Archive for June, 2009

Day 5: SPIT

SPIT purchasesThe picture to the left depicts exactly 1,35 euros worth of shopping. This is another thing I like so much about this town. Now, anywhere in the world you could find three objects (bottle included for demonstration only) for that or less. But where else could you find a lead-crystal tulip-stem glass from France, a short goblet from a Belgian brewery opened in 1833 and a lambic basket for such a price?

SPIT, which is a nice walk from the house, is more than a mere second-hand shop.  Inside are shelves and stacks of trash to treasure: dishware and glasses, books and records, furniture and carpets, clothes and toys. On previous visits — I have given up on holding back from the allure — I have selected a thick wooden cabinet door that was transformed into a mirror, a hand-thrown miniature vase, a green glass canister, a tin coffee pot with a painted sheep, and a Brussels edition of Monopoly. If I could fill a container and ship it home, I would have long ago done so with gorgeous and funky furniture from inside SPIT: antique kitchen cupboards and buffets, solid wood wardrobes, narrow square tables with drawers and sets of mix-matched chairs.

(Not that I’ve always shown the kind of restraint that two glasses and a wicker basket indicate. That mirror must have weighed 20 pounds, and took two tries to get back to the United States. I’ve long been known for my travel-shopping motto: if it’s not heavy and breakable, or preferably both, why bother? I am still proud of the safe arrival back in the New York of that suitcase packed with Romanian hand-blown glass, tucked inside an antique desk top.)

This was really a scouting  trip anyway, and while I was there getting a sense of the summer’s collection (which changes on a weekly basis) I thought I’d be thoughtful and look out for the needs of my husband, soon to arrive. After a week on his own, packing up and cleaning out our former apartment, he’ll have earned that first Belgian beer. But his fatigue will not weaken his critical eye should that beer be poured into an inappropriate glass. Simply any beer glass, at this point, may not do for a gentleman whose collection considerations now take into account whether pairs are needed of certain styles, for when we have a beer together. (You can see what fun it is to drink straight from the bottle, just to get under his skin now and again.) I set out to find an option — or two — that would satisfy the connoisseur until he could further expand upon his existing collection.

De Koninck is one of his favorites, if not just for the simple pleasure of a well-done beer, also the diminutive price tag when compared to its U.S. import value (try: 1 euro to $5). So when I spotted a short goblet with the distinctive hand emblem (koninck, meaning hand — follow the link for the homey brewery tale) I knew that he’d be satisfied, at least for his first day. Just in case a more elegant style was called for, I also discovered the tall stemmed tulip glass, with a little factory sticker indicating it was French lead crystal and possessing the associated ping when I flicked it with my nail.

The basket was an unexpected bonus. Since his first visit to Belgium (years before the likes of me would be “dragging” him back every year), when my husband was served his first lambic from a basket cradling the bottle, the spark in his mind has grown into an educated Belgian beer obsession. And as his collection of glasses and openers (and aging beers) has amassed, this lambic basket that he’d gushed about seemed like a fitting addition. As we were planning our stay here, he had suggested that we might find one with the excited voice of a child considering what Santa might drop beneath the tree. And although I have taken the thrill of the hunt and kill, I could not leave to chance that it might still be sitting on the SPIT shelf in a few day’s time.

A google search (to make sure I did, in fact, have the right thing) has since confirmed the rarity of these baskets, prized amongst the beer geekiest of beer geeks. And I’m delighted to be able to present to my very own beer, er, aficionado, this precious accoutrement that will doubtlessly carry many lambic bottles to come.


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daisiesIt occurred to me, as I pulled out the lawnmower this afternoon, that I can not recall the last time I mowed a lawn. In fact, it was most likely this same lawn, only several summers ago.  And it’s not until I start the engine, which purrs a soft, electric sound, and run down narrow, neat aisles of green grass that I recall how much I actually enjoy this activity.

In this garden, whose care I have been assigned, the experience is even more lovely. Sure, the lighter mower, the significantly quieter electric motor and the small size of the lawn itself make the chore non-taxing. Beyond the expected organizational satisfaction of creating clean lines where a chaos of grass blades, clover puffs and tiny daisy heads once sprout, though, this garden has added magic. Pulling a little too close to a hedge, I cut into something that breaks off into the air the sharp scent of licorice. Passing around a decorative chair holding a curly-cue branch from one of the unique hedges here, I pick up the scent of…oregano? Indeed, running flat to the ground and incognito  as  a part of the lawn, an oregano plant has sprouted on its own accord.

Of course, the lawn was overdue for its mow. I could not help but let it go perhaps a bit longer than I should have. (I am known for my love of sprouting lawns — few people have ever had the opportunity to enjoy the purple flowers that spring to life if you relax for a bit our hypersensitivity to a lawn’s need for perpetual buzz-cuts.) Here, I do not go so far, as not everyone finds it so amusing when it is their lawn with which you experiment. I do enjoy, for a couple of days, the field of tiny daisy-like flowers that turn their white faces to the sun each day. When I set up a chair to read or work, I am easily distracted by the constant buzzing of honey bees and their cousins, scooting from one clover bloom to another. I glance down and count half a dozen. And I watch one as he deliberately stops to greet each white-pink puff, so heavy with pollen that he bounces up an down, up and down on the spring of the flower’s stem.

Each week I will await the show as the lawn comes back to life. And this is only the start, wait until I introduce the rest of the magic garden.garden

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Day 3: Louise, un chien


I had dinner with Louise this evening. Her guardians were kind enough to invite me and do all the cooking. For her part, Louise played cute, fetched a pink slipper that evidently once resembled a rabbit, and fell asleep on laps and in a lovely upholstered child-sized chair.

A King Charles Spaniel, Louise was eager to change my opinion of the small dog. Of course, she is not the typical petit chien, even if she is classified in the “toy dog” category.

First, she does not yip. Or nip, come to think of it. When you enter the front door there is no incessant “ra-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra” over which one needs to shout a greeting to the human hosts. And my ankles survived our introduction intact.

Second, she plays fetch, which means she actually does something. Small dogs, by my observation, don’t tend to do much, in terms of activity (aside from the aforementioned yipping and nipping). Louise is an enthusiastic fetcher, and will play a little tug-of-war, preferably with the pink bunny slipper, but also with thick sticks that threaten to outweigh her and certainly out-measure her.  This is impressive to me. This is what a Labrador does. And I think she could — or at least would certainly try — to outdo him. (Later this summer, we’ll let you know if she can compete in the water as well, on a trip to the beach.) [Watch Louise Play Fetch with the Pink Bunny Slipper]

LouiseFinally, Louise is pretty darn cute. So it’s pretty hard not to fall for those big eyes and that whipping, happy tail. High-pitched voices emerge from the most respectable amongst us, ahem. And we tell her just how fabulous we think she is.  Whether in English or French or Dutch (all languages she understands fluently, thus proving my linguistic skills outclassed by a canine), the crescendo of near-squeal-like sound coming from her human counterparts all reads the same to Louise. I love you too, she says, attempting a kiss with her quick pink tongue, which I neatly dodge. (Because, as a cat lady, even the dogs I love are not permitted to kiss me.)

Louise has a practical bent too. Upon my departure, she began to bark with great concern in the kitchen: “You’ve forgotten your hat, Friend Laura. You’ve forgotten your hat!” Sure, her thought process was probably more along the lines of: “Foreign invader sitting atop that ledge above my reach! Let me at ‘im; I’ll take ‘im.” But I appreciated the reminder nonetheless. Clever and helpful, Little Louise.

(Post Script: This morning, back at the house, I discovered two, fuzzy, pink bunny ears, awaiting their re-attachment surgery. Louise is still a puppy afterall, and demonstrates her curiosity in just about anything with careful deconstructions. )

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Friday morning in Leuven is market day. These are events I’ve enjoyed since childhood, and I can still remember walking through the ones here with my mother. That was when it was still held in the Oud Markt, as opposed to the more expansive square in front of the library. My mother would point out the various vegetables and herbs. “This one is thyme,” she informed me. And the gentleman beside us, turned his wrist to look at his watch and give her the time. I remember her laughing softly at the gracious misunderstanding.

The market here carries everything from fruit to meat to underwear. Chickens spin on rotisserie built onto the back of trucks, pastries and breads are laid out on white trays on long counters, and baskets of foil-wrapped candies wink in the light. Men and women put on shows about the latest cleaning cloths, brushes and shower heads. Plastic legs model pantyhose and socks and lace tablecloths wave in the wind.

I purchased a half kilo of ripe, plump cherries, hawked by the seller as the sweetest. They accompanied my open-face sandwich lunch quite delectably.

And my watch tells time once again.

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University Park I walked into town from the house.  The aim was to find a watch shop that could replace the battery in my watch, the instructions for which insist that an authorized dealer only can perform such a task.

Insistent on being self-reliant, I deliberately strolled the length of each street where I thought such a shop might exist. Eventually, I discovered it. To gain entry, a bell must be pressed, which unlocks the first door. I then stood  trapped and confused before another door, which only releases you from its glass prison box when the front door shuts. Doubts began to seep into my mind about whether this was quite the right place for the likes of me, even if they did carry my watch brand.

But despite my initial reservations (and increased alarm upon noticing the bare aesthetic of the shop, which decorates the kinds of places that don’t cater to my variety of clientele) it was a success. Or, at least I think it was. After initial confusion with an older woman who spoke no English (and somehow my French, which she’d offered as a compromise, has evaporated or odder still been supplanted by the 10 Spanish words I learned recently) it seems my watch will have a new battery–but not waterproofing–by 2 pm tomorrow. And it will cost me 12 euros. Of course, I simply gave them my watch, put my name on a card and left. I currently have no proof of the watch and I don’t actually remember the name of the shop. I have faith though. Things done on faith here have a way of working out better than contracted ones in the U.S.

Just down the street from the watch (and extremely expensive jewelry, evidently) shop. on a main artery that leads from the town hall to the train station, was a small grocery I’d frequented in the past. It’s also located next to a Leonidas chocolate shop, two other locations of which I’d managed to pass with will power intact. I whisked myself down the escalators before chocolate temptation set in. Because tomorrow is market day, and I plan on making that a regular Friday trip, I needed just enough to tide me over until tomorrow’s lunch. It is a basement grocery store about the size of your average C-Town (without the toxic chemical/rotten food smell) where one can pick up French butter, fresh and beautiful green mache, creamy yogurt and a 33 cl bottle of Rodenbach Grand Cru foLeonodis Chocolater just under 6 euros. Nice.

And I bought a white chocolate “mit slagroom” (the Dutch I do remember) when I left the store. Actually, I bought three; the woman informed me that it was a better deal and I was eager to agree with her.

On the walk back to the house, al0ng a residential stretch, I saw ahead of me a motor-scooter cop (but with a gun and all) u-turn to apprehend his perpetrator: an over-energized Yorkie running amuck without a leash, a crime in these parts. After ringing the assumed owner’s bell he had to mostly pantomime: “Your dog is running around the street, stopping traffic” and “You need to use a leash” to one of the many foreign graduate students in town. The student gave a stern, finger-pointing  warning to the dog. And the cop got back on his scooter (never having removed his round white helmet) and scooted off to the next criminal action.

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