed people on display as well.  

January 10, 2009  Happy Birthday, Mark!
    Happy New Year, all!  We are easing back into our routine, after a few weeks of  Holiday festivities.  Our little Angels came to visit, for a way too short time.  Typically, we piled into the (way too small) car and did some touring in Brussels, Amsterdam and Munich.  We went to Munich looking for a White Christmas, and weren't disappointed.  We went up to the top of the Zugspitz, which was like going to the ice planet Hoth, and had a totally Bavarian evening in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.  A couple of boys came out to do the liederhosen slappy dance, and looked rather embarrassed, and our boys had to agree that this exceeded anything we had every asked of them.  The highlight of the trip was a visit to the Deutsches Museum, a fantastic science and technology palace in Munich.  This place is filled with entire ships, planes, coal mines, you name it.  At night we enjoyed extreme mugs of beer and plenty of roasted pig knuckles and the quiet of the city at Christmas.  Back in Esneux we played games, getting schooled by Mark, sampled some of the stranger Belgian ales, and visited some of the local sights.  The time went by too quickly, but we were happy they could come to see us, and we'll miss them until we get back to Durham for a visit.
December 19, 2008
    We are into the Christmas season here as everywhere, and there are few interesting similarities and differences.  The Season starts in earnest here on Dec 5th, Sinterklaas Eve.  More on that in a minute.  Especially in Holland and Flanders, that's when presents are given and parties had.  Also, on Sinterklaas Day people get chocolate letters with their initials like these: deluxe, like this gift from our friends Diederik and Karin, or plain, from the grocery store, each decorated with a grinning, chocolaty likeness. This early gift giving  means there is less emphasis on Christmas Day itself, and so people work right up to Christmas Eve, and then have a quiet time with family.  
    We recently found an actual mall in Liege, and it had its big tree and everything, even Christmas carols playing in the background.  The village here distributes Christmas trees to all the shops, who decorate them and have them out front.  Sinterklaas (if you say it fast it sounds like Saint Nicholas, who is the patron saint of Amsterdam) is a cousin to the Santa Claus we know.  He is a Catholic bishop from Turkey, with a big white beard and red robes, not at all jolly, and carrying a crosier.  He arrives by ship in November, and gets on a white horse and heads off with his servant Black Peter, who lives in Spain, and used to be a slave, but was freed.  Or else the Devil, who was defeated by St. Nick and made his slave.  Peter is usually a Dutch guy in blackface with red lips and an afro, dressed like a Renaissance page.  Apparently if the children are good, they get presents, but if they have been bad they are either a) spanked with a wooden spoon carried by Black Peter, who is also known as the Spanker, or b) put in a sack and taken back to Spain, where Peter spends the rest of the year.  And sometimes there are 6-8 (yes, that seems to be the number) additional black members of the troupe.  The company had an event for the employee's kids at work (and there are a lot, since the team is quite young) which included a visit from Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet.  You can imagine there is some sentiment for greater political correctness, but so far, it's been a tradition  for hundreds of years and is staying around.  And if you think I am making all this up, here's the authoritative version, from Raleigh native David Sedaris.
    For ourselves, we have put up the little tree we took to London when we were all there at Christmas, along with some lights.  We have been delighted by some Christmas cards in the mail - what a wonderful surprise each time.  Thanks, everyone!  The kids will be arriving early Sunday, and we are excited, and getting ready for that.  It will be wonderful having our little angels with us for the holidays but we will miss everyone else!

December 13, 2008
    I talked about how I am spending so much time in the car, going back and forth to Amsterdam, for instance.  Well, Lena has been giving me a hard time, asking "If you're so Euro, why don't you take the train?"  She is absolutely right, and so I have been.  It's safer, should be easy, healthier, better for my carbon footprint, etc. That's the Good.  I have also had a few other experiences, that I could call the Bad and the Crazy.  First, more on the Good.  It is quicker than driving, in most cases, and certainly more predictable, and probably cheaper, except that having the company pay for my car and fuel makes that less visible.  And, yes, it can give you that righteous feeling that is the pay-off for doing the right thing.  And the Bad?  I took the EuroStar from Esneux to Nottingham (yes, England, where the city streets have names like Maid Marion Way, Friar Lane and Robin Hood Road), and it was easy and smooth and made all my connections easily.  It is a little weird, but not a  problem, to realize you are spending almost an hour deep under the water of the English Channel.  The newly refurbished station at St. Pancras in London is a beautiful work of architecture, too.  I know, that still sounds like Good.  On the return, we were in the middle of the tunnel, and we stopped.  And sat.  For 2 hours.  Seems the train ahead had a breakdown,  and we were blocked.  Finally, they announced the other train was out of the way, and we would be going.  We moved a little, and lurched a bit, and stopped again.  This time we are told there was "a traction problem."  The next several hours were spent trying to get the train out of the tunnel, and then re-assembling the whole thing, since I think they had to uncouple cars and pull them out a few at a time to get enough oomph to get out.  I guess normally they just coast up the slope from the bottom of the tunnel.  All in all, about 5 hours of delay.  If I wanted to sit on board for hours before getting going, I could fly.
    And the Crazy?  I know that if you grow up using the trains it probably all seems logical, but it's been a learning experience.  For instance, in Brussels one of the big stations is called Midi,  if you speak French, and Zuid if Flemish.  So, it is not enough that there is a translated pair of names for everything.  In this case, there are two entirely different names: Mid (or maybe Noon) in French, and South in Flemish.  And there are usually bus and train stations near each other, with the same name.  And this is the best part:  Since both the French and Flemish words for train start with T, the train stations are indicated on the schedules with a B.  And, naturally, since the French and Flemish words for bus start with B, the bus stations are indicated with a T.  A secret anti-tourist device, perhaps?  
       Going to Amsterdam, it is hard to make a connection from Liege, so Steph drove me to Maastricht, just over the border in Holland.  I rush into the station, late as usual, and look to buy a ticket.  There are these nice yellow machines, ready to go.  We key in the destination, it says "give me 30 Euro."  There is a card slot, so I put in my Belgian credit card.  No, it does not take credit cards.  I try my Belgian debit card.  It is just spat back out.  I try feeding cash into the card slot, also rejected.  So I go and stand at the ticket window, where again no credit cards are taken, only cash.  I ask about the machines:  turns out they only take Dutch debit cards or coins (30 Euro coins would weigh about a pound!).  So much for the concept of One Europe.  Coming back, I am in the station, and there is a window with a sign over it saying "tickets and information."  So, I stand in line, only to be told dismissively that they don't sell train tickets, only metro, and I have to go outside the station to the little handy shop to get a train ticket.  Hmm.  So, that worked OK that time, and I got my ticket for Maastricht.  The next time, I asked for a ticket to Liege.  The girl asks, "Where?" so I give her the Dutch name, Luik.  She still has a blank look, and asks can I spell it.  She looks some more on her computer, but nothing.  So it seems you can only buy tickets within the Netherlands, and not outside, except at a larger station.  And you can't buy a return ticket when you go, unless you are coming back the same day.  And you can't buy them in advance.  And you can't buy them on line.  And online, after some learning, you can find schedules, but no prices.  All of which is paradoxical, since they really do want people to ride the trains instead of clogging up all the roads.  But it seems that the elusive concept of customer service is still a little out of reach for the public servants of the train bureaucracy.  So, as one must, I try to learn and adapt, and it gets easier and easier.
November 23, 2008
    Steph has returned, and life is back to what passes for normal here.  Just as in Durham, she appreciated that an effort had been made to clean the place up, while being forced to admit that things were not really up to the highest standards.  The week was mostly spent restocking the larder and actually cleaning up and doing wash, while outside it was dark and rainy; you see what an exotic lifestyle we have here.  We woke up Saturday to a few inches of snow, and did the sensible thing to curl up and stay inside all day.  The forecast for Sunday was, and I quote, "Cold; snow showers in the morning followed by snow, sleet, and freezing rain in the afternoon."  But despite fair warning, we thought we would drive up to the Hautes Fagnes (High Fens) and look for some more snow.  This is in the south east of Belgium, on the border with Germany, and gets lots of rain, and is really a high, flat, swampy grassland.   We went up to the highest point in Belgium (694 meters), where we had been in the fall.  Then it was a beautiful blue sky day, and all the grasslands were golden.  Today, everything was in black and white, with snow stuck tight to all the trees.  We walked about a bit, but it was in the low 20's and the wind was blowing like crazy.  Needless to say, we retreated to the warmth of the car pretty soon.  You can see some pictures of the snow and fall here.  By this time, it was snowing again in earnest, and the drive back reminded us of driving in Colorado - lots of billowing plumes of snow sweeping across the road and the icy wipers slapping.  This cold weather and the ever earlier darkness signal winter is here, and the contrast to the endless days and evenings of summer is dramatic.  By the time we got home, it was dark and the roads were slick, and we were glad to be back safe and sound, and enjoying the soothing richness of a creamy Belgian ale.

November 8, 2008
    I am back in Belgium after two weeks on the home turf.  It was good to be in the US for the last weeks of the election.  It was great to see all the mates, and everyone was very sweet and we had drinks, or lunch, or dinner, or played cards, or just hung out.  Thank you all for not forgetting us!  
Everyone's first question, also on my return to Belgium, was "How was the house?"  I can say that all was fine.  I am sure there was some intense cleaning up that went on just before our arrival, but all was in order and there was no permanent damage.  Thanks, Boys!  The only problem was that the lawn mower broke in the middle of the summer, and it was a rainy one, so it looked a bit like the African savannah, but that was finally beaten back into submission.  It was an intense two weeks of lawn and garden care, car maintenance and home repair, but nothing out of the ordinary, only compressed in time.
    This being the first time in a long time that North Carolina was in play, I got a good dose of campaign ads.  In previous elections, we hardly saw any.  I am glad that I got a taste, but am also glad that I missed most of the previous year's.  And the phone calls!  You could not be in the house for 5 minutes before the phone rang again with "please give money, please give time, please vote."  And for some reason, John was besieged with calls from the McCain camp.  Perhaps the demographic of NC State student?  On returning to Europe, it seems people here were just as excited about the result as at home.  They realize of course that he is our president, and not theirs, but what happens in the US effects everyone, so their interest is understandable.  And the Belgians are jealous that we can even elect a government at all, something they have been having trouble with for the last year.
    My Mom was also there to visit, and a pleasure as always.  There were, as usual, some spirited discussions on politics and the economy:  liberal pinko Euro-socialist vs. reactionary tool of the running dog capitalists, but I hope all in a good spirit.  And speaking of spirits, it was weird to not be gearing up for Halloween.  I would be outside in the evening, and getting all the cues from the weather, and the turning trees, and that special fall light, and thinking "I should be mixing paper-mâché!"  We went to some friends' on Halloween night, and we had to dress up.  We went as the scariest thing we could think of, but were the only ones in costume (except for Chris's devil tail, but I think he wears that all the time).  And Mark continued his incredible pumpkin carving, with another great pair, each really scary, but to different people.  Lena came home to let the Moms have at least a bit of costume making time, and went as a dream girl for dirty old men.  Here are some pics and I will add one of Lena when I get it.
    In an effort to make this more of a Blog, I thought I would plug a few things and add some links.  I am listening to podcasts all the time, mostly since I am in the car a lot.  Here are a few,  including a favorite topic: the economy!  First, This American Life is a great radio show that has been on for years, and basically tells stories about people's experiences of all sorts.  I recommend it highly.  If you go to the site, search for Squirrel Cop and listen to it.  That story is a funny one, and the rest of the episode can make us glad for the lives we have.  This year they have done two shows about the economy, and they both really help to understand some of the actions and their consequences.  The first (the Giant Pool of Money) is the best and talks about how we got into the mortgage defaults.  The second (Another Frightening Show About the Economy) is more about the credit crisis itself.  The second series that I have been enjoying is the Planet Money podcasts, which can be found here, and there is also a blog here.  They work hard to make all the arcana in the news understandable to the beneficiaries of all this crap, namely you and me.  So, if you want to know more about ted-spreads and credit default swaps or why there is a problem at all, give it a try.  And for a briefer tutorial in more graphic form, here is another view of the mortgage crisis.  
    And finally, a pitch for a different sort of series: The TED Talks.  This is a conference on Technology, Entertainment, Design held every year, with speakers of all sorts invited to give 10-20 minute talks on an incredible variety of topics.  So, if you want to hear accomplished and interesting persons discoursing on subjects they are knowledgeable and passionate about, tune in to TED.
    Well, that's it for now.  Stephanie returns in a week; in the meantime, I am living a rude and bestial existence, sleeping on rags in the corner, and snuffling in the garden for grubs.  Such periods only reinforce for me the profoundly beneficial and civilizing effect that women have on the human condition.  Or at least on mine. 

Lots of updates!  Happy Birthday, John!
October 12, 2008
    This weekend was "Wallonie Welcome" in Esneux. We had gotten a great brochure, and a letter inviting us to share a "glass of friendship" at the kick-off, which we did, of course.  There were lots of artists holding open house, and some chateaux that are usually closed were open to the public.  We took a guided walk around the Loop of the Ourthe, and got a tour of (again, I know you are jealous!) the water treatment plant.  The guide was pretty good, talking about "villages of bacteria" that purify the water.  It was a challenge, all in French.  There was a look around some old charcoal and lime kilns, but the best part was a good look into the traces of the old canal.  We talk about this on the page about Locks, and it was interesting to see the remains in town that can still be found.  We realized we had been walking right over clear signs, and totally ignorant of them.   We found some locks and lock-keeper's houses, and could see the bed of the canal and the tow path in lots of places.  Now we know what to look for!  There was a great exhibit of old pictures, and it is amazing how much Esneux has changed, and also not changed, in the last century.  
    We met up with Jodi and Thierry, and a friend of hers from Mexico.  We had North America covered, that's for sure.  We visited a man making beautiful fused glass creations, and who also restored old stained glass, and had a nice tour of the atelier of a Spaniard making painted tiles of all sorts.  That was good for us, since the only people we can really understand speaking French are others for whom it is also a second language, so we could follow him well.
    On Sunday, we were able to go into the grounds of the Chateau le Fy, the fairy tale castle above Esneux.  It was a perfectly beautiful fall day, and we visited the chateau with Katja and Horst.  The view sitting on the terrace high above the river and the village was breathtaking.  After, we went up to Rond Chene, and this time could walk about without getting yelled at by the keeper.  A nice weekend of local culture, all in all.  
October 6, 2008
    A few bits and pieces:  we visited some outrageous engineering works here a while ago.  This link will fill you in about (yes, hold your excitement!) locks.  
This weekend was the annual "Nocturne on the Slopes" in Liege.  It is fall and the days are getting shorter, so a nighttime event is organized, where luminaries are set up in all the streets in the old heart of the city, and also lighting up the narrow, twisting paths and alleyways up the hills that rise up to the old fortress above.  Many people came out to wander about, eat and drink and enjoy some street entertainers.  The most spectacular was the huge stairs (406 steps) rising up to the Citadel, covered with patterns of candles.  
    And if you recall, in Tilff in the spring is the Leek Festival.  A part of that is a parade with "giants," 12 foot tall paper mache creatures both realistic and imaginary.  In the fall, there is the "Reassembly of the Giants," where they are brought out in the square and paraded about again.  The only reason seems to be that they have them, and might as well use them more than once a year.  It was a pretty day, and we went down to watch and down a few, and had a nice visit with a couple we met in the foreigner's office at the local town hall.  Jodi is Canadian, and partnered with Thierry, a Belgian, and living in Tilff, and we were both in the commune office taking care of bureaucratic paperwork.  Total coincidence:  they are post-docs in Neuroscience, and know people Steph knew at Duke, including Peter Holland.  A nice couple, and I am sure we will see them again.
October 4, 2008

    Lots of catching up to do, that's for sure.  September was taken up with a big visit from Stephanie's parents, and her cousin Doug and his wife Alice.  They enjoyed a typical American two and a half week whirlwind tour of the continent, all masterfully arranged by Steph.  They got a taste of 4 great cities: Brussels, Amsterdam, Paris and Rome.  They rented a van with nice big windows, and when not driving to Amsterdam or Paris, headed off to explore Belgium, and even took a quick side trip to Germany, via Luxembourg.  A few highlights:  we took a rainy afternoon to explore an open-air museum not far from us, where houses and farms from all over Belgium have been dismantled, moved and re-assembled; there were nice boat rides through both Paris and Amsterdam, giving a different perspective for those cities; the tourist experience was completed in Paris by a classic run-in with a snooty Parisian waiter;  a random stop in Germany led to a surprisingly nice visit to Vianden, with a great castle and medieval city;  a poke around the hotel room in Amsterdam uncovered a leafy souvenir of that city - there were no takers in the party, so it went to the front desk;  the weather in Brussels cooperated wonderfully, and the day there was probably the favorite of the city trips;  in Rome, summer was still in full swing, and everyone wished they had brought cooler clothes;  a troupe of local players put on a re-enactment (of sorts!) of a famous murder in a nearby chateau; a visit to a local cemetery for American soldiers and fliers from WW II was very moving; and there was good eating all round, as lots of great Belgian bread, beer, pastries and chocolate went down, along with carbonades, boulettes de Liege, mussels, lots of fries, and even an Indonesian rice table.
    It went by fast, and a good time was had by all, and it was especially nice to get to spend some time with Doug and Alice and get re-acquainted with them.  Some slides are here. It's a big file, as you might imagine.
August 23, 2008
    We took a trip to Prague for a few days, in the Czech Republic.  It's a little hard to remember it is not Czechoslovakia, which has gone the way of Yugoslavia.  People in Belgium cite Czechoslovakia as a country that was formed not too long ago, and has since split up, with no real ill effects, as a possible model for the future of Belgium.  Anyway, we have to say we did not have a great trip, but I am not sure it was the fault of Prague.  From the minute we arrived, we got a bad vibe from the feeling that it was incredibly crowded and touristic. Now, we appreciate the irony that we want to be tourists without having to deal with all those other tourists, but they should all stay home when we are out.  Prague gave the impression that the city had no existence outside of pandering to tourists.  The only other place we had that feeling was Venice, and it does put us off.  I don't think it is as true for Prague, since it is a city of ~1.5 million people, and a major center of commerce and culture, but  getting called to by touts in front of every restaurant gets old.  On top of that, it poured rain after the first evening we got there, plus we had some domestic issues distracting us as well.
    But what about the city?  Prague escaped most of the destruction visited on many other European cities, and also went into decline soon after its hey-day, so there is a wealth of beautiful, and beautifully preserved, architecture.  This ranges from the medieval, through the baroque, to the 20th century.  There are many squares filled with brightly painted and highly decorated buildings.  On one tower, there is an amazingly complicated astronomical clock, started in 1410, that shows the phases of the moon, the zodiacal signs, hours after sun-set, and has statues moving and ringing the hours (click here for a demonstration).
    Our favorite is the Art Nouveau (yes, again) from the early 20th century, and there was a great museum of the works of Alphonse Mucha, who made beautiful, flowing posters and illustrations.  Above the city sits Prague Castle, not so much a castle as a collection of buildings, mostly churches.  In the Cathedral, there is a Mucha designed stained glass window, which was really different from the usual.  Another oddity in the cathedral is a huge and ornate shrine to a priest who was drowned in the river for refusing to divulge something said in confession.  His body was exhumed some years later, and his tongue was seen to be as fresh and pink as a baby's, so he and the tongue got a special place in the church.  One night we went to a Prague tradition: Black Theater, where the stage is black and only lit with blacklights and the performers wear fluorescent outfits and fly through the air with their props.  The one we saw was rather silly, with a burlesque theme to tie the skits together, but some parts were fun.  Afterwards, we strolled through the lit-up city, finally thinking we needed to come back sometime in the off season and give it another try.
August 16, 2008
A few random observations:
- As part of my French reading program, I got a copy of "Little Red Riding Hood" (free at the grocery store, with the right purchase).  You know how in our version, in the end the woodsman comes and saves everyone, and even cuts open the wolf to save Grandma?  Well, in this one, at the end the wolf jumps out of bed and eats Red.  The moral is, "Don't talk to strangers, because they might kill you."
- Speaking of the grocery store, our local is DelHaze, which also owns Food Lion.  And the logo is the same lion we are used to seeing in Durham.  Ah, a touch of home.
- And speaking of groceries, there is more emphasis on natural foods here.  Eggs in the regular grocery store are arranged according to whether the hens were "on the ground" or "raised off the ground," and there is lots of "Biologic" (organic, to us) food.  But even the ones from tortured chickens living in cages cost about 40¢ each.  We got some jam recently that was a bit extreme though, since it had several pieces of wood (bits of branches, 2" long and 1/2" around) in it.  Hmmm, crunchy goodness.
- We saw a little of the Olympics in a hotel recently, but that was it.  A major bite is that there are tons of internet sites that stream all sorts of stuff that is on TV.  All the networks in the US have sites, and you can watch lots of shows the day after they are broadcast....provided you live where you could have watched it on TV.  But, they are all blocked from streaming outside the US.  So, like the shows we used to watch, we can't watch the Olympics either.  So, you can watch as long as you chose not to when broadcast.  I am baffled that this is thought to be a good idea. I guess we will miss the excitement of the conventions, too.
- We went to see the new Batman movie in Liege.  This was in the newest theater, and it was like a smallish mall cineplex, but stacked into a multi-story building.  The biggest difference:  no concessions.  How can you watch a movie without popcorn?  It's just so wrong.  And more interesting, how do they stay in business without selling something with a 99% profit margin?  Regarding the movie, I didn't like it.  It was very scattered, and seemed to rely on explosions rather than dialogue or other action to advance the "plot."  And I was left with the creepy image of Dick Cheney sitting alone in the dark, wearing his mask, watching the movie over and over, and muttering to himself, "I am the Batman....oh, yes....I am the Batman."  This and "24" are the best synopses of our current foreign and domestic policy, without all the messy consequences.  The difference is that Bruce Wayne and Jack Bauer acknowledge that what they are doing is wrong, even if they believe it's necessary, and are willing to take the penalty for it.  They don't have a squadron of lawyers and lawmakers lining up to be sure they never have a price to pay.  OK, enough liberal Euro-ranting!
- I have been reading some books by Georges Simenon, a local boy who made good.  He wrote a series of short detective novels featuring Inspector Maigret, a Frenchman, and not to be confused with Rene Magritte, the Belgian painter, nor Detective Poirot, who was also Belgian, though written by an Englishwoman.  Simenon wrote hundreds of books, lived in dozens of cities, in scores of houses, and supposedly bedded thousands of women.  Busy guy, and I can recommend him, though of course not his lifestyle!
- We decided to do a little grilling on the bar-b-que, and bought some charcoal at the grocery.  Another surprise!  It was really charcoal, chunks of actual wood, made into charcoal some old-fashioned way.  It was weird, since it was hard and clinky, like ceramic almost.  And then this disappointment:  the starter you get is a gel which is so totally safe it's no fun at all.  You can squirt it right onto the flames and it doesn't even flare up and risk total conflagration.  Oh, well.  Although this charcoal is more natural and all, I have to say, briquettes are  a technological improvement - the real stuff is much harder to start, burns slower, and is hard to keep going.  But, it does help me get in touch with my caveman roots - I want to go kill a giant sloth or something and just throw it on the coals.
July 13, 2008
    Last weekend we took a great road trip to Berlin.  It was about a 6 hour drive across Germany, although we took a good bit longer.  After so many days sitting in traffic in Holland, it was great to be able to just  enjoy the open road.  And yes, they do drive fast in Germany.  If there is a limit, there are signs every kilometer or so, and people do obey the speed limit.  But most of the time there is no limit except your common sense.  For me that was cruising about 90-100 miles per hour, and I was by no means going faster than most.  Even at that speed,  you get passed by a lot of people going way faster, so you don't spend any more time in the fast lane than you need to.  We had not gone very far when we came on a group  whose trip had taken a severe turn for the worse.  There was a big plume of smoke up ahead, and when we got to it, there was a full size tour bus totally in flames, and all the passengers standing out along the road.  It was intense, and you could feel the heat clear on the other side of the road.  The fire brigade had just arrived, and was applying some pretty sad streams of water, but this thing was just going to burn itself out.  Fortunately for us, it was in the other lane, or we would have joined miles of parked cars with a long wait ahead.
    We stopped for lunch in a little town, and went up to a huge monument to Kaiser Wilhelm.  It is high above the town on one side of a gap in the mountains where the river flows through.  It gave a nice view over the countryside, beneath the benevolent gaze and outstretched hand of the Kaiser.
    Going into Berlin, I was surprised at the amount of wooded, and undeveloped, land.  I would have thought by being hemmed in for 40 years the city would have been bursting at the seams, but it was rather suburban until right into the city.  We found our hotel, in a typical creaky old building, and set out exploring.  General impressions:  Berlin is a very attractive city, rather low in profile, with wide boulevards and a clean and airy feel, and a lot of 20th century Modern buildings.  The people were nice, and several times when we were lost with perplexed looks on our faces, folks stopped and asked if they could help.  We bought passes for the public transport, and rode subways, trains and buses all over.  We found a couple of restaurants that featured local cuisine, and none featured sausages and wursts, as we were far from Bavaria.  One typical Berlin dish, though, is curry wurst, which is just a plain sausage with ketchup on it. These we saw everywhere as a snack.  And we went into a few pastry shops, and are still perplexed why JFK would declare, "I am a doughnut!"  
    The first night (July 5th) we strolled out to get our bearings and went to the Brandenburg Gate, right in the center of the city.  We heard music and saw crowds milling about, and stumbled onto the Grand Opening party for the new US Embassy.  It had been on this location before WWII, but was destroyed, and then the property was on the Eastern side, and anyway the seat of government moved to Bonn.  Now that Berlin is again the capitol, the property was reclaimed and a new embassy built.  I can't say it is very attractive, and of course fits the new, post-9/11 fortress model.  But the party was fun, and we listened to a German Elvis and a German Rock-a-billy band, and enjoyed the crowd.  One interesting item:  there were tents around with various groups promoting German-American relations.  One was shared between the Democrats Abroad and the Republicans Abroad.   On the Democrat side, there were crowds of people clamoring for info on absentee voting and wanting buttons, etc.  On the Republican side, one lonely and bored guy smoking a cigarette.  It is clear which way the ex-pat vote is leaning.
We spent part of our days in various museums, several of which are together on the aptly named Museum Island in the Spree.  Two interesting bits:  The Pergamon Museum houses the greater part of an entire Greek temple from a site in Turkey.  It is bizarre to come into an enormous room and see this thing installed inside.  There was also a very interesting exhibit on Babylon, in present day Iraq.  The centerpiece is the Ishtar Gate, covered in beautiful rich blue tiles, with giant images of lions, dragons and bulls.  Again, a huge bit of architecture picked up, transported and rebuilt in a museum in Berlin.  The theme was that we are still living in the Babylonian Era, and that all the principle elements of our current world view and social order were in place 4000 years ago.  We also soaked up a good bit of Egyptian and Greek artifacts, including an entire room of randy Greek pottery.  Jumping to more modern times, we went to a great museum full of the most beautiful Art Nouveau and Deco creations.  The central theme of that movement was that art should not be separated from everyday life, so it was all about architecture, furniture, decorations, utensils, etc., all in a flowing style reflecting nature, or opposing that, with a decorative and geometric look. It's amazing to think of living in a house bursting with chairs, coffeepots, windows and lamps like these.
The signs of East Berlin are fading fast.  It was impressive to see photos of both the destruction from WWII, and that resulting from the Wall, and how much it has changed in 20 years.  Vast areas that had been wasteland in 1989 were now filled with new office towers.  We went to a small part of the wall that was in its original form.  This meant a 10 high foot concrete wall, a barren dead zone that would have been filled with barriers and barbed wire, illuminated day and night, and then a second wall.  All this to keep their own people from leaving.  There was a nice exhibit showing how this had developed over the years, and especially the impact when it was built, splitting parts of the city right down the middle of the street.  What was most amazing was that it was being updated and made more impassable right up until the end.  There are still some parts of the city in the East where you can see the grey, stolid buildings, but today they don't look so grim, since they are leavened with color and activity.  It is hard for a building to be so imposing with a group of multi-colored, spiky-headed punks walking by.
    The highlight of the trip, and our reason for going at this time, was to see Radiohead in concert.  They played in a small outdoor amphitheater in the woods, similar to the Hooverphonic show in venue, and of course it rained, but still a great show by a great band.  It was worth the price of admission just to see the Thom Yorke Crazy Dance.  I swear, if I waggled my head that much, it would fly completely off.  A high point was everyone singing along with the words, "Rain down, rain down, come on rain down on me," during a break in the weather, defying the rain to start up again.  Getting back into town took a while, as we joined 1000's and 1000's trying to get back on the trains, but a great time was had by all.
    Finally, we stopped in Potsdam on the way home.  Besides the post-war conference that divided up Germany, it is the site of Sans Souci (No Worries), a huge collection of palaces, parks and gardens built during the 18th and 19th centuries by the Kings of Prussia, who eventually became the rulers of Germany.  The gardens and parkland were beautiful, and it was a lovely day exploring, with some palace, grand or small, always around the corner.  The ride home was uneventful, and we delighted to get home and see that the landlord had (largely) fixed the leaking roof.  There was a huge thunderstorm the next day, and only a few drops in the house, so things are looking good on that front.

June 30, 2008

    One way we spend our weekends is visiting the local countryside, and especially the many chateaux.  There are some slides posted for two: Jehay and Freyr.  Both are renaissance fortified castles/mansions in the valley of the Meuse.  This part of Belgium is very industrialized, and as you get near Liege it gets rather grim, but up off the river, or in quiet stretches, there are all these beautiful places.  These two had wonderful gardens, where we mostly spent our time.  One featured extremely perky bronze statuary, while other had lots of highly manicured hedges, best seen from high on the cliffs across the river.  Also in the area we came upon an exceptional set of 4 townhouses decorated with floral themed Art Nouveau tiles. Enjoy!

June 24, 2008

    We're right at the longest days of the year, and it's amazing how long they are here.  You can walk around at 10:30 at night and there is pink in the sky and no stars to speak of.  It only gets dark about 12, and it seems so strange.  I  see that Esneux is about on the latitude of Calgary, Alberta.  We would think of that as being so far north.  And people here are surprised to realize that Durham is about even with Gibraltar.
     We took advantage of the longest days last weekend, and had three really fun days.  Friday we went to a concert in a little town on the other side of the plateau, to see Hooverphonic.  Belgian band, cute blond singer, dreamy alt-rock.  To get there we walked street after street, and then past a tent city on a soccer field, then through dense woods, and finally out in a glade filled with drunken Belgian youth.  Great show, cooled by a light misty rain. On Monday, Stephanie was talking about the weekend with a girl in the lab.   She said she had wanted to go, but didn't because of the weather.  Steph had to mock her, if only lightly.  Saturday night Holland was playing Russia in the Euro 2008 football tourney.  I may be exaggerating, but it seems like there are several 'Big Cup Competition' a year.   Anyway, this was a big event, so we put on the stylish orange-wear we picked up on Queen's Day, and went up to Maastricht, the closest Dutch city.  We had a lovely Turkish dinner on the market square, watching the evening fall (very slowly!), then watched the match on TVs set up outside a bar.   It was fun, but Holland didn't do very well, lost, and was out of the running, so not as exciting as it could have been.  At least they didn't get to a shootout to decide the winner.  Finally, on Sunday we walked about Liege, way up on the Citadel.  This meant climbing all 373 steps of this grand staircase that goes right up to the top.  Needless to say, we took our time.  By Monday, I was ready to get back to work and get some rest.

June 14, 2008

    Every town in Belgium has at least one memorial to those who died in the World Wars.  Just in Esneux there are many.  What is striking is how many are not the usual "To our fallen heroes."  Rather, they are are pointed and explicit in their condemnation of the enemy.  After seeing these, it is amazing that the survivors have been able to offer as much forgiveness as they have, or at the least, been able to live together.   These also serve as reminders  that any nation, no matter how advanced or civilized they may consider themselves, can plunge into darkness and perform acts of unimaginable destruction and cruelty.

June 10, 2008

    It's been such a long time, but  it's gone by so fast.  We are back now in Esneux, after being in Durham for a month.  We were proud to see our son Mark graduate (in 4 years!) from UNC (top 10 public university!). Two down, one to go.  We had our first wedding of the next generation in our family, too.  It was so nice to see everybody, and you all were so sweet to make us feel remembered and missed.  We miss you all already.  We are now embarking on the next phase of our adventure.  Stephanie has started working in the lab,  just as she started coming down with a cold caught on her travels.  Not the best re-introduction to the work force.  She has been pipetting phlegm (not hers!), which is totally disgusting.  As a mother of three, she is hard to gross out, but this could do it!  Maybe next it's on to Amsterdam, where they spend days processing poop.

April 28, 2008

    Our friend Patz stayed with us for a few days last weekend.  Her mom was from Liege, and she has cousins and aunts in the area.  She really wanted to go to Holland to see the flowers and the Bloemencorso, a fantastic flower parade, and, against our better judgment, we went.  Years ago we had gotten stuck in an eternal traffic jam on the road to the gardens as millions of Europeans converged on the gardens at their peak.  Well, our better judgment was wrong, and we are so glad we went! Steph arranged a hotel right in the area, and we came up the night before with no problem.  The floats for the parade were all lined up in town, and we could walk all around and gawk.  Later the parade started up and wound its way through town.  The next morning we rode bikes to the fabulous gardens at Keukenhof.  It was a beautiful day, and words cannot describe the flowers.  It was simply stunning.  And then the ride back through the fields of tulips and hyacinths and pastures with cows, horses and sheep was just magical.  It was fun riding bikes, and while I expected we would get passed by all the Dutch who ride every day, I did feel a little bad when these dumpy old ladies rang their little bells going by.  But it was downright depressing when we were passed by a lady on a motorized wheelchair.  We need to exercise more.

April 20, 2008

    Lena and Steve came to visit with us for a few days.  Lena is an experienced tourist, and always good to travel with, and for Steve it was his first trip to Europe.  They planned a very American visit, spending a few days in London, then a few in Belgium (West Flanders to the southern Ardenne), then on to Germany to finish out the week, touching the ground in France and Luxembourg on the way.  We're all about the same kind of trips ourselves.  There is so much to see and do, and you can rest at home.  We picked them up from the Chunnel Train in Lille, giving us a chance to walk around that city for a bit.  We spent a day or so visiting the battle sites and cemeteries of Flanders from the First World War.  There are cemeteries everywhere, and many of those include mass graves in addition to the rows of headstones. It was the policy of the British Empire to bury their dead where they fell and so there are 185,000 dead either buried in the area or listed among the missing. And that was just the Allied dead!  We visited a German cemetery which held nearly 50,000  young cadets. So very sad.  You can hardly grasp the scale of the death and destruction that went on here.  After a difficult search, we found a bit of excavated trenches, which included passageways that extended 10 meters below ground.  This is incredible, since the water table is about 2 feet below the surface.  We met a "digger," a weekend enthusiast who hunts for, and finds, relics and bodies.  He let us into his little storage hut, and gave us samples from the bags of bottles and bullets he had stashed there. No bones, though bodies are found regularly and there is still one cemetery accepting new graves. We walked around Ypres, which was right in the middle of the fighting, and was pretty much leveled.  You would never know it to look today, as they have tried to build everything back as it was.  Every evening in Ypres, there is a memorial service to remember the fallen, and it can't but move you to tears.
    From Ypres we went to the beautiful medieval city of Brugge.  Continuing our quest to climb up every tall thing around, we went up into the bell tower, and had a beautiful view over the city.  At the other extreme, we took a boat ride through the canals, looking up at all the tall buildings.  In one church there is a crystal vial containing actual blood of Christ, brought back from the Crusades.  Remarkable.
    After a little rest in Esneux, and a walk along the cliffs of the Falcon Rocks over the loop of the Ourthe, we drove south to Bastogne, where, during December of 1944, General McAuliffe's airborne troops were surrounded during the Battle of the Bulge. Again, very moving to think of the heroism and tragedy that unfolded around there.  Also amazing to think about these two wars, with so much loss, being fought in such a short time.  Whatever else it has brought, the EU has kept Germany and France off each other's necks for 50 years now.  We then passed through Luxembourg and spent the night in Trier.  Trier is one of the oldest cities in northern Europe, although it is pretty certain that it was not there 1300 years before Rome, as one inscription on a medieval building asserts.  It was a major Roman city though, and one of the old gates is still standing.  You can imagine how impressive that must have been when most people were living in mud huts. After Trier we split up, with Lena and Steve going on into Germany, and we headed back to Esneux.

March  23, 2008

    The celebrations around Easter here go on for about 6 weeks, and have lots of ancient sorts of elements.  They kick off with the Carnaval parades, like in Malmedy, and then have more action in the middle of Lent, and then wrap up with a bang at Easter.  A few weeks ago, our friends Chris and Liesbeth came to see us.  We had a nice visit, and went into Tilff for their parade/festival, which was all built around Leeks!  There was a parade, with lots of costumes and dancing groups, but most of all, lots of confetti!  I am talking tons.  It was thick in the streets, like snow, and got into everything.  We were picking bits of confetti out of the car, our clothes, the camera, my cell phone, and of course, our hair, for days.  Well, OK, it took Steph days to get it out of her hair, not me. The theme for the celebration is leeks, and bars and streets were renamed  with "Porai", the local dialect version of the French "Poireau." The climax of the festivities was the arrival of the Leek People.  There were dozens, young and old, all dressed up as leeks. They arrived in the square, and did a big dance, and waited the arrival of the farmer, who was 20 feet tall at least.  As he did his whirling dance, the leeks popped up out of the ground and they all twirled about together.  A rich and fertile year lies ahead, no doubt!
The finale for us was the Big Fire, in Esneux.  Down near the river, a mountain of brush and trees was built, much bigger than anything I put up in the yard, with an effigy hanging at the top, representing Judas.  After dark on Easter Saturday, everyone came down to drink beer and hot wine, and torch it off.  Now, I was expecting conflagration, as I would have cut the wood in the summer, and kept it under a tarp to dry to a hazardous, tinderbox state.  Sadly, these folks were more prudent, and the wood was green.  Plus, it started snowing, sleeting and raining as evening came, so it was only a Grand Feu, and not Apocolypse.  But it was big, and fun, and the next day there were still lots of smouldering coals.  All in all, a nice way to celebrate the coming of spring, both religious and pagan.

March 21, 2008
    We had our first long range visitors here, with the arrival of Stephanie's sister Susan, her husband Mark, and her boys, Miles and Ben.  They arrived at dawn in Brussels, and Steph was there to pick them up.  Wasting not a moment, they went in for a brief tour of the capital.  This included the Cathedral, the Music Museum (in a great Art Nouveau building), the Beer Museum and lunch in the Grand Place.  They came back and slept for about 14 hours (until Steph woke them!) to reset their clocks. The next day they all went for some walks in the town and countryside of Esneux.  This was probably their favorite part, as they all love the outdoors, and liked comparing the hills and valleys of Tennessee with the Ardenne.  And there was the first of several stops at the store to get a few of the many varieties of Belgian Beer.  On the weekend, we up and drove to Paris,where Notre Dame Cathedral, with its gargoyls and chimera was a big hit.  They got a nice feel for the city, but even in the off season, line-standing takes up a lot of time.
    Back in Belgium, Steph took them to Ghent, which is a really beautiful old city, with a university and lots of activity.  Finally, we took a drive down into the Ardenne, through many of the little towns that saw the Battle of the Bulge. Our destination was Boullion, home of Godefroid of Boullion.  He is noted as the leader of the first crusade (1095 AD) and inventor of the boullion cube.  I am not so sure about the last part, but he had an excellent medieval castle, perched high on a ridge in a sharp loop of the river.  You really got a feel for how dark and damp these places were, and how hard it would be to take one before cannons.  The most noted time it fell was because the Bishop brought the relics (read "dead body parts") of St. Lambert to threaten them with.  The castle put on a nice show of birds of prey, including a condor, and of falcon training.  This was met by squeals of delight from the herd of little school kids there, and the parents enjoyed the in-joke of his naming the snowy owls Bill and Monica.  (Snowy? Really!).  Susan et al then left to visit a friend in Lucern, Switzerland, spend a few days in Germany, and head home.  All in all, it went well, and we were glad to see them here.

February 22, 2008
    We have taken a lot of drives or walks around the French part of Belgium recently, so we decided to head north instead, and visit Flanders.  Just a few miles north of Liege, but on the other side of the "border," is Tongeren, which  prides itself on being the oldest town in Belgium.  In 56 BC, a local warrior king inflicted some defeats on the Romans, who were subduing Gaul.  A Roman town was founded, to house the army that eventually brought them to heel, and that was the beginning of Tongeren.  The king, Ambiorix, was never captured, and gained the respect of the Romans for his bravery and warcraft.  He became a symbol of Belgian pride and unity after the country was established, and there is a noble looking statue of him in the square.  The town has now put together a nice walk, marked by disks on the sidewalk with his image.  
    Tongeren has an excellent example of a begijnhof.  This is a little "town within a town," enclosed by its own walls, and home to unmarried women, often with children.  They were part of the church, and almost like a nun's cloister, but without taking the vows.  This arrangment grew up in the medieval time, and flourished throughout Flanders and Holland, allowing these widows and spinsters to take care of their own affairs, run businesses, and generally get along without having to find a suitable husband.  The one here is among the oldest, founded in 1250, and it flourished through the 17th century.
    Tongeren stayed within its early town walls until quite late, and much of the Roman and medieval walls can be seen today.  These enclose a nice center, with twisty narrow streets. It was cold, and the moat along the wall was frozen in places, giving the ducks no place to paddle about. Dominating the town is the Church of Our Dear Lady, and there are many interesting buildings of various styles through the years, right up to some great Art Nouveau town homes from the early 20th century.
    We people watched for a while on the patio of a brasserie on the square, and enjoyed the last of the sun on the church tower.  Just at dusk, there was a little ceremony at the war memorial on the square.  A group of old men, proudly wearing their medals and ribbons and presenting their colors, gathered for a few words from the mayor, and the playing of the national anthem.  It was very moving to see these survivors, and reflect on the events of their youth.  Like Ambiorix, they fought hard to protect what was theirs, and in the end survived to see a world that was changed, but still their home.
February 15, 2008
    We are now official!  After waiting for the requisite 3 weeks we went back to City Hall.  In the office were the same two ladies, and they recognized us and knew what we needed.  But, alas, it was a Thursday, and they don't open the drawer for  foreign registration except on Tuesday and Wednesday, so we had to go back the next Tuesday and try again.  This time all was good, and we are now the proud possessors of Belgian ID cards.  Two nice bits:  Several days after we closed the process, we got a postcard telling us to report to the office and pick up our cards.  Plus, they are good until November, so I guess we start up the renewal process in a few months.
    Mardi Gras, or Carnaval, is a big deal in the Low Countries, and there are parades and festivities from the beginning of February 'til the beginning of March.  We went to the parade in Malmedy, near the German border.  It was getting up into the highlands, and it was cold, especially to stand in one spot on a stone wall for hours.  There were thousands of watchers, and probably 1000 marchers.  Everyone in the parade was in costume, but the choices were limited to only a few.  I don't know whether you have to join a crew to wear a certain outfit, or a club, or it is passed down through generations, or if it is just a free choice, but almost everyone was either:  a Savage (African or American), a long nose (Le Long-Né), a long armed clown (Le Longès-Brèsses), a Big Hat (Le Soté), a harlequin (Le Piérot), an ostrich feathered Austrian (La Haguète), a carrot topped cobbler, a long stick sweeper (Le Long Ramon, and nothing to do with lacrosse!),  a Big Ear, or an animal.  There was a scattering of other costumes, but these made up about 90%.  
    These all came through in big mobs, or in mixed groups, all very chaotic.  Some of the characters had special activities they did, too.  For instance, the African savages wore shifts made of wooden plaques, and would make a clacking noise as they hopped up and down.  The Sweeps would brush the faces of  the crown while casually looking in the other direction, and the harlequins would throw oranges.  The clowns would rub people's heads, or move their hats to the next person, and the Feather People would use their accordian leg clampers to grab a spectator by the ankle and make them kneel and swear fealty.  My favorites were the Long Noses, who would play follow the leader, either among themselves or with a leader plucked from the crowd.  That person would then walk along the parade route, or run, or kiss the ladies, or get half undressed, and a string of Long Noses would follow along and mimic everything.  They showed real dedication, especially when one guy took off his shoes and socks and headed off down the road on the 30° pavement, with a whole barefoot troop in tow.  
    Mixed into these groups were marching bands, each from some exotic part of the world.  There were Russians, Turks, Arabs,  Chinese, Scots, Persians, Mongols, and English Red Coats.  And all playing what could only be described as Community Marching Band Pop.  Add a few parade floats à la Homecoming Game, and the effect was complete.  What this all has to do with Easter, or Lent, remains a mystery.
    When the parade was over, we skipped the most vital part of the festivities, which was heading into the bars and drinking all night.  For us, we made it back to the car and turned up the heat, and headed home through the rolling hills of the Ardenne.

January 25, 2008
    After sending off our pile of very official documents, we were summoned to the Consulate in Atlanta to get our visas.  This was a low efficiency activity:  6 hours drive - 6 minutes of transaction - and then 6 hours back.  Why they have to hand them over in person remains a mystery.  But, we did have a nice visit with Steph's brother, so not a complete waste.  And we had lunch in the Varsity - a fitting farewell to the finest in US cuisine!  With our newly pasted passports, we loaded up our suitcases with all sorts of stuff from home and headed back across the big water.  We had curtains and a coatrack and stuff for the kitchen.  And of course, as we are heading out through the airport, the customs lady beckons us over.  But when she realized we were not Belgians returning with bags full of iPods, she just sent us on.
    Once here, you have to register with the local town, so the bureaucrats can always know where everyone is.  After a few false starts we found the right office and had a lovely time with two ladies who I am pretty sure had never done this before, at least for non-EU foreigners.  They kept checking a big book, and conferring among themselves, then saying they needed this or that.  But we were up to the task, and seemed to have everything they were after, including our ceremonial marriage license, complete with apostile.  They sent us off, to return in three weeks, so we will see.  A few days later, there was a knock on the door, and it's a policeman,  here to check if we really lived here, and that our kids weren't with us, etc.  He filled out some more paper and welcomed us to Esneux.  The process continues!
    On Saturday we tried to soak up a little culture, and went to a Rubens exhibition in Brussels.   I don't know if any of the culture made it in, but it was a lovely day, and we trekked the city a bit.  In the area we were, you could really get a feel for the terrain of the city, and I was surprised at the steepness of the ridge that runs across it.  There were a few places where you had really nice prospects out over the lower city.  We saw excellent examples of Art Nouveau architecture, including the entrance to the Fine Arts Museum, which goes through an old English insurance building, with the various offices indicated in the lobby by mosaics on the wall.  Clearly they were not planning any reorganizations when they did that!  A stop off in a little brasserie for a couple of excellent beers, another round of IKEA on the way home, and we called it a day.  Other than that, we are just trying to settle back in and get a little routine going.

December 15, 2007
    We have wrapped up the feasibility study for our time in Belgium.  After a month in Esneux we are back in the US.  On the whole, it's gone well.  The only thing I am down on is the traffic, and I have been driving a lot.  One task for the new year will be to organize my time better, to be more efficient in the trips.  In the last few weeks we went up to Amsterdam a few times, and Steph is getting well aquainted with the city.  She also came along to spend the day in Leuven, which is a beautiful small city in the Flemish part of the country.  In between those, I had a nice visit to Geneva, but was only there for a few days.  While I am at work, Steph is still hiking all over the area, and really getting to know the local country.  It really is a beautiful area, and although it rains a bit every day, it is usually nice  and sunny part of each day, too.  On the weekends, she hauls me out as well.  We took a very nice, and vigorous, walk up to the top of the hills behind us.  We went up through a really verdant forest, working our way up through the mud, along a rushing creek full of mossy trunks.  At the top, was the chateau Rond Chêne, which is now a youth retreat or education center.  We went on to a totally cool 13th century village, the center of which is wonderfully well preserved around an old oak.  Coming back to town we ended up sliding down a really steep embankment, back into another deep little valley.  I ended up flat on my back, but figured it was just good practice for this week.  
    We came back to Durham on the weekend, and were happy to see the house was still standing.  We got to visit with the locals a little, and are now in Denver, visitng my siblings and the nieces and nephews, and will go up into the mountains to ski tomorrow. Thus, the need to practice falling.  We will stay in the US for a month, and then come back to Esneux in January, ready to start our Phase I trial.  I sent everything off to the consulate for my Visa, and am full of hope that it will get done and in hand before we plan to return.  We will see!
November 27, 2007
    The weather was nice again on Saturday, and we took a trip up the Meuse to the cities of Huy and Namur.  To get to Huy ((pronounced like We) we drove up out of our valley, across the highlands, and down into the valley of the Meuse.  That's the most interesting part of the terrain here:  the heights are almost flat, and gently rolling, and cut by deep and steep valleys.  Huy is an ancient city, first being mentioned in the 7th century.  It is dominated by a citadel, which was closed for the winter, and one of the best high Gothic churches in Belgium.  We strolled about the town and the main square, and enjoyed the sunshine.
    Namur is further up the river, and built where a huge chunk of rock rises over the river.  Here the river is turned 90°, and after heading north out of France, goes east toward Liege.  Also here, another river, the Sambre, joins the Meuse.  All this makes for a key strategic spot, and a  fort, or castle or citadel of some sort has been here since forever.  Namur is a bustling place, and is now the capital of Wallonia.  In the middle of town is a tower, with lots of chunks taken out by shrapnel, but I couldn't tell from when.  Of course, when there is something high up in a town we can't resist climbing up, and we headed up to the citadel.  It started as a rather modest castle, and over the years was built up more and more, and stretched further up the hill.  What was nice was that you couldn't tell from the bottom how much there was, and new bits kept unfolding before us, with more to climb, and wider views.  All this building culminated in a mass of brickwork at the top.  While it was impressive, the key event here was a siege in 1692, when it failed to keep the French out of the city.  At the very top, of all things, was a perfume shop, with lovely wooden statues, and fragrances we could not afford.
November 25, 2007
    It's been a busy week for us here. Steph has pretty much unpacked everything, and we are stabilized at a tolerable level of disorder.  On Sunday we went to the market at La Batte, in Liege.  La Batte generally means the embankmant along a river, but specifically it's one stretch of the Muese through the city. There has been a market there since 1549, and it's still going strong.  It's at least a mile long, and thronged with people.  There's lots of clothes, and food of all sorts.  You could even get a peacock for that extra special dinner.  It was a beautiful sunny day and we strolled about for a few hours and picked up a few things for the house.  
    Sunday we went to Amsterdam for 2 nights.  We stayed in a pleasantly ratty and laughably small hotel room, and Steph went to Rembrandt house, and the botanical gardens, while Jim went to work.  The highlight of the visit was a very pleasent bar just around the corner.  Prices in restaurants are so high!  We ended up eating at some pretty greasy spoons, 'cause we couldn't bear to pay for nicer.  The tragedy of the falling dollar. But the weather was nice and we had pleasant strolls about the city.  
    Toward the end of the week, Steph walked to the next village, Poulseur. It has a good example of a kind of castle having a single square, fortified tower in the middle, called a donjon.  These are common in France.   Her eyewitness account:

One pretty day this week I walked away from Esneux to the next village, Poulseur (hence the name of our street, Rue de Poulseur).  Fortunately there was a place to walk along the road, protected from the hurtling stone-filled trucks by a concrete barrier, and from a tumble into the Ourthe river by a rail, in most places.  The road follows the river and is the conduit for all the stone being quarried from the rocky cliffs along the river valley. It is quite unnerving to have to be on the road when these trucks come barreling down the pike. The sun was shining over the mountains, bathing the high stone walls in a golden light.  It took less than half an hour to walk to the next village.  Once there, I headed up to the highest point for the best views.  The path I took ended up on the high plateau at an ancient farm.  The farm road was so sunken that it must have been used for centuries.  From up on the plateau I could see 360 degrees.  While up there I saw a woodsman (like in  Little Red Riding Hood) hauling wood from somewhere out of sight.  I walked back toward the town center and noticed a castle or ruins up on the hillside.  When I saw a sign and path heading to it I couldn't resist, and why should I?  The path led through an evergreen forest and came out at the donjon of Reinarstein.  Along the walk I kept smelling wood smoke and when I came out of the woods, I saw a well banked fire and evidence of what the woodsman had been up to.  This seemed like a nice place for lunch so I sat by the little fire and soaked up the heat from the fire, the sun and the history.

 The sun was already heading down toward the mountains and would be below them soon so I headed back along the river to  home.

    On Thanksgiving day I went with some co-workers to a little town in Germany, to visit a company.  It was a nice drive, but we got lost while the GPS tried to get us to go straight on a road that was blocked with concrete barricades. It was a bit like Winnie the Pooh and the sand pit, but in the end we made it.   We had a nice lunch, but it was not turkey dinner.

November 17, 2007
    So here we are!  We both got where we needed to go, and our luggage, too.  I felt so conspicuous and odd hauling 2 huge suitcases and a big carry-on.  I usually pack light and have everything right at hand, and this was way out of character for me.  But then I looked around and saw that this was just the norm-- I can't say I prefer it.  
    Steph got here on Wednesday, and Thursday at 8:00 the movers were at the door, with all of our stuff in that little green box.  They were done in a few hours, and we've been unpacking and sorting since.  The house has some idiosyncrasies we will have to thrash with, but that's right in our game.  
    The coolest thing is the river. It is big and powerful, and just rushes by.  We go out every night and sit on the deck under blankets and watch the water go by.  We call it riding the Titanic.
    Today was clear and cold and we walked around Esneux, and went to look at the tourist info office.  It was closed, but a sign said that you can get the goods at the butcher's shop.  Sure enough, a few minutes later and a few euros lighter, and after a rather foggy chat with the butcher, we had maps and brochures galore.  We walked up into Esneux, and around the Chateau.  It is in perfect shape, and all closed, and looks like it is lived in.  I'm going to mention to the boss that I found another house we should consider.  We'll see.  We walked on to the next village, Ham.  It was really nice, most of the way through the woods, with vistas out over the river, which here takes an extreme loop.  Ham is right in the middle of the loop, and is a hard little stone farming village.

November 7, 2007
    On Saturday everyone was asking the same question: Well, when are you going?  We finally decided to stop waiting and just go.  We can stay for 3 months on our passports, so we will leave and come back and file for a visa at Christmas.  I have to be in Belgium next week, so I am taking off on Saturday, and Steph will follow next week.  Our stuff is scheduled to be delivered next Thursday, and we aim to be there to take it. So we are going for the quick cut, with the idea that this way we only have a few days to frantically prepare, instead of the  weeks or months of hysteria the process really deserves.

November 4, 2007
    The party has come and gone, and we are reassured in our decision to call this the last one. We are unable to control our urge to compete with Disney.  My vision of the future is cities made of paper mache.  It was a ton of fun, and lots of people came to see us off, and the tradition of great costumes continued.  We reprised our roles of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn from 10 years ago.  I am proud to say that I could  still fit into my costume, although this time I left out the pillows.  We took a moment to reflect on 10 great parties, and to recognize 3 people/couples who made it to every one: Buffy, Lew and Sally, and Sandra and Kent.  We also sang Happy Birthday and had cake for my Mom, whose ??th birthday will be in a few weeks.  You can follow the link to the left to see some pictures.

October 12, 2007

    It will be 4 weeks on Monday, and no word.  It is looking like I will have to wait until after my next trip to Belgium to submit a visa application.  That will be the last week of October.  It should not take very long, so the 8th of November is still possible.  Meanwhile, the movers came on Monday and took away a truckload of our stuff.  Now we find ourselves looking around the house for things, and not at all sure if they went in the truck, or are just lost.  


September 29, 2007

    It's been two weeks, and no word, so we will take a "No news is good news" approach.  We are steaming ahead with moving, and have scheduled the movers to come on October 8, and are making tentative plans to leave around November 8.  We'll see!


September 24, 2007

    Last week a major milestone was met:  the application for a work permit for Jim was submitted to the Belgian authorities.  It has been a long process to get there.  I am working with Deloitte, and they certainly know what they are up to, but they are used to working with big companies that routinely send people out of the country.  In that case, there is an HR department, and usually a person our group who does this all the time.  For OMS, of course, it’s just me.  So I am becoming much more knowledgeable  than I ever thought I would.


The process is something like this:  first a work permit is applied for.  This requires submission of:


    Before I could submit the medical form, it had to be stamped by the doctor, notarized here, then sent to the consulate for their special seal.  All very proper, you know.

So that is in the hands of the bureaucracy, and we will see how they do.  Once that is in hand, a visa is next.