Thursday, June 29, 2006

We spent the past week getting our Euro-culture on. We started out Friday by eating at a tiny restaurant called La Canne en Ville housed in a former butcher shop, as we had a gift certificate from Jack's family. It was a nice space, elaborately tiled. The glazing on the tiles had cracked, presumably from age, and a brownish stain had permeated the cracks. Jack said he would have liked the tiles better if they didn't have the aura of having been spattered with years of animal blood. We started off with the suggested aperetifs, which were white wines mixed with fruit liqueurs. A woman who was perhaps the owner came over and translated the menu, and knowing full well what he was getting into, Jack ordered the snails for an appetizer. They were really good! I know, I know, if entire countries consider something a delicacy it's probably quite tasty, but that still doesn't make it any easier to stare down a plate of, say, sea cucumber, and take a bite. While I consider myself an adventurous eater, I'm not, as it turns out, an adventurous orderer. I guess that's what separates the boys from the men: anyone can try a bite of duck tongue on someone else's plate, but not everyone can envision themselves eating the remainder of said plate. Kudos to Jack. The remainder of the meal was equally good, with one of the highlights being a potato gratin with just enough cheese to hold the thing together and form a lovely brown crust on the top. Mmmm.

Even though we had made our reservations for 8 p.m., an almost impossibly long time for me to wait to start dinner, there was only one other couple in there when we got there. The place really started filling up around 9, an by the time we left at 10 or so it was packed. The two waitstaff managed to be attentive to all the patrons, surprising given the neglect we've suffered at other places with twice as many staff members.

Saturday we attempted to work on the apartment a bit, getting a printer cable and assorted sundries at the hardware store. After we set up the printer following the French directions, Jack began installing our retractable clothesline. It was, unfortunately, not a success: not having a drill makes it extremely difficult to make appropriately-sized holes in the wall. Who knew? Now we'll probably have to get a drill. I suggested getting an old-school hand-powered one that resembles an egg beater, but I don't think he's going for it.

Sunday we headed downtown to the big art museum. We saw a lot of art from the 15th to 18th centuries. Most of it was religious in nature or portraiture. "Still life" in French is apparently "nature mort". There was a Hieronymus Bosch of the temptation of St. Anthony, one of those classics of his with a bunch of crazy stuff going on. And, on the next wall over, another painting of his that was a straight-up portrait. Never would have guessed it was by the same guy. There were other paintings by other artists of the same temptation scene scattered about, also featuring a variety of beasts not found in nature, so I'm not sure how Bosch got to be known for this style. Perhaps people went wild for it when it came out, and subsequently that's the genre he chose to pursue.

It appears that wealthy art patrons back in the day used to demonstrate their piety by having their likenesses painted into scenes from the Bible and displaying them in a prominent place. There were many of these paintings in the churches of Bruges, and more in this museum. I'm not sure what they were trying to convey by showing their family (adults: full-size, grown-looking children: half-size) kneeling at the foot of a dying Jesus on the cross, the family's patron saints hovering behind them like mother hens. It's not as if they were attacking the guards and saving Jesus from his horrible demise, just mostly staring at some mid-range point that conveyed the unfocused boredom of the sitter. Maybe the sin of pride was only written into later versions of th Bible.

One of the interesting things about viewing paintings in a roughly chronological fashion was being able to see the development of painting techniques, notably correct perspective. The flat religious iconography of the earlier years, employing lots of gold and oddly-shaped faces and babies that resemble scaled-down adults on a plain background, gives way to scenes of people in a room, figures overlapping yet the same size as if they're crowded up against each other, but you can see the room's walls slightly receding behind them, gives way to advanced techniques of outdoor scenes of gardens with fancy trellising in the mid-distance telescoping to a hazy glimpse of a town far off in the background.

For lunch we strayed from the museum, which has a cafe run by Aramark (the folks who do such a wonderful job with RFK stadium), and went down the street to the Musical Instrument Museum, which is housed in a former store called Old England that is a paean to the Art Nouveau style: lots of ironwork curlicues. While not particularly drawn to the museum itself, they have a restaurant on the top floor that has nice views of the city. Last time we had tried to go there it was packed, but on this day it was about half full. I ordered the "pain viande", thinking it would be some kind of sandwich like a cheesesteak without the cheese. It was meatloaf. It was very tasty, so no complaints. On the way back home we encountered a shop that had a bunch of international papers, including a scanned, printed and glue-bound copy of the Washington Post for 4.25. It was the District-Maryland version of the home delivery paper, not even the Final, so we passed it up. I'm not sure what the legitimacy of this was, since the Post certainly doesn't offer home delivery here although they could if they were in on this operation.

Tuesday we started French lessons with a class of 5, including a couple that hails from Canton, OH. The "professeur" speaks exclusively in French (unless 100% of us are staring at her blankly, and then she'll sometimes give us a single word of English), which makes Jack and me founder to various degrees since we probably each understand about 1/4 of what she's saying and can get the gist of about 3/4. On the one hand I feel like I'm falling behind at times, with everyone else nodding and taking notes while I repeat her words in my head for some semblance of meaning, but on the other I get to practice my French accent, which seems super-fake to me when I'm trying to communicate out in the world but is apparently some approximation of the real thing.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Ramen update:
I went into the grocery around the corner yesterday primarily to replenish our sadly depleted cache of alcohol. The store is about twice the size of a 7-11. Given the size, they have an amazing array of products. This is due in a large part to the fact that you're limited in the options between brands; they might have regular sugar, turbinado sugar, brown sugar, powdered sugar, light corn syrup, honey, and other sweeteners I haven't been able to translate yet, but they're all the generic variety. That's okay with me since that's what I would normally buy. So I was wandering around and I came across a section I'd never noticed before. It was almost as if a Brigadoon aisle had appeared before my very eyes, strange given the fact that the store is only three aisles deep. Not only did I find the ramen there ("noilles instantanees", 45 cents for a smaller-than-normal packet), but also capers, which I had looked for and not found before and had assumed would be close to the pickles and other preserved vegetables. Given the long list of ingredients, I'd hazard a guess that the Belgian ramen are just as unhealthy as the regular kind (although of a reduced portion size), but since they don't have anything resembling nutrition facts here it's hard to say. There's 18.6 g of fat and 460 kcal of energy. Oh wait--that's for 100 g serving size, but the package is only 60 g. You can do the math for yourselves as a take-home problem. Bonus question: how much sodium is in the shrimp flavor ("gout crevettes")?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

I started working on the 12th, which has drastically cut the amount of time I have available to run around and get all the stupid little things done that I need to do by about half: buying groceries, washing a mountain of dishes, going to the bank to sign aNOTHer document. As a consequence I'm generally more tired than before. It will take some getting used to. The upside of working is I don't dwell as much on what needs to be fixed/altered in the house to get it to my liking. That, and I have something constructive and purposeful to do for several hours a day which has the added bonus of bringing in income.

Mid-week, we went to a restaurant at the end of our block that had been mentioned in a NYT article that my mom sent me. Eat-cetera looked a little upscale for us, but we were encouraged by the interesting choices on the 30-euro fixed price menu. We sat in the garden (really more of a patio) that was overlooked by office buildings on all sides. They had thoughtfully provided a chalkboard by which they could convey the scores of the World Cup games without anyone having to run out and check them. I had a tuna trio (grilled, raw, and smoked) followed by swordfish with grilled peaches. Mmmm. In between the courses was a palate cleanser of tomato-basil sorbet. To end they provided long cookie sticks to be dipped in chocolate, banana foam and rice krispies. All in all, very tasty. Since the 4-course menu changes monthly, Jack wants to become regulars there. It'll be just like Cheers, except people will call him "ZZZhaaaque!" instead of Norm, and of course he won't be nearly as husky. And we'll drink wine.

Saturday is the day of commerce: it's essentially the only time that people who are employed full time can buy stuff since most places close at 6, so everything's humming with activity. We went to the secondhand store again to see what was new, and Jack found an awesome lampshade to put on our living room ceiling light. Then we went into the city center to check out the electronics superstore in order to get various items deemed necessary for the home office and general comfort (speakers, wireless router, headphones w/ mic, printer, and PC laptop). Before hitting the store we went waaaay out of our way to go to Passage to India, recommended by one of the guidebooks. I was excited because I like Indian food a lot, but there seems to be a dearth of it in our neighborhood. (As a side note, I honestly don't get people who don't like Indian food; the cuisine is so varied that you can't possibly write it off until you've tried a good sampling of the northern and southern dishes.) So we go there and it's totally empty except for one Indian family of four, and the owner/waiter guy was very kind and gracious, and I got the chicken tikka masala and a mango lassi, both of which were fantastic. Jack got the butter chicken, which was also excellent. It fortified us for our arduous task ahead. We detoured through an extensive fabric store which I predict I will make good use of at some point and through the Botanic Garden's gardens, where the photo of the vulture statue was taken.

At the electronics store, after some intense soul-searching Jack picked out some speakers he could live with. The office-related items were all a bust: the microphone has a standard jack whereas the Mac has no mic port (a USB converter is necessary), there were no printers that were Mac compatible, and all the laptops had crazy keyboards. I later learned from the lady at the bank (we should really become best friends, based on the amount of our contact) that the keyboards are the French version and the Dutch ones, which they didn't have on display, are the standard qwerty and all you have to do is ask for them. So now I have to go back. In an effort to find a bright side to everything, I must say that they had a pretty good bookstore in there, and I got a ton of books (well, actually just four). One is some kind of mystery that takes place in the London sewer system back in the day--I look forward to getting started on it. Also they had McSweeney's, which was surprising and looked awesome, but with the rest of the day's purchases I couldn't justify the additional 30 euros. Lastly we got a 5.99 copy of "Raising Arizona" to test out the Belgian DVD capabilities of Jack's computer.

That evening was the USA-Italy game of the World Cup. This was possibly the US's last chance to redeem itself due to its shockingly bad opener against the Czech Republic. The Irish bar we went to, The Bank, housed in an old bank (the security deposit boxes line the walls of the basement bathrooms), had about half US and half Italy supporters. It was an extremely intense game, with Italy scoring early on, a self-goal by one of Italy's players to even the game, the second US goal disallowed due to an obscure off-sides call, and the final number of players on the US and Italy sides being 9 and 10, respectively. We were on the edge of our seats the whole time. The tie meant that the US wasn't completely out of the running, depending on the outcome of their game against Ghana on Thursday. The bar itself put us at ease, in that the wait staff greeted you in English and there was no apprehension about a language barrier. I'm always ready to have encounters that I can't fully comprehend, so I was surprised when I reflexively replied "hi" instead of accidentally saying "bon soir."

After securing some real maple syrup (O'Canada brand; who comes up with these names?) a few days prior, we had pancakes and bacon for Sunday breakfast. We went to a market down by the Ixelles lakes and I started working on my balcony plant plan by buying some flowering vine seeds and a petunia. That evening we took the tram down to the end of the Bois de la Cambre (where I had been propositioned a few weeks ago), which is heavily forested on its border with the Foret de Soignes, a much larger greenspace to the south of the city. Jack had never ridden a tram or been to the Bois, so we took a picnic of leftover caponata, bread from the market we visited earlier in the day, and wine. The tram was much less crowded than the last time I had ridden it, thankfully. We got off and headed down a trail with a column of old trees running on either side of it. The trees behind it were younger, making us conclude that at one time it was probably a carriage road with fields behind the treeline. We headed up to the lake to enjoy our repast as well as the muted sounds of a drum circle floating over the hill. We saw a young boy, probably 8 or so, having a bike ride with his dad. The boy was wearing a helmet and safety vest, and yet he was riding on his dad's bike rack rather than in a child's seat. After sufficient relaxation we began the journey north to go home, and passed not one but two other drum circles in the park, and supposed that they were probably rival percussion gangs that had fights straight out of "West Side Story".

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Le weekend, pt. 3-

After a good night’s sleep, surprising because our room was on the street side and because the only covering was a comforter so it was all or nothing temperature-wise, we got up with plans of getting to the 13th-15th century belfry in the Markt Square, which is accessible via a set of 366 stairs, before the crowds set in. Our breakfast of juice, coffee, pastries, rolls, sliced meat and cheese, and fruit arrived around 8:30. We ate the pastries and planned on making a picnic lunch with the rest later on in the day.

The people across the hall from us took the opportunity of the free bathroom to spend an hour in there. Together. Not sure what the deal with that was, but I was pretty steamed about their disrespect for the unspoken rules of bathroom sharing. We ended up getting a later start than we were hoping to, but the line for the belfry wasn’t very long in the end. The spiral staircase to the top is interrupted at various points by rooms, the first of which was the treasury, which housed the town’s important documents behind a series of wrought iron gates. The gates had 9 keys that had to be opened simultaneously, and each guild had one key in its possession. I believe the documents ended up being destroyed in a fire, probably because the guy from the brewer’s guild who had the key had a tiff with the blacksmith guild guy and wouldn't be caught dead in the same room with him or something. Seems like a bad system, if you ask me.

The interesting thing about the spiral staircase was that there was a number of switchbacks in it, so that you’d be plodding along in one direction for a while and then suddenly you’d be forced to…um, spiral in the other direction. It was nearly motion sickness inducing, but fascinating nonetheless. The second stop from the top contained the works for the clock and for the carillon. The bells are operated via a giant wheel with prongs in it to activate chains that lead to the hammers for the individual bells, similar to the way a music box works. The top floor contained the bells themselves, which went through their quarter-hour routine while we were there. The view was fantastic, and someone had thoughtfully taken the time to chisel the direction and distance to various points from the tower. Brussels: 89 km. London: 230 km.

Following that we checked out the Beguinage, which at one time housed the flirtatious nuns that provided the inspiration for the song “Begin the Beguine”, although now it contains contemplatives. It was a very peaceful place, as there were signs all over it exhorting visitors to be quiet. We didn’t actually see any nuns, although we did see some random non-nun people hanging out around the buildings as if they were staying there, leading us to believe that they have really loosened the requirements for entrance into convents these days, allowing men, children and attractive women in. One thing they apparently didn’t condone was weak ankles, evidenced by the round cobblestones that were a sure recipe for disaster if you weren’t careful.

Our last stop of the day was the Church of Our Lady, which housed a Michelangelo sculpture of the virgin and child. We checked out the statue and then noted the fact that the folks who had been buried in the floor directly in front of it, surely a prestigious spot, probably had not anticipated that their tombstone inscriptions would be rubbed into oblivion by the feet of many visitors. There were also tombs of Charles the Bold and Mary of Burgundy (aka Duchess de Bourgogne, who has a delightful beer named after her that Jack had at that beery restaurant), which had lifelike effigies of the deceased in brass on top of them. They had excavated some tombs under the church which contained early frescoes. In an amazing feat of prescience, there was not only a fresco containing the image of Bobby from the show King of the Hill, but also a painting of the visitation by the three wise men, one of whom looks remarkably like Congressional Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton. Creepy. We lit a candle to a statue that resembled St. Francis, and Jack wanted me to wish for a future free of robot invasions, but instead I wished for a peaceful end to the war in Iraq.

After a beer overlooking one of the canals to prepare us for the journey home, we headed off to the train station, where we discovered much to our delight that there was a train waiting for us. Apparently the fact that it was already running 45 minutes behind schedule wasn’t a good sign. We got seats even though it was mostly full, and started up a few minutes later. The platform at Ghent was packed with people, and soon after they boarded an announcement was made that led the passengers to let out a collective groan (the announcement was made only in Dutch; they switched to Dutch and French after we entered Brussels). We could only assume that another delay was anticipated. We made an unscheduled stop at a station for about a half hour, and once we started up there was another announcement and another groan: it appeared by the lack of familiar landmarks that we were taking a different, more roundabout route to get into the city. We didn’t even know if we’d be stopping at the train station that we left from, since there are three and we were heading closer to the northern one than the southern one we started from. But everyone knows that the train system in Europe is amazing, so we made a lot of turns and ended up back where we started. Back into the heat, up the hill, and home.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Le weekend, pt. 2-

Saturday morning we headed out for the train station. Since there were trains approximately every half hour to Bruges and we could buy tickets at the station, we didn't really have a set time for leaving. It was supposed to be the first really warm weekend since we've been here, with highs in the 80s. Due to the cold of a few weeks before, I was definitely on board with the heat, particularly since it lacked the oppressive humidity of the Washington area. The train arrived at about 11 and were fortunate enough to get seats. The ride took about an hour through the scenic countryside.

One of our worries was that Bruges was going to be totally overrun with tourists, and when we exited the station there were clots of people everywhere. Fortunately, once we crossed the canal that rings the city everyone spread out in every direction and it wasn't nearly as crowded as I had anticipated. The city was also somewhat larger than I had expected, which helped as well. Our first order of business was to get some lunch. We ate at a spot overlooking one of the canals. The food was just okay, but we got to try out some different beers. Jack had previously stated his preference for a "cauldron of hot cheese" for lunch in honor of the warm weather, and he ended up getting some lasagne that fit the bill pretty well. There were little fuzzy things flying through the air, which I later discovered were probably from one of the numerous cottonwood trees (or the European equivalent) around town, but I thought Jack had let the sun and heat go to his head when he said that there was a Santa Claus in his drink. However, this is apparently one of those "family words" that creep into one's vocabulary and unbeknownst to the speaker they are uncommon to the rest of us.

After that we headed over to the Burg, a plaza which contained the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which in turn contained some amount of Jesus' blood available for veneration. The church was interesting in that it was built during a decorative period where as many various patterns that could be thought of were painted on a wall. It was nice because it seemed that you'd be able to let your eyes drift during a service and keep noticing new things for quite some time. People were going up to Jesus's blood and touching and/or kissing the glass case, and there was a woman up there in priestly robes who had the job of smiling benevolently at everyone and wiping the glass after each person's visit. We chose not to participate in this ritual.

As the afternoon grew warmer, it became clear that one of the reasons that Bruges may be considered "Venice of the North" is that, like Venice, it seems to have some issues with odors in the heat. I'm not sure that the sulfurous smells came from the canals themselves rather than a poorly-tended sewer system, but there was definitely a great deal of stagnant water around. Everytime we saw someone on a canal tour sticking their hands in the water we shook our heads sadly.

We arrived at our B&B, the Lady Jane, a few minutes after our scheduled check-in time and, although the front door was open, there was no one around. The majority of the first floor of the building was taken up as storage for beer, with some bikes, a folded ping-pong table, and a punching bag thrown in for good measure. We wandered upstairs to the rooms but didn't find anyone. I vaguely remembered something about a store, so we decided to go to the shop across the street and ask if they knew anything. We entered into a scene of mini chaos: the 3 people who appeared to be staff kept walking quickly back and forth from the front of the store to the back, talking to each other in Dutch but not to us. We stood around, waiting till whatever crisis was going on ended, so we could ask someone to help us. When the lights came on we figured out what happened. Our host came out of a door and informed us that he had been trapped in an elevator for the duration of the outage, and he was hot and rather flustered.

He showed us to our room, which was on the top floor of a house built in 1673. Our room had a canopy bed, breakfast table and TV, along with two large windows overlooking the street. At three storeys, we could see over the tops of most of the other non-religious buildings in the neighborhood, with the spires of churches and governmental follies peeking out over the vast plain of terra cotta roof tiles. The door to the room, which had been painted in kind of a translucent whitewash, had wood grain added on later in pencil (as did all the doors, upon further inspection; I can't imagine what kind of person would have the patience to do that). Additionally, a childish hand had written "love room" on the door in clear nail polish. We rested up a bit before heading back out.

As our previous meandering route took us through the heart of the city on our path to the B&B on the NE end of town, we decided to wander back along the eastern path of the canal that surrounds the city like a moat. There were a few old-school windmills on a rise by the canal, sadly not in operation when we went by. There were also some fortified city gates that traffic entering Bruges had to pass through. It's amazing to think that such thick walls were penetrable, but I guess if one person can think of a way to build a strong wall, someone else can think of a way to get through it.

At the south end of town we spotted the Minnewater, also known inexplicably as the Lake of Love. Minnewater is just a stretch of canal with one of the few parks within the city walls, so it's more verdant than elsewhere. I didn't really get the appeal, since it was the same dirty water as elsewhere in the city, but it was a pleasant swath of green nonetheless. We stopped for a icy cocktails and peanuts nearby to refresh ourselves, then we worked our way back through town to the restaurant we had picked out. Sadly, it was closed for a few days. Not having the guidebook with us and not wanting to fall prey to eating overpriced, sub-par food (it was pretty much all overpriced), we decided on ice cream and waffles for dinner. We had been forewarned that the waffles in Bruges were different than those found in Brussels, in that they were less sweet. My hope was that they'd be more delectable to me, since I find the ones in Brussels to be overly sweet with a density approaching that of a red dwarf, so that I'll have a bite or two and not want the rest. I wanted waffles that tasted like...well, tasted like my own, I guess, waffles that it wouldn't be inappropriate to top with something sweet, such as syrup, chocolate, or ice cream. The Bruges waffle was prepared fresh and took ages to cook, and the young lady behind the counter chatted with us about the medieval-style jousing tournament going on in the Markt Square. Finally it was done and once it had cooled down enough to eat, we discovered that it was definitely less sweet. It still had a strangely dense texture, though, so I just ate my limoncello sorbet and let Jack have his waffle. We headed back to the room to wait for darkness. On the way we saw some birds that appeared to be doves but that let out a short, strangulated cry like they needed to clear their throats. We contemplated what this meant for Prince's song, and concluded that perhaps this was the type of dove he was referring to.

Nighttime is when Bruges is supposed to be at its best. As darkness fell (around 10:30 p.m.), a large moon rose over the rooftops. A windmill visible in the distance was lit from below, almost ghostly in its skeletal appearance. It is true that the town is a different place at night, primarily because it seemed like everyone over 30 had retired for the evening and everyone under 30 was packed into bars. So the streets were quiet until you turned a corner and encountered one of these hives of activity, and then it was like a third place, separate from both its daytime and nighttime selves. We wandered the churches and canals, snapping up photos of shadowy spaces. It wasn't very ominous, though: you could still tell you were in a tidy little town, where people took great pride in their doorbell pulls and flower boxes. The most alarming thing we encountered was a gravestone in a wall of a church. Although these are common around town, this one was bulging outwards as if its occupant was attempting to walk amongst us once again. Thoroughly foot-weary, we returned to the B&B to explore the joys of the shared bath, cable TV, and room lights powered by remote control.

More photos of our Belgian adventure can be found at

Monday, June 12, 2006

Le weekend, pt. 1-

Jack took Friday off due to having worked through the previous weekend, so he made some excellent biscuits for breakfast and we headed out into the world. We went and contemplated shades to replace the curtains I had pulled down in the bedroom, which unfortunately were not the right size so we're back to rigging up the original ones over the window using packing tape and staples. We got a blender and a trash can from a local cheap store, like Wal-Mart except smaller. Both appliances that we've purchased came with a two-year warranty, and that makes me wonder if that's some kind of EU standard. If so, it makes me feel a lot better about buying items that I would normally consider to have about a 2 year lifespan. Even though that's probably how long I need them to last for, it's nice to know that someone's looking out for those who have to buy the cheap stuff for other reasons. I also bought a package of 70 cm-long drinking straws.

Following a trip to the grocery, we went and visited a secondhand shop around the corner from Jack's office. The store had 3 large floors of everything: furniture, housewares, art, games, clothes, beds, etc., etc. I purchased an iron there a couple days before and had been overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff they had. So overwhelmed that I had to enlist Jack's assistance to just take it all in. We didn't end up buying anything this time, but he's going to keep an eye on it during the week so we can swoop in and get things shortly after they arrive, because I'm sure the pickings are better at certain times of the day/week.

Later we had lunch featuring gyros, french fries and sodas, and tried out a straw, which turned out to be much too long to be any use. I was thinking that I'd be super-lazy and never have to lift a glass to my mouth again, but the only way I could really get this to work was to lay on the couch at a specific angle and put the glass on the floor, and knowing me like I do, this is not a good idea. I'm sure there's some trick to using them that I just haven't figured out yet, like having a really low table and a really high stool to perch on. Also not a very good idea, come to think of it.

That evening we went to Jack's coworker's house to watch the inaugural games of the World Cup series. It was all "football" this and "football" that. His office had a betting pool going, and Jack had every confidence that the US would clean up until he discovered that the game was actually soccer. Fortunately this occurred before the initial games so he had time to change his entry. The games were pretty predictable (at least for those who follow soccer) and not very animated, as if the presumptive winners were keeping all their flashy moves in reserve for the later games against stronger competitors. There was one extremely tall and gangly player (I forget which team) who was interviewed during halftime and who has a very silly dance that he does when he scores a goal, like the robot dance done by someone who just doesn't "get" the robot dance at all, and thinks that merely moving your arms at right angles to your body would suffice. It was kind of like the worst halftime show of all time, but it was pretty funny.

I brought the straws with me and during the festivities I tried to use one to drink a beer, but strangely the bottle began to foam immediately and spilled over before I could reach the sink. I have no idea what would cause this, since it wasn't a problem with the soda--perhaps the shape of the neck wouldn't permit the carbonation to dissipate quickly enough. Thus ended that little experiment. I guess if I'm ever sick and drinking quiescent beverages I might be able to use them, but until that time I'll just have to come up with other ideas.

We went home that evening excited to hit the road the next morning for Bruges.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

By request...this is the scary train bridge I went under on Sunday.

As for Monday's visit to Tour and Taxis described in the entry below, you really can't get a sense of how big this place is unless you go there. Just for fun I looked at satellite images of the city, and it's the most visible landmark aside from the Royal Gardens. There's all these discrete buildings on the property, only some of which seem to be partially occupied. Then there's the burnt-out shells and the vine-covered shells. I found two horseshoes rusting next to each other in the drying mud, both still sporting their original nails as if the horse had just stepped out of them for a minute to take a quick shower, but he was coming right back. I put them, luck-side up, on the window ledge of one of the ruined buildings hoping they'd bring some good fortune to whomever might happen upon them. I wonder why the land hasn't been put to better use? Really by "better" I mean more profitable, since if they had been charging at the front gates it's unlikely that we would have gone in, which would have been worse from our perspective. Plus if they were paying attention they would have put more secure fencing around the ruins, which would have taken some of the wonder out of the place. That there is an attractive nuisance, if I've learned anything from Jack.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Jack here! It was another 3-day weekend here on account of the pentecost. Unfortunately I ended up having to work through almost the entire thing. I finished my project today at about 1:30 so I had to cram an entire weekend into one afternoon.

We went on a excursion to go look for a place called "Tour and Taxis" which was supposed to be an old railway depot that has been fixed up into shops and restaurants and such. After briefly getting side-tracked by a giant (but kinda boring) basillica and wandering around awhile we eventually came to the place. At first it seemed completely abandoned except for a small circus school housed in one corner. But after we walked and walked and walked around the perimeter of the place we eventually came to the part that had been fixed up and we able to actually get inside. It WAS kind of nice inside, but it seemed to be mostly just offices in the one fixed up building and it was pretty much deserted since it was a holiday. But we had a good time exploring around the grounds and looking at a bunch of burned out industrial wasteland kind of stuff. S. came up with an excellent plan to squat there.

We walked back through the center of town and had an early dinner at a really cool beer-themed restaurant called In T' Spinnekopke (or something like that). All of the dishes we ordered featured beer in some fashion. As you can see in the picture I dined between two duelling mannequin pis's. Our waiter spoke pretty good English-which was a huge plus. We let him pick out our beers for us. ("Do you trust me? Okay. You're dead!") I can highly recommend the Nostradamus, if you ever get the chance.

June 1 was another frigid rainy day here. I turned on the heat when it got down to 63 in the house and felt terrible about it for a number of reasons. The next day dawned clear and bright, with highs predicted to be in the 60s. Jack had just received one of Belgium's favorite tax dodges, food vouchers (paid by one's company pre-tax), so I went to the store to stock up. The vouchers (or "food stamps", as we call them) come in 6 euro increments and can only be used for food items (including alcohol), as I discovered when I attempted to pay for mouthwash along with the rest of my groceries. Although in a few months' time I hope to be able to argue the point of whether something that CAN be swallowed for intoxicating purposes but is not should be considered food, on this occasion I just paid the remainder of my bill with cash and lit out.

Earlier that day I noticed a black and white cat in the back yard, the first time I had seen one since our arrival. I thought it very charming how it was walking atop the high walls dividing the yards, going from one to the next via the landscaping. Later on Jack and I had lunch in a park which was practically overrun with cats--we saw several of them within a few minutes' time. Later still, Jack opened the bathroom curtain to discover an orange one staring back at him, sitting on the 2nd storey ledge in hopes of getting at a noisy bird. That evening we went for a walk and sure enough, more cats. I decided that June 1 was probably the annual Release of The Cats from Their Interior Confinement Day, but since it had been so nasty out everyone had observed it on the 2nd. I'll have to keep an eye out in the fall for the annual Gathering of The Cats Day, which I'm sure is a much more difficult operation. Perhaps they dedicate a whole week to it.

Sunday I took the metro out to the end of the line. My nominal goal was to go to the Erasmus Museum. Erasmus was some philosopher dude who lived in Brussels for a handful of months about 500 years ago. Apparently he made enough of an impact on the city that they made his home into a museum, one of the cheaper ones around town (when you think of it, not so different than places that crow about how Washington slept there for a single night). I decided to go past the museum to the end of the metro line and walk back to it, hoping to find out more about the character of the sprawling Anderlecht community, which I am told has a proud working-class character that is not always visible to us non-natives.

Imagine, if you will, hopping on an Orange Line Metro train at Federal Triangle and riding it out to Vienna. It may take a half hour or so, depending on the time of day and other factors. Okay, a half hour if you're lucky. Perhaps my ride was more like to West Falls Church. At any rate, it was not a long trip. I stood the whole way without fatigue. So I got off at the Erasmus station (the museum is actually located at the St. Guido stop in order to confound tourists), which is designed like a long, white circus tent--each of the stations here has a different style created by a local artist. I had alighted at a location that was off the edge of my map, so I started walking back in the direction of the metro line, towards the city center. There was a hospital and a university campus located at the stop, but then...nothing. A wheat field bordered the wide sidewalk, empty save for me. The next field contained cows! Unbelievable that the city is so small and so compact that you can encounter bovines within walking distance. I assumed that they were somehow affiliated with the school, but the tumbledown shacks adjacent to the road suggested otherwise.

As I continued on, I decided that at some point the Brussels area had done some serious thinking about future expansion plans and had built massive infrastructure to support it, but that time has apparently not yet come. There were a few detached homes sprinkled about and some large car dealerships. A little further on I entered a bedroom community, with houses and a cemetery and more wide, wide roads, but not much else. The whole place was creepily quiet, but it is a 3-day weekend and I'm assuming that most people were out of town. After passing some big box stores (Ikea!) I entered an older area, with row houses sporting tidy front yards and a young family tending a fire in an oil drum in their back yard. Rounding the corner I came upon a decaying campus of some sort (CERIA) surrounded by a fence and shrubbery. The signs seemed to indicate that it was under renovation, but if so they had a long way to go (see the photo). Past this was an attractive canal (unlike the more utilitarian one in town), with pleasure craft motoring up it and the boathouse for kayakers nearby.

After crossing the canal I entered an area with a number of new-looking low office buildings, and then passed under the railroad tracks to arrive at the more urban portion of the community. The railroad bridge was somewhat terrifying to behold, as it was comprised of a series of small brick arches perpendicular to and supporting the track bed. Holding it all up were these decorative metal columns that didn't look like they were very strong. It looked very old and, as a train passed overhead making a low rumbling I could feel in my gut, I quickened my pace so that I wouldn't get crushed under the collapsing structure (surprisingly, it held together). Not having any idea where I was at that point, I kept pushing forward in the general direction of what I thought was the city center and eventually ended up somewhere I recognized. I never made it to the museum, but that's okay; I find that having a destination in mind helps me get motivated to leave the house whether or not the end result is that I go there.

Later on, looking at the map, I found that I had walked right through an area called "Poxcat" and I hadn't even known it.

As a side note to all you sci-fi fans AND bibliophiles, I'm reading "The Poisonwood Bible" right now which is about a missionary family in the Belgian Congo around the time of its independence. Very timely. One of the characters makes reference to "klatu barada nikto", which is very similar to the line that the hero flubbed in "Army of Darkness". I googled it and Wikipedia says that this phrase has been an inside joke for a good many years, showing up in such films as "Tron" and "Return of the Jedi". I never knew. The book is good, too.