Biking in Belgium

The arrival of Spring in Diksmuide, Belgium
Hubby and I found ourselves back in the fabulous country of Belgium. But unlike the last time we visited (December 2011), this time around we were greeted with warm springtime winds and light-jacket-type-weather.  I had fallen in love with all aspects of the country, and I told Chris that if possible, I really wanted to experience all four seasons in Belgium. 

Half of that dream has come true. 

After this trip, I can check both winter and spring off of my list. 

I had three days to entertain myself while Chris worked, so I made a trip to the Information Center in Diksmuide (the city we stayed in) and asked what I should see around the area. I got several great suggestions, but I decided to first rent a bike and cycle to the North Sea. 

I chose to cycle to Nieuwpoort. Diksmuide is way up in the north west corner of Belgium, and the coastal city of Nieuwpoort (pronounced "Newport") is only 15km (9 miles) away. It was a wonderful day for a bike ride, so I set out around noon. Although there was a steady breeze, I was absolutely elated to be outside enjoying the sunshine and all that nature had to offer. Wasn't it just one month ago when I was buried under 3 feet of Serbian snow?! I had survived my first Serbian winter and sunshine was the best consolation prize possible. I felt like the luckiest girl in the world!

On the way to the coast, I followed a rural country road that lazily wound its way through the countryside. The Information Center told me the ride was about 15km, but I am pretty sure this route tacked on a few extra kilometers! I didn't even notice. I got lost a few times, but somehow managed to find my way to Nieuwpoort. 

Out on the Nieuwpoort pier. 
I have never seen so many condos in one small city!
There were a lot of people in Nieuwpoort, but I could tell that the coastal town was no where near full occupancy. In fact, there was a lot of construction going on and a local informed me that spring is a downtime in Belgium when all of the updates and remodels happen around town. Come July and August, this area will be crowded with tourists and retirees enjoying their beach condos. The wind picked up about a kilometer from the coast, so it was unfortunately too chilly to stick my feet in the water. I also did not really like the idea of biking home with sand filled tennis shoes. Yeck!

Nieuwpoort, Belgium in the spring
Just to prove that I really did bike to the coast
Signs on one of the Belgian bike trails
Belgium seemed a very active country as soon as the weather allowed for outdoor activity. I noticed loads of professional looking bikers throughout the day; and then there was me in my jeans, new balance shoes, light jacket and without a fancy helmet. Fortunately I was not totally alone because there were quite a few retired couples joining me as the serious bikers whizzed past. 

Since I am not at all familiar with the sport of cycling, I started researching the history of biking in Belgium. The country has a long and illustrious biking history, and frankly, I felt a bit embarrassed that I had never heard about it prior to this trip. On April 1st, the 96th annual Ronde Van Vlaanderen will be raced in the Flanders region which is the region we were visiting. While I was enjoying a glass of wine at the coast, I met three young bikers from California who were in town for the big race. 

On the way home, I stuck to the designated bike paths. The country has an extensive network of bike trails that are only for cyclists and walkers. Another reason to love Belgium!

I had laughed at the "Sheep Crossing" sign .  . . but they really do cross!
Stunning nature!
If you were to ask me whether I preferred the spring over the winter in Belgium, I would have to say that I enjoyed both seasons equally. Winter is cold (duh, right?), but along with cold weather comes the Christmas markets, holiday concerts, mulled wine, and gigantic bratwurst sausages - just to name a few winter delights. As you can tell from this blog post, in the spring, mulled wine is no where to be found, but barren winter colors are fading into bright spring hues, the weather is so comfortable for sightseeing, and you can bike just about anywhere. 

Of course chocolate, waffles, beer, steak and friendly people can be found year round in Belgium. So that should be reason enough to plan a little visit in absolutely any season that your little heart desires!


Budget Airlines Round 2

Last minute, Hubby came home from the office and announced that his company had just booked him a flight to go back and finish up some work in Belgium. 

I got this goofy grin complete with a glazed-over-day-dreaming-look. 

Hmmmm . . . Belgium . . . chocolate . . . waffles . . . . amazing steaks . . . lovely people. 

He could see it in my eyes. I wanted a repeat of our December 2011 trip to my (current) favorite European country. 

"Lana, my flight was so expensive because I am flying there in like two days. But you know that budget airline, Ryan Air, just started flying out of Budapest, and Wizz Air has service out of that airport too. Maybe we can find a deal on a flight so you can spend the week with me in Belgium. You know I have to work .  . . think you can entertain yourself?"

Ya think? I have gotten really good at entertaining myself these days. If nothing else, I assumed a sunny patio, my camera, a plate full of handmade chocolates and a glass (or two) of wine could entertain me for a few days while Hubby slaved away. 

(You're the BEST Hubby!)

I immediately started an intense internet search for a reasonably priced flight. . . okay, all I did was Google "Flights from Budapest to Brussels." A whole bunch of cheap flights popped onto my screen starting at $40 round trip on certain days of the week! I was able to coordinate with Chris' flight for a grand total of $100! 

Belgium here I (errrr. . . I mean "we") come!

Most of the budget airlines (check out my last budget experience) ONLY allow one carry-on. Don't even try to bring a personal item such as a purse, briefcase, ipod case, passport case, shopping bag filled with the extra clothes you couldn't fit in your mini-carry on. Everything MUST fit into one bag. Everyone working at the budget airport is looking for passengers on the go with more than one bag in tow. 

I guess this one-bag-rule is how they make their money seeing as an extra bag will cost you between $20 and $60 a pop. That is usually more than you paid for one leg of your adventure. 

You get what you pay for. 

It may not be the most classy way to travel, but it is the cheapest, 
and I wanted to get to Belgium classy or not!

Fly classy - even on a budget!
I decided that since I was flying budget, I would start the trip out in style with a glass of champagne. Also, the guy working at the little airport restaurant was so bored that he sort of talked me into a glass. He didn't have to try too hard to get me to dish out the cash for some champagne. 

Next stop - springtime in Belgium!


International Women's Day

"Happy 8th of March!"
Did you know that in certain countries, there's another day in between Valentine's Day and Mother's Day when women expect to be lavished with gifts and affection and multiple kisses?! The new "holiday" completely took me by surprise, but I am not going to lie, it was a welcomed surprise. International Women's Day is celebrated on March 8th (yesterday), and I feel like I have been cheated of 27 years worth of mouth watering chocolates and bright bouquets of flowers! 

Maybe my Dad just kept the day a secret from me to protect his pocket book. 


I got curious and started asking questions. 

So what's the deal with this International Women's Day? Do little girls get flowers too or do you have to have a boyfriend or husband in the picture? Do all school children bring their teachers gifts? Do women get the day off from work . . . or is this a working holiday? Do women give other women flowers and chocolate? What are the origins and why does America not recognize March 8th?

I got some mixed answers so I did a little research on my own. 

Initially March 8th was called International Working Women's Day, and it started as a Socialist political event to celebrate women's economic, political and social achievements. The day was primarily recognized by Eastern European countries, Russia and the former Soviet bloc - hence why I had never heard of the holiday in America. In West Europe, International Women's Day was first celebrated in 1977 when the UN declared March 8th the day for women's rights and world peace. Today, a lot of countries have dropped the political flair, and simply turned it into another day where women are appreciated and fattened up with chocolates and fancy dinners. 

The UN theme for March, 8th 2012 was "Empower Women - End Hunger and Poverty."

That is a cause I can get behind! 

My first International Women's Day was a smashing success, and I think I am going to demand it always be celebrated regardless of where Chris and I live. 

So here are a few pictures of International Women's Day 2012 in Subotica, Serbia:

Chris went all the way to Belgium to spoil me on March 8th with handmade chocolates!
My guy friends gave me chocolates and three kisses on my cheeks - that's the tradition. 
School boys bringing flowers to girlfriends or teachers. 

Almost every man was on a mission with flowers in tow. 
I think that women give other women flowers on March 8th too. 
Flower stands on every corner. 
I guess some people give dried "decorative" flowers as an alternative. 

Ready to sell and deliver!
Someone really loves her.
I found that in Subotica, some businesses give their employees a half day on March 8th, but it is still considered a working holiday. Ohhh, and all women, young and old, are given gifts, and it does not matter if they have a lover in their life. 


Subotica's City Hall Tower

My favorite picture of Subotica, Serbia. Not sure who the credit goes to. 
This picture was my first introduction to Subotica, Serbia. In May of 2011, Chris called me during his business trip to Serbia, and things unfolded sort of like this, "Lana, so my company is really sending us to Serbia, and the move is going to happen soon. I have to find an apartment for us to live in, but first I have to decide where to look for a home! You'll go stir-crazy if we live in the tiny village where my office is located, but I hear that Subotica's nice. It would be an hour drive to and from work for me every day, but I think we will both be happier if we live in Subotica. Start stalking Subotica on Google and get to know your new home away from home."

Like I said, that picture above was the first thing I saw of my new Serbian home. 

Thanks to Google, of course!

 Subotica, Serbia. 

I found that Subotica, Serbia is really more of a big town with a rather impossing City Hall standing guard over her 150,000(ish) inhabitants. The town sits on the border of two countries and its mixed nationalities and cultures attest to the 150 years of conflict, redrawn borders, and unrest. In short, over the past 150 years, the area of Subotica was part of the following nations: the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, Hungary, The Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, The Kingdom of Yugoslavia, then back to Hungary in 1941 and then part of the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, then 'smaller' Yugoslavia, Serbia and Montenegro, and finally modern day Serbia. What a whirlwind! The food, language, music and attire all speak of the blending of culture and tradition that define Subotica. Hungarian and Serbian are both widely spoken here, and service professionals are expected to be comfortable in both of those languages plus English. 

There are several historical buildings and monuments in Subotica, but the one that stands out the most (to me) is City Hall. Maybe that is because anywhere you stand in town, you can see the 76 meter (or 249 foot) spire. Two smaller City Hall buildings once occupied the center of town, but in 1910 the current City Hall was completed by two Hungarian architects from Budapest. It took two years to complete the imposing Art Nouveau structure. 

Despite the tumultuous history of this region, City Hall has remained relatively unchanged. The only thing that varied was the symbol on top of the main tower. When the building was completed in 1910, a cross adorned the tower, but in 1949 during the socialist period, a five-point star replaced the cross. In 1994, the original cross was returned to its rightful spot overlooking the city of Subotica. 

There is an observation deck that can only be accessed if you know someone. I happen to have a friend in City Hall who arranged a tour for me and my mother. Mom visited at the end of October, so this blog is a little overdue! 

Enjoy my pictures from the observation deck of City Hall. 

Steep and narrow stairs leading to the observation deck. 
The observation deck.
Looking down the Korzo (main walking street) in Subotica, Serbia.
Our house is in there somewhere. 
It was chilly, but the view was worth the discomfort.
St. Theresa's Catholic Church can be seen in the upper right corner. 
A view of The Blue Fountain. 
Items that were part of the first two City Hall buildings in Subotica, Serbia. 
The five-point star that adorned City Hall during Socialism. 
I am so glad that Chris "took one for the team" and decided to drive two hours a day so that we could live in the town of Subotica, Serbia. There is still so much for me to learn and discover here. My amazing husband made a great choice. 


And You Said You Hated Walmart. . .

Every Walmart looks exactly the same. 
Let me preface this blog by saying that I am not AT ALL fond of Walmart. I really don't care for their cookie-cutter stores, harsh neon lights, cheaply produced items, business practices, or their complete lack of ethics for that matter. I could go on and on, but it's enough to just say that when we lived in the States, I avoided Walmart like the plague. 


I hope this is his Halloween costume. Peopleofwalmart.com
And maybe there was a small part of me that was terrified I might run into these characters without my trusty camera. Is this what Serbians think of when they envision America and her people? I sure hope not! To my Serbian readers, please be assured, that you cannot judge a county by the patrons of its Walmart stores! In my opinion, Walmart is a strange place, but not everyone in America shops there! And contrary to the two pictures I posted above, some very normal people can be found inside your neighborhood Walmart.

When Chris and I arrived in Serbia, no one believed that we were indeed from America. When we asked for a reason as to why our nationality was in question, every person said, "because you're not fat, and all Americans are fat!" What?! Again, do a lot of Serbians believe this about Americans? Or maybe my question should be, does the rest of the world believe that all Americans are fat? My reply was always something to the extent of, "You listen to American music and you watch American shows, and most of the singers and actors are not fat. How can you say that everyone is fat in America? That is a generalization." My claim was always brushed off with a similar reply, "Oh well, sure, all those Hollywood stars are the exception. They have people to cook for them and make them work out." The only thing I could leave the conversation with was, "Well, if you find me on Facebook, you will see that my friends and family are all happy and healthy."

I blamed the misconception on McDonald's and Walmart. 

But after living in Serbia for 7 months, I have come to miss what I refer to as "the Walmart one-stop-shop mentality."

In Serbia, a simple craft project will require you to run all over town for basic supplies. I found a cute project on Pinterest using recycled wine bottles. Great in theory, but totally a different animal when put into action. I asked my friend Darko where I could find a few crafty items. His reply, "There is a store by the post office where you can buy yarn and lace, but then you will need to go somewhere else, it's not that far away, to find a glue gun. Usually that store doesn't have glue gun refills, that is the only problem. For those refills you will have to go to the other side of town, but while you're over in that direction, you can pick up spray paint. You know that little store that only sells paint, yeah, that is the only place to find spray paint. Paint brushes, hmmm . . . I think you can find those at Plato Books but I am not sure where else you can find them. You said that you need rubber bands as well. . .  I don't know where you can find those."

After four hours of running from one corner of Subotica to the other, I finally plopped down and started creating. As I spray painted lace covered wine bottles, I found that I missed the ease of running into my local Walmart and knowing that anything and everything was contained within those four walls. Even if I had to deal with a few crazy looking folks.

Maybe you learn to appreciate things more when it takes time and energy to get your hands on them.