Banter from Brabant

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

In Leuven

Leuven is a city in the Flemish Brabant province of Belgium. The city is well over 1000 years old and currently possesses a population of around 100,000 people with 30,000 of those being students. Its first “golden age” was in the 1400’s and the most remarkable building in the city attests to this time period. A better description with photographs can be found in Wikipedia:

The town is entirely surrounded by a four-lane street (quite large for Leuven standards) that forms almost a perfect circle around the city. The diameter of this circle is a bit over 1.5 miles and thus takes no more than 30 minutes to stroll from one end of the city to the other. Therefore, although we have come to believe the 100,000 people actually also includes some of the surrounding areas outside the circle, the population density is noticeably high. The intensity of street activity certainly imitates a larger European city.

Aside for the modernist high-rise (10-20 floors) apartment blocks scattered throughout the city, all buildings are between 3 and 6 floors in height. The University library and some of the churches are an exception to this. We have not seen one free-standing, single family house within the circle. Nor have we seen a front yard.

The buildings are all built directly next to each other (in the fairly typical European fashion) – brick to brick. Therefore, as we have noticed when observing the building schematics when registering with the town hall, telephone company and internet company, every building is unique – including the place we moved into. These places presumably have a floor plan of every unique residence in the city.

Our building is 6 floors high (we live on the third) and holds around 15-20 small studio apartments. However, the top floor appears to have a nice penthouse although we have not been up there. Therefore, as can be imagined, the building is actually quite small. Venturing a guess, aside for the 1st, 2nd, and 6th floors (the bottom floors have extensions in the rear while the top appears more like a house sitting on top of the building), each floor of the 3-5th levels is about 800 square feet split into four studios of different sizes. Also, the building seems slightly wider in the front than the back. A very small lawn (perhaps 600 square feet?) is in the back of the building – although very little light makes it through all the surrounding buildings. By “lawn” here we mean a small patch of grass and numerous vines coming from the ground and covering the brick walls that separate the adjacent properties. There might be a small tree back there too. All in all, this building, along with every other in the city, seems rather thrown together in the chaotic and haphazard way of private property coupled with a shortage of space. One could say it has a more “organic” feel than the rather sterile uniformity of recently developed single-family suburbs or the mega-block apartments of places like Brooklyn Park. It is chaotic and lively. You must pay attention to what you are doing and what is around you while walking. Driving must be the same. I am willing to bet bicycling is probably safer here than Minneapolis due to the domination of this transportation form above cars. Although, there is the scooters…

Our studio itself has a nice bay window that opens to the street. Many hours have been spent watching the random people, bicycles, cars meander by. We also watch maniacal scooter drives fly between pedestrians and cars and bicycles at double the speed of everything else. This all happens on a very narrow one-way. But yet, the scooters, on these narrow and crowded streets, literally seem to treat everyday driving like the (*radio voice*) DEATH-WISH-MANIACS-EXTREEEME-CHALLENGE!!! (*trail off*)... And they feel no remorse for hopping up onto the sidewalk when the cars are backed up. This is not to say our street is excessively loud. Most of the times the cars are traveling no more than 10 to 15 miles per hour and you can often here the footfalls of hard-soled shoes echoing off the buildings as someone walks by.

Behind this endlessly entertaining window, is a square room. This room contains a bed, a desk, some hideous furniture (bamboo construction with obnoxious flower print cushions) a functional but solid kitchen table, a few chairs and a wardrobe. Also, off to the side is a kitchenette with a sink, fridge, four-place stove and a fumehood. All in good shape. There is also small private bathroom. The entire place is about 250 square feet. However, with no more possessions than what we brought on the plane, we have settled into the place quite nicely.

Our time has been occupied with finding kitchen supplies, sleeping, looking out the window, exploring the town, sometimes going out and not much else. Speaking of that, we will move on to describe the center of the city (about 10 minutes walk from our place). Around the Town Hall – the undisputed center of the city, both literally and figuratively – is the Grote Markt (Literally, Big Market but, more accurately, Main Square). Behind this is the Monumental St. Peters Cathedral. Off to the sides are a group of old buildings that represent some of the 1400s-era guilds that made the city rich at that time. The bottom floors of these buildings are mostly expensive restaurants and coffee-shops. Through a narrow street exiting the corner of this square is the Oude Markt (Old Square). This name could not be more ironic.

The larger Oude Markt is, although slightly wider and shorter, approximately the size of a football field. The square is lined with dozens of quaint buildings 4 to 5 floors in height. The bottom floor of every single one of these buildings is a bar – except for perhaps one, which is a Pizza Hut. There must be 50. Outside, the entire square is filled with outdoor tables at night. And, as we approach the time when University classes are beginning, these tables are always jam-packed full of young people drinking. It’s quite a sight. At least the one or two times we went to sip at some tasty Belgian Beer.

We have managed to meet a couple from Panama of whom the husband is studying Industrial Engineering, and a law-student from Mexico City. Doug met these people at the hostel the second or third day in town. We have gone out to the Oude Markt with them as well. Otherwise, we really haven’t done enough to write about. But orientation is now starting and our “lives” here will begin. We can’t wait!

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

On Airport World

I have come to believe after sitting in the O’Hare airport, that we are told to arrive so far in advance of the time our flight departs for less than purely innocent reasons. Outside the airport, we live in the ‘Normal World’, where the price of goods and services is, although often expensive in unexpected places, is never shocking, outrageous and prone to fantasies of popular uprising. However, in ‘Airport World’, such is not the case.

When one first enters this world, you, contrary to what would be done in Normal World, do exactly as you are told without question. You accept everything that is told to you as something to immediately accept without protest. In fact, you might even feel bad you were angry that you accepted something you didn’t want too.

You arrive long before the actual time necessary to catch your flight. You have now entered ‘Airport Time’. You place all your possessions, your shoes, your belt and then your body, to a full scan by some machine nobody understands. If you step through this portal without the skull piercing buzz of a ‘security breach’ you have fully passed the threshold into Airport World.

Inside, everything is as busy as a shopping mall the day after Thanksgiving – people meeting, talking, running, pushing, swearing, riding obesity trolleys (has anyone else noticed that those golf-cart trolleys, justifiably meant for the elderly and pregnant women to get around, are usually overfilling with the obese instead?) and, the most important among the citizens of Airport World, spending. Where did these people come from? How long have they been here? You observe haggard individuals sleeping on benches and clutching their meager baggage – are they homeless? No, just tired and alone in Airport World. How much money have they lost in Airport World?

“Hmm…” you say to yourself. “I would like to get something to eat and maybe a beer before my flight…” You check the time and realize you have 2 hours left before your flight departs. “Ok” you say, “I’ll look around and then sit down, eat, have my beer and before I know it, my flight will be leaving.” Your first mistake. In the normal world, 2 hours is 2 hours. In Airport World, 2 hours is more like 2 days. Did not Einstein derive the relativity of time while sitting in an airport?

After spending 50% more than your most pessimistic of estimations, you emerge from a restaurant in Airport World partially fed and angry that you spent 8 dollars for a Michelob Amber Bock. “Ok,” you say, “my flight should be about to board…” But No! You still have 1 “hour” left. So you attempt to read. There is too much activity. You watch people. None appear to have a pleasant countenance and soon, you too are more unpleasant than before. Finally, after aging about three weeks, you sit down in your plane and fall asleep while it waits to take off.

Certainly, the added security costs each business more than normal, however, is added security costs sufficient to justify the fact that food in some airports is three or more times the cost than in the normal world? Or perhaps the airport collects an enormous rent from each of these establishments and thus the price hike is simply required for them to profit. But, profitable they must remain, or the airport makes no rent. Therefore, telling people to arrive 2-3 hours ahead of time, to get through security that almost never takes more than 30 minutes, certainly assists in the profitability of the businesses. After all, when you set a mass of people before a consumer extravaganza, most likely carrying more cash than normal, with nothing to do, what but a hysteria of careless spending could result? Nevertheless, who can’t help but feel violated after an extended venture through airport world? Or perhaps I just complain too much.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Today's the day

I leave to meet my husband TODAY! I have been very anxious to see him after being apart for nearly 2 weeks. The flight departs in about 8 hours from Chicago, and I will arrive in Brussels on Monday around 1:30pm Central time - about 8:30pm Brussels time.

It really hit home that I was leaving last night when I said good-bye to my family for a whole year. I was not particularly nervous until then, and now I cannot get my stomach to settle. I will likely see some family members next May when they visit. Wow - this is the first time I have been apart from family for so long... I am already looking forward to their visit, and I am not even gone yet!!!

I hope everyone is doing well, and keep us in your thoughts. We will update as we can, and FYI - the keyboards are different in Belgium so bear with us;) We do not have internet in our new home.