Italia Part 1: Asissi & Castillo

My poor little blog, how I missed you. I’m back on track, and back in Brussels!

Last Friday I woke up to complete darkness, caught a cab to the bus to the plane and watched the sunrise over Europe as I flew to Perugia, Italy. My wonderful, intelligent, lovely, hospitable friend from UConn invited me to her hometown so off I went. Editing these photos might take ages so I’ll do a couple mini photo essays… I took about 75 pictures a day, so I’m trying to keep it under control here.

my first european sunrise. mmmhm does 4am come early.

my first european sunrise. mmmhm does 4am come early.

Immediately after getting off the plane, she picked me up and we drove to Assisi.

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Francis is one of my favorite saints – being an animal lover and sharing his name with our Jesuit pope and all. (Go stags.) We visited his church and his tomb first. There were so many people, even some in their sweet little nun habits and monk robes. I didn’t take any pictures of them because I know I’d feel weird getting stopped for pictures in my work clothes. Anyway, St. Francis!




We also visited the Basilica de Santa Chiara. St. Chiara was one of the first followers of St. Francis, and eventually founded the women’s order similar to the Franciscans. She also has a pretty pink basilica. And how about this, she was once a part of the church of San Damiano (Francis is also connected to this church), and that’s the saint my BXL house is related to (Kot St. Dam). Whoaaa full circle.

After the church-visiting, the temperature soared so we went into a little restaurant lined with stone walls. We hid from the thunderstorm and drank coffee and caught up on life.

When the rain stopped we hopped back in the car and drove the top of a mountain for a photo shoot. I mean really, she’s a girl after my own heart. Sometimes I can’t believe my own luck.




jenclinton/072413jBut the clouds followed us uphill so we went home.

I can’t tell you how relieved I was that I could speak French to my friend’s parents – I was afraid that communication would be impossible. But even getting by on our rough around the edges ‘francese’ and Italian hand-speak (is that the official title? hmm) made for a much richer experience. Everyone got a kick out of talking to the American in anything other than English – I’m finding that a lot in Europe.

Now I try not to be too crazy with the hyperbole here, but for real. The best meal of my life was my first dinner here. It easily toppled my last favorite meal (which was a breakfast, if you’re curious) and was only matched by Sunday’s lunch. Handmade, hand rolled pasta, filled with chicken, beef, and pork, topped with a tomato sauce from home-grown roma tomatoes, basil, fennel, and herbs de provence. I can still taste it. Not to mention the caprese salad, salami and other meats we cut ourselves, and buffalo mozzarella picked up from the nearby farm that morning. The wine was made by a friend. My life, the movie. Welcome to it.

I’m only slightly ashamed to admit that by the end of the weekend her Italian mother told me I had a good appetite (read: I ate wayyy too much). We finished with a couple glasses of Pastis and then walked into the downtown area to meet up with more family. I’ve adopted her Italian grandfather, watch for him in tomorrow’s pictures. He offered me coffee, a cigarette, and gelato within three minutes, so I took him up on the first one (it was easily after 10pm, and I don’t drink caffeine even in the morning. Oops.)* I passed out pretty hard when I got home anyway.

I could get used to it here.


*My reaction to nearly every “do you want to….” was pretty much YEP before the sentence was even finished. It got me into hot water when I yep’ed a hike when all I had was ballet flats, no sunscreen and minimal shade… but we’ll save that story for tomorrow.


For the record, Italy pretty much took her own pictures. Only a few got some stylized editing on here, most were just exposure fixes.

Day Sixteen & Seventeen: Listy McListerson*

*Young House Love reference. They’re sort of my favorite.

Monday and Tuesday were about meeting deadlines and staring at a computer screen until I actually felt dizzy, so let’s make some fun lists instead of recapping work!

Things I didn’t expect to do in Belgium.

  1. Eat raw meat. One of the other interns introduced me to the “American sandwich,” which you would think, you know, is a peanut butter and jelly or something. Nope. It was this literal RAW MEAT PASTE mixed with chopped onions and topped with lettuce (usually topped with fries). And you know what? I ate the whole damn thing. I think I had skipped breakfast that day.
  2. Ice my ankles. One weekend-day of wandering around with my reef sandals on, and boom. Elevated, iced, drugged. Seriously, none of my shoes are comfortable enough for long term walking, and I don’t even see tourists in sneakers. The young ladies of Europe must be trained from a young age to walk on cobblestones in heels, because even with a few years of stumbling through Quincy Market under my belt, I’m doomed here.
  3. Develop a sense of direction. It may be limited, but for those of you who know me and how easily/frequently I get lost and/or use my smartphone (even when I drive to the same place every week for months), this is something of a Big Deal. Mayyybe it’s because I don’t have a car, or GPS, or any support besides a quick Google Map check before I go somewhere. And it’s not like I can always ask for directions (see next list).
  4. Use my phone! If you have Viber or What’s App and my number, I can text you and send you absurd emoticons anytime. Expect something like this (Roo is another favorite blogger).
  5. Feel weird about telling people where I’m from. Not weird as in sorry-I’m-from-the-US weird, but my whole life the answer has been Boston or New England. Now it’s like, I’m from the US. And I’m a minority here. That’s weird.

Things I learned in my first two weeks.

  1. Just because I can ask for directions in French doesn’t mean I have a darn clue what they say back to me.
  2. Dresses > skirts > dress pants > jeans > shorts with tights > shorts > sweatpants.
  3. Calcified water is the devil, and my hair is pretty sad.
  4. Quality Belgian chocolate has a similar cost/weight ratio to printer ink.
  5. Stay updated with your news, always. People will ask America questions and say sorry for America things and you need to know what they are talking about. So far that’s been Snowden, Keystone XL, fires in Arizona, and Obama’s visit – I was the happy one to share the news about DOMA. 🙂
  6. Always carry an umbrella. As long as you have it, it won’t rain.

Things I thought I could live without but really miss. (Or, things I took for granted in the US.)

  1. Sweatpants. Disregard above statement. I need warmer sleep clothes but I want to spend money on nicer things to bring home… so I found a cheap blanket or two instead.
  2. Please excuse the moment of vanity but the other 90% of my makeup and hair products. But I only need like two or three more things.
  3. Sunshine, but this is getting significantly better. “In Belgium, the summer comes on Saturday.”
  4. A clothes dryer. It’s frustrating to have to time your clothes washing appropriately with the weather, so I haven’t washed things often. Fortunately I brought more than enough to wear, and if I’m stuck I can bring them to a laundromat.
  5. More books in English! They’re expensive here, so I’ve been trading/borrowing for reading in my free time.

Things I’m OK leaving behind. 

  1. Eating dinner before 830 PM.
  2. Leaving work before 6PM.
  3. A smartphone. Really.
  4. Expensive wine. 🙂
  5. My car (but only in this context, because I love and miss you Leopold and don’t you forget it.)

To finish up with my crazy amount of pictures from the Netherlands, these are from Annika’s adorable little city Utrecht:

the netherlands from the train. i could get used to that. mostly unedited photo, too, it was that bright outside.

the netherlands from the train. i could get used to that. mostly unedited photo, too, it was that bright outside.

the dom is the highest church tower in the netherlands

the dom is the highest church tower in the netherlands

the canon saint of the dom.

the canon saint of the dom.

i lit a candle, i hope there's no rules against lighting protestant candles as a catholic, haha.

i lit a candle, i hope there’s no rules against lighting protestant candles as a catholic, haha.

i was so proud of myself for remembering all the religious relics were destroyed as part of the reformation. which instantly made this the oldest thing i've ever been in the presence of.

i was so proud of myself for remembering all the religious relics were destroyed as part of the reformation. which instantly made this the oldest manmade thing i’ve ever been in the presence of.

inside the dom

inside the dom

i love the cat sneaking through the old garden. annika said this place isn't usually open to tourists, so he probably watches over it in our absence.

i love the cat sneaking through the old garden. annika said this place isn’t usually open to tourists, so he probably watches over it in our absence.

Day Eleven: Le Chat Noir

Have you ever tried I’ve used it once before back home, and I’d rate the experience 6/10. I had a much better time with the people I came with rather than meeting people who shared common interests. I decided to give it another go in Brussels, as they have an expat group meeting at the Musée d’Ixelles. My expectations were:

– To meet some young expats. American a bonus but not necessary.
– To meet someone to trade “can you BELIEVE they do that here!” stories with.
– To trade said stories in English.
– To enjoy some lovely art in the most cultured corner of the world.

See, the thing about expectations though…

– I was the youngest person there by psh, twenty years.
– I didn’t meet a single American. They were all European expats that I overheard talking. Which, like I said – bonus but not necessary.
– But in fact I didn’t meet anyone at all, as the group dispersed to take in the museum at their own pace. Which meant, if I so chose, I could walk up to someone and say HI my name is, and they’d be all, 0_o ?? becuase they might not be with our group.
– I didn’t hear a single person in the museum speaking English anyway.
– The French labels describing the different paintings were in way more advanced language than I have at my disposal. I found a packet that generally described why the rooms flowed the way they did, and why the Belgian artists were breaking from the traditional French styles, so I read that as I walked along.
– French artists, I’ve got your back. Matisse, Manet, Gaugin… infinitely better in my (however uncultured it may be) opinion.

Literally. Look at this thing. Who? The what? No.

Anyway, I appreciate what Meetup does, and maybe I’ll try it with des amies in the future. And it was cool to see some Toulouse-Lautrec pieces, the original Chat Noir, and posters from Jules Cheret, so thank you for that Ixelles. (You’ll recognize these Moulin-Rougey pictures from… every college poster sale.)

But I think I’ll stick with exploring the parks of Brussels this summer for now!

king leopold

king leopold II

Day Four: The supermarket.

On the bus ride home today I realized just how completely my life has changed in ten days. I went from essentially having a 2 bedroom apartment to myself in the woods, to sharing with six people in a house in a neighborhood I’ve been told not to hang out in alone. I had a car and access to all my money; now I have public transit and a very small sum I’m making work for as long as possible. My shoes are pretty much all useless, my back hurts from carrying everything with me, and still, I’m happy. I very much feel like an outsider, but seeing the similarities between all the different cultures is a good reminder. Like hearing a little kid yelling at his mom in Arabic, and she responds in French, and I still understand exactly what SIT DOWN WHILE THE BUS IS MOVING / NO GO AWAY means in either language.

But the supermarket. Guys. I’m lost.

I didn’t take any pictures inside today, but I did take pictures of my loot. (Bought, not stolen… Don’t worry, no international arrests.) The first supermarket I walked in, I literally recognized two brands of food: Ben & Jerry’s, and Philadelphia cream cheese. Think about how big Stop n Shop, Shaw’s, Big Y are… and then to see NONE of that here. (It also freaks me out that Palmolive is a major shampoo brand here – dish soap much?) It all came to 23 euro something and please don’t make me convert it because my bank account cries a little when I do.

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Tomorrow is finding Zara. Seriously. Jeans were a horrible choice today, for so many reasons. Mainly, it’s toasty. Especially on the bus. (I took the wrong one for a bit today too. Dammit. Need to figure out the monthly pass thing! But I might need passport photos and everything? Ergh. Research for tomorrow.)

Now I’m going to go make dinner, even though 745PM is EARLY, according to this crazy continent, because Tommy V told me I could.

Day Three: I use French.

It was just about the picture perfect day for weather today. You know when Miss Rhode Island describes her perfect date? June 18th in Brussels.

I packed up my things in Ixelles and took the train to work again. (Thanks Jess and Frank! You’re saints, both of you. Drinks on me very soon.) I need to be better about carrying my camera around on work days – the Trone station here looks JUST like the Harvard stop on the red line. I can’t get over the similarities between Boston and Brussels sometimes. Except Boston gets voted worst dressed, and Brussels definitely would not.

There was a lot of reading to get done today, and I continued my preparation for the European islands meeting on Thursday. One of the other interns said we should all do some field work by each picking an island to visit, I think it’s genius, haha. The list of EU Overseas Countries and Territories is pretty much my DREAM list of places to visit, minus that whole Antarctic thing:

  • Anguilla (UK)
  • Aruba (NL)
  • Bermuda (UK)
  • Bonaire (NL)
  • British Antarctic Territory (UK)
  • British Indian Ocean Territory (UK)
  • British Virgin Islands (UK)
  • Cayman Islands (UK)
  • Curação (NL)
  • Falkland Islands (UK)
  • French Polynesia (FR)
  • French Southern and Antarctic Territories (FR)
  • Greenland (DK)
  • Mayotte (FR)
  • Montserrat (UK)
  • New Caledonia and Dependencies (FR)
  • Pitcairn (UK)
  • Saba (NL)
  • Saint Barthelemy (FR)
  • Sint Eustatius (NL)
  • Sint Maarten (NL)
  • South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands (UK)
  • Saint Helena, Ascension Island, Tristan da Cunha (UK)
  • St. Pierre and Miquelon (FR)
  • Turks and Caicos Islands (UK)
  • Wallis and Futuna Islands (FR)

saw it/want to see it real bad. (I’ll be checking one off later this year!)

After work, everyone went out for a little happy hour down the street. I ordered my wine… in French! I was so proud of myself. Annnd then the guy responded in English. Really? It was that bad? Sigh. I stayed there until about 830. I really like the whole team we work with, it’s similar to the feeling I had in New Orleans when I felt like I had found my community. Similar career goals, similar interests, though there is great diversity in the paths we took to get here and our home countries. And one of the girls made me feel better when she said she was surprised I had never been here before since I dress so European (hilarious, because living out of a suitcase and not having access to things like my hair straightener make me feel sloppy… but I have been making an effort to dress well.)

After a bit of panic about how exactly to get all my luggage moved at one time (that hadn’t happened since going from the car to check in fifteen feet away), I finally called a cab. The driver started spouting in French about the weather and ‘oh, vos valises!’ I couldn’t catch most of it, but I wanted to! So I finally said, en francais, que j’arrive hier a Bruxelles, et je dois aller a mon nouvel appartement. “Aahh! Americain!” But I didn’t let him let me off the hook so fast, and I told him I really need to practice. So we did! I told him about my job and school, and he told me all about my new neighborhood, the landmarks, how the car’s not usually his… halfway through he realized he never turned on the meter. So much for those expensive taxi rides in Brussels! I gave him a crazy tip but he literally wouldn’t accept it. I know tipping protocol is different over here so I did what he told me, and took some money back. haha

I haven't mentioned this yet but Brussels is HUGE on comics. They're painted everywhere, and there are a few museums dedicated to them as well.

I haven’t mentioned this yet but Brussels is HUGE on comics. They’re painted everywhere, and there are a few museums dedicated to them as well.

All that to say I’m finally settled in my new place! No pictures yet, I got here late, but the garden! The skylight! The storage! My roommates! I didn’t have the chance to get to the food store so my lovely Italian roommate Marta cooked me an Italian dinner as soon as I arrived. Too sweet.

Tomorrow will be food shopping, and cranking out more work on the islands. Who’s up for a Skype date tomorrow night? 🙂

Day Two: Que Sera, Sera

First day of work! I showed up just on time, after figuring out the (fairly intuitive) train system. After a ten minute administrative setup, it was into the first all hands meeting and piles of reading… including a textbook written by my supervisor, on the economics of biodiversity. It was GREAT. No seriously. I totally nerded out. I’m looking into payments for ecosystem services and reform of harmful subsidies to start. I love the people I’m working with, the subject, the ability to jump into side projects…which I did. Islands of Europe! (How many do you think there are? No cheating.) I’m excited to be contributing so soon.

We took a quick walk to the supermarket for lunch – I recognized almost nothing in the store. They had Ben & Jerry’s though, which cracked me up. Half baked and chunky monkey! Tomorrow I’m going to walk in the other direction and pick up a new phone, I think I can get one for 20-30 euros at Media Markt.

i feel that way when i make money too.

i feel that way when i make money too.

I haven’t had to use my French too much, except when ordering food and when my luggage showed up at work. The airport worker who dropped it off didn’t speak a word of English, which I haven’t had to deal with yet, and everytime I struggled to understand his French, he giggled at himself and said “Aaahhh Englishh!!!” It was endearing, haha. I think he asked if I’d tried the beer yet. (I haven’t.)

Another minor struggle I’ve had is with the clothes! I can’t even believe how well dressed everyone is, always. Never mind sweatpants and sneakers, I hardly even see jeans on the girls! Granted I’ve been living right across from the Parliament, you don’t really see jeans on the Financial District in Boston either, but man. I’m in trouble. I brought two skirts and three dresses, but they’re almost all really relaxed and flowy, while the dresses here are mostly structured and very Ann Taylor (but times 100 on the fashion score). I found an H&M nearby (scratch that, there’s three on one street), but I’ve been warned their sizes and prices are way different than in the US. We’ll see what happens!

sorry he's blurry, i wasn't confident enough to be a creep.

sorry he’s blurry, i wasn’t confident enough to be a creep.

One thing I didn’t mention about my trip to Garde du Midi yesterday was the little old lady who started yelling at someone these horrendous things in French – turns out they were trying to swipe her money. I’d been warned about that too. What I hadn’t been warned about was the elderly man who would hand truck a homemade karaoke machine onto the metro and start singing ‘que sera sera’ to everyone, just for kicks. He had to stand right next to me. I almost laughed out loud but he was so earnest.

After work the weather was spectacularly beautiful, so I dropped my bags and grabbed my camera to explore le Parc Leopold. Little parks like this dot Brussels all over, and they’re full of people picnicking, walking dogs, and, well, making out when it’s not raining, haha. The mix of glass Parliament buildings and the dense trees and gardens made for some beautiful pictures. I also ordered a coffee-flavored gelato from la Place Jourdan on the other side of the park. Success!

Tomorrow I’m moving to my new apartment. I have a garden, AND a washer/dryer! Miracle of miracles.