Monday, July 31, 2006

Following breakfast on Sunday, we went to engage in our vacation tradition: doing something underground. We probably would have gotten around to this already had not everything been securely locked up, I assume as a defense against jerks who spoil it for the rest of us. This time it was a network of tunnels (casemates) built into the side of a fingerlike projection of land, called the Bock, that overlooked the valley below. Because the tunnels had openings on both sides, there were great views of the Grund district and Alzette valley. Also it was nice and cool deep within the rock.

Fortunately, the maintenance of the site seemed to be of a low caliber, so there was some element of excitement when going down a 300 year old slippery spiral staircase built into the rock, descending into darkness because of burnt out bulbs, and when climbing out over precipices because bars protecting us were missing. Hey--we take it where we can get it. Apparently the tunnels were used a number of times throughout history, most recently during WWII. One field marshal had three rooms to himself during a siege in the late 18th century: study, antechamber and bedroom, each with an exterior hole overlooking the valley. On the one hand, good for him for sticking to his guns about taking up half the liveable space in there (most of the tunnels dead-ended in blind walls, and those with views were mostly for cannons). On the other, he was still living in a cave. The 17 km network below the city was maxed out when 35,000 inhabitants occupied the tunnels during WWII shelling. I wish they had put in some period furniture in there so we could see how they made a go of it. I guess you do what you have to in times like those.

We decided to take the climate-controlled train during the hottest part of the day, so after a pasta lunch we lit out for the station. They had an interesting art installation in the plaza in front of the station: 6 artists making sculptures in full view of the curious public. Unfortunately, it being the day of rest and all, they weren't there. But we did get to see their works in progress.

The train was waiting for us at the station when we arrived. We hopped on and enjoyed a peaceful ride home. After getting our tickets stamped, I discovered that the envelope they put the tickets in contained the phrase "have a nice trip" in several languages. In German it is apparently "gute fahrt". And here I was thinking that Germans were all just rude, constantly commenting on their gas passing.


I urge you all to lay your hands on some buffalo milk mozzarella if you can, a perfectly ripe tomato and some fresh basil and make yourself a summer treat. Buffalo milk mozzarella is delicious and the regular version pales in comparison. Eat in moderation, however, since it has something like twice the fat of regular. Two Amys restaurant in DC puts it on their pizzas, which are excellent.

Next up, our first American visitors...

Friday, July 28, 2006

In the morning, having awakened unrefreshed due to the constant stream of cars with diesel engines puttering by our window all night, I was very happy to receive coffee with a pot of steamed milk that came with a breakfast of rolls. Since we had taken the high road the previous day, this time we were starting in the valley outside of the fortified walls and visiting some of the other sights ringing the city.

We took the street our hotel was on, which had quieted down from the night before, to the entry point to one of the parks. On a bridge overlooking the narrow Petrusse, there was parkland in one direction and a desolate concrete channel framed by high walls in the other. Since the map showed the headwaters of the Petrusse nearby, we decided to follow the concrete ditch up a ways to see if we could find it.

Aside from the fact that a concrete channel isn't a very vibrant habitat for life, it was obvious pretty quickly that there were some serious problems here. Even before the odor of untreated wastewater reached us, there was a clearly demarcated dead zone in which no aquatic life could be sustained and everything was grey. We continued up until we found the source, above which was a vibrant, scummy green. It was like the Streeter-Phelps model being demonstrated before me, in real time. If only one of my professors had been there! This pattern was repeated several times as we continued up. Once the Petrusse entered an inky black tunnel and we had gone far beyond the point on the map where the river was supposed to start, we turned around and headed downstream. Arriving at our starting point, we noticed a couple people occupying a fold-out couch under the bridge. The guy who was awake turned at the sound of our voice, clearly not expecting any other inhabitants at that hour of the day. Jack wondered whether he was going to put the bed away and arrange the cushions on the sofa after his companion woke up.

After passing under the bridge we entered the verdant parkland, and the bridges we had crossed the day before soared overhead. There was, inexplicably, a row of private homes and their vegetable gardens in an enclave within the park. There were various other access points that would take you up the hillside into town consisting of stairways cut into the rock. Most had overlooks for interesting vantage points halfway between the valley floor and the top of the walls. There were also a number of doors leading to tunnels in the rock. One such door had a small port in it at about eye level, and cool air was rushing out of it, cold enough to make the door itself sweat with condensation. I paused there for a bit, blasting my forehead and drying out my eyes. So nice.

Rounding another curve, we came across the recreational area, which included a mini-golf course occupied solely by adults who seemed to have brought special shoes and their own clubs with them, a miniature train track (sans train), a tiny church built into the cliffside, and an automatic toilet. Jack took advantage of the latter, and when he put his 50 cents in and the door shut behind him, I wasn't sure I would see him again. Fortunately he came out in one piece, but he said he wouldn't recommend it for the ladies.

Once the Petrusse flows into the much more natural-looking Alzette, one enters the Grund district of town, built into the valley. Another charming area, with buildings constructed just short of the river's walls so that you could sit at a cafe overlooking the river and see the neighbor's window box arrangement of red geraniums reflected in the water below. Did we do this? No, because at the only occupied table at that particular place there was a guy who was at the table next to us at the corner pub the evening before, and that's just too weird. We went to the Oscar Wilde and had the local lager and panini sandwiches with a side of fries with curry sauce, hot and delicious.

Afterwards we climbed up the hillside across from the old city to go visit some towers. At the top we discovered that they were inaccessible, and that the whole hilltop was occupied by a giant old folks' compound surrounded by a high wall. It looked like a great place to spend one's infirm years, and I might have considered it were I not already planning to retire to the Philippines.

We left that particular scenic hilltop and as we began descending back into the valley it began to rain chats et chiens. We took shelter on what appeared to be the back porch of one of the houses cut into the hillside. Luckily no one came out to shoo us away, although a cat seemed to be incredibly miffed that we had stolen his dry spot, and he retreated to a small evergreen across the way. After the rain let up and we started off again we found out that in addition to being a back porch, it was also the roof of the home below.

The area surrounding the main portion of the city is a bunch of natural promontories formed by the action of the rivers, and many of them are not connected to one another so you're forced to do a lot of hill climbing to get from one spot to another. We were interested in seeing 'les trois glands' (the three acorns), which was another defensive fortification up the hill that had the good fortune of a silly name, causing us to go there. The first and second points of entry up the hillside were dead ends, the latter one being the correct road but for some reason crossing the train tracks at grade, with no continuation on the other side, so there was a lot of confusion and back-tracking. The third route we tried also looked bad, as it ended in a dirt trail halfway up the hill, but we forged ahead. The trail seemed to be separated from where we wanted to go by a deep ravine, but we were now in a densely forested natural area, and it was nice in spite of its apparent wrongness. We ended at another road at the top of the hill, turned in the direction of the glands, followed some paper arrows posted on cyclone fencing and...ended up at the brand-new I.M. Pei modern art museum (MUDAM), which they had constructed right behind the glands.

Although somewhat disappointing in that we still hadn't gotten a glimpse of the glands themselves, we did go in the museum due primarily to the fact that we were there, it looked like a cool building, and they had the air conditioning going. There was very little art in it, although the pieces they had were all gigantic and took up like 2 to a room. Jack suspected that they had spent all of their budget on the building and didn't have anything left over for art. The two I found most interesting were one with hundreds of different-colored bottles cascading down from a skylight, and one in which someone had constructed an elaborate church interior with x-rays standing in for stained glass windows. We wandered around the whole thing in a short period of time, and consulted the map desperately to see if we had missed anything. There was, apparently, art in rooms that didn't seem to have any art, for example one in which there were 4 benches and the sound of trickling water, but I'm just a simpleton when it comes to art. After spotting the glands through the windows (the landscaping was still a work in progress and therefore the fortifications were inaccessible), we left.

We decided that after taking in the 'three glands' it would be appropriate to view the 'Bon Maladies' which were another set of old fortifications overlooking the valley below. We cut back through the woods, and after passing a tranquil looking picnic table that was next to some stone steps that lead into a sadly gated-off tunnel into the hill, we came to the spot. The Good Illnesses were completely abandoned and we marveled that we had such as spot to ourselves with a spectacular view of the valley below and the old city on the other side.

We passed back through the valley and deigned to enter the city proper to have a beer at the first bar we came across, called Cuba Libre. Our foray into the city ended in disappointment after determining that we had arrived minutes too late to get an ice cream at a place the guidebook recommended. So we retreated back into a more conventional park (benches, fountains and winding paths) that completed our circuit around the city.

We took a back route to our hotel, passing a hospital on the way. There were numerous patients and visitors hanging around outside, including one gentleman who sat on a stoop opposite, smoking with his IV drip. A few steps beyond we came across our dinner destination: a Tibetan restaurant.

We briefly stopped back at the hotel to rest up and discuss other possible evening options, but I was intrigued by the Tibetan place so that's where we ended up. I got the cheese with chili sauce dish, which would be more aptly named the cheese with cheese sauce dish. It was good, but a little over-taxing in the lactose department, and not at all spicy. All in all, a recommended cuisine--the appetizers and Jack's main dish were all delightful. The restaurant had some electrical issues, and the lights on the ceiling would periodically shut off, leaving us bathed in warm candlelight.

Having had a long day already, we then went back to the hotel to doze fitfully again. For some reason it never occurred to us to change rooms, although that probably would have been wise.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Thursday we went to Rick’s American Café with the other students after class. We all got to relax and didn’t have to attempt to speak to each other in broken French. The Irish woman revealed that she never had a Guinness until she became an adult, since that was the beer kids associate with fathers skipping church to go to the pub and other bad habits. She also said that it was what the monks would drink during Lent when they were “fasting”. Personally, I think that’s bending the rules a bit too far, what with all the calories in a pint. Plus having Guinness on an empty stomach will probably make you tipsy pretty quick, and not given to thoughts of godliness. For her benefit, we four Americans (and in particular the three Ohioans) tried not to spend too much time reminiscing about the Old Country, but I’m not sure how successful we were. On the way home we saw four prostitutes loitering on the main thoroughfare. I was surprised I hadn't seen any before, but we aren't usually in that area at that time of the evening. I looked forward to the confusion on my teacher's face when I told her "Je vois quatre femmes de la nuit".

Friday it was off to sunny Luxembourg City, in the heart of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg! We got the train schedule on-line and got to the station within 10 minutes of departure of our chosen train and…we couldn’t use the automatic ticket machine for international service. We had to wait in line to speak to an actual person, although the end result was the same: told the dude what we wanted and he gave it to us. He didn’t ask us for ID or anything. So then we had to wait an hour for the next train, which wasn’t so bad since it allowed us to stock up on reading material and water.

The train was about 1/2 full after it passed through the 5 Brussels stations. One guy, apparently knowing that they wouldn’t check tickets until we left the city, was hustling for money, and exited before we got out of town. As soon as we were out of the capital region and into Wallonia, they dropped the Dutch translation when making announcements. Many of the travelers were members of children’s groups of various ages that were going off on adventures, the young ones singing and shouting camp anthems to pass the time while the older ones practiced being nonchalant in close proximity to the opposite sex. There was a group of teens that was forced to occupy a train car’s entryway as they were tethered together by a length red and white plastic chain. At first they were pretty adamant about keeping the chain on, so they all had to crouch near the floor each time someone wanted pass over it. Later I noticed that one young woman kept slipping out of her bracelet so she wouldn’t have to change position to accommodate passers by. Lazy cuss.

The countryside was scenic, with fields of crops and rolling foothills thick with trees, interspersed with the occasional picturesque little town. One passenger kept distracting me from my window gazing by periodically getting out of her seat and begging for food. The first ones she hit up were a family of Italians who offered her a Capri Sun-type drink. She accepted it, went back to her seat behind them, and then couldn’t figure out how to open it. She had to enlist the assistance of the guy across from her. A few minutes later she got up again and asked the chained-together kids for something without success. She sat back down. A few minutes later she came up to us. I had three apricots in a plastic bag on the seat between us so I offered her one, she accepted, she went and sat back down. A few minutes later she got up again and approached us a second time! I told her we needed the last two apricots for ourselves. She sat back down. A few minutes later she went to beg from someone else and returned empty-handed. She sat back down. A few minutes later…it went on like this until she finally exited the train near the Belgian border.

Once the last stop in Belgium had passed, the conductor came around to ensure that we had all planned on going on to Luxembourg (I think that’s what he was asking at any rate). Then the train crossed the border, and after a time we rolled into a gritty industrial area (including a warehouse for a company called Maryland, specializing in tobacco products), and we were there. I didn’t even have a chance to pack my bag and rushed off the train with several items flapping about me so I wouldn’t accidentally get stuck riding back.

The hotel was near the train station so we went there to check in first. We stayed at the Italia, which had been recommended by the guidebooks as a cheap and interesting place to stay, as it had once been a private apartment building. The restaurant was also supposed to be good. Our room had two single beds and faced the street. An accordion door led to the small bath, although they managed to fit a bidet in there in spite of the size. It was pretty airless in the room, which did not bode well for sleeping given the temperatures in the upper 80s.

Armed with a handful of brochures from the front desk, we made our way into the center of the city. No one really ever has much to say about Luxembourg aside from comments on its size (and occasional cracks at its title as a “Grand Duchy”). The capital is pretty tiny as well, but it really is somewhat attractive, especially coming from an urban landscape that doesn’t have much to offer in terms of nearby green space to break up the swaths of pavement. The fortified old city sits on a rise at the confluence of two rivers that have dug deep gorges around it over time. Although I don’t know whether it was always thus, the city planners have decided to keep much of this surrounding area as parkland, creating a verdant ring around a lot of the city. Old stone bridges with soaring arches connect the area we were staying in with the inner district. One of the major surprises was the Petrusse River. On the map it looks about half as wide as the Alzette. In reality, it is a pencil-thin stream in a concrete channel for as much of its length as we could see--definitely not shown to scale.

After stopping for lunch at a health and wellness store that featured yoga videos and a menu of 5 items (including, fortunately, tasty gazpacho [many places were no longer serving lunch at 3:30]) and watching people across the square exit city hall after having been married, we went on a walking tour of the city. The main square featured a variety of restaurants, including McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Chi-Chis, among other, lesser stars. There were also a handful of people offering their services, including a Victorian-looking woman you could get your picture taken with and two portraitists. A band consisting of high-school-age kids was playing such popular tunes as the theme from the James Bond movies in a gazebo.

We walked along the city walls overlooking the landscape below. We wandered in and out of cool churches (where the first photo was taken). We whiffed the most odoriferous eternal flame ever--what were they using as fuel, we wondered, rotten vegetables? We marveled at the houses below that were built into the cliff face, which we imagine not only saves the cost of having to build a back wall, but also keeps the indoor climate temperate year-round. Some of the back yards were accessible from the second floor or roof, because the rocks receded away from the building and there was space to create a small flat patch of land to garden in. The views reminded me of nothing so much as a 5,000-piece puzzle. Eventually, after having walked around for a good while, we stopped for a beer at a small corner bar with outside tables. We agreed that a good time was being had by all, and after a decent interval went to dinner at an Italian place that had been recommended by the guidebook (not the one at our hotel, though, which seemed to be empty everytime we went by). I had a pizza and Jack had pasta with fresh porcini mushrooms, and we expressed our mutual disgust over the ceramic wine carafe, which had been stained with the sediment of many years’ worth of red wines.

Later, we returned to the main square to hear a few songs performed by a much more professional band. There was a young woman on percussion in the back, nearest to us, who seemed to enjoy the cowbell more than anything, her waist-length blond hair bobbing in time with the beat as she got into it. Before heading back we stopped off to check out a few minutes of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”, which was being shown in a courtyard of a playhouse. After a few more photos in the waning evening light, it was back to the hotel for a night of restless dozing.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Our French teacher always asks us on Thursday what we'll be doing over the weekend. Since we only know the present tense at this point I'm sure our responses sound pretty bizarre, but we can't tell. Jack, ever philosophical (and knowing that we didn't have any firm plans) tried to say that he couldn't think past Friday, but it ended in confusion. I wanted to say that I was going to make my fantastically delicious onion bread. Turns out "make" is the same as "do", so I ended up saying "I do the bread of onions". She said that sounded strange and asked why I was making it, and I told her I had bought 2 kilos at the grocery. Why? Because the other onions looked bad (except everyone heard "old" instead of "bad"). So this devolved into a misunderstanding about how the bread could possibly be good with 2 kilos of onions in it, and due to my limited skills I couldn't respond that, no, it actually only takes a few.

Friday we celebrated Bastille day by eating Thai food and staring at other people celebrating Bastille day. Those French can really let loose.

While this blog seems to have devolved in a retelling of our weekend adventures, I'm still attempting to highlight aspects of Belgian/Eurpean culture that I find interesting. One of these is the amount of money that they seem to spend on cultural events. Even though there's always something free (or nearly so) going on in DC, you usually have to know where to look and to do your homework before setting out. Here, there's posters all over the place trumpeting this or that event for weeks in advance. One such happening is Bruxelles Les Bains, where they turn a street next to the canal into a beach for a month, with tons of sand, live musical performances, yoga, grassy patches surrounded by tropical plants and waterfalls, and dozens of closet-sized cabanas selling all your beachy needs, from feijoada to milkshakes to bikinis. Why anyone would want feijoada on a sultry day is beyond me, but it's good to know there's a restaurant nearby selling it so I can get some during the colder months (actually Jack makes a tasty version of it, too).

On Saturday, after accomplishing some clothes shopping, we went over to the beach and sauntered amongst the people frying in the mid-afternoon sun. The cabana that stood out a mile from all the others was that of the bar Jesus Paradise, which, instead of going au naturel with the bundled stick walls like everyone else, they had enrobed their booth in hot pink fur. Naturally we had to stop there for a drink.

(One thing I think I failed to mention previously about Belgium and many other European countries is they just don't seem to get cold beverages, even though the hot summer days cry out for extra refreshment, and you'd think they'd have the hang of it by now. You can expect that your beer will be served at a reasonable temperature, but that's about it. Your soda may or may not come with ice, which is unfortunate because I only find soda refreshing if it's cold and watered down a bit from ice melting. If there is ice, it's usually just two or three small pieces floating forlornly around, gone before you know it. If you order a mixed drink in which sugar and ice are both key ingredients, you can be assured that the sugar will form a grainy, unincorporated layer at the bottom of your drink. How can you have a bar and not know about simple syrup?)

I got a Cuba Libre Especial, which featured green tea, mint and sugar instead of the normal cola, and Jack had something that had sugar in it as well. Mine was especially well-stratified: sugar layer followed by huge and impermeable fresh mint layer followed by ice layer, with the liquid portion residing upper and lower reservoirs on either side of the mint. So I take a sip from the straw and get a mouthful of granulated sugar. Mmmm. There is no way that the sugar can dissolve now with the mint preventing full interaction with the liquid after I sucked out the bottom aquifer. The best I can do is mash the mint down and try to drink from the top reservoir. On the upside, we managed to stake out a spot under an umbrella, so we sat for a while and watched as people promenaded by and expressed their delighted astonishment over the pink booth.

Later we hit some shops on the other side of the canal, going on the assumption that they were on the wrong side of the water and therefore would be cheaper. Not so, unfortunately. However, we did come across a fascinating store full of bolts of cloth called Le Chien du Chien, and though I felt weird about being in there knowing there wasn't much I could afford, it was still very interesting wandering around. The rich and colorful fabrics were strung from the ceiling, so 6 or so bolts would be situated one on top of the other. There were various floors and mezzanines, and the theme of the shop (aside from "expensive") was nautical life, with full-size boats bursting through brick walls and a free-standing ship's cabin serving as someone's office. We spent a while in there wandering around. The other nice thing about the place was that the sales staff left us alone, given that there was very little that ruffians like us could steal. There's some photos of their various stores here:

We did come across one reasonably priced store, a kind of paper goods/bulk restaurant supply store at which we bought a packet of cloth dye. I selected "apricot", an intense orange that looked more like "carrot" to me, for the purpose of dyeing the white slipcover for one of our couches in order to continue the process of coloring up the house.

Lastly we went to a furniture shop that I had noted on my peregrinations some time ago. It was in a warehouse-sized building and contained a good amount of reasonably priced (although not by any stretch of imagination cheap) furniture. Jack was mesmerized by a panel hung on a wall that contained many illuminated squares that would change colors. The nicest thing about the store (aside from its size, which allowed one to escape from the heat for an extended period without appearing to loiter) was that the patio furniture was situated on the roof. This store also didn't have sales staff asking a lot of pesky questions like "can I help you?", so you and a friend could probably get yourselves a couple of forties (or "118,2941s" as they're known here [they use commas and decimal points in the opposite way here as they do in the US]) and spend some quality time up there, watching the traffic on the canal float past, keeping an eye on the Petit Palace immigrant detention center, and occasionally interspersing your conversation with comments such as "I really prefer the faux wicker over the hard plastic, although the fabric covering is also a comfortable option" so as to keep the Man from harshing your buzz.

We wandered back home by way of some of the major buildings of the Molenbeek commune, including a strange Art Deco church that I wish we could have seen from the inside. We crossed the canal and visited two other churches, one that had recently opened back up to the public and was conducting a service presided over by Karl Marx when we arrived (a sad little circle of about 12 people in this enourmous building), and the other containing a statue referred to as the Black Madonna that was rescued from a pile of floating debris in the river some time ago after the Protestants chucked it in the water. Protestants hate idolatry.

Saturday night we camped out in the kitchen to try out the spare bed and make sure it is adequately comfortable for our imminently arriving guests. We rented a Dutch romantic comedy called "Rent-a-Friend" and watched it from our culinary perch. It was pretty good, as far as romantic comedies go. Turns out the bed is more comfortable than our own, but since the one in the kitchen converts to a couch when not in use, we can't swap it for the one in our room.

The highlight of Sunday was the onion bread, which was remarkably delicious given the fact that the batter looked too thick going in and it came out of the oven with a strangely glossy top. Such are the vagaries of the European baking experience, I suppose. We rented the Peter Sellers film "The Mouse That Roared", a very funny movie about a tiny nation declaring war on the US so that they can lose and use the generous American reconstruction funds to get them out of bankruptcy. Sellers plays 3 parts: the (female) royal who rules the nation, the prime minister, and the head of the military. Definitely recommended.

The dyeing commenced Monday with an almost uninterrupted day of washing to properly clean and color the slip cover. Each regular cycle on the machine takes over two hours, and it first had to be washed for the dye to adhere properly. The second cycle was the actual dyeing. The third and last wash was to remove the excess color and fix it in. I was uncertain how it would turn out given that the front-loading washer was just barely big enough to fit the slip cover and the machine doesn't use much water to convey the dye to the crammed-in cloth. It actually turned out quite well, a slightly faded version of the expected color.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The weekend entailed more bedroom shade hanging and laurel resting and video watching ("Ripley's Game", blech), along with some delicious Indian food preparation. I spent nearly 10 euros on a small amount of nuts for the dish--that's one food item that doesn't appear to be cheaper here. The almonds were imported from California. We also did some additional chocolate research, checking out a non-chain place down the street from us called Irsi. We got a small melange, and everything in it has been delicious.

Sunday we went to the Erasmus museum, which as previously mentioned was a house where the famous humanist lived for a period of several months. It was actually owned by the local church and a string of famous-at-the-time people stayed there, but Erasmus is the only one who has stood the test of time. The cost to enter was 1.25, and the woman at the front desk, after ascertaining that we spoke English, gave us a binder that contained a key to all the items displayed and proceeded to tell us a bunch of things in French. The only thing she was really insistent about was that the other museum you could enter on the same ticket, the Beguinage, was opening at 2 p.m. and we should definitely go there.

The house was nicely appointed, with wood floors and furniture, everything glowing in the mid-day light. There were many, many portraits of Erasmus. There were also some of the saint he was named after, well-known for having his entrails cut out and wrapped around a windlass. There were coins, stamps, first editions, letters, and so on, all bent on establishing the fact that Anderlecht was once a thriving, independent and well-regarded town about 500 years ago. The books were all covered in what was obviously leather, a clotted-creamy whitishness that seemed as if it would crack if you tried to actually open a book. The covers resembled actual animal hide and I would have been squeamish had I been forced to touch one--another instance of the modern world divorcing us from a product's origin: normal leather doesn't affect me that way. One of the rooms had wall coverings that were done in leather squares that had been stitched together, with a light-aqua field and gold-embossed patterns on it. It had been installed in the 16th century and was standing the test of time quite well.

After visiting the rooms, which were all meeting places or studies and really didn't give much insight into day-to-day life back then, we headed out into the garden. It was divided into two parts: the first, a formal setting containing herbal remedies of Erasmus' time (including an extremely stocky yet blooming castor bean plant--mine would have been at least twice that size by now), and the second a free-flowing philosopher's garden, in which four artists had been commissioned to install suitable pieces. The overall size of the garden is small, but there's some interesting stuff in there which made it pretty cool, such as a box made of individual rounds or ovals of glass welded together in a frame, each piece distorting things differently than its neighbor. I think Erasmus would be pleased had he stepped through a wormhole and arrived at the present day. We sat and philosophized for a bit, mostly about how we didn't remember any Latin from school and how we have no idea what a "humanist" actually is, and then headed out to lunch.

We had a fine meal of beer and spaghetti bolognaise in a patio area across the street from the restaurant and next to the church. After a handful of kids spent some time practicing penalty kicks against the wall of the church (it was the day of the World Cup Superbowl, and many people were decked out in team colors or flying flags), we watched as a small clutch of people awaiting the the start of a wedding milled about in front of the church, which appeared grossly oversized for the group.

We digested a bit in the breezy sunshine of the patio and then went to the Beguinage, which was a home for lay nuns (e.g., the unwed or widowed women who had no means of supporting themselves). As we entered the compound, surrounded by a high brick wall, the same lady who took our ticket at the Erasmus house appeared. There was another couple touring the museum, one of whom was fluent in French (the other seemed to know some French but primarily spoke Italian). The ticket taker recognized us from before, said something acknowledging the fact that we only spoke English, and then launched into a rapid-fire discussion of what the museum held, mostly in French, with a couple English words tossed in and a liberal amount of hand gestures. There was no guidebook for this place. In one room she pointed to a statue of a drunk-looking fellow with a violin and a missing shoe and talked about how the women always had to do all the work in the "cuisine" while the men played the "gameboy", watched the "tele" and drank "bier". This was hardly a fair representation of a quality male-female relationship, but we didn't know enough to argue the other position so resorted to nodding and laughing. At one point she insisted in French that I give her my age, to which I tentatively responded (one of the few things I can sort of say), so that we could compare it with that of a portrait of an middle-aged woman that was hanging on the wall. After further badgering me into saying whether I thought the sitter was younger or older than me, she revealed that the woman was "vingt-sept" (27). Quel surprise! With the belligerent setup to this result, I would have been taken aback if it turned out she actually WAS older.

The upstairs floor contained their folklore collection, and, if we understood correctly, a jail cell. "Folklore" in French means the accoutrements of daily life, rather than fantastical stories passed on by oral tradition. Most of it appeared to be from the Victorian era, with rotting baby carriages, creepy (possibly hair-related) jewelry, sketches of the town, and so on. There was some Roman-era pottery that had been found in the vicinity as well. After a few minutes the woman came up and told us, again in French with many gestures, about a few of the pieces. I'm not sure what she thought she was adding to the experience.

The building across the courtyard housed some additional relics of daily life as well as some handicrafts and such. There were some nice statues that appeared to have been rescued from earlier incarnations of the church next door, including some giant cherub heads, and a whole bunch of tiny iron legs and arms which people left for St. Guido in the hopes that he'd miraculously cure them of their leg or arm ailments. This must have worked at some time or other or he wouldn't have been elevated to the level of sainthood.

After that came the long stroll home. We managed to cross the main canal at the spot that if you look left it's all built up and industrial, and if you look right it's treesy and park-like, with a bike trail. You could probably sail down most of the way from our house without pedaling to this spot, enjoy some greenery, and take the metro home. I'll have to put a pin in that one. Also get a bike.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Ommegang has come and gone. This is a pageant that has been going on since the 13th century, with a break for a couple centuries in the middle and starting up again in the 1930s. The whole point of the parade originally was to trot out the statue from the Notre Dame du Sablon that Jack took a picture of and...well, that's about it, as far as I can tell. The nobility were involved and everyone sauntered around town with this statue. There was a painting of it in the museum we went to a few weeks ago: the royals all decked out with a large train of less special people behind them and the statue. Now, they still have the statue (or at least a cheap-looking replica of it) but it seems to be more focused on the traditional trades and handicrafts of the Brussels people. There were archers, crossbow-ers, spear-carriers, musicians, puppeteers, brewers and so on. Trams carrying late-evening commuters occasionally interrupted the slow procession.

This was the most desultory parade I've ever seen. I love parades. I'll go out of my way to find a spot from which to leisurely watch a stream of people pass by doing their darndest to entertain me. Brownie troops, grinning politicians in fancy cars with their sullen children at their side, dogs dressed as superman, guys playing George Washington riding a fiberglass horse on the back of an old truck: allllllll good. This time, there were no crowds lining the sidewalks, cheering, clapping, waving to people they knew. In general there was little chitchat amonst the spectators, who seemed to be mostly alone or in small groups, and only a couple of intermittently playing bands, so it was strangely quiet. There was a thin band of people on either side, not even enough to form an unbroken chain should we have decided to engage in an impromptu game of Red Rover. There was an Asian woman next to us who would indicate by hand gestures that she wanted to take pictures of her and the various participants, but that was pretty much it in terms of the action. The parade participants generally ignored the spectators and talked amongst themselves, aside from two dirty guys with crutches and short dresses who appeared to be beggars and/or lepers and who were working the crowd. I imagine this is pretty similar to how it was in olden times: the nobility snubbing the merchants snubbing the soldiers snubbing the carpenters, everyone snubbing those on the sidelines and ogling the busty milkmaids. The very last thing was a giant cask of beer pulled by a couple of horses. They filled pitchers from it and poured tiny cups for us. That was the best part by far. [Photo from a much better parade, the annual Drag Race in DC, where this guy was hitting on Jack and dropped a Hershey's kiss down his shirt. We unfortunately forgot to bring cameras to the Ommegang.]

Turns out the main action occurs in the Grand Place, where you spend some serious bucks to watch a floor show from bleachers they've set up. There was a crack between the stands where all the cheap people were watching, but I'm sure there was much more to it than what we got a glimpse of: some horses marching around and then a choreographed flag tossing show. Next year, we're making reservations and going to the Place.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The key to the Stratego game, created by Jack after researching on the internet. Apparently the American game has the numbers printed on the pieces, but not the one we got. The sergeant is a pretty good likeness. The scout looks like a guy with a saddle on his head made out of the wooly hide of a sheep, hence the shorthand scribble.

Monday, sunny and in the mid-eighties without a breath of a breeze, I went to the American Embassy to get my passport renewed. I figured this was a good day for it since they're only open in the afternoons when I'm working, but my office was closed that day due to it being the Fourth of July Eve. I needed to get a new one before the slow, creaking wheels of the commune's bureaucracy granted me resident alien status, because the passport expired in January and I think they will only issue me an ID if there is more than 3 months left on it. This gave me plenty of time to get it renewed, because the residency process takes like 6 months (we just got a letter acknowledging our application last week, about 1.5 months after it had been submitted). However, I also wanted a valid passport for any cross-border trips we might decide to undertake at the spur of the moment, and, not being sure how long the renewal would take, I wanted to err on the side of caution.

The whole process was bizarre for a variety of reasons. They had the entire sidewalk plus the parking lane blocked off in front of the American compound, with barbed wire and jersey barriers funneling visitors to the first security checkpoint. After gaining permission to pass through, I was directed to a second one, which was housed in a temporary building that led into the actual building. There was a note on the door saying that you were to ring the doorbell and wait for the green light to come on before entering, one person at a time. There was a note on the doorbell saying "doorbell". Three people were ahead of me. The first guy in line waited and waited, peered through the reinforced and distorting glass window in the door, tried to peek in the door when deliveries were made, pressed the green light in case it was another button, and all the while we were all frying in the heat and I just wanted to shout "just ring the damn bell again!" Finally, after about 10 minutes of waiting, he somehow got the green light and went through. Next up were a father and son and, based on the experience of the guy in front of them, they also DID NOT RING THE BELL. What is wrong with these people? I'm pretty sure all of them spoke at least basic English. As soon as the guy in front of me went in I immediately rang the bell and it was no more than 30 seconds before I gained entry. They took my cell phone at the door and gave me a receipt for it, searched my bag and let me through.

Then: more line standing, this time in the airless interior (no A/C here, unless they were somehow confining it behind the glass partition). This line was longer but moved more briskly, each person only taking a few minutes. Fortunately, even though the web site was curiously silent on whether you could use the mail-in passport renewal form, I had the foresight to fill it out anyway or I would have had to stand in line twice. There were a number of more interesting cases than mine, a man who needed to renew his passport before traveling on July 18th, an elderly British woman who had purchased property in Colorado and had to have her documents notarized at the embassy, a young lady in standard-issue college wear (t-shirt and short sweatshorts) whose passport had been lost or stolen, a snappily-dressed gentleman who had run out of pages in his passport and who had to cancel a trip because of it. The woman who had lost her passport had to go in a phone booth-sized room to discuss the matter privately with one of the staff members on the other side of the glass--I was reminded of those visitor's rooms in prison movies. After waiting about a half hour, during which time the menu from the DVD "Johnny English" played the same snippet of sound and footage over and over, I got my receipt and was free to go. My exchange was notable because I learned that (a) you don't have to turn in your old passport when renewing it abroad and (b) you get expedited service for free--they said I could pick it up in 16 days. I recommend this to anyone who plans to take a 3-week trip that originates in a major European capital, as long as you have some time to kill in your itinerary. The whole process took about an hour.

After finishing "The Great Stink", a novel about a crazy engineer working on the sewers of London in the 1850s prior to the advent of any type of treatment (which is a good book if you don't mind repeated references to vomiting, excrement, noxious fogs, and the Thames being one giant cesspool), I've now started on David Sedaris' "Me Talk Pretty One Day". The stories towards the end are about his struggles learning French while living in Paris and Normandy, and while normally when reading his books I just think about what a wacky life he leads, in this case it's enough to make me weep with joy at the familiarity of what he's describing: the desire to wrap yourself in a comforting blanket of English sometimes, knowing that everytime you open your mouth in French you sound like a fool. Fortunately I'm not nearly as reflective as he is, so I go blithely on my way, saying the few words I know badly, picking up some more from my various daily exchanges, usually without major embarrassment. Also fortunately, our French teacher is not a total jerk like his was.

Tuesday two of the three shades came down in the bedroom. We discussed alternatives, including the expensive and therefore dreaded installation-by-someone-else option, but I managed to find some bigger hooks with anchors at the hardware store, so we're going to try that before abandoning all hope.

Monday, July 03, 2006

July is the sales month in Brussels (and from what I understand elsewhere in Europe as well). The stores are trying to get rid of all their stuff before to make way for the new merchandise. The local English-language magazine recommends that you dress comfortably (obvious), wear nice underwear (for fitting rooms that "go communal"), go to stores where you know your size fits you like it's supposed to (so you can grab stuff to buy without trying it on), and get in good with smaller boutiques throughout the year (so they will include you in the invitation-only pre-sale). With this information in mind, I went looking for a corner to huddle in somewhere out of the fray. But, thinking it wouldn't be so bad at opening time on the first day, we set out to get some shades to replace the curtains that were held up by packing tape in the bedroom. We had already seen some that were tolerable and cheap at a Pier One Imports equivalent, so we headed there. Once inside the store we realized it wasn't so bad, with just a normal amount of customers. Unfortunately not many of the sale items appealed to us, although Jack did come away wiith a 5-euro bedroom lamp. I got a big non-sale pillow for the couch.

We managed to be proactive about getting our shopping done by skipping breakfast, so we proceeded to a tea-room down the street to get a bite to eat and to celebrate our successful morning thus far. We perched in a 2nd storey window to view the foot traffic at the stores across the street. We were across from an H&M that was doing brisk business by this time. Their security guard, looking ex-military and taking his job very seriously, watched us watching him and made a mental note of our appearances in case we were casing the joint. By the time we left we were refreshed and ready to take on the shopping madness once again, so we stopped in to the H&M to see if there were any shirts for Jack (the security guy had left his post, thankfully). There were enormous lines snaking everywhere: every register was open and manned, and yet there were lines 20 people deep blocking access to many areas. The lines to the fitting rooms were not as bad, probably because people had taken the advice of the aforementioned article and were just buying stuff off the rack. After going upstairs and realizing it was just as packed as the floor below, we left. I think I lost about two years of my life going in there, realizing it was a horrible mistake, and then trying to make our way back out. You really have to enter a certain state of mind to shop like that--keep focusing on the fact that you're getting a good deal and not worrying about how miserable you are in the present. Some music would help, no doubt. Music and alcohol, perhaps.

We continued shopping at our own speed at the neighborhood thrift store, Spullenhulp (also known as Les Petits Riens, but Spullenhulp is more fun to say). Building on Jack's earlier find of the yarn lampshade, this time we came away with a stylish plastic wall clock and and a vintage European version of Stratego. Usually the prices are pretty decent, but the cashier, having sized us up as non-Bruxellois (earlier his colleagues were forced to explain to us in English that he had taken a 5-minute break to use the toilet), he charged us 3.00 for the ancient, tatty game after inspecting the box closely and apparently noting that all the pieces were there. I think I could have talked him down, and in fact he almost seemed like he wanted us to, but I hadn't geared myself up for haggling that day so we let it pass.

Back home we worked on various projects. Jack finally succeeded in getting the retractable clothesline to stay attached to the wall thanks a high powered drill he borrowed from one of his coworkers, so we can stop liberally distributing socks and underpants throughout the house to dry them. We'll see if it lasts--after the curtains fell, I lost faith in the walls of the house being able to hold anything heavy for long.

Saturday night we went to see Apocalyptica and the accompanying light show at the Grand Place. The band, comprised of 4 cellos, has made a career of covering Metallica songs, and they were in town to celebrate the Finnish ascension to the EU presidency. It seems that they rotate presidents every 6 months, so I look forward to a series of culturally-oriented concerts from the ones who are up next: Germany, Portugal and Slovenia. Since Finnish cultural music seems to be of the metal/hard rock genre, if this concert and Eurovision can be said to represent an adequate sample, I hope to god Germany's is not bad pop music that constantly name-checks the likes of David Hasselhoff.

The crowd was large and well-mixed: tourists who had wandered down not knowing what was going on, the goths taking up one large area after being magnetically drawn to one another, regular people, bureaucrats and invitees on a balcony overlooking the peons, and so on. In front of us there was a group of middle aged women who looked straight out of Wisconsin, wearing their tiny backpacks and trying to cop a European vibe, shaking their thangs to songs (albeit without the lyrics) that they confiscated from their teenage sons after coming home early from their bridge club that one time and hearing it playing. The band members were sitting in high-backed chairs with skulls carved in them, reminding me of the chairs they had in the conference room on the Death Star. The light show mostly consisted of strobes, smoke and flashing spotlights, disappointing when I was expecting something involving lasers or explosions. Due to having had a long day already, we left after about 3 songs and headed up the hill towards home, the roar of the crowd occasionally rising over the rooftops behind us.

Sunday, after delicious french toast, we got the shades up. It was quite an ordeal, with lots of eyeballing, measuring, marking, etc. The paper shades don't cover the 210 cm windows completely, so we came up with the genius idea of installing the hooks in the ceiling and then dangling the shades by short lengths of raffia. This was all well and good until it came time to operate them, as the lack of a fixed position allowed the shades to swing away when you pulled on the cord, distributing the weight unevenly between the hooks. Not being terribly high-quality in the first place, it came as no surprise when one of the cords got stuck in the wheel it passes over, leading to yanking and then falling. So now we only handle them gingerly and with the greatest reverence, as if they were 15th century scrolls that had been entrusted to us for safe keeping.

Later we played Stratego, notable primarily for the strongly defensive maneuvers of both teams, resulting in an extremely drawn-out game. Afterwards we went out for Mexican food which we ate in their back garden area, and, thus fortified with fajitas and Walloonian Courage (in this case margaritas), we went to see what we find out about the video store. It was all very straightforward, and the employee spoke good English, telling us that 90% of the films they carried were in our native tongue. The best part, though, was that they had not only the normal movie-watching treats (including marshmallow-flavored popcorn), but also more substantial stuff like real food and wine. I envision Jack stopping by there on his way home from work and picking up dinner and a movie. So convenient! We got "Grand Magasin" by the Marx Brothers.