Sunday, June 19, 2011

Up at the crack of dawn, Norah unwell and a weekend in Brussels.

Our second reunion in Brussels. Me with my Nottingham University friends Sandra (on the right) and Adele in the middle

Hi again
I am writing from Sandie’s kitchen this rainy Sunday morning in Fort Jaco in Brussels.  I was up at the crack of dawn, at about 6 am, so thought this would be a good time to write this week’s blog post as today we will be travelling and there will be not much time this afternoon or tomorrow.  Everyone else is asleep and breakfast won’t be for another couple of hours.  Nowadays, I always wake up early, at around 6 or 6.30 and enjoy a quiet time by myself in the mornings.  Then of course I go to bed early, at around 10 and fall asleep very quickly.  I have changed so much as I used to do quite the opposite, wake up later and go to bed later.  The change seems to have come since I have been on the Dukan diet or maybe it’s because of my age.  In any case I love getting up early as I have the feeling that the days are longer and I can pack more into them.
The week has been uneventful and quiet until our trip on Thursday to Brussels for our reunion with my Nottingham University friends, Sandra who lives here and Adele who lives in Orleans in France and their partners Jeffer and Bernard.  I, or rather we, have been preoccupied with Norah’s health since last Monday. Norah, our wonderful and naughty beagle dog, was born with a malformation in her spine (the end of one vertebra in her neck (axis) nearly touches the other – excuse the lack of a more scientific explanation). This has given her two episodes of severe neck and back pain twice before and on Monday it was quite evident that she was going through another one as when I got up early in the morning, I found her on her mat unable to get up or move.  She cried when I stroked her and I had to feed her from my hand. We took her to the vet where they gave her an x-ray and all we could see was the malformation we already knew about.  I suppose it must be a bit similar to a slipped disk and is very painful.  All the vet could do was to prescribe anti inflammatory tablets and lots of rest.  Dear little Norah behaved beautifully.  Well of course, she wasn’t her usual self.
Poor Norah was very unwell this week
We have looked after her all week, spoiling her silly.  She didn’t seem to be getting any better, having great difficulty getting on her feet or moving her neck, that we rang the vet again who prescribed her some pain killers.  I wonder why they weren’t prescribed before.  Thankfully whilst we have been in Brussels, I have reports from the girls that she is on the mend, managed to get onto a sofa and even ran after our cat Phoebe once.  We spoiled her with human food vs dog food, so as to feed her the tablets and since then she is very reluctant to go back to her dry “fodder” having got a taste for sausages and slices of ham during her bad back spell.  Luckily she is over the worst part of this latest episode and I look forward to seeing the usual naughty Norah when we go back.
Norah got much better this weekend.  Juli put these sun glasses on the poor thing but she still looks a little forlorn
The week was short in Madrid and very hot, reaching over 30ºc at midday most of the week.  When the weather gets like this we always eat outside, both for lunch and for dinner, in the patio outside our kitchen which is like a private little garden of its own.  I call it our paradise.  Our walk times change too and we go after dinner to avoid the sun which can be scorching until nearly 9 o’clock in the evening.  One day I came back from the office late for lunch this week and observed my wonderful family having a discussion over the table, so I thought I should take a photo of the delightful scene for the records, of these family times, whilst the girls are still living with us.
The family having lunch outside this week in our summer dining room
And so on Thursday, Eladio and I left sunny and hot Madrid to go to cooler and rather wet Brussels.  Our flight was punctual and the only delay was in picking up our luggage at the airport.  Dearest Sandie was there to pick us up and it was great to see her with her new figure which she has recovered thanks to the Dukan Diet.  Jeffer, her partner, had just arrived off a flight from Italy where he had been giving a coaching course, so the timing was perfect for Sandra.  She drove us in her great convertible Saab and amazingly the sun was shining, so she opened it and we drove past the EU area feeling happy to have arrived and looking forward to a fun weekend.  We dropped Jeffer off at his office and were going to go to her house in Fort Jako when we decided to drive to the Atomium, that funny silver balled symbol of Brussels built for the Universal Exposition in the 50’s.  Unfortunately we had to put the roof back on as soon as we approached it as it started to pour down.  It was so bad we couldn’t go out.  Thus we shall have to leave the Atomium for a proper visit another time.  Sandie managed to get me a couple of pictures from the car, just as a hoard of Japanese tourists were coming out of a bus in the pouring rain.

The Atomium, the symbol of Brussels
After unpacking Sandie and I went to her local supermarket, the beautifully stocked and upmarket Delhaize where we picked up easy to cook and serve food for dinner at home, to add to the ham and wine we had brought from Spain.  When Jeffer was back we all went out for a walk to the “forêt” nearby which is beautiful.  Thankfully it had stopped raining by then.  We walked past some magnificent houses, some real “chateaux” on our way there and back and I must say the area of Fort Jaco is very pleasant and upmarket too.
On the walk in the forest in Fort Jaco on the first day.
Adele and Bernard were arriving on Friday at midday which gave us plenty of time in the morning for a bit of shopping in Fort Jako.  Sandie bought 2 dresses and a blouse.  I found everything far too expensive for my clothes budget which is usually spent at Zara, H+M or Cortefiel, my favourite being garments for 12 euros or similar,  so unlike Sandie.  But then Sandie always did live the “high life”, even when we were at Nottingham University together in the 70’s.   She was the only friend who had a car, wore expensive French perfume and wore proper jewelry.  She would go home on holiday to Bombay where her Italian Father and Jewish Hungarian Mother lived and we all thought that she was by far the “poshest” of our group.  I used to think I was exotic, having a Russian Mother of aristocratic origin, but when I met Sandie I knew I had met my match.  But I also knew I had met my soul mate, in that Sandie was probably even more extrovert, outgoing, fun, sociable and adventurous than me.  I remember once waking her up at 4 in the morning, daring her to come with me to the local Indian restaurant, the Purple Elephant for a late dinner and she did.  She used to talk to the waiters in her halting but fluent Hindi and would bring them Indian cigarettes back from Bombay.  She used to walk into the restaurant kitchen as if she owned the place and they loved her.  I love her too.  I actually dared to buy her a 12 euro yellow cardigan from Zara at Madrid airport as one of my presents, the idea being to give her something colourful to wear as she usually wears darker clothes. Sandie is very frank and immediately told me she never wore yellow.  However when she put it on she just had to agree that it suited her and after that kept it on for the whole weekend.  I found it funny that my posh friend didn’t mind wearing a 12 euro garment from Zara like me!
Sandie happy with her fashion shopping purchases in Fort Jaco
Soon we went into Brussels to pick up Adele and Bernard from the train station.  Adele had great news!!  She had become a grandmother as the first of her four boys,   Johaathan’s wife, Salma, a Moroccan born French girl, gave birth to baby Emma the night before they arrived.  Little Emma was born in Dubai, so far away, and with some complications as the umbilical cord was around her neck. She is still in intensive care but is now breathing independently.  Adele will be going to see her next month and I’m sure she cannot wait.  I well remember the first time my Mother saw my first born child, Susana.  She came to see her two or three weeks after she was born and I will never ever forget the emotion of the moment.  Eladio went to pick Mummy up at the airport and I waited at home with Susana.  When my Mother came into our flat at Francisco Silvela, 71 in Madrid, I walked up the corridor to the door, opened it and handed Susana into her arms.  How can I explain what I felt?  I wonder what my Mother felt?  And how will I feel when Susana or Olivia shows me my first grandchild? 

Little Emma, Adele's first grandchild, in intensive care in Dubai.  But she's a fighter and will be ok

We drove to the Avenue Louise, the main thoroughfare in Brussels and went to our favourite café cum bakery chain, Le Pain Quotidien which originates from Belgium and which was first introduced to me on our last visit here.  Here is a photo of us here enjoying the beginning of our time together this weekend over wonderful food, of course.

In Le Pain Quotidien in Ave. Louise with our friends

Afterwards we ambled along the streets looking in some of the shops but then decided that once in Brussels we must just revisit the city’s main attraction, the Grand Place.  I’m sure Sandie must be sick and tired of the place.  She actually mentioned that Jeffer never ever wanted to go back. But as it’s only my third or fourth time and I still find it unique and beautiful.  Here we are together here with our umbrellas holding off the rain.

In le Grand Place with our umbrellas

From here we walked into the magnificent Galeries de St. Hubert to the Galerie de la Reine and then to the Galerie du Roi.  Here I picked up a Spanish newspaper for Eladio whilst the others ambled into antique jewelry shops.  Adele is very lucky as her adoring psychiatrist husband Bernard buys her lots of jewelry, something I wish Eladio would learn from him hahaha.

Eladio in the Galerie du Roi with his Spanish newspaper
Afterwards we drove back to Fort Jaco where we wound down and revived ourselves with a lovely cup of tea before starting on preparations for dinner.  Well actually Adele, Bernard and I went to Delhaize for some more wine and some other stuff whilst Jeffer prepared a magnificent dish of sea bass.  Here is Jeffer (known as “el jefe” when he did the Jacobean way in Spain) with the fish about to put it into the oven.

Jeffer made wonderful sea bass on Friday night
Adele and Bernard had brought some real champagne which we drank to toast the arrival of Emma as well as our great weekend.  Here is a photo of that moment.  Notice the beautifully laid table in the picture too. Whilst we were having the champagne Sandie skyped with her 87 year old Hungarian mother Magda who lives in London, so she sort of joined in the celebrations. 

Making a toast on Friday night with Adele and Bernard's real French champagne
The highlight of the night was the alphonso mangoes Sandie prepared for dinner.  They come from India which of course is how Sandie knows about them.  They are truly the king of mangoes and only grow in April and May.  Apparently Magda buys them by the crate!  Sandie cut the sides off them in the kitchen and I asked if she threw the middle bit away to which she replied that the three of us should suck them by the sink.  So there we were doing as she said and all I could do was have hysterics and remind Adele how similar this was to our bingeing Cadbury’s chocolate cream eggs at Nottingham University.  The “boys” of course could not understand what we were laughing about.  But then how could they?

Wonderful Alphonso mango with ice cream.  Thanks Sandra for introducing us to the king of mangoes from India
Saturday was reserved for a trip to Antwerp but first we had a magnificent breakfast for which Bernard, Sandie and I went out to the high street in Fort Jaco to a wonderful “boulangerie” with queues outside and to the local Pain Quotidien.  Sufficiently loaded with all types of croissants and bread we walked back to Sandie’s luxury flat for an equally luxurious breakfast all together around her very cozy kitchen table.

The wonderful boulangerie round the corner from Sandra's house where we bought our breakfast
At about 10.30, we headed off to Antwerp in two cars, the “girls” in Sandie’s and the “boys” in Jeffer’s.  Antwerp is really very near and is by the Scheldt River, near the Dutch border.  Needless to say it is in the Flemish part of Belgium.  We parked by the old port which was once one of the most important ports in Europe.  Even today the new modern port is apparently the second largest, after Rotterdam, in Europe.  Here we visited the recently opened Mas (museum aan de stroom), a strange modern looking red brick building housing exhibitions and built to tell the story of Antwerp.

The Mas museum in Antwerp, me with Adele. Very windy
You can walk up to the top and there are magnificent views of the city.

Me at the top of the Mas museum in Antwerp overlooking this lovely city
It is covered in hands which are the symbol of the city.  Antwerp (Amberes in Spanish, Antwerpen in Flemish, Anveres in French) actually means “hand and throw” and owes its name to the legend of a giant called Antigoon who menaced the population by demanding a toll from those who crossed the river.  He severed the hands of those who refused and threw them into the river Scheldt.  Eventually the giant was killed by a young hero who cut off the giant’s own hand and flung it into the river.
Afterwards our “tour guide” Jeffer showed us the way to the old town, but first we went through the fascinating but rather disgusting red light district. It is a poorer edition of the ones in Amsterdam and in Hamburg, but still quite large.  I didn’t dare take photos of the women of all sizes and shapes and ages in their windowed cubicles. There were men loitering on the street and I couldn’t tell who were the clients or who were the pimps. 

We walked past places called Pleasure Houses on the fittingly called “Old Man street” and felt slightly relieved as we came to lovely old Flemish streets with the typical Dutch architecture.  Soon we were at Antwerp’s version of the Brussels Grand Place which is called the Grote Markt (Dutch for grand market) where we were to see a statue of the giant’s hand being thrown into the river.  The city thrives on this legend and there was evidence of it everywhere.

The statue of the giant's hand being cut off in the Grote Markt in Antwerp
From here we walked to the Cathedral of Our Lady.  Eladio being a “cathedral expert” remarked it was from the 16th century as if it wasn’t interestingly old enough to visit.  So we skipped that visit and walked out of the old town to the shopping streets and past fascinating houses and restaurants with lots of religious symbols.  We were to have lunch at the De Foyer restaurant inside the Bourla theatre house nearby.  The place was out of this world as were their club sandwiches.
The De Foyer restaurant in the Bourla theatre where we had lunch in Antwerp

Dessert was gourmet ice cream from the “haute couture” of chocolatiers, Pierre Marcolini, Belgian by nationality and Italian of origin, in the street opposite the Bourla.  We could not resist the temptation to buy some of the chocolate too which was mostly polished off later at dinner by Adele and I who are the chocoholics of the group!

With our ice creams we strolled through the delightful botanical gardens and past the houseof Rubens until we reached another gourmet destination, the Goossen’s bakery which Sandie was keen for us to visit.  It is a bread lover’s paradise and seemed to be pretty famous.  Here we queued up for some of the well known raisin bread which we later had for dinner and for this morning’s breakfast.

The lovely old fashioned bakery called Goossens in Antwerp. The bread is so enticing
It began to rain, well it had been raining off and on, so the only thing to do was to shelter in the shops, something which delighted Bernard and bored Eladio.  One shop that didn’t bore anyone was a so-called “sweet and sexy” shop which was quite unique and had us all in stitches!

The shop that made us laugh in Antwerp
We seemed to have spent the whole day walking and at about 5.30 put an end to our day in Antwerp, a town we all fell in love with.  So we drove back to Fort Jaco after 20 minutes of searching for Sandra’s car, where the first thing we did when we got to her flat was put the kettle on of course.  Soon we were preparing our last dinner at Sandra’s home and I must say last night’s dinner was probably the best, not just because of Jeffer’s great pasta and the Spanish ham and wine we had brought or my salad,  but because of the conversation.  It got deep and started off with the story of my roots and on to religion and whether God had created man or whether man had created God (Bernard’s theory).  Here the three men had a heated and lively discussion in a mixture of English, French and Spanish, the three languages we alternated in all weekend.  Here Eladio came into his element as of course you know he is a philosopher.  We girls talked a lot about sex and our marriages, whilst washing up the dishes and preparing the dessert, topics which were of equal interest to us of course hahaha.
We carried on talking and drinking wonderful Márques de Riscal wine and eating Pierre Marcolini chocolates until about one in the morning and it was a great end to a fantastic weekend.  The good thing is that we will be seeing each other again soon as they will be coming to stay in Spain in October and we will be taking them to visit Córdoba (the city of my dreams) and to the Alhambra in Granada.  Thus we all look forward to more deep discussions, laughs and good food in the near future. 

I am now writing here at home as I come to the end of this week’s blog post.  We had to leave Brussels early as our plane was at 12, so were saying goodbye just after ten (four hours after I had got up!) after another great breakfast.  We got off the plane at Barajas airport to be met with over 30ºc, double the temperature of Brussels. It was quite a shock but of course we were expecting it. Olivia came to pick us up (a first for the record) and we were home just before four and happy to see everyone again.  I was especially happy to see Norah nearly recovered.  The girls have had a great weekend here enjoying the sun by the pool with their friends Juli and Rocío. I imagine my Father will be “weathering” the heat as best he can.  We brought him some superb Belgian biscuits as he is the only one in the house who does not have to look after his figure and of course he has a very sweet tooth. 
So now I will hasten to upload what I have written, include the links and upload the photos and publish this, after which I will join the girls by the pool. 

That’s all for this week folks.  I hope you have a great week ahead of you.
Cheers Masha
PS you can see the full collection of my photos of our Brussels trip here.

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