The Transparent Church

Last weekend I went to Borgloon, a miniscule town in Flanders, with one of my dad’s best friends. We drove about 1.5 hours into the countryside and couldn’t believe we were in the right place when we arrived in a practically deserted town skirted by acres and acres of farmland and cow pastures. But we were! After getting lost and asking multiple people for directions (they did, not me, as I don’t speak a word of Flemish) we reached our final destination: THE TRANSPARENT CHURCH, also known as the Reading Between the Lines Church.  It’s designed by the architects Gijs Van Vaerenbergh, and is so ingenious because its appearance changes with each angle. From every perspective, you can see completely through the Bronze structure, the horizontal slats revealing the rolling landscape behind. Definitely worth the trip! 

The Beautiful Countryside

Wow the countryside of Belgium is stunning. Yesterday early evening, we drove out to the outskirts of Brussels to my host mother’s parents’ house, like we do every Tuesday. The drive yesterday, however, was spectacular. Although it had been drizzling and grey all morning, the weather suddenly changed and the rain clouds cleared away, revealing a perfectly blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds and a dazzling afternoon sun. Autumn has definitely arrived in Belgium (even though it feels like winter some days), and the trees were colorful bouquets of deep red, amber, yellow-orange and marigold. We passed by acres and acres of rolling hills and farm land, grazing cows and sheep and horse pastures. We took a tiny, part-cobblestone, part-dirt road that cut through the landscape in a meandering zigzag. We passed by Waterloo and stopped by the field where the famous battle took place. Here’s a picture of the Lion’s Mound!

 It really felt like I was in the south of France or Tuscany. For the entirety of the ride, I was in absolutely awe, head pushed out the window to feel the wind in my face and hair. It was like a dream.  

Weekend Highlights

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Highlights of  the weekend included: 

Thai restaurant with a new friend, going to a student art exhibition, and spending a whole afternoon reading in a café (still keeping my promise to only read in french), although I got somewhat harassed by a beligerantly drunk man (at 3pm, really?) but was saved by a nice belgian couple who I ended up talking with for an hour! Also went to a salsa dancing club, had a delicious vegan brunch, went to an outdoor techno concert, and went for a 2 hour run in La Boit de La Cambre (not by choice - I got lost). This sunday was the annual car-free day in Brussels so the streets were filled with bikers, pedestrians, and food vendors. It feels pretty cool to walk down the middle of the post road completely care free (don't try this at home). We so need this in New York! 

 Le Grand Place at night! 

Le Grand Place at night! 

Some More Hard Hats, a Mini Marathon, and Art

Thursday, September 17, 2015

I went to a town near Tournai today (1.5 hours from Brussels) to see another project development. The meeting was interesting but actually lasted about 8 hours. I got so bored that I actually tried everything I could think of to keep myself from falling asleep- everything from trying to recount my earliest memory to deciding what spirit animal each of the men seated at the table represented. 

We went straight from the construction site to Immorun, a team running race between local offices. There was such a great vibe! There were over 1000 participants and even though it was a bit rainy and very muddy, everyone was in great spirits and it definitely fostered good office camaraderie :) 

This evening, we went to an art exhibition at one of J&S's friends' apartments. The tiny space was crammed with young, artsy Belgians, wearing sparkly tights, clashing but also cool patterns, or all black with red lipstick. The whole scene was so contemporary, almost too contemporary though, like it was trying so hard to be hip and modern.

 The pieces were only about 8x11" and on each expansive white wall, only 1 or 2 paintings were hung. This huge amount of space gave the works an impression of great value but on closer examination, they were what I expected from a fancy art opening - seemingly hastily done and frankly, lacking technique. That's the thing about contemporary art, it's often hard to tell what separates a masterpiece from complete trash. For example, the tiny, unframed painting of a grey donkey on a pink background was worth £3000. Nevertheless, I find it super interesting to go to these types of events because these artists completely challenge established definitions of art and create a response in the viewer. 

There was  a series of works that clearly focused on technology's influence on art. A few were photos of famous women with either their eyes or mouth pixelated into abstraction while others were actually just blown-up iPhone screenshots of google image searches of color blocks. Of course, each one was extremely symbolic and somehow deeply questioned the meaning of life, if only you were smart enough to interpret it ;) Ok ok although I'm making fun of them, I do see how the idea is often more important than the actual product; after all, I'm still thinking about them hours later. 

Continuing the thread of being super new and cool, there was a caterer that offered tiny portions of food. I learned about a new movement called "slow-food" that's getting really big in Belgium. It's is all about tiny portions, the best ingredients, and appreciating the dish as an artist's creation rather than something to fill up on - exactly the opposite of fast food. 

There was also a band that played an interesting combination of artists - Bjork, Brittany Spears, and John Lennon. I especially enjoyed the Brittany Spears ones because the singer's thick Belgian accent was able to make even "Toxic" seem like a classy, french song.

Tango Dancing?

Last night I went tango dancing! A coworker of mine invited me to this tiny, really authentic, tango dance club tucked away on a tiny street in a neighborhood of Brussels I had never been to. It was such an experience!! The club was flooded with dark, red light, and couples dressed in black glided across the dance floor to the music. I learned that there are three types of tango music: waltz, 'straight tango', and milonga, and that the songs are grouped in threes, called 'tandas.' You have to dance all three songs in the tanda before leaving the dance floor. What I found most interesting (and hilarious) was the way in which the man invites the woman to dance. There's no talking involved - only seductive eye contact. The man spies a woman across the room and looks at her. If she is not interested, she shifts her gaze but if she is, she stares back. Then, ever so subtly, the man nods his head in the direction of the dance floor and walks over to take her hand. So seductive, right? Hahaha it seems fitting for this type of dance, which is so intense and intimate. 

Anyways, I watched the dancers for a while, trying to get a sense of the moves and style. The man always guides the dance but it's the woman's job to be acutely aware of the man's direction and follow his moves exactly. The dancers are completely in-sinc, legs intertwining and parallel, the man taking large traveling steps as well as small ones, as the woman flourishes with figure- eight movements and little leg kicks. I was invited to the dance floor and after a couple hours, I kind of got it! Of course, I'm still VERY much a beginner and I could see the frustration on my dance partner's faces as I accidentally stepped on their feet and interrupted the rhythm but oh well, I had a lot of fun :) 

Surprise!

Thursday, September 10

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Oh. My. God. I almost died from shock. I was sitting at my desk, at approximately 9am, when all of a sudden, I hear my name being called by such a familiar but out of place voice. It was my dad! There he was, standing in my office, in Brussels, when I thought he was 6 hours away across the Atlantic! I don't remember what I did next but apparently my jaw dropped like a stone and I gaped at him, wide-eyed for a full minute. I couldn't tell if I was hallucinating or dreaming. After I finally got my wits together, I jumped up to hug him and he told me he had planned this trip a month ago but was keeping it a surprise.  He had to go to France for a meeting anyways and couldn't pass up a quick stop in Belgium to see his daughter :D Now I know why when I asked him the other day when we could FaceTime, he replied cryptically that we will definitely have face time on Thursday (I thought he was just being old and non-tech savvy by not understanding FaceTime is now a verb).

And then began what is probably the best day of my life... I had the day off work (already pre-arranged with Jean) and we headed to Brugge! As I left the office with my dad, my coworkers waved and smiled knowingly - apparently everyone knew about this little surprise but me. 

Brugge is pretty much a fairytale city. Tiny meandering canals with flocks of deceivingly friendly swans, cobblestone streets lined with Belgian chocolatiers, outdoor cafés, and traditional Flemish dentelle lace shops, quaint 14th century brick houses, and elaborate churches and basilicas. They call it the Venice of Belgium. We took a boat tour through the canals and climbed the Belfry Tower. We couldn't have been luckier with the weather - it was dazzlingly sunny and warm, the first day in a week that it hasn't rained. 

In the late afternoon, we returned to Brussels to visit Michel, a very good childhood friend of my dad, and went out to dinner with the whole Massa family. Such a lovely lovely perfect day. 

Hard - Hat Time

Wednesday, September 9 

Today I shadowed Jean on a trip to the construction site of a hospital. This project has been under construction for 7 years, as it has to be done in phases to keep the hospital functioning. Specifically, it's a hospital for trauma and rehabilitation so the architectural plans have to be extrememy detailed and function to accomadate wheelchairs and other facilitary equipment for the patients. It was pretty interesting to see in person because I spent the entire day yesterday going through the files (accumulated over 7 years) to set aside documents to be archived, and my grandmother stayed at a different part of this hospital just before she died. 

I sat in on a meeting with 10 people, including the clients, architects, engineers, and construction team. Although 4 hours of sitting in silence, listening to their rapid back- and forth discussion did get old (especially because it was mostly flancais - flamande and francais), I did definitely get the full experience of doing sitework and bring design plans to concrete fruition. 

The meeting was held in a temporary structure, pretty much a mobile home, and seemed, how do it put it, very construction- worker-y . We sat around a cramped table, design plans covering every inch except for the pot of instant coffee in the middle. The thin walls were covered with calendars of supermodels and posters of naked women. Excluding me, there was only 1 woman on the team. 

We also did a tour of the construction site and I climbed scaffolding ( 5 stories woo) for the first time. Seeing all of this made me realize how much work is needed to designand construct buildings I often take for granted. But.. to be honest, it doesn't interest me all that much. 

 All of the files I archived.... 

All of the files I archived.... 

Art and Salsa Dancing

Sunday, September 6th, 2015

Today I went to the little town of Mons, which is about an hour from Brussels, to see an art exhibition with Jean and Sylvie. (Also learned the hard way that in french, exhibition is not the same word, but rather exposition. Exhibition refers to "exhibiting oneself sexually.") The artist, Jasper Morrison, is an interior designer who makes extremely modern and beautiful furniture and kitchen-ware. The gallery space was really cool though, as it was in a transformed coal factory dating to the early 20th century when Mons was one of the leading industial towns in Belgium. It's also known for being one of the first places to create uniform housing units for laborers, which was radical at the time.

Tonight, after going for a run to Le Cambre, I ran (literally) into a friend from work near Place Flagey. On a whim, I got a drink with him and watched the Belgium - Cyprus soccer match (we won!) Every Sunday there's salsa dancing in the square, and I found out that's where my co-worker was coming from. Although I have practically zero experience in latin dancing, and he's basically professional, I'll be joining him next Sunday haha. But, I wont be the only one embarrassing myself because I won a bet that Belgium would only score once so now he has to do a salsa demonstration at work.

I Made Some Friends!

Saturday, September 5th   I was walking around tonight, going out alone again, as I have no friends, looking for something to do. I passed a group of guys in the square and after a few feet, stopped in my tracks. Their flannel shirts, mid-lenth hair, and such distinguishible accents - they were 100% Americans. I found out that they were college students from D.C. doing their semester abroad in Brussels and it was their first week! I joined them and their friends at le cafe Belga and there were so many of them, probably 30, that it seemed that Americans had pretty much taken over the whole bar. I met such nice girls and it was actually so refreshing to speak English again! Tons of dancing and came home at 2am :)

Lazy Nights and Philosophizing at the Gym

September 4th, 10:30pm

    I really needed this kind of night. Without realizing it, this week exhausted me. Last night I went out really late and then got up at 6:30 this morning and worked all day so by the time I got home after the gym, I was absolutely ready to be cozy and lazy. Tonight involved cooking while listening to Frank Sinatra and listening to NPR podcasts and FaceTiming to lovely, 90 degree Old Greenwich (it’s about 50 degrees here). 

    While I was at the gym, it struck me how odd it is that going to the gym is a thing people do at all. Everyone was working-out, the majority with headphones in, and no-one talking, or even looking at one another. A long line of treadmills, ellipticals, bikes, and other high-tech cardio equipment were in rows, and were full of young people just getting off work at around 6. It reminded me of gerbils, running in their wheels, stuck in a cage but completely oblivious. At least running outside is somewhat of legitimate activity, because maybe there’s a destination or some sightseeing involved, but running in place seems so counterintuitive to humanity. But I am just as guilty as anyone else. It’s just about staying in shape, but the whole idea of it seems funny. Also, I had this pre-conception that Europeans weren’t as into fitness as americans. Since sports aren’t connected to school in Europe, I’ve often heard that teenagers just play casual sports with friends and athleticism isn’t as intense as it is in sports-dominated America. Also, just the fact that mainstream American celebrities, shows, and trends are so globally known, made me think of Europe as a place that rejected it, and where people aren’t as preoccupied with their physical appearances. But the gym was packed with Belgian people so clearly fitness is just as important here. The interesting thing though is that everything in the gym is in English! The music blasting over the speakers, the instructions on the machines, even the very-french sounding instructors in the classes! It’s really crazy how much English and American culture plays a part in other countries. Of course, that’s also why Americans have such a bad reputation abroad, because we’re associated with the mainstream culture. Long story short, American-ness keeps following me no matter how far I go, and who knew the gym could be so thought-provoking? 

My New Enemy

My new enemy: the Brussels transportation system. For the past 2 days, getting to work has pretty much been hell. On the first day, when I went in the car, it took only about 20 minutes, but it has taken me at least an hour and a half each to day to get to the office. 

So yesterday, I started out doing everything right, but I didn't realize that I was supposed to get off at a station to connect with another tram. After going in the complete wrong direction for a while, I realized, got off, and went back to the place where my connecting tram was supposed to come - except it never did. Apparently the tram is under construction for just this week? The story does not end there, but i'll summarize the logistics: I took a different tram to a bus station where I had to switch busses twice and run/walk the rest of the way to the office. Today, I thought I was totally prepared, having looked up a different route beforehand, but ended up in the forest in the south of Brussels. I actually sprinted for 20 minutes to the office because I was already late yesterday and it was super important that I arrive on time because the translated book I've been working on was due at noon. I get there, only 20 minutes late, disgustingly sweaty, and hardly anyone was in the office... 

Haven't yet accepted that the tram has won this battle but everyday renting a city bike seems like a better and better option. 

First Day on the Job

September 1, 11:20pm   First day of work today!! Here's some musings from the office... 

This is what it is like to work an office job. Everything is in order; each employee has their own little space with a desktop computer, a phone, and job to do. The office, although comprised of 120+ employees, is silent save the chorus of mouse-clicking and the muffled voices emanating from conference rooms at the end of long corridors. At 9am, the office fills, as each person checks in with the fingerprint-detection system, and at noon, they all shuffle to the kitchen or head outside for an hour lunch break. The architecture office is all clean lines, contrasting straight and curved, with blocks of carefully place color. The painting in front of my (temporary) desk next to the receptionist is solid black, with only a slight difference in brush stroked between the top and bottom half. Ah, subtlety - isn't that the key to design? 

It's interesting, there's so many aspects of architecture that I never really considered. I had this idea that architecture was all creative and full of drawing floor plans and designing radically shaped buildings. At least at this firm, it is much more subdued, and everything is done on the computer. They do a lot of hospitals, office buildings, residential apartments, and even some prisons, elderly homes, and military academy. My job is to translate all of the french documents of project descriptions into english. It is extremely tedious but it's not too bad. At least it's pouring rain outside - as it usually is in Brussels - so being inside all day is kind of cozy. 

Midnight Nervousness

12:07am Ah not going to lie, I’m extremely nervous for tomorrow. It’s my first day of work at the office and I have no idea what to expect! I don’t even know what I can do for them because I hardly know anything about architecture! Oh well, there’s nothing I can do about it except wait and see what happens tomorrow so I’m trying to turn my nervousness into excitement but neither seems to be helping me go to sleep…

Not Understanding Anything

Talking in french all day is exhausting. Actually it’s not so much the talking as the listening. Today I went out to lunch with Jean, Sylvie, and their 20-something year old son, Samson. Samson speaks so ridiculously fast that I literally have to stare fixedly at his mouth as he’s speaking to even translate a few words. Of course, I probably speak that fast in English, but I’m not used to hearing french spoken like that. It’s definitely good practice though! (although I should try to not stare fixedly at people, might freak them out).

Macaroons and Mental Illnesses

Monday, August 30 5:00pm Today, after sorting out boring things at the bank and going grocery shopping, I went out exploring Brussels by myself again. This time I visited Le Palais Royal, L’Eglise Sarbon, and explored “le quartier” near le centre. I walked aimlessly, purposefully getting myself lost, because that’s my favorite way to explore a city. I walked down tiny little streets, meandered through hidden sculpture gardens, and ogled beautiful window shops full of macaroons and tarts. I passed un bibliotheque publique and on a whim, went inside. It was a very average, small library but I liked it because I could tell that only locals went there. I like finding the “real” parts of a city, where you see what daily life is like. It was the afternoon when I went inside and there was a group of tweens sitting at a table with their homework strewn all around them but not doing any work, laughing at french jokes I couldn’t understand. I picked up a book and plopped down in a chair and stayed their for an hour, doing my best to practice my french reading skills. The book was called Je suis un sociopathe, I think, and was all about mental illnesses but written from the first- person perspective of someone diagnosed with one …. an interesting random pick.

Some Sunday Activities

Sunday, August 30 10:42pm     There is so much I could write about but I’ll just recap the highlights of today. I walked to Le Cambre, which is a beautiful old abbey where my father and Jean went to architecture school together and met! There was a massive antique sale going on in the courtyard with tons of old tin tin comic books, which I know my dad would appreciate. I also went to a famous library in Brussels which stretched on, for what seemed like miles, in every direction, and went to the gym with Jean where we did a spin class together. For dinner, we went to some friends of Jean and Sylvie who have a gallery space next to their apartment! They are such a interesting creative couple and the dinner conversations were all about new and upcoming modern artists which I found really interesting… although I probably understood only about 50% because they spoke so fast - of course, they’re Parisians ;). 

    I’ve decided to completely immerse myself in the Belgian culture and actually try really hard to become as fluent as I can in French. I’ve changed all my clocks to military time and set my alarm to local Brussels radio (it’s a start), and I’m looking for a good french novel to read in my spare time (although I stupidly just bought an english one today at the book store).