Saturday, October 27, 2012

Retrograde: part 2

When I think of writing the last blog post of Adventures of a Puertorican Girl in Brussels I think of the last lines of one of my favorite poems, Poema XX of Pablo Neruda's Twenty Love Songs and a Song of Despair, specifically of the last line: ¨y estos sean los últimos versos que yo le escribo¨ (these are the last verses I will write her). This blog post will be the last of this amazing three year journey of chronicling my Belgian life. Today I sit on a terrace in Northwest Washington DC, on a moody day as this city prepares for the arrival of Sandy, better known as "frankenstorm". I listen to the city, the music from the neighbors, the random police sirens, and the barking dogs as I bid my farewell to this blog.
It has been six days since I arrived to my nation's capital. I recall holding back my tears as I stepped on the plane knowing this is it. There is no return ticket, this trip is not like the many other trips with a return ticket. I wrote my past two posts on my flight back, charged with tears and melancholy. When I arrived in DC, it was the perfect fall afternoon. The air was warm, warm orange leaves of trees around the National Mall, and the sun was shinning. It was the perfect welcome to my new life. I settled into the Bloomingdale neighborhood where my friend was kind enough to host me until I find a place of my own. I quickly fell in love with the neighborhood as I walked to the metro to and from work every day. I love walking by the rainbow of row houses which line T and U street with their pointy roofs. Some red, some blue, some rusted but they all seem to have a story. After my second day of walking by these, I knew I wanted to live here. As I searched for a place to live, I kept on running into corporate managed high rise apartments and feared I would not have what I had in Brussels. Luckily, thanks to the help of friends, I was able to find a home in this neighborhood. The place immediately reminded me of my place in Brussels: wide spaces to entertain and a large dining room to keep on cooking for my friends. I look forward to moving and setting up my home here.

This past week, I spent most of my time getting reacquainted with friends, settling in to my new job, and processing the fact that this is my new life. Now I am in Washington, DC. To be honest, I thought it was going to be more difficult to acclimatize to my new world. I do miss Brussels but I love so many things about my life here: how the neighbors say hello to me, watching people walking their dogs in the mornings, plentitude of runners, and the overall air of hope this city brings. I always had a special place in my heart for DC, maybe because the city is like me: an old soul who is always willing to embrace something new.

These are the last lines I write as a Puertorican Girl in Brussels, but this does not mean I throw my pen away for my new life. Writing and sharing my experiences brings me peace. This blog indirectly became a mirror to gauge if I was getting the most out of my life. I will always thank Belgium for everything it taught me. Time to give back some of those lessons. To those who read this blog and gave me feedback: thank you from the bottom of my heart and I truly hope you join me in my new blog with my new adventures.
Follow my new blog, Adventures of the Repatriate

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Monday, October 22, 2012

G'schafft! München Marathon

My fifth and final marathon as a EU resident was the Munich Marathon on October 14th. I had planned this marathon even before deciding to leave Europe. That being said, I was unaware of how difficult it was going to be to train for a marathon when one is executing such a move.
I returned to Brussels early July just in time to begin to train. I started to train and somewhere towards the end of August, between packing, work, and traveling, my training had become inconsistent.
Towards the end of the training, I ran a few 20k's with Abby, who was also running this marathon. The runs felt good afterwards although aware I was not in prime shape. The week before the marathon, we ran the Brussels half marathon. It was my worse half marathon time (2:18) but I was satisfied given I was not well prepared.
The week leading towards the marathon, I had been quite busy tying all the last details of my move and debated whether I should change it to a half marathon instead. As I studied the course online and walked to the expo, it seemed as if it was a pretty flat course, therefore I decided to run the full 26.2.
The expo was small yet filled with many vendors and great running opportunities in Europe, which made me sad as I soon will be returning to the United States. The irony: I'm American and my five marathons and three half-marathons have all taken place in Europe. Now that I will be back, I look forward to run stateside, especially the 2013 Marine Corps Marathon. Being the telecommunications manager for the 2004 & 2005 Marine Corps Marathon inspired me to run marathons. Witnessing the finishers truly inspired me and would like to experience the race as a runner on my 35th year.
Abby and arrived to the start line a little rushed as we did not realize the bag drop off was so far away from the start. She ended shoving her belongings on her camelback and I shoved mine behind a tree near the start. We wished each other luck and embarked on our journeys. My first 10k was good, ran it a little over an hour and felt ok. As we moved into the park, I started to feel tired. My brain wanted to go faster but my body was not in synch. People started to pass me and noticed my decrease in speed looking at my Nike GPS. Shortly after mile 14, the five hour pacer passed me by. By mile 16, I didn't know if I was going to be able to finish. I did not have a specific injury, just an overwhelming tiredness, as if I could not move. Felt like a heavy, fat turtle.

I figured if Paula Radcliffe has had DNF, me, the average citizen is not a big deal. The thought crept for a mile. I texted my boyfriend to let him know what I was feeling. As I saw what I wrote, I realized a few things. First, I'm a Marine, we never quit. Second, my friends and family are counting on me. Third, I had NO idea where I was at. With limited S bahn and bus services during the race it would probably take me even longer to get back to the finish to meet my friends. Just as my days as a recruit at Parris Island, the fastest way to get out is the finish line. Those last 10 miles were grueling. It was demoralizing to see all the people pass me by but I was determined to make it. As I ran by mile 25, I noticed my bag was still there with my belongings. I picked it up and keep going. As I entered the Munich Olympic park, I experienced a wave of relief as I realized it was finally over. Abby was there to take my bag so I can run my last 200 meters and give it my all. My friend Vanessa cheered at the stands. I was completely beat when a lady in a dirndl placed my finisher medal. That was it, I had completed marathon #5 in my worst time but I did not quit.
After the race, Abby and I proudly displayed our medals around Marienplatz. I was super proud of my friend as she ran a 3:52 way below her goal and it was only her second marathon. We rewarded ourselves with a traditional Bavarian feast and Thai massages.
I know poor training yields poor results. Although it was my worst time, I'm grateful for the experience, especially with someone as positive as Abby. I also believe there are always more opportunities to improve. I'm looking forward to living in a city full of runners, Washington, DC and improving my time. Most of all, I'm grateful for the motivation I got from my friends and my love before, during, and after the race.
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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Retrograde: part I

As I write this entry, I'm somewhere above the Atlantic Ocean on my way back home. I have to admit I have not been writing as much as I have been busy moving, which has been more physically and emotionally difficult than I had expected. Thankfully, I'm aware of my limitations and began to pack and ship my belongings since I know moving is not my forte. It was difficult to sell my furniture and see my belongings dwindle and the apartment becoming emptier. I wanted to see and share as much as I could with my friends. It seemed as if every evening was filled with a dinner or a gathering.

I love Europe and wanted to make the most of my last days in the continent. In the last 60 days, I went to Krakow, Den Haag, Paris, Amsterdam, and Munich. In between, I shared meals with good friends at old favorites such as La Piola and new finds such as Toukoul, a delicious Ethiopian restaurant in Rue Laken. I had drinks at Place Luxembourg as I did During my grad schools days. Spent many Wednesdays at Place du Chatelain where five weeks ago I experienced one of the most beautiful surprises (this story I keep to myself for now). Managed to host a few last dinners at home, even as the glasses and plates became plastic.

My last day at my apartment was September 28th. I recall running around trying to pack my last items and Bojena, my cleaning lady for the last three years, doing her final cleaning. As I handed the keys to my lovely landlord, who I will always be grateful to the universe for manifesting her in my life when I needed a place to live and start new, I could not help but feel fear. Fear I would never experience something as Rue Darwin. As I walked one last time through the apartment all memories came alive: Thanksgiving celebrations, parties, visiting friends, dinners, Fridays alone eating Mama Roma and watching Grey's Anatomy, among others. I hugged Bojena goodbye and we both could not contain our tears. She had been there for me for the last three years and four months helping me keep my life in order.
I settled into Jimmy's home, where I spent my last weeks in Belgium. I curled up on my couch, literally as I sold it to him,which gave me a sense of home. I got to experience life in the European Quarter, which was more fun than I expected. As I ran several times through the Parc du Cincquantanaire, I realized although I am leaving, Brussels will still be here with the open arms of the friends I love when I visit.

My last few weeks in Brussels followed by my going away party, where I was overwhelmed with all the love from my friends. These last years, I have lived a life based on gratitude but during these last weeks, I could not help feeling it at the most highest level. I am grateful for all the love i have experienced: new and old from both sides of the Atlantic. As I I boarded the plane today, I attempted to conceal the tears as I knew there will be no permanent return.
Six years ago, I arrived in Belgium with a simple goal to earn my MBA. I was under the impression I was going to return to the United States shortly upon completion. Six years later, I have accomplished so much more professionally and personally. When others did not believe in me, I refused to give up. I followed my heart and I would not change a single experience.
As sad as I am about my departure, I am grateful this retrograde is being done in my own terms. I am grateful l was able to get a job at my favorite city in the US: Washington, DC immediately after I decided to leave Belgium. I may physically have left Belgium but Brussels and Europe will always live in me. Now time to get reacquainted with my country and plan my visit to Brussels.
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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Things I will miss: Dinners with Friends

One of the things I will miss most is hosting dinners for my friends at my apartment in Brussels.  I will also miss the wonderful, multi cultural dinner parties I have experienced here.  As I start looking for places to live in my future city, Washington, DC, I am taken by the sticker shock.  A place like the one I have in Brussels is double the price and not even half as charming as my current place.  I affirm I will find the perfect place at the perfect price....
Today, I looked around my apartment and suddenly it looks so empty. All of my furniture has been sold and half of it has been picked up already. The walls are now bare and wires hang where there were once lamps. I now use my outdoor furniture as indoor furniture, paper plates to eat, and a box now is a coffee table. The past few days I have been mailing boxes of the memories I have collected from my last six years of European living. As I looked around, I started to reminisce of all the fun times at my home and how many of them revolved around food.

An Atrevida Night at a Flemish Atrevido's Home...
I started to think about the three Thanksgiving dinners I had at my home, random last minute dinner parties, my atrevida dinners, and good times with friends.  The "atrevida" and Thanksgiving dinners are my favorites.  I love a group of friends who call each other "atrevidas". Translation:  daring and bold.  Our group consists of a Peruvian, two Sicilians, a Belgian, a Norwegian, a Pole, and a Puertorican (me).  From time to time we have guests appearances from Venezuela, Brazil, and Poland. We organize the dinner weeks in advance to ensure we will all be present and which dishes will be made.  Every time I am impressed with all of the delicious dishes such as ceviche, buccatini, stuffed pepers, norwegian smoked salmon..

Proud of my Turkey, Thanksgiving 2011
As I packed my pots and pans, I thought of the three thanksgiving dinners I shared at my apartment.  How nice it was to share such a special holiday for me with my friends although it is one of the days I miss my family the most. To be thankful although I was away from my family during this time,  thankful to have the wonderful circle of friends in Brussels.  This year will be the first time in ten years I will be home with my parents for Thanksgiving, I cannot be more excited.
A few nights ago, I invited friends over and had to serve dinner on paper plates as I have already sold my china. Although I served the risotto topped with mussels with a smile on my face, I felt a sadness inside. In my years of moving, I have not been so sad and excited at the same time. The next few weeks will be composed of packing, cleaning, giving away, and throwing away.  It is interesting to see the moments I pack away in my boxes manifested in the orange dress I wore for thanksgiving or the serving plate I gave to a friend where I served my Thanksgiving turkey. In the end, there is not need to attach ourselves to things but not let go of the beautiful memories they gave us.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Around Europe in 90 Days: Adventures in Styria, Austria

As I have discussed in my many of my previous posts, I truly enjoy the diversity of my friends in Brussels.  Not only does it allow me to learn more about other cultures, but it opens the door for traveling to these exciting places and experience it first hand. This time Hans (my trusty 3series), two Puertorican friends, and I embarked on a road trip to Styria, southern Austria at the invitation of a friend, Sabrina who had recently moved back to Graz after working in Brussels for a few years. Our road trip was smooth as we crossed Holland, Germany, and finally, Austria.  Although the trip was smooth, I had a little toll sticker shock when I arrived in Austria. Not only did we have to buy a decal in Austria for 8 Euros, we also had to pay an additional 16 Euros to get to Graz  in tolls. The roads are very well kept, just a warning for those looking at an Austrian road trip.
We arrived to Sabrina's family lake house on a sunny and hot Friday afternoon and quickly jumped in the lake. The lake homes had a beautiful alpine look and the water was perfect given that it was very warm in Graz.  I became enamored with Austria during my first visit in January 2010 with a solo trip to Vienna. I love the elegancy of the city. These feelings were reaffirmed when I returned to Vienna and was then enchanted by Salzburg. This time, Graz and Styria gave me another reason to love Austria.  Sabrina planned an agressive agenda for our 72 hours in the region, at first what we thought was impossible, turned out to be an amazing trip. I am very grateful for all the things we experienced in such a short period of time! Our Austrian, Peruvian, Belgian, and Puertorican gang enjoyed our short yet enventful trip as we called ourselves the Austrobelgoperurican family....
View from the Schlossberg
Our hostess had a very busy agenda for us but it was great to experience so much in such little time.  We took in a gorgeous view of the city at Schlossberg , where we experienced one of the beautiful elevator rides, riding on the inside of the mountain to the top, where we took in the sunset followed by dinner and drinks. The following morning we headed for a day tour of Graz.  The city is filled with beautiful decorated buildings which make you want to waltz around the square! I even took the opportunity to buy a summer Dirndl for our winery tour.

Beautiful Building in Downtown Graz
After our tour of Graz, we headed to Gamlitz for a tour of the Tement winery.  The view from the winery was gorgeous: rolling hills of vineyards and perfect sunny weather.  We were even able to see Slovenia from the terrace of the winery.  The wine tasting was composed of six different local wines.  What was even more surprising was the fact we only paid 10 Euros for the tasting which includes a guided tour. One of the things I've enjoyed the most about my three trips to Austria is the quality of service and the politeness of the people. Gamlitz did not disappoint. To end the evening, we headed to the Skoff winery for dinner.  We tried all the local specialties, plates of local cheese, hams, and vegetables. My favorite of the dinner was a bean salad with one of the staple ingredients, pumpkin seed oil. Ten bottles of wine later and some schnapps, we were singing show tunes at the bar of the winery!
View from the Skoff Restaurant
The following day, we received a guided tour at the Vinofaktur, a shop which specializes in all local products from Styria.  We learned how the main products of the region, pumpkin seed and honey were produced and luckily we got to sample all kinds of wine, oils, and honeys.  My favorite honey was aptly called the "dirndl" it's a strawberry and honey mix. Delicious!

With our Lovely Hostess, Sabrina
We concluded our Sunday with a tasting at the home of the revered schnapps maker, Zieser.  The owner, Johann was very passionate about what his craft and it was fascinating to see how he continues to makes it by hand.  As we twirled around our glasses we can smell the fruit of the Austrian country side, we ate a delicious carpaccio and local cheese.  When we first arrived we were tired from all the activities, but when we saw his energy and passion we quickly got into the schnapps drinking spirit!
Schnapps time at Zieser
I am grateful I had the opportunity to experience such a beautiful landscape Styria has to offer and the warmness of its people.  I may be a little hesitant to share this experience because I want to keep this place for myself.  It was lovely to walk around the vineyards, seeing local families dressed in dirndls and lederhosen and not huge group of tourists.  I know I will return to the land of waltz, dirndls, and most importantly, schnapps! This is a great memory to take back to America and again, thanks to Sabrina for making it happen!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Things I'll miss: A Saturday in Brussels

As my time in Brussels is rapidly winding down, I have decided to write two series about my imminent return to the United States.  First series is "Around Europe in 90 days", a chronicle of the places I will see before my departure.  The second is "Things I'll miss",  a series of posts about the things, places, and moments I will miss the most about Brussels.  There are so many that I predict there will be many more posts to follow during this three month period. This first one is dedicated to my Saturdays in Brussels.

Afternoon Treat at Sainte Catherine
I have to admit living in Ixelles makes me at times lazy to go to downtown Brussels, especially on a weeknight after work.  I enjoy hanging out in my familiar surroundings of Chatelain, Flagey, or Brugmann. On Saturdays, I make an effort to visit my friends downtown and feel like a tourist in my own city. I usually begin at the Sablon. I enjoy going through the antique market and seeing all the interesting things up for sale. From old maps of Brussels to African masks there is something for everybody.  I wish to buy an old map of Brussels before I leave as one of my memories of my time here. I also enjoy walking into the galleries of the Sablon, sometimes pleasantly surprised that some of the art is actually affordable. As I look at the vitrines of some of the antique shops, sometimes I wonder how some of the African art was acquired, which is always a subject of conversation.
Scenes from the Walk....
From the Sablon I like to walk to the city center and every time I walk down, I discover something new.  It may be a building I have not noticed before, a new shop, or a new from of street art. I also love to discover the comic book scenes painted along the sides of buildings in downtown Brussels. From time to time I like to take a detour to the Grand Place.  It is one of those places I do not get tired of experiencing.  Recently, I was able to experience the beautiful flower carpet for the first time and walk through the impressive Brussels City Hall (Maison Communale).

The Flower Carpet at the Grand Place

I conclude my stroll at Place Saint Catherine.  On my way, I walk through Antoine Dansaertstraat to do a litttle window shopping and have been impressed with all the improvements to the city.  Sometimes I'm surprised by a little festival or concert at Sainte Catherine.  One Saturday we were pleasantly surprised by a Salsa concert as we sipped on mojitos.  Rain or shine, the mojito and caipiriña stand is there, it is never is too late.  I also like to indulge in delicious seafood tapas from Noordzee or a coffee and a pastry from the Bakkerij on Rue du Vieux Marché aux Grains. 

Frites and Mojitos = Saturday Fun!
The Saturday Sablon to Sainte Catherine walk is something I will truly miss as each time I do it I discover new things about Brussels. Whether it is a new shop, restaurant or simply an alley with an amazing house, it shows how versatile this city truly is.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Huître and Hamburger (Oyster and Hamburger)

As I was telling my friend Yolanda about my visit to Washington, DC she came up with the best definition of what I have become in the six years I have lived in Europe.  As I was enthusiastically telling her about the great time I was having in DC she says "claro nena, es que tu eres Huître y Hamburger" (of course girl, you are oyster and hamburger).  On the eve of my sixth year in Europe, I can't find a better way to describe what I have become.  Maybe better would be "Mussels and Oysters" but I like Oysters much better....
I always have had the belief when you live in a foreign country one most go "native".  From learning how to order my meals in Japanese to wearing a West African traditional dress in Senegal, I try my best to assimilate to my hosts to the best of my abilities. Living in Europe, five years in Brussels and one year in Stuttgart, Germany has been a culturally rich experience which some of you have followed for the last two years and a half years of the life of this blog.

Learning to Fish in the Ardennes
  This last month I have been in Virginia and Washington, DC for work obligations but fortunate enough to spend time with my family.  Between work, family, and friends I've neglected the blog, so I apologize. I have previously touched upon my love for Washington, DC on this blog and this most recent trip did not only reaffirm my love for the city but it inspired me to end my adventures of a Puertorican Girl in Brussels and return to my nations'capital permanently.

At the Prado Museum in Madrid with Yolanda
I will always have a deep love for Europe, especially Belgium and Germany.  I have had a wonderful life here filled with lovely memories, met amazing people, and have seen some of the most beautiful sights in the world.  But like the prodigal son (or in this case, daughter) it is time to come home for many reasons.  First in foremost, my family.  On this blog, I have written about my unconditional love for my parents and with airline travel becoming more expensive and inconvenient I want to be closer to them.  I am more fortunate than others whose family are an ocean away to have the luxury to be home two to three times a year.  But even in those six month gaps, mis queridos viejos, my parents, are visibly starting to look older although it is hard for me to accept they as the rest of us have a limited time on earth.
My Beloved Belgium, at the Atomium...
Secondly is my professional future. As an American, there are limitations in terms of employment.  Being at the mercy of my job to live here can be a challenge as your legal residence depends on your job.  Although it is not impossible to get a work visa in Belgium, it can be a challenge to try to change jobs. I want to have the professional freedom once more.  I also feel that there are more opportunties in my industry in the states and I have had a great time in the last month exploring what is next.
Thirdly, my personal life.  For a while I had dreams of buying an apartment in Brussels.  A high ceiling, wooden floor, airy apartment is what I dreamed of.  Those dreams were quickly crushed by the fact that I only legally reside here for my job therefore it would be a hassle if I quickly had to move back to the US.  Same applies when the thought of opening my own business came up.  Not impossible, but extremely challenging. Given my longing to be back in my country with my family the hard desire for that challenge is not there.
.... Somewhere in Bavaria
 When I handed my letter of resignation yesterday I was sad but at the same time enthusiastic about what my new life has to offer.  This year will be my first Thanksgiving with my parents in ten years.  I can be more deeply involved in a community I feel part of.  As much as I love Brussels, I know the best time to leave a party is when the music is still loud and the lights are dim. That is where I am now: ready to leave the party while it's still good.  Now I have three months to experience more of Europe, more of Brussels, and cannot be more excited about that.  It will be chronicled in "Around Europe in 90 days" series. Now looking forward to bringing a litlle Huître to Washington DC as I have brought a little Hamburger to Brussels.