Brian & Ann's European Experience

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Christmas 2004

Merry Christmas to all!

Our first Christmas in the Netherlands, our second in Europe (we were in London for Christmas 2000), and only my second Christmas overall away from my family (which, when I say it out loud, makes me feel equal parts mamma's boy and nostalgic).

Neither Ann nor I are religious, but for me Christmas has always been one of the most important holidays of the year. I always love to buy presents for all of my friends because I view it as the one time a year that you get to show someone that they are special to you by getting them something thoughtful. So, sadly, I had to write this year off completely because, besides Ann, and a few small gifts for my family, I did not get a single thing for anyone. I chalked it up to the logistical difficulties of being overseas, but in the end there's no way to escape feeling like a non-participant.

The one tradition that was solidly upheld was Christmas dinners. We had two of them. And a Christmas lunch. We ate so much and so well that it's amazing we didn't gain 10 kilos each. On Friday night we had "gourmet" with Anja and Geert. It was new to me, but apparently "gourmet" in Europe is a specific kind of meal, like fondue, and it's not just a general term you slap on products so you can charge a little more for them.

A true "gourmet" meal consists of a heated plate that has a grill and a cooking stone on the top, places for individual dish-like scoops underneath, and a variety of different uncooked meats, vegetables, cheeses, potatos, toppings, etc. You then decide what section of the device you want to cook each portion of your meal and everyone cooks and eats at their own pace.

It was really a new experience for me, to be so interactive with my food. Food preparation for me either consists of paying for the groceries, or in some way involves a microwave. I was a little worried my complete absence of culinary skills would show through, but when you get down to it, you're just slapping a tiny piece of meat onto a grill and flipping it over when it is obviously done. By the fourth piece I had it down.

Saturday night we had dinner with Ann's father and that side of the family. I have to admit, that being the non-family member at a family gathering can really be a lot of fun. It's kind of like watching those Fox documentaries about highway crashes. You get to see the whole thing unfolding from the safety of your armchair while mass destruction inevitably unfolds frame by frame in front of you.

To understand why this is so entertaining you have to understand the people involved. Ann's grandparents on her father's side, called Bon and Bonpa, are in their 80s. Her grandmother is a little hard of hearing and as a consequence shouts everything. This wouldn't be a problem normally, except for the fact that she generally bides her time while conversation is going, waits until she hears something worth remarking on, and then bursts out with a:


Everyone has at least one person in the world who has the mystifying ability to irritate them beyond reasonable measure, and for Ann this is her Bonpa (Grandfather). For some reason, every word that comes out of Bonpa's old mouth has an accumulating and exponentially increasing ability to annoy Ann. At the same time, Ann is powerless to extricate herself emotionally from this cycle of destruction and inevitably ends up arguing loudly with her grandfather, attempting to get him to understand that he shouldn't be looking up "megabyte" or "gigabyte" in the dictionary from 1970 because the term didn't even exist then.

"But look here, 'gigantic' is in there, so it should be in there too."

And cue Ann's exploding head.

Ann's father Andre has a girlfriend named Mieke who although is sweet and well-meaning, isn't the brightest bulb, and she inevitably ends up interjecting with a comment from the conversation of half an hour ago (in this case it was "yeah but 'gigabyte', doesn't that mean really big?").

This year the family drama revolved around Mieke's new puppy: Prutske (which sounds like a bad word but isn't). The puppy is a cute little black terrier, but it is six weeks old. Mieke was the impetus behind adding the dog to their already very cramped apartment, and she wanted to bring little Prutske to dinner so that he wouldn't have to be alone for hours. The grandmother, Bon, is terrified of dogs, even little ones, and would not have it. Plus, you have to be a little sensitive, these people are OLD!

Mieke's mature response to the situation was to then refuse to come.

In the end, Mieke came and the dog stayed. I did my part by not mentioning the dog after Ann warned me it would be a sore subject, but Mieke showed me the photos and couldn't resist adding, rather loudly in English, "I want to bring him, but SHE not allow," aimed at poor Bon. I did my best not to giggle.

Anyway, in a meal that extended over three hours we had champagne (again), a wonderful fish soup, and then we had these very soft and light filets of sole in a fantastic cream sauce (Bouilliabaise? Ann? Help.), and an ice cream cake dessert.

Our final meal was a simple and elegant affair prepared by Ann's mother. First there were the best custs of venison steak that were hand delivered by Ann's cousin Kato, whose father's hobby is being a butcher (I know, very strange). This was served in your choice of mushroom sauce or gravy. There were cooked apples filled with hot cranberry sauce, and potato croquettes. For dessert we had special hand-made pastries from the family bakery. Absolutely fantastic.

When I told Sabine that we always had the best food in Belgium she answered: "Natuurlijk." Which translates loosely as: "You offend my honor by assuming there could be a country with better cuisine you ignorant American."

Besides the fact that the Internet had the wrong times for the trains and it took us three and a half hours to get home, we had a very good weekend that Ann will require a week to fully decompress from.

That's okay though, because we are going back next weekend for New Year's.



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