Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Europe 2014: Brussels

As I mentioned back in December, D and I decided to backpack around Europe for two weeks over our winter break. We'd been planning for a while to take advantage of the two weeks off we each get over Christmas and New Years (D is a graduate student so he doesn't get official vacation time) but could not decide on where to go. I had been campaigning for somewhere warm, namely South America, but flights were very expensive, so I started branching out. As in past years, my main criteria was somewhere neat that I hadn't been before. Which is how we found ourselves headed to Europe. 

We flew into Brussels and spent 3 full days there, days which happened to include Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I was a little worried the entire city would be shut down and we wouldn't have anything to do for two of those three days, so I researched the heck out of what attractions would be open, and then splurged and got us a slightly nicer hotel for our time in Brussels in case we ended up spending a lot of time there. I needn't have worried. Brussels was teeming with tourists and we found so much fun stuff to do.

One of the things I wanted to do that was not going to be open on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day was visit the Cantillon Brewery. It's a small Belgian traditional family brewery founded in 1900 and notable for its lambic beers. The tours, which cost all of 7 euros each, were self-guided. We made our way through the brewery and read the info sheet along the way, all while taking about a million pictures. We were there on a brewing day, lucky us, so we got to see a lot of behind-the-scenes action, which was cool. We also got to try two lambic beers each. Lambic is...interesting. It's realllly sour, and tastes kind was unlike any other beer I've ever tasted. D liked it though, and the experience was well worth it.

Speaking of beer, we drank copious amounts of the beverage on this trip. Beer is sold in 33cl glasses instead of pints, which means it's slightly cheaper and thus easy to justify buying several of at a time. We fully embraced the thriving pub culture, happily ducking into a warm little place every afternoon for a glass or two of delicious beer.

In addition to drinking beer, we spent a lot of time in the Grand Place, which was just a few minutes' walk from our hotel, and absolutely stunning. They had the best christkindlmarkt I've ever seen, which included food booths, drink booths, a skating rink, lots and lots and LOTS of Christmas lights, a nativity scene with live animals that they fed at various times during the day, booths selling little gifts and trinkets, you name it. We actually ate there several times over the course of those three days and all the food and drink we tried was top notch.

We also did several walking tours out of our guidebook, which I highly recommend (both the walking tours and the book, which was this one). On Christmas Day we did an epic two-hour tour that took us through a trendy up-and-coming neighborhood, to a flea market that was, surprisingly, in full swing, through two different churches, and to the Palais de Justice, picture above, which is the largest building constructed in the 19th century and as far as we could tell, almost totally empty and abandoned save a few homeless people. According to the internet, the scaffolding on the exterior has been in place for over 10 years and is now in need of being replaced itself. The inside looks like marble but is actually plaster, which you learn from examining in places where it is falling away, if you are nosy and kind of fascinated by abandoned buildings like yours truly. The city of Brussels still pays to keep the lights on, but we came across trash, broken windows, a few squatters' camps, and LOTS of pigeon poop. Perhaps that's more expensive to deal with than electricity.

We heard from a few different people that Brussels was only ok and that we didn't need to spend more than a day or two there. We were flying into and out of the city because it was the cheapest destination in Western Europe for our travel dates, but I'm so glad we had a few full days there and we definitely could have filled up three more on that city alone.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Being Green in 2015

As I continue on my quest to green-ify my life, here are a few more things I’m working on lately:

I am setting everything, and I mean absolutely everything, to be paperless. I’d already done this for the obvious things like our credit card and cable bills, but there were a few things I hadn’t realized I wasn’t being “paperless” about, if that makes any sense. For example, I’d been getting a physical rewards check every month from my credit card company (they offer 1.5% cash back on purchases). I set it up so that going forward instead of printing off a paper check, sticking it in an envelope, and shipping it across the country to me 12 times a year they’ll just do an account credit after I pay my bill every month. It’s a small thing, but small things still add up.

Speaking of going paperless, I’ve been switching to e-receipts whenever possible. My doctors office, the running store I frequent, Banana Republic, etc. I’m always loathe to give my email address out to stores because I don’t want to get a bunch of marketing emails, but I figure it’s worth it to quit paper receipts. Plus, e-receipts are much easier to track down once I’ve had the item for a few weeks and then need to return it.

I have been saying no to free. Don’t get me wrong, as a spendthrift I love the idea of getting something for free, but the sad reality is that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Everything costs something, and I’ve started saying “no” to the free water bottle, frisbee, t-shirt, etc. wherever they are offered. Do I need another water bottle or t-shirt? No. It’s wasteful and often ends up in a landfill, so I’ve implemented a personal policy of Saying No to Free. I mean, if someone’s handing out gold doubloons I won’t turn them down but I really don’t need another koozie.

In an episode that could be titled “Marisa has too much time on her hands”, I decided to figure out how to recycle all those hard-to-recycle things. Two extra pairs of eyeglasses with outdated prescriptions went into a box the Shriners set up at my optometrists’ office, my old running shoes got deposited at the aforementioned running store, and my collection of used Brita filters and cooking oil went to Whole Foods, which recycles an astonishing array of items. I’m still looking for a place I can compost our coffee grounds (since we live in 5th floor apartment with no outdoor space and make coffee every single day) but I’m working on it.

As ya'll probably know, being a better steward of the environment is a cause near and dear to my heart. I'm always looking out for more small ways to make a difference. Here are a few prior posts about things I’m doing at homethings I was doing when I lived in Chicago, how being green is better for me, and some of my ongoing resolutions.  Every little bit counts, right?

Friday, January 09, 2015

Best Books of 2014

If you’re anything like me, winter weather has you wanting to curl up on the couch with a movie or good book in place of doing...anything else. I read many more books in the winter months than during in the summer ones, that’s for sure. As I put together my 2015 first quarter reading list (my library cart has 94 items in it--a bit ambitious, no?), I want to look back at the best books I read in 2014. They are, in chronological order:

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes--I read this book in one sitting, on the plane back from Morocco, and it had me laughing, crying, and racing to the end. I just loved it.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth--This book is about a 12-year-old girl who is discovering she’s gay and is subsequently sent to a “de-gaying” camp by her fundamentalist Christian family. The writing was compelling and not annoying (even though it was written from the POV of a 12-year-old girl), and the story was super interesting.

Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett--I love Ann Patchett, and this story, about her friendship with Lucy Grealy, was one of her best books. Patchett’s writing is flawless.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick--I read The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson this year as well, and despite all the praise it received, that book fell totally flat for me. I was confused by the narration and the plot, I had no idea what was going on with the characters most of the time, and I didn’t know how accurate the portrayal of life in North Korea was. This book, Nothing to Envy, was so illuminating. It’s nonfiction, and written by a woman who is a journalist and did extensive interviews of defectors, and the writing is so clear and well-presented. I highly recommend it. The stories of the six people she follows are completely captivating.

Manhattan When I was Young by Mary Cantwell--I picked this little book up at a used book sale and finally got around to reading it on a rainy Sunday about halfway through the year. It’s one of only a few books Mary Cantwell wrote--she was a journalist for most of her career--and it’s a lovely little portrait of her time in New York City in the 1960s as a young woman. I love reading about young women coming of age during that time period, and I love New York City. It's not often I find books where those two criteria intersect.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson--This book, and it’s perfectly executed premise, was fascinating to me. I liked it so much we read it for my book club, and everyone’s take on the structure fostered a great discussion. I just read that she's working on a companion book from the point of view of Teddy, one of the brothers in the book. I can hardly wait.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion-- D is a physicist, and most of his friends are also in physics or the hard sciences, and I could see some of them/their traits in the main character (although definitely not to the same degree). I thought the main character was charming and sweet, and while misguided, had good intentions. I’m excited to read the sequel, once my library request goes through.

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls--nothing makes you value your own goofy childhood like reading about someone’s who is so monumentally effed up, right? This memoir has been around for a few years and I finally read it. I’m so glad I did. Walls is a good writer, and she describes her childhood in a way that is almost without judgment, despite having been, like I just said, rather monumentally effed up.

So what are the best books you all read in 2014? Confession time: I keep a spreadsheet of the books I read, the date I finish them, and a quick note of my thoughts. Please tell me you do this as well so I don’t feel like quite such a dork.