Saturday, August 26, 2006

Sunday we woke up refreshed and ready to hit the pavement. We decided that we'd cut across the city in a northwesterly semicircle with our end destination being the train station. The first order of business was, of course, breakfast. We ended up at a famous old place down the street called La Cupole (the cupola), which had a large dome in the center of the building which presumably let in light until they built an office building over top of it. It was still nice in its old-school way, with a bunch of art on the walls and photos of it back in the 50s when all the cool cats would come there to while away the evenings and dance. We sat in the glassed-in patio and surveyed the street scene (most notably a trio consisting of an older gentleman, his somewhat younger employee and a old woman whose function I couldn't discern on the first floor roof of the restaurant across the street: the younger guy seemed to be cleaning the roof while the older man supervised and occasionally pitched in while the woman watched and would occasionally pick up things I couldn't see and then put them down). The breakfast was marvelous: 2 croissants, one roll, a little pitcher that held 3 cups of good coffee, and a glass of freshly squeezed juice. We were equally impressed by the bathrooms downstairs, which had a mechanism set into the floor to activate the tap with your foot.

Restoration complete, we started walking. We took some interesting-looking back streets in the general direction we were going and were surprised that every few minutes or so we'd encounter a nun going the opposite way. There must've been a convent nearby, and there was a church letting out its congregation as we went past. One nun was heading in the same direction as us so we kept an eye on her for a while. I was particularly interested in discovering which shop windows she peered into, but she was either singularly focused on getting where she was going or she was praying or both, because her eyes never strayed from her path.

We were going to take a quick look at the Hotel des Invalides, which was used for recuperating soldiers back in the day but was now a military museum, but we were so taken with the gold dome that we had to investigate more closely. It appeared to be partially surrounded by a moat, had cannons of every shape and size, the gardens featured some ruby-stemmed swiss chard to good effect, and there were a variety of sculptural pieces on the edifice. Of particular note were one of two horses cuddling (which I think symbolizes that they were both killed in a war) and the window frames of the exterior forming stone representations of various types of armor.

Next stop was the sewer museum, which ended up being one of the highlights of the trip. It was a mere four euros, and we spent probably an hour or so down there, wandering through the mains. Interestingly, there was actual sewage flowing underneath our feet, although it was suspiciously free of debris. Perhaps the good people of Paris heed the recommendations about what you shouldn't flush, unlike some American populations I could mention (I'm talking to you, DC). Also I gather that the technology for the garbage disposal hasn't yet crossed the pond, so there's a giant waste stream they're not adding.

It was an interesting system for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that the water mains traversed the same tunnels. Perhaps they don't get water main breaks there, but that type of combined use is a no-no at home. Sanitation in general doesn't seem to be a big a deal in Europe as at home anyway (witness the many times your sandwich is prepared by the same person who takes your money--no plastic gloves here), so perhaps they decided that the odds were against contamination and it wasn't worth spending the money digging up and re-laying all the pipes. Also interesting was the fact that the workers devised a number of creative ways of cleaning the accumulated silt out of the bottoms of the largest pipes. Additionally, they've been having tours of the system since the late 1800s. I wouldn't have thought there'd be much of a draw for this sort of thing back then due to general Victorian squeamishness, but they had photos of people sitting in the types of cars on tracks found in mines and amusement parks, so I guess it was viewed as a technological marvel rather than something gross. The signs said that the Seine has now been returned to its original "pristine" condition, but I wouldn't have guessed it from the murkiness of the water in the river. Plus, if you have to pump air into the water so that there's enough oxygen in there to support aquatic life, I'd say you still have a ways to go. They weren't doing that back in the Pliocene age, I assure you.

But enough about me...after ascending to the street level again, we crossed the river to the Right Bank and started to climb towards the Arc de Triomphe. We again ran into the problem of the city being bigger than we thought, and by the time we got there it was getting on towards midafternoon. The arch wasn't much to look at next to Brussels' own arch, and it was surrounded by a traffic circle, so we decided to press ahead. We unintentionally chose a street that was nearly abandoned because it was almost all office buildings, and we were beginning to despair ever seeing another eating establishment when it began to threaten rain, so we cut over to the metro just as the skies let loose. As we braved the downpour to get to the station to avoid being totally soaked, the storm subsided. Naturally.

We took the metro to the train station. The two weren't right next to each other, but there was some kind of back way to get from one to the other. We opted to go by the streets to scout out a place to eat. We walked a gauntlet of delicious smelling Indian foods, but we didn't see anyplace that had takeout aside from a few bakery-type places, and I wanted something more filling than a couple of samosas. There were a number of markets selling mangoes, and I regret not wanting to spend the time out how to buy a few (there were no bags, but also no people to assist) because Indian mangoes are the best. Someday I'll find Little India in Brussels...

We eventually arrived at a pita and pizza joint across the street from the station. There were well-stuffed calzones in the window, so we decided to get those. As we waited to order it occurred to me that they might not be calzones at all but rather misshapen, puffed-up pitas (much like the delicious ones at Perfect Pita in Old Town), and that's what they were. So we got gyros instead, and the puffy pitas were just large enough so they could fit some fries in them, which they are unable to do in Brussels. We went over to the station to eat and wait.

After eating we checked out the architecture and the views from various spots. One woman was dressed in a traditional African print dress with a pattern of spark plugs radiating outwards on the back of the skirt. It was sensational. Then it was time to bid Paris adieu and head back across the border. The train was periodically bombarded with short but fierce storms, so we picked a good time to leave. We watched a guy who was clearly scamming the system because he'd switch seats everytime the rightful occupant came along, and the woman who had most likely been to a wedding over the weekend if her hennaed feet were any indication.

All in all, Paris didn't do that much for me. But I've already been told that I HAVE to go back, so I guess I will at some point, maybe when another cheap train fare crosses my path.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Since we hadn't gone anywhere in, like, a month, and O and J were kind enough to give us their Eurail pass that they hadn't used up, we decided to head down to Paris to see what there was to see. Jack had Friday off because Tuesday had been a holiday and he switched it. So Friday we went to the train station to reserve our places and then to a lunch spot across the way called Raconte-moi des Salades (which I think means "tell me some salads"). This is a weekday lunch-only spinoff of a popular restaurant in our neighborhood, so we went there to try their recommended cuisine and to avoid having to make reservations at the closer place.

The salads were the type that I like to make: huge, with a lot of stuff going on. Mine had prosciutto, hard-boiled egg, and mushrooms stuffed with cheese and baked. Jack's had cured duck breast on it, among other things. They were both fantastic, and a great way to start the day given that we had skipped breakfast for some reason. Sitting outside, we got to watch the vignettes play out in the plaza in front of the restaurant: the homeless-looking guy with the tiny puppy who inexplicably started shouting at the sky, the business types trying to decide where to eat, the train passengers loitering about while waiting for their ship to come in, the young family with an infant all dressed in olive shirts of different intensities, the police having a chat with a woman who had been shooed off by our waiter moments before for begging among the patrons. We spent the rest of the day running errands and the like. Jack finally got a haircut after much trepidation, and although it was the most expensive one he's ever gotten (20 euros), I think it was also one of the best since despite the language barrier he was able to communicate to the guy not to take too much off--usually the people he goes to at home ignore him when he says this. Plus the barber is this old-school dude who has a single chair in a tiny storefront, so I'm hoping it's the beginning of a beautiful relationship. (I had gotten my first haircut the day before, paying 33 euros, or 8 euros above the stated price, 4 because I had "long hair" and 4 because I had agreed to the conditioner after shampooing. Not the most expensive haircut I've ever gotten, but it was up there.)

Early Saturday we got up, had some breakfast and made our way down the hill to catch our train. The first difference between the Thalys service and the regular train is that there was an inclined moving walkway up to the platform. Why they thought that was necessary instead of a regular escalator I have no idea. We had reserved seats and were glad to find that, in spite of the fact that the numbers were non-sequential, we were sitting across from each other. The whole process was fraught with mild worry that we would be caught out, forced to pay a fine as well as the full fare on the spot. However, the ticket purchasing had gone smoothly, the agent not even looking inside the little sleeve to verify that we did indeed have a valid Eurail pass in there for the country we were in--we could have had an expired pass or one only good in the Ukraine or something else stapled in there altogether. The next hurdle was to not wither under the scrutiny of the train conductor--would he require proof that we were, in fact, the O and J listed on the pass? He just punched our tickets and moved on, not bothering to look at the pass; he didn't even look to see whether we had validated it for the date of our travel, which is a crucial part of the Eurail process, or else you could basically use the pass for unlimited travel instead of the 5 trips you've paid for.

That being over, we spent the rest of the trip watching the countryside roll by. I was told by an English guy living here that, as we approached the border with France, we would be switching from the left side of the track to the right via some kind of underpass so that we could be on the European standard, but that never happened, perhaps because the line was a dedicated route and there was no reason to switch. Or maybe he had no idea what he was talking about.

We rolled into Gare du Nord about an hour and a half after departing. Our first order of business was to wander in the general direction of our hotel while attempting to do such things as eat lunch and buy tea. This eventually lead us by some opera house where we poked our heads in to see the beautifully appointed lobby, then over to Place Vendome to see the column made of melted-down cannons, then eventually over to Place Madeline where the Fauchon was located. The square contained what appeared to be the Pantheon, but turned out to be a church. We went to Fauchon, where we wandered around looking at all the tempting high-end goods (and at one point got treated to a thin graham cracker enrobed in dark chocolate--mmm), got some tea and szechuan peppercorns and then went across the street for lunch.

Lunch was a fairly standard Parisian affair for a touristy area: rude waiter, overpriced food at the wrong temperature, and a loud and chatty Texan a few tables down. It began to sprinkle as we sat outside, and the awning couldn't sufficiently protect Jack from the weather. After eating we checked out the church in the square, which was notable for the fact that it had no natural light aside from three tiny domed skylights. I couldn't envision spending time in there before the advent of electricity, and also couldn't imagine why they would have done a recessed fresco high above the altar that would have been all but impossible to illuminate back in the day.

Once quit of the square we made for the Seine so we could follow it for a bit and then cross to the Left Bank. We took the path alongside the water, which was 10-15 feet below the surrounding area, making the monuments on the Right Bank invisible to us. A nice variety of houseboats sat moored to the side, and in contrast to those in Amsterdam they looked like they could actually be used as boats. Eventually we wandered back up to street level, crossed the river and made the long slog down a dull street to our hotel.

It being August, quite a number of shops were closed and it appeared that a lot of the residents were on vacation, because there was not a lot of vitality on the streets. But who knows--maybe that's the way Paris is. It's no sleepy hamlet, though: we quickly learned that everything is further away than it appears on the map, in contrast to Brussels, where practically everything is within a mile or so of where you are. Eventually we got to our hotel, which was directly above the Montparnasse-Bienvenue metro stop and across from that highrise building that sticks out like a sore thumb.

After some recharging, we hit the streets again, this time heading for Notre Dame and its famous towers. First, though, we went to the Montparnasse cemetery, a lovely spot that contained some big names and some very original grave markers. One was comprised of a bunch of pitted stones cemented together to look like a large craggy rock, although this effect could only be achieved from a distance and through very squinty eyes since there was no top coat on it to give it a uniform appearance and so it just looked like rocks in cement. Baudelaire seemed to be the most popular, more so than Sartre or Sontag, as demonstrated by the number of pebbles and notes and used metro tickets on his grave. Given that it was constantly threatening to rain, we scoped out the place for nice spots to take shelter should we need to. I could easily pass myself off as a mourner of some variety, as long as I'm distraught enough to be burbling incomprehensibly (in a French accent, naturally), and in a downpour who's going to look that closely?

Back in the land of the living, we stopped for a beer and then for croissants in which by some diabolical sorcery the baker managed to cram twice as much buttery goodness as normal. We checked out the real Pantheon as we passed by. We crossed over onto the Ile de la Cite and Jack stole me a mimosa flower from the park behind the church. Once we got to the front of Notre Dame and noted the length of the lines to go up into the towers and into the church itself, we quickly lost interest. We'll just have to come back during the winter at some point.

We checked out Pont Neuf to see if any of the faces carved into it resembled us, but they were all grimacing so it was hard to tell. Later, using an outdated Washington Post article as a guide, we selected a restaurant in the Latin Quarter for dinner. It was a nice spot: a pedestrian street full of restaurants and people, but not enough to make it noisy or crowded. The weather having cooled off a bit, and having brought an inadequate number of layers, we sat in the restaurant's open front window rather than on the street itself. We surveyed the street scene and listened to the roving musicians from our perch. The restaurant featured cuisine from the Southwest of France, and we both got the fixed price 3-course menu. Our waitress spoke decent English, but for some reason my brain couldn't take that much switching back and forth so I continued to address her in bad French while she replied in English. My salad featured what I think was supposed to be pate, but it smelled exactly like Fancy Feast and didn't taste like anything special, so hid most of it under a piece of lettuce. My lamb was good, but not terribly exciting. Jack decided his rump steak was not a cut of meat he'd order again, given its toughness. All in all, a rather pedestrian meal but a good time hanging out. The wine was good, too.

We decided to end the evening with a visit to the Eiffel Tower, so we got to the metro just in time to see a young woman about to be married being paraded around by her friends in order to, as far as I could tell by the large poster around her neck, be kissed by strangers. (We had seen something similar at the Parthenon earlier: a young man being dragged around, his friends announcing his impending marriage and, inexplicably, lifting up his t-shirt to expose his chest. If these two getting married to each other, then I must say their friends are made for one another.) After procuring tickets (it was somewhat of an ordeal since they didn't take paper money and we didn't have change, so we now have a 2.80 charge on the credit card), we hopped on the train and made our way across town.

I'm sure you all are familiar with the Eiffel Tower so I will forgo a description. There were a bunch of lines snaking up to the ticket booths, where they were charging some god awful amount to go up to the top. It was rather like being at an amusement park in high summer--motorized carriages that would occasionally take on a handful of people, causing the people in line to shuffle forward a few feet. There was even a sign telling us how long it would be from a certain point in line, and one of those sandwich boards with a funny pelican in a hat saying "you must be this tall to enter -->" (fortunately the line was a couple inches off the ground--probably trying to prevent birds and preemies from going in ). They were also nice enough to tell us, in English, that the 3rd level could close unexpectedly at any time. Surely they wouldn't do this unless there were some strong winds or something, right? Wrong. They probably close it when they're just tired of it being open, or someone gives them guff so they want to punish those waiting in line, or whatever. Needless to say it shut down after we had been in line for about 15 minutes, so we left.

Jack had the misfortune of taking an interest in how much the light-up Eiffel Towers were being hawked for, and was told 8 euros. As he walked off, the guy went down to 6, and Jack then reluctantly offered 5, to which he was told there was no way. So he walked off again and, lo and behold, it turns out the guy was willing to accept 5 after all. Go figure. Somehow the thing he was given wasn't as cool as the ones they were carrying around, but that should surprise no one. I'll probably give it to my parents so they can add it to their collection of light-up monuments, which currently consists of one lonely item.

We returned to the hotel by way of the UNESCO building, where they had a large illuminated sphere. As we were pondering that, we looked back in the direction we came and the Eiffel Tower was sparkling all over, as if it had just come out of the dryer and was full of crackly staticyness that needed to be discharged. It was quite a sight to behold, and behold we did.

When we got back we were fortunate enough to catch the weekly Daily Show that's shown on CNN International and features the best bits from the previous days, and then settled in for a deep sleep that was aided by a good bed and total exhaustion from lots of walking. The periodic vibrations of the trains passing 3 floors below were faint and somehow comforting.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Carpet of Flowers, an event that occurs every other year in the main square and consists of lots of begonias placed in a pattern on the ground, opened this past Saturday. This is a big-time tourist event, with busloads of flower lovers coming from all over. Since Saturday was cool and drizzly, we figured it would be a good time to check it out as most people would opt for a day of better weather. As per usual we went by a back way, visiting a huge 4-storey flea market with hugely inflated prices, among other things. Eventually we ended up at the square and, by this time, it had grown sunny and pleasant. Naturally the crowds accompanied the better weather. I was somewhat disappointed because it was less a carpet of flowers and more a carpet of grass, woodchips and flowers. There were also dahlias in addition to the much-ballyhooed begonias. Sure, the latter flower's color palette is somewhat limited, but I say work within the confines of your chosen medium. We decided to save the 3 euro trip up the town hall's tower for another day when the crowds had thinned and the carpet was gone.

Nominally in search of someplace to get refreshment, we ended up going to Place St. Gery and resting a bit there. This Place, rather than being an open-air plaza, contained an enclosed market building, complete with historical exhibits, pamphlets about optimizing energy conservation in the home, and a large obelisk rescued from a church being torn down. After chilling for a while, we looked at one of the exhibits that described the area's history. The one thing that particularly caught our eye in the scale models from modern day was a section of the Senne River, heretofore believed by us to be completely paved over as it passed through the city, that was open to the air. And it was right around the corner!

After ascertaining its location with some certainty, we lit out for the spot. It was in a courtyard of some buildings, for once easily accessible from the street. We got there and...discovered it was fake. It was in the spot where the Senne used to flow, but it was a shallow pond in the shape of a channelized river, capped at each end. There were a couple of large koi floating languidly around along with a brood of their young-uns. Argh! I just don't get it. I honestly don't. Sure, they enclosed them back when flooding and the threat of disease were problematic, but don't they have a handle on that now?

So, we headed back out towards the bar, which I knew was right around there somewhere. We ended up at a carnival midway. It was very exciting to be in the midst of what I am probably incorrectly assuming is an American tradition: the overwhelming smells of fried food, carneys trying to get your money (although no calling to the crowd--they're so demure here), and various rides featuring characters ripped off from your favorite animated films. There was a great one for little kids on a track that went around in an oval, illustrated with the entire cast of every Disney movie, that had rubber balls suspended from the ceiling at eye level. The very young children had to watch out for them as they came around the track, as the big bully-ish kid who really shouldn't have been on the ride had bashed them to swing as far out as possible. Their non-litigiousness makes this possible. God bless 'em. The also had a "ride" in which real ponies were lashed to a central hub and trotted around in a tight circle, their noses forced into the behinds of the horses in front of them. It was pretty horrifying.

We managed to resist the terrible allure of the fried treats (no funnel cake, but they did have donuts and candied grapes on a stick) and continue our meandering way. We eventually found ourselves at a spot by the elevator that takes you from one section of town to another that had a good amount of outdoor seating, so we landed there. Every five minutes or so another tour group would arrive, either coming from or going to either the elevator or the Carpet of Flowers, and would pause for a minute in the square. I think I ended up in a few photos of the elevator. Given our successful overcoming of the midway food, I decided to try the sweet crepe. Many restaurants carry them but I had never had a strong desire for them, not being much in the way of a dessert eater. But it was midafternoon and a long way till dinner, and I got the one with the apples, so it wasn't all bad. Although the crepe was pretty good, I was disturbed by the amount of oil between the crepe and the plate, which was a bit of a turnoff. The thing almost slid off onto the pavement when the waitress put the plate down, and would have if weren't for some World Cup-class goal save action by the three of us; it was a wonder we didn't end up butting heads. I wouldn't mind trying them elsewhere at some distant future point.

That night we heaved ourselves out of our evening stupor to go to Flagey for a movie. Flagey is an art-deco building that once housed a radio station which has been converted into an arts center. We had actually been inside once before, to see what I had translated as an exhibit of outsider art but in reality was just one guy's stuff, homemade guns made out of reclaimed materials. The small display was pretty disappointing compared to Baltimore's AVAM. (We've got a line on an outsider museum up in Antwerp or Gent that is in an old sanitarium, so we'll see some good crazy stuff yet.) But they have musical events and a movie theater where they show films organized around some theme that I can never discern. Most of the current ones were Italian classics (with subtitles in French and Dutch, naturally), but they had one film called "The Traveler Girl" in English. The synopsis said that the film was about an Irish Traveler family. Not knowing much about the Traveler population residing in the UK, my only real concern was that they would all talk like Brad Pitt did when he was playing one of them in the movie "Snatch", in which his dialogue was largely incomprehensible. It turns out only one person spoke in a thick accent, and it sounded like Pitt did a pretty good job of replicating it. The movie was an extremely bleak portrait of a family living on the margins of society and the 10 year old daughter's attempts to cope. Depressing, but good. Amazingly, all the lead roles of the cast are played by non-actors from the Traveler community, and further research indicates the family with 10 kids that the star comes from really does live on the verge of a road in a trailer, and has to go across the street buzzing with semis to get water from a tap.

Sunday, after breakfasting on my failed yet still tasty attempt at an omelet, we went to the English-language Sunday-open bookstore in the center of town. Our goal was to get stuff related to our vigorous travel agenda consisting of a trip to Rome and the Amalfi coast, perhaps with a quick jaunt down to Paris beforehand. Having procured an embarrassing amount of books and other resources, we left to see what other kind of nonsense we could find ourselves in.

Our first stop was the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula. This is the church where the royals all get married, and it was appropriately large and gothic. My favorite part is that they were having choir practice up on the altar, and the sound was what you want from a church choir: clear, pure voices, singing in a different language, resonating spectacularly throughout the building. If I ever go to church, I'm going there.

Exiting the church we discovered that the National Bank of Belgium had free entry to their money museum for July and August. Good thing, too, because I don't think they would have been able to attract any of the eight people who were in there otherwise. Perhaps it's popular with school groups. At any rate, we didn't get much out of it (partially because of the language barrier and partially because of the boring nature of the exhibits) except the price of coal was higher in the 1860s than in the 1890s. Go figure. Jack said the bathroom was primo, though.

As per usual we had to stop for refreshment, this time happening across A La Mort Subite, a small cafe with beers of the same name. We sat outside, had our beers and croque madames, and enjoyed watching a nice cross-section of Brussels life pass by us.

Shout-out to C for the package and photos of baby A!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Weekend before last, Jack had to work most of the time so we didn't do much that was fun, aside from dinner on Friday at his coworker's house out in the suburb of Rixensart. She and her boyfriend had invited us to their place for a barbecue, although in the end the weather was deemed inhospitable for grilling. We took the commuter train for about a half hour to get to this tiny hamlet located in the rolling countryside bordered by fields and trees. We took a brief walk about before dinner, and it was so quiet as to seem almost unpopulated. We did encounter a few people, all of whom greeted us upon passing. It was nice to hang out with people and get out of the city for a while.

On Sunday afternoon we went on a mission to find St. Pie X church. My plan was to eat a pie in front of it for posterity's sake. We had to stop on the way to get provisions. It being Sunday, I was worried that the number of places selling actual pies (or "tarts" as they call them here) would be slim, so we went to a little convenience store and I got a cake-like thing with icing and chocolate sprinkles in a cellophane packet in case we didn't encounter anything else open. A few blocks further, a bakery/cafe was getting ready to close up shop, but I managed to get a cherry turnover, which is much more pie-like than the previous item.

We got to the church by a circuitous route that took us by the crenellated walls of the city's prison, by the house of a big Elvis fan (a large collection of dolls in their original packaging slowly yellowing in his window), and through a park where I was hoping to score some blackberries. I missed the turnoff for the spot where I had seen the fruits last time so we just kept going. We took a breather in another section where they had a school and a private home plopped down in the midst of the vegetation. (Parks frequently seem to have random buildings in them--there is one in a pocket park nearby that has space for a single office in it--I've never seen anyone in there, but it's definitely occupied.) The school had a very nice green and white striped awning made of glass protecting the front steps. We had a beer, worked on some French verbs, and then continued on.

After exiting the park I took us on a wrong turn down a street bordering a sporting complex with a bunch of tennis courts and people hanging about. We decided to head back in the direction we came, past the loiterers again, rather than pushing ahead. In an attempt to seem like we were in fact a different couple, and not the ones who had walked by moments before, we switched from English to broken Italian. When we got close to them we realized the error of our ways, as they were actual Italians playing bocce ball. Fortunately they chose to ignore us.

We finally got to the Pie church and discovered that, in the midst of the old rowhouses on either side, the congregation had decided to throw up a huge A-frame structure with a scrubby lawn in front. A family was playing soccer with their kids and dogs among the weeds and ratty trees. I imagine that the original Pie church had suffered some kind of egregious damage and had to be taken down, and they decided to set the new building back from the street for some reason. They didn't even have a proper sign, the hand-painted one looking pretty worn. The church did, however, seem to be in use.

As I didn't see the point of wasting time hanging around there, especially since Jack had convinced himself that he could climb up on the roof and I didn't want to encourage him, we took a couple of snaps but didn't have any pie. We went to another nearby church situated on a spot called Altitude 100, the highest point in the city. There were benches, so we sat and ate the crappy cake-like thing. The whole experience left a bad taste in my mouth.

Thursday was the last day of our class, and we were told by our teacher that we would be having a petite test. Knowing that the two other students (the couple from Ohio having dropped out) weren't going to study, I didn't either in an act of solidarity. The test was pretty straightforward if you knew your spelling and how to ask questions, both of which I had some problems with. Jack got the highest grade--yay! The rest of us passed, however. The one that all three of us got wrong was we were asked to convert "monsieur" to the feminine, and we had all put "madame" down, never having been informed differently. We were told that "madame" was reserved for prostitutes (unless you are speaking to the person or writing them a letter--so difficult to know when might potentially be insulting someone), and the proper term was "dame". Who knew?

Our brains having been taxed so that we weren't about to speak more French that evening, we went to a nearby Irish bar for dinner, where we had the worst pints of Guinness ever--it was almost like they were dispensing it from a soda fountain and someone had gotten the syrup-carbonated water mix wrong. It was inexplicably watered down. But we watched some football on the telly and had fish and chips, so it wasn't all bad.

Friday, August 11, 2006


10:30 a.m. Friday. Raining and 60 degrees. It's been cool and periodically precipitating all week. I'm in a sweater and thinking about soup. Just so you know.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Sunday was threatening rain, so we decided to stick close to home and visit some sites that were relatively close together, allowing us to duck into various places in the event of an outburst. We walked over to the Etangs, where the Saturday-Sunday market is held. This market has a good variety of items: produce, meats, cheeses, wines, homemade yogurt, jams, honey, bread. Additionally there's a number of vendors of plants and cut flowers and, surprisingly, one gentleman selling mattresses. We got a waffle from the waffle guy, and he poked two holes in the side and inserted two chocolate tubes, which melted on contact with the hot waffle. I had a tiny piece, just to see if it was better than the last. It was about the same. The addition of chocolate was a bit over the top, I was reliably informed. They did, however, provide us an insight into the creation of what J referred to as "pig snouts", blunt-ended croissants with two choclatey tunnels burrowed in them.

We then went to the Ixelles museum. There were two things I knew about the well-regarded art museum: (1) had a complete set of Toulouse-Lautrec posters and (2) it was free. The latter notion was immediately dispelled, as it is only free when they don't have a temporary exhibition, in this case one featuring a not-very-interesting architect. Fortunately the woman at the desk sized us up as students and gave us a discount. Because it was a relatively large museum with a good number of interesting pieces, it took a while longer for us to discover that the entire Toulouse-Lautrec collection was also missing. Since the temporary exhibit wasn't all that, I might have to go back when it's free and find out what they put in the large main gallery when nothing else is going on--probably let cats roam around in there.

The museum was unusual in that it had a staff that was not very interested in being inside the building. J had to leave her backpack with the coatcheck guy yet he was nowhere to be found when it came time to retrieve it. She had to go behind the counter and get it herself, for which she left a 50 cent tip. The woman at the admission counter where the gift shop was located had also abandoned her post, and Jack had to go get her from outside to buy a poster. There also wasn't the level of security to be found at most museums, and we figured (after O touched a ceramic figurine affixed to the wall will no ill effects) that we could at least get the art off the wall before the staff made their way through the building to see what had set off the alarm. With their lackadaisical attitude, though, we might just have been able to make off with a Magritte.

Lunchtime arrived and we made our way back towards our house in the direction of a pita place so they could try this Brussels staple. There's a place not too far from us that has table service and back patio with a number of figurines perched in nooks and crannies, both somewhat unusual for a pita joint. We found a table outside and ordered our selections, Jack and J both choosing the gyro sandwich, which came in a split-open loaf of french bread. O and I got our selections with durum (wrapped in a tortilla-like flatbread) and pili-pili sauce. It started to rain as we began eating our meals, so we high-tailed it into the glassed-in porch (suitable for receptions and baptisms, the menu informed us) to finish. The food was all good, and the fries, which were nestled inside our breads, were tasty. Jack thought the sandwich had an unsatisfactory bread-to-filling ratio, so it seems like the durum is the way to go (the pita breads here are tiny and don't come with fries so have already been discarded as a viable option). The pili-pili sauce was a little spicy and a little creamy, but it went well with my falafel. I really need to do a more rigorous survey of all the sauces to appropriately compare and contrast.

Later that day we went and saw Superman, which met our expectations. This was preceded by a light dinner which, for O, was a salami sandwich laced with Oreos with chocolate filling, for which he received one euro.

Monday O and J went out for more clothes shopping and I attempted to catch up on grocery shopping and some work. O came back alone, claiming to have eaten J in a fit of ravenous hunger. It was later revealed that she was, in fact, still alive, and they had gone to the Quick Burger for lunch. This fast food restaurant is more prevalent than any other in Brussels (although there still aren't that many), but we haven't been. They said it was better than the food at American chains.

For dinner that night we had a feast of salmon, big salad, and bread at home. O baked the salmon with lemon and sea salt, a pretty plain rendition but I was impressed nonetheless, having never seen him cook before. To me he was still our paperboy from 1989. How on earth had he acquired such skills in the intervening 17 years? I hadn't gotten fish at the grocery before and was pleased with the freshness and flavor. O managed to polish off a half loaf of the bread all by himself, stating that a meal without that much starch is no meal at all.

Tuesday, another day of intermittent showers, was their last before heading home. I wanted them to try the Breton savory crepes and designed our itinerary so we'd arrive in the vicinity of the restaurant around lunchtime. First we went to the Royal Palace, which is open to the public for a few weeks in the summer following the Belgian national holiday. The palace is where the king conducts most of his business, although the family lives in the house out by the Atomium. It is most notable for being a fairly dull-looking building taking up some prime real estate in the center of the city. We entered and, having been relieved of our bags, cameras and umbrellas, alighted the staircase to the grand rooms.

Virtually the entire place was empty of furniture, with portraits of various nobles hanging on the walls and the occasional side chair. The throne room was completely bare aside from an area rug. Some of the items that I managed to find interest in under these difficult circumstances were: the parquet floors, elaborately inlaid; a Louis XVI chair owned by Louis XVI; and portraits of Leopold II as a child, before he ascended the throne and depleted the wealth of the Congo. The thing that one couldn't help but find interesting (except perhaps if you were blind) in these barely-furnished rooms was "Heaven of Delight" by Jan Fabre, an installation in which most of the ceiling of one room was covered in millions of jewel beetle carapaces. Commissioned by the queen a couple years back (probably after thinking to herself, "hey, this place really sucks!"), it is amazing. Due to its reliance on iridescence photos don't do it justice. I haven't seen any good photos of it on the web anyhow, although there are sites with other, smaller works of his in this style. You all will just have to come here in August and see it for yourselves.

Then it was off to the Breton crepes. I swear we had the same waitress as we did in March when Jack and I stumbled across the tiny restaurant, but she pretended not to remember me so I couldn't impress her with my marginally-improved French. My crepe had a mound of delicious sauteed onions on it with gorgonzola cheese and pieces of thick-sliced bacon. Magnifique! I had a coffee for dessert so I could give the speculoos cookie that always accompanies it to J so she could try it and determine whether to buy some as gifts.

We then headed over to the Parc du Cinquantenaire so I could show them Brussels' triumphal arch. The buildings flanking either side house museums, and during the summer weekends the side of one building is used for a drive-in movie screen. The arch was appropriately majestic, and we ambled towards it while keeping an eye on the sky. It started spitting after we passed under it to the other side, so we went in the auto museum to check out the lofty building interior and get out of the wet. At 6 euros we couldn't summon the requisite interest to actually pay for it, but we did go to the gift shop. I got a lovely postcard.

Before going home we hit the Neuhaus and Marcolini chocolate shops so they could get obscene quantities of sweets for all their pals. What good people. I also got the Marcolini sampler, which contained "at least" 33 pieces of deliciousness (or at least 31; it turns out the earl grey tea flavor is pretty odd). J had already bought 4 jars of fancy mayonnaise to take back, but I think that was mostly for personal consumption on the flight home.

That evening we attempted to go to what was billed as the best ramen noodle restaurant outside of Japan by one anonymous reviewer, but they were closed for their summer holidays. We ended up at a hipper, smokier place where I got the tuna steak followed by lemon meringue pie. The pie was not really up to my standards, as the meringue had a gritty texture like the sugar hadn't completely dissolved before the egg whites set. The lemon custard was nice and tart, though, and the crust was okay. O and J got a milkshake (actually two), and it turns out that they don't actually use ice cream in them, so that they're just frothy milk with some kind of flavored syrup. Not sure if this was a one-off deal, but it definitely requires further investigation.

Wednesday morning they got up at the crack of dawn (pretty early, considering when the sun rises here), caught the tram and began the long journey home. It was good to see people and speak English for long stretches of time. I asked them to fill out a comment card and drop it in the mail to us so we could further improve our services to our guests, but they declined. They did, however, follow up rather rapidly with a large box of assorted stuff from Trader Joe's, for which we are eternally grateful. Hopefully this indicates that they had a good time as well.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Last Friday, the 28th, O. and J. (hereafter referred to as "O" and "J" for the sake of expediency) arrived. There was some confusion at the train station, because I gave them directions and then later told them I'd meet them. O had intermittent email access that came with a sandwich on the Spanish island he was staying at, but he didn't get the last message so they ended up taking the metro without my assistance (but with my excellent directions). After waiting at the station for about a half hour, I took the metro myself and ended up getting home a couple minutes before them, even though we took the same route save the last turn.

After brief pleasantries, Jack, who was home for lunch, went back to work and the rest of us went to eat. It was a pretty basic meal, O and I having sandwiches and J getting some sort of pasta-y thing, but I did get to show off my broken French a bit and it was fun having both of them and the waitress/cook/owner person deferring to me for translation. We went back to the house so they could avail themselves of our fine laundry facilities, and then, having been warned that it was the last week of the sales and most likely going to be a madhouse, we went out to look for shoes for O.

It started pouring as we made our way back home empty-handed, aside from a package of paper napkins I had scored for 69 cents. We ducked into a pedestrian underpass which was far too stinky to keep us there for long and then slogged it back the rest of the way. Soon after we arrived home it stopped, of course.

Later we went to dinner at De Ultieme Hallucinatie, which is known for its Belgian cooking and its art nouveau interior. We ate on their patio, which had a very large statue of a bull and a wall made to look as if it was the interior of a cave. There wasn't much art nouveau-y about the patio, but it certainly was unusual. I had bangers and mash and Jack had the opportunity to order his steak "a point", or medium, which we had learned the previous day. We made our way back home via the regular touristic attractions, the Grand Place and Mannekin Pis.

Saturday, after a stop at the train station to reserve their seats for their return trip to Paris to catch their flight, we went over to the large outdoor junk market in Marolles. After astonishing them with the types of things people will try to sell, we settled in for lunch at a nearby spot to nourish us for the day's remaining travels. Jack finally got an opportunity to try the croque madame sandwich, differentiated from the croque monsieur by the addition of a fried egg. Placed on top of the sandwich, outside of the bread.

J kept mentioning how cute the trams were, so we decided to take one out to the end of the line to visit the Atomium. Although it wasn't as hot as my first tram ride, it was in the 80s that day and the sun beating on the ventilation-challenged cars made them rethink their desire to use them as a primary mode of transport. There was a bawling baby a few seats away, and we concluded that it was because her mother had dressed her inappropriately for the weather in a sweater.

We finally got to the Atomium and everyone marveled at its shiny newness. Although the admission charge was 9 euros and the line was long, the thought of going up and down and through the tubes to the balls, much like a giant version of a hamster maze, and seeing the views was pretty exciting. Also they have the fastest elevator in Belgium. And the girls on staff all wear '50s-era-atomic-age-inspired circle skirts. And the ticket has an icon indicating visitors to watch out for pickpockets, but it looks like the guy in the drawing is stealing his neighbor's kidney. All for just 9 euros!

We took the elevator to the top. Our guide explained to us in French how impressive it all was, but the four of us mostly focused on the glass ceiling above our heads, watching all the elevator innards rush by. The Atomium is right next to Mini-Europe, which has scale models of various European sites as well as a high admission charge. Fortunately there was a good view of the park from the top ball, so I feel can rightfully check that off the list. There was a restaurant at the top so we bought some drinks and hung out up in the sky for a while.

We took the elevator back down having only seen the one ball, which was a bit disappointing. Where were the exhibits described in the pamphlet? The children's area? The hotel, conference center and day spa? The Anti-atomium, exactly the same structure but buried 200 feet underground to protect the royal family in the event of a nuclear strike? While waiting in line earlier we noticed that a few people, after a discussion with the staff person guarding it, were using an escalator that seemed to go somewhere else within the structure. When she was distracted by helping someone else, we took our chance and got on the escalator. Finally, our ticket to unsupervised freedom! In reality, it was just the rest of the tour we had not yet seen, leading to the exhibits (including one black light art exhibit--hamsters love that kind of stuff) and the other areas. These balls were less densely populated, suggesting that many people paid the admission fee to go up to the top, came back down and left. There were more nice views, this time not as high off the ground, and some cool rocking chairs in the children's area as well as an unguarded restroom (the one in the top ball had an attendant). We loitered, trying to stretch our money as far as we could, and then left. We walked back past Leopold II's monument to himself and saw the royal residence.

We took the metro to an area that had a variety of restaurants and ended up eating at a North African one. I had a wonderful tagine with chicken and figs in some kind of honey sauce, to which one added the very al dente couscous. The sauce was absorbed by the couscous, which softened as it soaked up all the deliciousness. It really hit the spot. J ordered an iced tea, and out came a can of Lipton that was carbonated! We discovered this to be the norm over the next few days.