Tuesday, September 28, 2010

There and Back again...

I went to London this past weekend and it was amazing. We took the bus, as it was the cheapest means of transportation. It was cool to cross the channel—the bus drove right onto a ferry and we were off to England. Although we arrived at 5 in the morning without getting much rest during our trip, we were so excited to be in London. The first day was cold and rainy, but we stuck it out and went on a free two and a half hour walking tour to see the highlights of the great city. We saw Buckingham Palace, the former MI6 headquarters, Hyde Park, Big Ben and Parliament, and a little bit of Westminster Abbey.
After the tour we headed to a nearby pub for England’s famous Fish and Chips—we were not disappointed and they even had Heinz Ketchup for the chips!! After that we went back to our hostel, checked in and got everything in order. That night the rain cleared up and we went to the famous department store Harrod’s. Although everything was far out of our price range it was cool to see were the elite Londoners acquired their garb. A quick bite to eat then it was back to the hostel. We spent most of the rest of the night in the pub that was in fact a part of our hostel—why not?
The next morning we got our free breakfast and headed to the Underground. We caught a train to the London Tower and although it was too pricey to lure us inside for a tour, the outside was very cool. Next, we crossed the Tower Bridge, which we mistook for the London Bridge due to the fact that it is actually much more impressive than the London Bridge. We got some lunch—the first hotdog I had in while—and then set out to find the Globe Theatre, which was where Shakespeare held many of his dramas. We crossed the famous Millennium Bridge and saw St. Paul’s Cathedral. After that, we took the underground to Wimbledon to see the city park and the famous tennis courts.
We arrived back to our hostel and we were very tired, however we wasted little time and were soon ready for dinner. We went to a pub called the Shakespeare, across from Victoria Station where Dan and I had the sausage of the day—bangers and mash, a proper English meal! After a delicious dinner that was less expensive than we had predicted we went to the wine bar of the restaurant then headed back to the hostel for the night.
The next morning we ate breakfast and then got our things ready so that we could check out. We played cards in the pub while everyone got ready and soon we were off to catch the bus. On the way back the bus boarded a train and used the famous Chunnel to get back to France. It was much quicker than the ferry ride, but much less scenic. We arrived in Brussels just in time to catch a train to Leuven and then rode our bikes back in the rain.
Going to London was a great trip; I was able to see so many things that I never thought I would. Although the city was very expensive I am definitely glad that we went. Classes start this week and Leuven feels more and more like home everyday. I cannot say that I don’t miss the U.S., but I’m happy to be back in Belgium!!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Wie ben je?!?!

Mijn naam is Justin. Ik ben in New Jersey geboren, maar ik woon in Leuven, Belgiƫ. Mijn klas van Nederlands is soms complex, maar ik studeer en studeer!!

So, after a nice vacation in France we’ve returned to Leuven and completed our first week of intensive Dutch class. Monday is our midterm (written and oral) and it should prove to be an interesting day!! We went to the market yesterday with our Dutch class. The market is every Friday morning and takes up a few blocks of the town center. There are clothing carts, meat and fish stands, and of course fruit and vegetable stands.
In addition to Dutch class and the market, a few of the guys and I have found another equally intriguing activity. I was able to sniff out an American football team here in Leuven (should come as no surprise), and naturally I contacted the head coach to ask about the team. Sure enough, Dan, Duke, Matt, and I found ourselves in the head coach’s car on Wednesday night headed to our first practice as Leuven Lions!!
Practice was a lot of fun. After some warm ups we were each assigned positions on offense and defense and went through our position drills. Then we had conditioning and scrimmages. Naturally, there are two fields and right between them is a bar—the Belgians call it their cafeteria. We’ll practice every Monday and Wednesday night in preparation for a season that begins in February and ends in May. The age of players varies from 18 to 40 and the skill level is equally diverse. The only thing that was the same about all of the players was their willingness to welcome us and let us be a part of their team.
Well, I have to go study for Dutch so that I can focus on the big game for the Steelers tomorrow!! Check out the Flicker link up top for a few picks—more to come soon. Congratulations to Dan Ellis and Susanna Brown!! Love you, have an awesome day!!

Monday, September 13, 2010

France and back again

What an experience the past week or so has been! Spending that time in France made for one of the best trips that I’ve ever been on. Early last Saturday we embarked for Paris and after a three-hour bus ride we found ourselves in the beautiful city of lights. After finding our way to our cramped but welcoming hotel rooms, we set out to explore the city. Right away we were able to see the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the fountain of St. Michel, the Eiffel Tower, and the Arc de Triomphe.

Later that night we all went out to a great restaurant within walking distance from our hotel. There we had escargot, duck, and pears in wine sauce—and plenty of wine—all on Loyola University. After dinner we took the metro to see the Eiffel tower at night, which was absolutely beautiful. After we made sure that everyone got home safe and sound (some had more wine than others) Pete and I went to get a beer at a bar in the Latin Quarter. Although it was a bit expensive it was nice to sit and talk.

The next day we went on a more specific tour of Notre Dame followed by a tour of the Conciergerie, a royal palace turned revolutionary prison turned modern museum. Following a quick lunch of paninis and crepes, most of the group hopped on the train to spend the rest of the day at Versailles—the royal court constructed just outside of the city by Louis XIV. It was absolutely spectacular. After we went through the palace, which had more rooms than you could count, we explored the acres and acres of garden. We even got to see the house built specifically for the affairs of Marie Antoinette! The amount of wealth at Versailles was overwhelming and it didn’t take long for us to see why the French people revolted.

After a night on the town that involved Dan, Duke, and I taking an ill-advised shot called 666—listed on the menu as whiskey, vodka, and (???) which turned out to be straight Tabasco sauce—we were up early to see the Louvre. We went on a guided tour for about an hour and a half to see the “greatest hits” of the museum and then stayed for another hour or so to keep exploring. After some lunch, we met back up with the group to walk to the Pantheon, Luxembourg Gardens, St. Sulpice, and St. Germaine. Each and every one of the sights was stunning—the gardens even included a fifteen-foot Statue of Liberty.

The next day we were supposed to go see St. Chapelle, but a national strike led to the closure of many of the museums. Instead we decided to go to the sewer museum—bad idea. Although the engineering and intuition of the sewers were impressive, so was the smell! After we explored at a brisk pace we headed back up for air. Then, some went to the Eiffel tower, others went shopping, and Alex and I went to the Musee d’Orsay. The museum includes a collection of largely impressionist works in a converted train station—very cool. There we saw works by Monet, Gauguin, and Van Gogh.

For the last night in Paris, the five boys had pizza along the Seine River and then met a few of the girls for a nighttime boat tour of the river, beginning and ending beneath the Eiffel Tower. Even though it began to rain, it was a lot of fun to see the city from the river and at night.

The next morning we woke up early and left Paris. First, we visited the cathedral Chartes. After a brief tour highlighting the church’s amazing stained glass we got lunch and hopped back on the bus to our next stop, St. Malo. St. Malo is an old beach resort in a walled in town. Once we arrived, we went to see the beach and just walked around the town a bit.
That night Dan, Pete, Duke, and I planned to meet the girls at one of the bars we had found earlier in the day. However, when we arrived there the girls were nowhere in sight. After wandering around for about an hour we stumbled upon some British guys looking for a local watering hole. Since we couldn’t find the girls (they never found the bar and ended up just walking along the wall of the town) we decided to look for a bar with our newly found friends—one of whom proclaimed, “Look, Mates! I’ve adopted some Americans!” when he introduced us to the rest of his group. Eventually we found one open pub where we spent the better part of three hours having the best night of the trip thus far with ten middle-aged Brits on a motorcycle tour of France!

The British guys ended up buying us the last round of the night, exchanging information and offered us a place to stay should we visit England anytime soon! What a lucky night! To be honest, up to this point none of the Europeans that we had come across had really been that friendly, but the ten or so British men we met that night were some of the friendliest and fun people we’ve met.

The next day we went to Mont San Michel, an old monastery that is now one of the most visited tourist towns in France. The town is an island completely protected by stonewalls on all sides. The island is actually an enormous rock on top of which is a church to St. Michael the Archangel. One of the most interesting things about Mont San Michel is its tidal shift. Surrounding the island are the worlds most drastic waters. From high tide to low tide, there is a forty-five meter difference in the height of the ocean, and when the tide is high it comes right up to the town walls, and when the tide is low miles and miles of sand stretch out around the island. You can walk out from the town, but only with great care. Quicksand is common and legend says that the tide comes in at the speed of a galloping horse. A few hours at San Michel and we were headed back to St. Malo, where we were able to successfully coordinate with the girls and go out for drinks for Megan’s birthday.

Next, we headed to Bayeux where we went to a museum containing a two-hundred-fifty-foot-long tapestry (it was actually embroidery) depicting the events leading up to and during the Norman conquest of France beginning in 1066. After that, we went to Point d’Hoc, a military strong point during WWII, which was vital to the D-Day invasion. American Rangers wrested the position from German command just before the Allied invasion of Normandy. Today the point is actually American soil, gifted to the U.S. by the French government.

After visiting d’Hoc we got to our last hotel where we had a great dinner and spent the night exploring the town and watched as the tide came all the way up to the walls in front of our hotel—covering the vast beach that was there during the day.

The morning of Saturday, September 11th, we left for Omaha Beach. Here, we saw the American Memorial and Cemetery for those lost in the days of and immediately following the battle for Normandy during the Second World War. I have never seen a more moving memorial or a beautiful cemetery. This too is considered American soil, and the amount of respect shown by both the French and Americans on sight was moving. In my opinion, this was the best part of our trip to France.

After wandering the beach and memorial, we all piled onto the bus and began a six-hour ride back to Schapenstraat 80 Leuven, Belgium. The last week has been exciting, memorable, tiring, and informative. The next ten months are certainly going to be fun and I can’t wait to spend it with the people here!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Another day at 80 Schapenstraat...

The days are flying by. Tomorrow morning we leave for France—a weeklong trip to Brittany, Normandy, and Paris. Everyone seems very excited about the prospects of a trip to one of the world’s most beautiful cities. We’ve already placed our dinner orders for Sunday night, which include a few servings of escargot! Our lengthy itinerary includes visits to such Parisian sights as the Louvre, the Arc du Triumphe, Sac Recor, the Eiffel Tower, St. Michel, Notre Dame, and much more.
Not to be outdone by beautiful Paris, Leuven has provided us with one of the most striking sceneries and exciting experiences we could hope to find. An accidental nighttime visit to the City Park yielded a spectacular find. Though we only saw it in the dark it seems like a beautiful place to visit during the day. On the way home we discovered a few short cuts and got a better grasp for the layout of the entire city.
To ease our exploration of Leuven, we rented bikes at the local shop, Velo. Although the workers there were very kind in helping us each select a bike that seemed well suited to the rider, not all of the bikes were in great condition. As we rode our new bikes back to the Huis, lo and behold! My seat fell right off of my bike. It was a bit of an awkward moment, but crisis and injury were averted. Luckily I bought the insurance! So, after another trip to the bike shop (a rather difficult one considering my bike’s lack of seating arrangements) my bike was back on the Belgian cobblestone and in working order.
Later in the evening we decided to go out with some of the Belgian students who are also staying in the Nachbar Huis. Their bar of choice: Karaoke Beethoven! We were the only Americans in the bar, however all of the songs were in English—many of them U.S. pop hits. After gaining a bit of liquid courage, we were able to take the stage and lend Leuven our voices! Matt, Duke, Dan, Pete and I (all of the Loyola males on the trip) sang our hearts out as we preformed a rendition of Queen’s famous Bohemian Rhapsody—much to the audience’s pleasure! At some point or another, just about everyone sang. Unfortunately, the bar’s selection of Francis Scott Key’s works was underwhelming!!
So, after another fun night we made our way back to the Huis to get some much needed rest before we went to the City Office the next morning to get identification forms for our bank accounts. Later on that day, some women from the bank came by to set us up with our accounts and teach us how to manage our cards and savings and checking accounts. After that we met with Dr. Forni and went over our itinerary for the France trip and some history of the areas that we will be visiting.
Everything is going very quickly and after a dinner that included most of the Loyola students we’re set to stay in tonight and pack and rest for our big trip tomorrow!!

Afscheid mijn vrienden!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

LEUVEN!!

Needless to say, the past couple of days have been crazy. With a fair share of sorrow, nerves, excitement, and exhaustion I have arrived in Leuven, Belgium along with twenty other students from Loyola University. After a seven-hour flight—on which very few of us got any sleep—we met up with Dr. Forni at the Brussels airport. Dr. Forni has already been in Belgium for a year. She is an English professor from Loyola chosen to be the director of the Loyola students living in Leuven. The Directorship involves a two-year term in Leuven and a one-year sabbatical afterwards. After she met us at the airport we all loaded our luggage into a moving truck and boarded a Leuven-bound bus.
It was about a twenty-minute ride from Brussels to Leuven and we arrived here around ten in the morning. After a quick meeting involving the first week’s duties we had lunch and then headed off to the University of Leuven admissions building to register as students and obtain our student IDs. The walk to the building was amazing. We walked through the Oulde Market and the center of Leuven where there were countless bars and restaurants with expansive outdoor seating. We passed by the cathedral and town hall, which is the most beautiful building we’ve seen yet.
Once we returned from registration and a very brief tour of the immediate areas around our Huis, some took naps to recover from severe jetlag while I met the first of my two roommates, Jan. Jan is a Slovakian student studying in Leuven for the fall semester. He is taking a theology graduate course and speaks English rather well—although he argues otherwise.
Next, we went to Dr. Forni’s house for a pizza dinner. There, we met her husband Wes and their two sons Jack (six) and Jesse (5). The house was adorable. It is part of a small village that has been kept externally intact since the Middle Ages. (Loyola has a forty-year lease on both the director’s house and the Nachbar Huis where we are staying. After dinner we decided to go and have a few drinks and see some more of the town.
While out we tasted a few of the hundreds of beers that Belgium has to offer. Beers like Duvel, Stella Artois, Grimbergen Donker, Karmelite Tripel, and Wessmalle had a much better taste but two, three and sometimes four times the alcohol content of American beers! Obviously we kept our drink limit low. It was a great night with plenty of outdoor seating and we were able to just enjoy the cool night air and take in the scenery of the Oulde Market square, while still having trouble believing we were actually there.
We got started this morning around ten thirty with a practical tour of Leuven, including directions to places like the bus stop, train station, pharmacy, doctor’s office, and a final and lengthier trip to the grocery store (for the most part everything was a little more expensive than at home with the only exceptions being produce and wine). After stocking up on the essentials like pasta, pasta, and pasta. We were able to see some parts of the K.U. campus like the gymnasium, which was in fact headquarters for the Nazis during World War II when they occupied Belgium!
After the practical tour we headed back to our rooms and got some lunch (a discount banana for me—happy to say I still don’t know why it was discount) before a university-led historical tour. We saw places like the Cathedral, town hall, the library, the Museum of Modern Art, a few beautiful parks, and some of the vast K.U. campus. After a few hours of walking we ended at the university’s international office where our choice of cold and refreshing Stella Artois and Hoegaarden awaited—apparently it is never too early in Belgium!
Tonight it has settled down as everyone contacts family, finishes unpacking, or catches up on some much needed sleep. I had the first of what looks to be many many bowls of pasta and am content to rest the night away. After all, we rent our bikes tomorrow so I better rest my legs!