Monday, September 08, 2014

Wait, I only get to pick 10??

You've probably noticed  a recent trend on Facebook these days of people posting lists of 10 books that have influenced their lives and then nominating certain friends to make their own lists. I suppose it was only a matter of time before someone tagged me, and it was my friend Sarah from my work book club who got me a couple days ago.

There's a couple rules associated with this. "Don't take more than a few minutes and do not think too hard. They do not have to be the "right" books or great works of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way."

Pish, rules are for losers. If I want to over think something (and I always want to over think things) I'm going to go ahead and do it. So why make a simple list in a status update when I can instead write lots and lots of words about one of my favorite topics? Books, that is. So in a loose chronological order, here are 10 books that have affected me and are pretty much responsible for the current course of my life.

1.  The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room by Stan and Jan Berenstain

2.  Kristy's Great Idea (The Babysitters Club #1) by Ann M. Martin

3.  From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L Konigsburg

4.  D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths by Ingri d'Aulaire and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire

5.  The Dragons of Autumn Twilight (Dragonlance Chronicles #1) by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman

6.  The Eye of the World (Wheel of Time #1) by Robert Jordan

7.  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Harry Potter #1) by J.K. Rowling

8.  Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

9.  World War Z by Max Brooks

10.  Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

1.  The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room.: The first books I remember actively and independently reading were The Berenstain Bear books. I loved the pictures, the stories, the lessons, and how all the characters (including the parents) weren't perfect and often messed up. Sister Bear could be an insufferable know-it-all, Brother Bear acted like a jerk to his little sister, Papa Bear couldn't stay away from the treats...even the mom had some issues (and obviously questionable fashion sense). The Messy Room was always my favorite...mostly because I loved seeing how they organized everything at the end in different labeled containers. I guess it was the beginning of my OCD.

2.  Kristy's Great Idea: Oh, god, the Babysitters Club. It was my gateway drug to Scholastic books. Every month I would get myself to the bookstore for the latest book in the series and I even ordered a bunch from the forms in the back of the books. When that box from Scholastic arrived in the mail it was like Christmas Day. And after I outgrew the Babysitters Club...Sweet Valley High was right there waiting for me.

3.  From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler: This book hit so many of my tween fantasy buttons. Kids run away from their boring suburban existence and live in a MUSEUM. And! Solve a mystery about a beautiful statute, basically saving the day. But saving the day because of their smarts. Guess how they were able to make money? By taking baths in the museum fountain and scooping up all the change people threw in the water. Of course, this was back when a cup of coffee was like 10 cents, but still. How cool is that??

4.  D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths: I went through a HUGE Greek myth phase around middle school. I wanted to read every Greek myth I could get my hands on and this book was my favorite. The stories were well told and the pictures were awesome. Nowadays we have Myths Retold, but circa 1992? This book was my jam. In fact, it's still sitting on my bookshelf (I actually own physical copies of all these books listed here, in the editions pictured).

5.  Dragons of Autumn Twilight: Talk about your gateway drugs...this was my first real fantasy book. We're talking dragons, wizards, elves, dwarves, all your basic Dungeons and Dragons style fantasy elements are in this book. And I loved it. I remember the guy who lent it to me in 8th grade literally saying, "this book will change your life" and me stroking the cover reverently in response. You would think it was the freaking holy grail or something. But you know what? He was right. It did change my life; I loved it and have been a solid fantasy nerd ever since. 

6.  The Eye of the World: And then we come to Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. The Eye of the World was gifted to me at Christmas by my stepmother, probably around 1994. By New Years I had devoured it and the next two in the series. I spent the next....oh, say 18 years reading this series. Jordan died before he finished, but Brandon Sanderson took up the reins and crafted a brilliant ending (basically achieving the impossible). Despite a loss of momentum in the later books as the characters and subplots moved further and farther away from one another, this fantasy series has been a HUGE part of life. The release of the last book was kind of a big deal for me.

7:  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: I got on the Harry Potter train kind of late. I was already in college (I think the Christmas of my freshman year in 1998) when I read the first three books. I remember the son of my William and Mary Women's Chorus director (Jamie B. shout out!) went as Harry for Halloween that year, and while his costume was adorable...I had no idea what the hell he was supposed to be. A wizard? With glasses? And a weird scar who chased after a gold ball called the snitch? Um, ok. Sure. Sounds kind of lame.

Look, I'm not right all the time, ok? Of course once I read the books I was instantly hooked, am now a superfan, and have many fond Harry Potter-related memories. Like when I worked the release party of the 5th book at the college bookstore in law school. Or when I took off one day studying for the bar to binge-read the 6th book. And how a group of friends and I drove down to Richmond for the midnight release of Deathly Hallows....and I stayed up until 4 in the morning reading. Harry, man. What can you really say?

8.  Neverwhere: It was a rainy day in St. Andrews, Scotland. I was studying abroad the Spring semester of my junior year in 2001, and needed to kill some time. So I popped into the Waterstones bookshop on Market Street. I was browsing through the Fantasy/Sci-Fi shelves...and came across this book. I had never heard of Neil Gaiman before and didn't have any real experience with urban fantasy.

It is now my #1 favorite book of all time and Mr. Gaiman is my favorite author. The first time I met him, I took my original copy of Neverwhere (from that rainy Scottish day) and had him sign the inside cover. Sometimes life is really good, you guys.

9.  I didn't expect for World War Z to be amazing. I expected to be funny, a joke, something to read on the Metro while on the way to work. Instead it BLEW MY MIND. This book is brilliant. All the different stories, the different points of view, the way it moves around the world...amazing. As soon as people hear zombies they tend to tune out, but this book is the real deal. If you can't get past the zombie aspect, just think of it as any global viral pandemic. It will affect you.

As for the's a solid zombie flick. It doesn't have anything to do with the book, but it's an entertaining film.

10. Fangirl: Here we are at the most recent book on the list. I read Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell last year (or, to be precise, I listened to the audiobook) and was immediately bewitched. The main character, who is herself obsessed with a fantasy book series, felt so real to me I just couldn't. stop. listening. I could sit here and go on and on with my glowing review of the book, but that's probably boring. So I'll just say that it is one of my favorite books of all time, I now read anything by Rainbow Rowell, and I can't remember the last time I related so immediately to a fictional person. Read it. Seriously. 

So there we are! 10 books that impacted my life in some way. I swear I didn't put too much thought into compiling the list--all I had to do was walk over to my bookshelves and let the memories pour over me. These books are like members of my family. I mean, it's probably pretty obvious how important they are to me, considering I can pretty much remember the exact circumstances I first found them. Or should I say, the exact circumstances where they first found me. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Match Made in Heaven

Ever heard of Farmers, Fishers, and Bakers? It's a restaurant on the Georgetown Waterfront known for fresh ingredients and that "farm to table" style that has become a major trend in the DC food scene the past few years.

I have unfortunately not been able to try it out yet, but I am on the email listserv for the restaurant group and got word a few months ago about a special "beer and food wine pairing dinner" they were offering. It sounded intriguing, but at around $75 a seemed a bit steep. But I sent the link to some friends of mine to see if they were interested in checking it out.

*enter Jon, Lis, and Scott, stage right*

I can't remember who came up with the suggestion, but after some discussion there was a general feeling of "hey, we can do better than that." So rather than blow a lot of money one a night out, we decided to make our own beer and food pairing and have a night in.

The menu planning was key. It turns out you can find a bunch of tools online to help you prepare a beer and food night. We decided to go with five courses and many MANY types of beers. If you're going to do something, do it right.

First course: Cheese and charcuterie platter.

We went with a variety of everything here. A quick trip to Cheesetique in Del Ray set us up well for the meats and Jon provided the cheese and crackers from another shop. Our cheeses ranged from soft to hard and from mild to flavorful: we had a Honey Goat (goat), a 3 cheddar blend, a Stilton blue cheese, and an unknown sheep's milk cheese. I forgot to write down the type of sheep's cheese when taking my notes. Deal with it. On the meat side, we went with mostly Italian meats (duh): a genoa salami, mortadella, garlic salami, and my personal favorite, prusciutto.

Jon was our beer master and carefully selected beers to go with each course, and in this case, each individual cheese. The goat was paired with a Belgian Saison, while the sheep's milk went nicely with Schlafly American Brown Ale. We needed something that could stand up to the flavorful blue cheese, and it was Stone Imperial Russian Stout (2014) to the rescue! Last (but not least) was a Stochasticity Project Grapefruit Slam IPA for the cheddar.

Honestly, the cheese, meat, and beer could have been a meal all on its own. But we still have four courses to go! As George Takei would say, "Oh, myyyyyyy."

Second course: Salad.

You might think salad is boring. You would be wrong. This one was fantastic--it was a mix of spinach and arugula with tomatoes, walnuts, and dried cranberries and topped off with a bright citrus poppyseed dressing. YUM! The beer pairing for this was also very good: a Bavarian-style German beer, a Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier.

Third Course: Spam fried rice.

Scott whipped this up for us and it was delicious. You might hear Spam and think "ew" and again, you would be wrong. Sure, it's a potted meat, but if utilized correctly, Spam can be fantastic. It's saltiness went really well in this rice dish which was itself excellently paired with an American Pilsner from Wild Wolf brewery right here in Virginia.

Fourth course: Baked (not fried!) chicken wings with kale.

Did you know that you can bake chicken wings? Did you know that they come out amazingly crispy and not greasy? WELL NOW YOU DO. And if you shake on some Old Bay seasoning like Scott did, it's like a flavor explosion. There was also buffalo sauce, but for my money, I'll take the Old Bay. Oh, and can you pass the Lickinghole Creek Four Pillars Imperial IPA, please? Thanks!

Fifth Course: Chocolate.

In a move that is a surprise to nobody, I selected a bunch of different types of chocolate for our dessert. If you're going to blow the calories, do it on something you love. Hence, chocolate. I visited a bunch of different shops in the area to seek out a selection of chocolates, some filled chocolates from Max Brenner in Bethesda, chocolate caramels from Chouquette Chocolates (also in Bethesda), a large Cadbury dairy milk bar, and a chocolate bar with maple bacon from Chuao chocolatier. You can find their bars in the fancy chocolate aisle of grocery stores and in cheese and wine shops.

On the beer side of things, Jon also brought us a selection to try with all the different chocolates. We had a couple of Belgian lambics: Lindemans Gueze Cuvee Rene and Hanssens Oude Geuze Lambic Ale. And my favorite beer of the night, Chocdale Ale from the Boulevard Brewing Company's Smokestack Series in Kansas City, Missouri.


We had made it through five courses, about 10 beers (though no promises on the math there) and were stuffed to the gills. There was nothing left to do but sit back and bask in the self-reflected glow of our own pleasure and victory.

....until next time. Though I'm not sure how we can top ourselves. Perhaps...ribs?

 Our beer and meat experts!

 The aftermath.

 And of course, Max the Beagle was on hand to catch any crumbs. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Big C

"Life is a pain in the ass. l´ll tell ya. You know? You work hard, try to provide for the family, and then, for one minute,everything´s good. Everyone´s well. Everyone´s happy. ln that one minute, you have peace."

"Pop, this isn´t that minute."             -

--While You Were Sleeping

I'm going to have to take a break from my usual coverage of food, travel adventures, parties, and other frivolous fun in the life of Maggie. Oh, and cupcakes. I unfortunately have to break from the usual cupcake coverage. 

Because right now there's actually real life stuff happening. And by "real life stuff," I mean the kind of stuff that completely changes the course of how you live, think, and look at the world.

Now that I have you on pins and needles I'll just spit it Mom has cancer.

I know, it sucks.

One day you're going about your life as usual, blogging about cupcakes, and then BAM. You get news that changes everything. For me, it was my Mom telling me that she had noticed a weird lump in her neck and had scheduled a biopsy. At this point, I did what most people would do. I freaked the fuck out. Kidding! I reassured myself that it was probably nothing and it was smart to get it checked out. Just in case.

I went with Mom to the biopsy and did my best to distract her with jokes and stories as I do. But in the back of my mind there was that tiny little voice that I do my best to ignore, "...what if it's something serious?"

And it turns out it was serious. I was on a work trip to West Virginia (ugh) when Mom called me with the biopsy results. I already knew it wasn't going to be good; I had emails from my friend Chris saying, "call your Mom as soon as you can" in addition to several missed calls from Mom on my cell phone. I looked at the phone before dialing it and thought, "this is the day I find out my Mom has cancer."

God, I hate being right all the time.

So, yes, the biopsy did not come back with good news. Basically, it indicated that the lump in Mom's neck was a mass on her lymph node consistent with metastasis from squamous cell carcinoma. That's skin cancer for all you science nerds out there. The next step is to figure out the primary site of the cancer. Even though it's technically skin cancer, SCC can actually occur almost anywhere in the body as epithelial cells are present all over. In cases like my Mom's, it's usually in the lungs or in some other chest or abdominal organ. But then her chest, abdominal, and pelvic CT came back normal.

This was not a good sign. If you can't locate the primary source of cancer it's known as "occult cancer." And it means that the doctors can't tailor the treatment to a specific area; they pretty much just have to zap your entire body with chemo and maybe radiation.

However, in the past week there have been positive developments. Mom had a PET scan that indicated the cancer was located in the throat. This area is very treatable and has an excellent prognosis. She is having an endoscopy later this week to confirm the location and then meeting with the oncologist later this month to figure out the next step. It's not a done deal until the endoscopy, but the PET scan/oncologist seemed pretty sure about the throat as the primary site so for now I am going to focus on the positive.

I think at this point though I am still working my way through all this. There's a long road ahead for sure and I need to focus on supporting Mom in whatever way I can. And while I have one of those feelings that everything is going to work out ok...this is all pretty scary. It makes you think thoughts like, "what would I do without my Mom?" and other terrible stuff that I am definitely not ready to handle. But thankfully I have an amazing group of friends and family who have already stepped up with love and support.

I'm trying to just focus on a "one step at a time" mode of attack. Though I know the coming weeks, months, and years are not going to be easy. But then, whoever said life was easy?

I will now return you to my usual nonsense blogging, because hey, who doesn't need a good distraction. And I will definitely keep you all updated on developments as they happen--but no news is good news as far as these things go.

And now here is a picture of my Mom with a beagle puppy. Because why not?

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Off to the Races

I promise I will finish up my Belgium-related posts, but there is so much other stuff I need to post about and I keep putting it decided I would suck it up and do things a bit out of order.

Races have figured prominently in my spring and summer. Not just running races, but also horse races! Part of the reason is a new goal I have set for myself to make sure I keep up with my running: I plan to run a 5K a month for the rest of the year. That's 7 races total from when I made this solemn vow back in June.

Well, it wasn't that solemn. It was more me sitting on my couch and thinking, "how can I make sure I keep up with my running? I know! I will make myself spend a lot of money on race registration fees so I make sure I actually put in the time for training!" So not only do I get to suffer physically, my wallet will also take a hit. Awesome.

I also reached my Spring running goal of completing my first 8K! That's five miles for those of you who can't perform instant kilometer to miles conversions in your head. If you had told me three years ago that I would be able to run five miles, I would have laughed in your face, fallen out of my chair, and then laughed some more. But the joke is on me, because I totally did it!

In fact, the day of my 8K was full of races--not only did I get up and run in the Fairfax City 8K: Race FOR THE CHILDREN along with my friend Matt who was in town, I also immediately drove out to The Plains, Virginia to see the Gold Cup, or Diet Kentucky Derby.

Me and Matt ready to pwn the 8K!

I am happy to report that both races--the humans and the horses--were an amazing success. Despite the hilly course (I hate those hills), I came in right at my goal of time of under an hour for the 8K at about 55 minutes. And all the logistics went off without a hitch. My friend Rachel who lives in Manassas graciously let me stop at her place on my way to The Plains to shower and change and I arrived at the University Row event before the horses started running.

I was really impressed by University Row. The event is sponsored and organized by colleges that have a high population of alumni in the area and for the ticket price you get access to the private race area, an open bar, all day long food buffet, and games and other activities. You never really know how these kind of things are going to go--usually you end up with crowds, long lines, weak drinks, and food that runs out after the first hour. But I am happy to report that this was not the case. The whole event was classy, the food was amazing, and the layout and quality of the food and drinks was great. I was impressed. And I got to wear a hat!

No better excuse for a hat than a horse race.

Speaking of races....I found that I was having trouble keeping myself motivated for the running after my 8K. Finishing a big goal can sometimes leave you in a bit of a funk and looking for something to keep yourself going, especially in the middle of a DC summer when you remember you live in a swamp. So I came up with a new goal! From June until the end of the year, I plan to run a 5K a month.

It's not THAT difficult a proposition-after all, three miles is a regular running distance for me now, but it will allow me to focus on lowering my time and getting closer to the elusive 10 minute mile mark. I have already run my June and July races (more on the July race below) and have my August and September races booked! I haven't decided what to do for an October race yet, but you can bet it will somehow involve zombies or some other Halloween-themed monster. Remember the first rule of the zombie apocalypse: cardio.

Getting back to July, I am just coming off a week in Los Angeles visiting my brother and his family and meeting my new baby nephew, William. I figured why run a 5K in hot and humid DC when I could do it in LA, so on Friday I ran the Redondo Beach Fourth of July race! It took place on the road that runs along the ocean and OF COURSE the weather was perfect. Not only did I make a new PR (34:50), but it was even more fun since Amanda loaded my nephews, James and William, into the stroller and walked in the race. When I had finished running, I jogged back and met them along the course and we were all able to cross the finish line together. It made it all the more special since we did it as a family--though my brother (predictably) spent the morning sleeping in and missed out. Though he would probably say that we missed out. On sleep.

How do you convince a 2 year old to sit in his stroller for an hour during a race? Trail mix, of course.

Lots of running around--literally and figuratively! If anybody has any interest in joining me for a 5K in October, November, or December just let me know. It's always more fun when you have other people to share in the torture...I mean, fun!

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Eating and Drinking in Brussels, Part II

Let's get back to talking about how I ate and drank my way through Brussels! I mean, posts about new cars are all well and good, but I know y'all are only here for the food porn.

When most people think Belgian food, three things come to mind. First, waffles. Second, chocolate. And third, frites! That's french fries for all you Americans out there.

But how do you know where to get good frites? There are lots of reviews and travel sites out there telling you where to find the best frites in Brussels. Last time I was in town, I visited Fritland, a friterie right off the Grand Place and swamped with tourists. The fries were great, sure, but I wanted something...more.

So I took to the internet! It never lies, right? Almost everywhere I looked I came across one place over and over: Maison Antoine. It's a bit off the beaten path from your typical Brussels friterie--about a 30 minute walk from the touristy area of the city and 10 minutes from the EU Parliament in the Place Jourdan. Luckily for me, I was over that way on Sunday of my visit at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (more on that in a later post). Even luckier for me, there was no line! This apparently doesn't happen very often, but I just walked right up to the window and placed my order. "Bonjour, petite frites, merci!

And they were very, very good. Large hunks of potato, double-fried, and wrapped in paper. They give you an adorable little plastic fork, but you don't need it. Just reach right in grab those suckers. Despite the double-fry part, they aren't super greasy. And you really get a lot of delicious potato flavor rather than icky oil flavor.

This is something I have discovered about the food in Brussels: it's not great for you, I mean this is the land that carbs built, but it's made with fresh, natural ingredients. If you got the same thing here in the States it would be full of preservatives and other crap. At least when you blow your diet in Belgium, you blow it on the best version of whatever you are eating.

Once you find the Place Jourdan, you can't miss Maison Antoine. Just look for the giant cone of frites on a post. Though finding the actual square isn't easy; apparently in Brussels they don't trouble themselves too much with street signs. It took me an extra 20 minutes to find this place just because I kept wandering down the wrong twisty turny streets.

Once you've whet your appetite with frites, the next logical things to do is get some beer! Brussels is stuffed with great bars, and one of the best is A La Morte Subite. The name translates to "at the sudden death" and according to the bar's website, derives from a dice game played by some original patrons more than 80 years ago.

But that's just the background. Morte Subite is a great classic Belgian bar. As you can see, it's full of nifty art deco details, mirrors, and wood. It's specialty is Gueuze (lambic) and Trappist beers of which it has many on tap. Drinking here you quickly get stuffed with atmosphere and well-priced and delicious beer. They apparently have food too, but we didn't have any of it. This was strickly a beer only visit as Jonathan and I were having drinks with his friend, Julie.

Looking around the bar! 

Our first order! Mine is the Mort Subite lambic white beer. It's their house specialty and it was soooo good. 

After bidding Mort Subite adieu, we took a quick walk and went to a cool Flemish place called A La Becasse. This looked exactly like how you imagine an old German beer-hall would look.

 Oh, yes, I think this will work just fine for us.

It was completely different from the previous bar we visited, but just as cool with a more "sit back and take off your lederhosen" type of vibe. Continuing my theme of trying every lambic beer in Brussels, I ordered a lambic beer flight (a "palette").

They were all so good, I couldn't pick a favorite. Or I guess I should say that my favorite was whichever one I happened to be drinking at that moment. Starting from the top and working around clockwise I had:

--Lambic Doux: "The best lambic blended with a top-fermented brown ale, matured in oak barrels (5%)." It tasted very cidery, but no where near as sweet. You still knew you were drinking beer, not alcoholic juice.

--Lambic Blanc: "The only white beer based on lambic, flavored with coriander and dried orange zest (4.5%)." Light, crisp, delicious.

--Kriek: "Slightly sweetened Timmermann's lambic beer (4%)." Cherry-flavored, but again, not overly sweet. Timmermann's is basically the way to go if you want a lambic beer that doesn't have too much sugar.

--Bourgogne des Flandres: I forgot to write down the description, but it's a Flanders-style red ale. Strongest beer-like flavor, but still not hoppy.

I think the lambic beer flight was my favorite thing that I drank on this visit! Just an all around great tour through Timmermann's lambics. Too bad these things are so ridiculously expensive here in the US.

 I swear we hadn't been drinking that much. This was just an awkward photo. I mean, I am always awkward, but you know what I mean.

Here's me and my new friend Julie. I promised her a shout out on the blog, so Julie, this one's for you! Thanks for being so awesome and hanging out with us on my last night in Brussels!

Cheers to new friends! 

And finally, I had one culinary splurge while I was in Brussels. On my first night, Jonathan and I decided to treat ourselves to a good old fashioned Belgian dinner. We visited a place we went the first time I visited (I think it now counts as a tradition), In't Spinnekopke. It may sound Greek, but the menu is pure Belgian.

I had the carbonnade, a beef stewed in beer (foreground). It's served with frites and a small salad. Jonathan had the steak with a mushroom cream sauce, also served with frites, and we pretty much agreed that it was the best sauce EVER. 

 Inside of In't Spinnekopke.

 Did I mention there are creepy puppets hanging all over the wall? I don't know what the hell that is about but it was kind of freaky. Further proof that Europeans are weird.

 Coming up next time: wanderings around Brussels with weekend markets and dinosaur bones! And then: a day in Amsterdam!

Sunday, June 01, 2014

You'll be playing for...A BRAND NEW CAR!

An event 15 years in the making....I just bought a new car! 

Yes, this means I had to bid a fond adieu to my 1999 Toyota Corolla. This car has served me well throughout the years; from college to law school to the first seven years of my being a real honest-to-goodness adult homeowner attorney. 

You're probably wondering what happened. Well, not to get into too many details (mostly because they are embarrassing), let's just say that the Corolla incurred some minor body damage recently. Unfortunately, due to the age of the car, my insurance company was not willing to pay to make the repairs and declared the Corolla a "total loss."

*insert sad trombone noise*

I'm not one to get emotional or even sentimental about a car. My Dad said it best when he said that I view cars as appliances. That's accurate. If I am comfortable driving it, it protects me from dying in a crash, and I don't find the layout and color too offensive then I am happy. Having said that, the Corolla was a great car and there was absolutely nothing wrong with its guts. I could have driven it another 5 years for sure. So I got really upset about it being considered totaled; so wasteful and pointless. And I certainly didn't start the week thinking I would have to blow half my savings on a car or go through the hassle of actually buying one.

But now that's all in the past and I find myself the proud owner of a 2014 Hyundai Accent Hatchback!

Hyundai has apparently really been upping its game the past few years with solid craftsmanship, great safety ratings, and excellent warranties. I also got a pretty good deal, so no complaints. I'll mourn the loss of the Corolla...but I am excited about my new car!

 Driving it off the dealer lot....

And getting the keys from the salesman, Charles. I had a great experience at Pohanka Hyundai and definitely recommend them if you are looking for a new car! And a big shout out and thanks to my Dad for coming along with me and taking pics of the purchase!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Eating and Drinking in Brussels, Part I

If you have read this blog at all (or let's be honest, have ever spoken to me) then you know that I love food. It's basically one of my favorite hobbies. Now that doesn't mean that I eat whatever I want when I want; I have busted my ass to lose over 90 pounds and counting calories and eating healthy is a big part of that. But when I am on vacation I allow myself a few indulgences. 

Due to some, shall we say "interesting" circumstances, I discovered I needed to purchase a new car soon after my return from Brussels. Obviously when I booked my trip to Europe I didn't think that I would be dropping a good chunk of my savings on a new car a week later. So when I was in Brussels I was very conscientious about how much I was spending on food and drinks. Thankfully, Google, Yelp, and various ex-pats websites were there to help point me in the right direction for cheap eats.

First up! A place that I wanted to visit during my last trip to Brussels in November, but unfortunately I never found the time to make it. And then when I did stop by on Monday (Armistice Day) it was closed for the holiday along with EVERY OTHER SHOP IN THE STUPID CITY. I mean, really. What kind of country actually closes the shops on federal holidays? These people would make terrible Americans. 

Anyway, the place I am talking about is a tiny Middle Eastern snack counter on the main drag about a 15 minute walk from the Grand Place (the medieval square that is the center of tourist Brussels). It's called Mr. Falafel (best name ever!) and I can't even call it a restaurant since it's a quick service place with like 3 tables. 

But oh my gosh, it is so good. And cheap! For 4.50 euro, you get four big fresh falafel balls served in a delicious toasted wheat pita AND a plastic bowl that you can fill with whatever toppings and sauces you want from the well-stocked salad bar. The salad bar isn't just raw veggies either; there are delicious mixed salads with various oils and vinegars as well as hummus, tzatziki sauce, and other stuff that I can't even remember. 

My pita, falafel, hummus, and salad. You can refill the salad container as many times as you want! And the good stuff is hidden under my lettuce, don't let the boring topper fool you into thinking I didn't try the more adventurous options.

Just step right up to the counter behind the salad bar and order your falafel. I think that is actually the only thing on the menu.

And in case you were wondering how I found this place, I first came across it on the website Spotted by Locals covering the best hidden gems of Brussels. 

Next up, pizza! I know you don't automatically think Belgium when you think great pizza, but in the local chain, Momma Roma, they do pizza right. And a bit differently then we do it here in the States. First, the pizza is built on foccacia bread, unlike other pizza crusts you might be familiar with. This is a most excellent idea in theory and execution. Second, Momma Roma offers super fresh and "fancy" toppings that are more true to Italian cuisine (think spec, amazing cheeses, and more unusual vegetables). And third, the cost is based on weight of the pizza. You order by the slice--which is huge--and the slices are then weighed to determine the cost. The huge slices are then cut into more manageable pieces. 

I actually ordered from the prix fixe menu; for 11 euro you get two slices of pizza (any type you want), a drink, and dessert. This adds up to a lot of food for about $15. And since a can of soda will typically run you about 3 euro in a restaurant, the prix fixe menu is a bargain.

 Momma Roma's order counter and the pizza display.

 Pizza for me and Jonathan; mine was cheeseless but still amazing with the fresh roasted tomatoes and herbs.

 Dessert: chocolate pie. This thing was AMAZING. It was like a warm donut stuffed with gooey chocolate. Seriously, one of the best things I ate on the entire trip.

Let's switch gears and talk about bars! One of my favorite bars that I visited last time was Moeder Lambic. It's a great modern vibe, an awesome beer selection, and as the name suggests lots of lambic beers which are my favorite. It's also one of Jonathan's favorite spots, so we headed back and sat outside to enjoy the Spring sunshine. Brussels is far enough north that the sun doesn't actually set until around 11 at night in late May.

 Cheers! The dude next to me is Martin, a friend of Jonathan's from work. And a fellow ginger!

After a few beers at Moeder Lambic, we headed to a more specialized bar. At Goupil Le Fol, you can wind your way through small red and candle-lit rooms stuffed with French-themed bric-a-brac. The juke box only plays French songs from the 1920s and 1930s, and the entire place makes you feel that you are visiting a cluttered old Parisian salon. The bar specializes in fruit wines and brandies (of course) and they are delicious but deceptively strong. It's an amazing mix of charm, kitsch, and cheesiness. But for me, it leaned more towards the charm.

 Jonathan and Martin!

 One of the rooms at Goupil Le Fol. I seriously loved this place.

Coming up next time: the best frites (fries) in Brussels, an art deco bar, and a good old fashioned Flemish beer hall. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

In Bruges

"A great day this has turned out to be. I'm suicidal, me mate tries to kill me, me gun gets nicked and we're still in fucking Bruges." --Ray from In Bruges

My second day in Belgium, I left Brussels behind and hit the mean streets of Bruges. And by "mean streets," I mean "ridiculously charming cobbled streets."

A few years ago, the only thing I knew about Bruges was what I saw in the movie In Bruges. In the film, two hit men who work for an Irish mob boss are banished to Bruges for a few days as penance when they screw up a job. They're told to wait in Bruges...and then basically spend the entire movie talking about what a shithole the town is. So Bruges was never really high on my must visit list.

Then last year, when I made my first trip to Belgium, I started hearing from people "oh, you have to go to Bruges!" It's apparently a wonderland of medieval adorableness. Phrases like "cute European village" and "like if Disney created an actual little city" were bandied about. These didn't fill me with a lot of confidence either, to be perfectly honest. But with so many people talking up Bruges and Rick Steve's guidebook calling it a "heavyweight sightseeing destination, as well as a joy" I figured I had to give it a shot! Getting there couldn't be easier from Brussels; trains run every 30 minutes to/from Brussels and the trip only takes about an hour total. So off to Bruges I went!

As usual, let's talk a bit of history to put everything in context. Bruges (spelled Brugges and pronounced BROO-ghah in Flemish and brooze in French and English) had its big moment in the 14th century. It was a European economic powerhouse with a population as large as London's. Bruges was the center of northern Europe's cloth market and it was ideally situated on the sea between northern and southern Europe. Things also went well in the 15th century, when England and France were slugging it out in the Hundred Years' War and commerce and the arts boomed in Bruges.

But then...the harbor got silty and Bruges became a dead city. Not much happened for the next 500 years or so and the city appears to have escaped WWII pretty much untouched. And along came the tourists. People began to discover that Bruges was a well-preserved town with amazing intact gothic features and lovely canals. And the high times are back for Bruges, what with all those tourists pumping money into the local economy.

My itinerary was going to keep me busy, but also allow me to hit almost all of Bruges main sights in one day. From the center of town I would go on a chocolate and beer scavenger hunt, go for a bit of a walk to see some windmills, and then follow Rick Steve's walking tour of the city hitting the big churches, museums, and photo opportunities.

The heart of Bruges, both for tourists and modern residents, is the Market Square (Markt). Picture your stereotypical European medieval square and that's pretty much it--in a good way. The Markt is dominated by the tall bell tower (Belfort) which dates from 1300. I climbed the 366 steps to the top and was rewarded with stunning views of the city.

The Markt

Belfort, and yep, I climbed all the way to the top!

One of the many panoramic views from the top of the Belfort. I told you it was a beautiful town!

The stairs reminded me a lot of the Statute of Liberty climb, with the twisting staircase growing steeper and more narrow the closer you goe to the top. But the climb was worth it since the panorama (and the up close look at the bells) were amazing.

Also in the Markt is a large statute of two Belgian dudes who led a revolt against French rule in 1302 and ended up winning Flanders its freedom. The Markt is further surrounded by a bunch of neo-gothic "old" buildings that were reconstructed in the 19th century in an exaggerated neo-Gothic style. Add in a ton of cafes, restaurants, and bars with plenty of outdoor seating and chocolate and lace shops, and you're in tourist heaven.

Of course, I always want to find places more off the beaten path so I eschewed these places with my nose held high in the air. I was going to find the more authentic least the ones that are listed in the guidebook. And yes, I am aware that this makes me a pretty giant hypocrite, but whatever.

After snapping some pics of the Markt, I set off to find some chocolate nirvana. Rick Steve, Google, and Yelp all agreed that the best chocolate shop in Bruges was Dumon--a family-owned shop that makes their chocolate daily and is located only a few blocks off the Markt. It was as smooth, creamy, and delicious as it sounds. Another local chocolate shop I visited was De Clerck Confiserie, a third generation-owned store with amazingly affordable homemade chocolate. The shop was a sight in and of itself; it was crammed with vintage chocolates, candy, toys, tins that looked like something out of a movie.

Inside the Dumon chocolate shop. It smelled amazing.

After packing my bag with chocolate (no tasting yet!), I visited the Choco-Story: The Chocolate Museum. The displays weren't as sophisticated as the big-city museums you might be used to, but the information was really fascinating. The museum explains the ancient (over 2500 years ago) origins of chocolate from the Aztecs and Mayans, as well as its discovery by the Spanish and its journey across the pond to Europe. The museum also covered the evolution of chocolate from a drink consumed by the Aztecs/Mayans to our modern truffles and pralines. Finally, the museum de-mystified the chocolate making process which is way more time and labor-intensive than I ever imagined.

Now that I had my mental fill of chocolate (the tummy filling would come later), I wandered along the Spiegelrei canal to the tiny alley of Blekersstraat. Just a bit down the alley was the entrance to Herberg Vlissinghe, the oldest pub in Bruges. It dates from 1515 and the decor is pure medieval beer hall. Outside was a lovely sunny garden ande everything is watched over by a cute terrier who roams inside and out looking for big-hearted tourists to share their bar food. I had a glass of one of the local brews, Brugse Zot ("Fool from Bruges") which was a delicious golden ale. It much have been coming on lunchtime, because that one beer definitely made me a bit tipsy.

The tucked away entrance to Herberg Vlissinghe.

Brugsze Zot in the oldest bar in town!

A short 10-15 minute walk later down Bruges' narrow, winding, and charming back streets brought me to some large grassy hills dotted with sunshine and that typical Low Country feature--windmills! This was the perfect place to eat the lunch I packed myself (so healthy and frugal!) and stuff myself with all the chocolate I bought (so not healthy but so amazing!).

I soaked up the sun for a bit and then hit the roads again, wandering my way back to the center of town. Bruges is a great town for wandering--it's not large and as long as you head in the general direction of the Markt and occasionally consult your map to orient yourself, it's fun to "get lost" in the side streets.

Windmill! One of three located along the grassy area.

Once I found my way back to the Markt, it was time to follow Rick Steve's walking tour! At this point, there was nothing to do but go full on tourist--alternating between gaping at the medieval sights around me and keeping me nose buried in the guidebook for the descriptions of what the heck I was looking at.

From the Markt, I proceeded to Burg Square, Bruges historical birthplace. The square contains several buildings representing over six centuries of architecture. Some of the highlights...

The Basilica of the Holy Blood: a church dating from approximately 1150 and built by a Flemish knight of the Second Crusade to house the drops of Christ's blood he brought back from Jerusalem. The relic is preserved in a clear tube of rock crystal and is displayed on Fridays--which means it was out when I visited the church! 

The City Hall, dating from about 1400 (large building in the picture below). It's still in use (and is where you go for a civil marriage ceremony in Bruges). From Burg Square, I walked through a another little alley with some interesting details. On the left wall was an original iron hinge from the city's south gate. And directly across was a patch of wall left to show how dirty Bruges was at the time of a 1960 cleaning.

Burg Square and the City Hall

I walked through a smaller restaurant-lined square (Huidevettersplein) to Rozenhoedkaai street which is where Bruges almost becomes too adorable to be real. Medieval row houses rise directly from the tree-lined canals Venice-style with a view of the Belfort in the background. These postcard perfect views could easily seem too treacle. But in my opinion, Bruges avoids the Disney and Williamsburg comparisons by being completely authentic. It just really is that charming.

Only a few hundred yards down the Dijver canal is the Groeninge Museum. The museum includes paintings dating from 1400 to 1945 and the most extensive collection of Flemish Primitive art in the world.  The paintings date from when Bruges was the richest and most cultured city in Europe.

The Flemish Primitive style commonly features a "primitive" 3D perspective, realism in its subjects (who tend to be members of the merchant class as opposed to nobles and clergy), meticulous details, oil painted on wood, and symbolism, such as a dog symbolizing fidelity. The paintings were fascinating, but I was really glad my guidebook included information and highlights of some of the more famous pieces, because the museum didn't provide any information aside from the name, artist, and year it was painted There wasn't an audio tour or guidebook or anything like that. Weak sauce, Groeninge Museum. Thank goodness for Rick Steve.

By this point, my feet were starting to feel the miles I had put on them today (including a 4 mile run in Brussels that morning), so I made a quick lap around the Church of Our Lady: the church houses a Madonna and Child statue by Michelangelo, said to be the only Michelangelo statue to leave Italy during the artist's lifetime. I went inside hoping to get a glimpse. While it used to be out for viewing in a chapel free of charge, apparently Church of Our Lady isn't too pious to gouge us tourists for what they can, and now you have to pay to see the statute. Well, forget that.

I continued on my merry way to De Halve Maan Brewery, where they make the Brugse Zot ale I had earlier in the day!

A few more cobbled streets, some quiet courtyards, and a lovely lake-filled park called the Minnewater ("Water of Love") later, my walking tour ended about 5 minutes from the train station. Perfect! I easily hoppd on a train back to Brussels and was home in time to meet Jonathan and his work friend Martin for a late dinner and drinks!

Church of Our Lady

Outside the brewery.

The Minnewater...complete with swans. OF COURSE.

Coming up next in my Belgian adventure: eating and drinking my way around Brussels, all on a budget. I'll show you the best places to imbibe while not breaking the bank!

More pictures from around Bruges!

 Old (and I mean old) houses abound.

The stairs to the top of the Belfort

 Markt selfie!

 The relic in the Basilica.

 Canal selfie!

 Statute in the Markt.

 View from the Courtyard of the Groeninge Museum looking towards the Belfort.

 Inside a Dumon praline.

Oh, shut up, Chocolate museum.

Jonathan and Martin, back in Brussels.

Chloƫ: There's never been a classic movie made in Bruges until now.
Ray: Of course there hasn't. It's a shithole.
Chloƫ: Bruges is my home town, Ray.
Ray: Well, it's still a shithole.

I beg to differ, Ray. I beg to differ.