Birthday in Brussels

Birthday World Cake

One of the benefits of living in Europe is the ability to travel to a different country fairly quickly and economically. It’s not uncommon to fly/drive off to another country for a weekend getaway. With that in mind, this last weekend we headed to Belgium to celebrate the Honey Bee’s birthday. A much-needed break, it helped us disconnect from the routine of everyday life and recharge.

After a 2 hour flight into Brussels we rushed out the airport and through the city, our suitcases in tow, faster than a fat kid chasing an ice cream truck. There was absolutely no way that we were going to visit Brussels and not visit the EU Parliament. We made it less than a minute before the doors shut.

As expected, it was quite worth it. It was downright awe-inspiring to be in the same room where somEU Parliamente of Europe’s most powerful people gather to chart the future of their union. The Honey Bee really seemed to enjoy being in the Parliament and learning all about the history of the EU. After the visit, you can’t help but be inspired by the how far the European project has come, despite all its flaws and shortcomings. It is far from a perfect union with numerous problems including finances (debt, monetary policy, etc.), migration (both internal and external), enlargement (into former Soviet territories) and reduction (think the UK wanting to leave the EU) to name just a few. However it has resulted in a far better Europe and delivered a higher quality of life for its peoples, especially in light of the fragmented and ravaged Europe that emerged from the World Wars.

When it’s not winter time, Brussels is a fun place to be with a lot of Belgium Friesoutdoor activities like concerts, events, etc. The cool weather certainly made it easier to complete the 3.5 hour bike tour we signed up for, with all the ups and downs that Brussels had to offer. During the tour, we learned that Belgium is famous for its beer, fries and Mussels. We loved the beer, I loved the fries, and we skipped the Mussels. They say it has to do with the higher quality of potatoes that grow there, probably due to the weather conditions. Another interesting fact: Belgium has belonged to nearly every major European power at various points in time, including the Austrians, Dutch, Spanish and French.

Speaking of the French, I’m also glad to report that I haven’t completely lost touch with their language. I was still able to understand just about everything when people talked at a normal pace, and was even able to communicate in the language, to a certain extent.

Back to sightseeing in Brussels, apart from the European Institutions, what we liked the most was the Manneken Pis and the Atomium.

The former is a statue of a young boy peeing. So great is its popularity that it has spawned similar statues of a young girl, manneken_pis-7969and separately, a dog. There are numerous stories behind its origin, including one about a young boy who saved the city by peeing on the lit fuse of an explosive placed at the city walls by foreign invaders. After all the hype, when seen for the first time in person, it is a little anticlimactic, but interesting nonetheless. There even exists an order-The Friends of Manneken Pis that maintain the statue, dressing it up every so often, and at times even hooking it up to pee beer that is then passed out to the crowd. We were fortunate enough to witness this during our visit.

AtomiumThe Atomium is an atom shaped structure that was built for the 1958 World’s Fair. Like the Eiffel Tower, it was built purely as a tourist attraction. Impressive in height and scale, it offers nothing more and nothing less. If you have the time, inclination and patience, you can queue up and take the elevator to the top for a better view, following which you will be led into a ridiculously overpriced touristy gift shop.

Belgium boasts the second largest pedestrian area in Europe; hence it was not surprising to find large swaths of the city center designated for pedestrian use only. However, given that it consistently ranks in the top 15 European countries in terms of GDP/Capita, what really stuck out like a sore thumb was the high level of poverty in these areas.

The Boulevard Anspach, is a large pedestrian street that runs through the city center and is lined with homeless people. Add to that the large number of drunkards and generally shady characters, coupled with the conspicuous absence of any authority figures at dusk. You’d be forgiven for thinking of a movie scene that takes place in a savage post apocalyptic world with no law and order. When we asked about it, we were told that contrary to people’s beliefs, they were not in fact refugees. Some of these people are from Eastern Europe and some are Gypsies, all of who took advantage of the border free Schengen area to migrate to richer countries with better social welfare systems. Another reason why some of the EU’s policies are like a double-edged sword.

Our short weekend trip to Brussels came to an end with an awesome birthday dinner and the Honey Bee and I added another memorable birthday trip to our photo albums. It’s back to work for now, but not for too long since we’re off to Italy soon…

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Spanish Driver’s License

girl-driving-car

Over the last few months, the Honey Bee has embarked upon a quest to obtain her Spanish driver’s license (carnet de conducir). While on the surface the process seems pretty standard-take a theory exam, take a driving exam, and you’re done, it is much more complicated. Let me take a moment here to digress and express our frustration.

Let’s start at the beginning-the entire process comes at a large cost in terms of both time and money. We’re talking anything upwards of € 700 by the time you’re done. It’s not uncommon for new drivers to even spend up to € 2,500. Compare this to the less than US$ 20 it costs in the US or the INR 1,000 it costs in India, and you realize the insanity of it all.

In order to register for the exam, you need a medical certificate issued by a clinic. The “clinic” is a euphemism for any charlatan that charges € 40-50 to conduct a lackadaisical eye exam and an old school type video game exam that consists of you moving two levers, each representing a steering wheel, to keep 2 virtual cars running between their lines. Anyway, we were finally done with it and she registered.

In any other country, the theoretical exam is pretty straightforward. Not so in Spain. Here, obscure questions like what is the maximum permissible speed for a 6 wheeled vehicle weighing over 3,583.72 kgs while the driver has a BAC (Blood Alcohol Content) of 0.139 driving on a toll road in his underwear after eating a tortilla and arguing with his spouse are not uncommon. I kid of course, but questions do tend to be highly convoluted (think SAT or GMAT) and horribly translated (if you’re unfortunate enough to be taking the test in English).

Back to the topic at hand, after putting in hours and hours of study time and doing tens of hundreds of practice exams, she finally took the exam last week, and passed. Every small victory in such a system deserves celebration, and we did.

Next step, we signed her up for the obligatory and expensive driving lessons. I’ll get back to you with more on that next time…

Hiking La Mola

Hiking

Over the last few weeks of autumn, The Honey Bee and I have been on a hiking spree. We hiked up a volcano (Santa Margardia), around 7 waterfalls/lagoons (7 Gorgs), and yesterday up a famous mountain in Catalonia- La Mola. The route we took was El Cami dels Monjos (The path of the Monks). Referred as such because it leads to a monastery at the top, and presumably because that is the path the monks take/took to get to the monastery.

We were looking forward to this hike all week, especially because it gave us the chance to debut our new hiking staffs. Over the last 2 hikes, we learned the importance of having a staff. It vastly helps reduce pressure on the joints, generally helps balance, and most certainly speeds up the ascent and descent. El Cami dels Monjos was a great experience, and not your typical walk in the park. For the most part, we found that the trail was well-marked.

While it’s just 3.5 kms each way, it wasn’t as easy as it sounded because it was either up, or down most of the way, accompanied by shuffling around a rough path and maneuvering your way across and around large boulders, tree trunks and animal droppings. But, I’m not complaining. We took in some great views, picnicked by a monastery at the top (courtesy of The Honey Bee who was thoughtful enough to pack some delicious sandwiches and drinks), and generally enjoyed being amidst nature. The Honey Bee particularly seemed to enjoy the camaraderie that exists between hikers with just about everyone greeting each other they pass on the trail. My recommendation: an easy-moderate trail worth attempting.

After Thoughts: These experiences have made us realize the importance of outdoor activities. We have promised each other to do more such activities, especially because we both seem to really enjoy them. (We also started roller blading on Barcelona beach earlier this summer).

From very early on, children are encouraged to be active. Even on not so easy hikes, it is surprising to see the large number of children that accompany their parents. In fact, what really surprised us was that we saw newborns, probably close to a month old, accompanying their parents in baby slings. This stands true for other sports activities like running as well, where parents run while pushing their babies in a child carriage. This is testament to the fact that having a child doesn’t have to mean you give up on outdoor activities. If done correctly, it can lead to the parents continuing their lifestyle, while having the positive side effect of encouraging their children to be more active, all the while increasing family bonding. This holds even more importance in today’s day and age where the living room television dominates family life, and children’s lives are bombarded with video games and the ubiquity of fast food.