Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Compare and contrast the sewer museums of Brussels (left hand photos) and Paris (right).

The Brussels sewer museum recently reopened after having been closed for the entire time we had been there, to my eternal chagrin. (They failed to publicize the date of completion of renovations, which is probably wise because they would most likely fail to meet their advertised projections--everything is late here.) Once they took down the big sign announcing the work, we knew they were back in business. Information on the web was pretty scant, but I determined it was open every day but Monday. Not true, actually--it turns out it's open every weekday but Monday, so our trip out there on a Saturday was a bust. We managed to make the best of it, checking out some other stuff in the area and visiting this willow tree that hangs out over the street, its curtain of leaves forming a perfect arch for VW vans to pass underneath.

So it was up to me to check it out on a weekday by myself. Contrast: at the Paris sewer museum, which is open on weekends, the tickets are purchased in an above-ground kiosk and then you immediately descend into the underworld. In Brussels, you enter a beautiful neoclassical temple that faces a matching one across the street and buy your tickets from an actual sewer worker. An exhibit on the undergrounding of the Senne is presented on the ground floor. Contrast: while Paris was ready for their English-speaking fans, Brussels was not. But there were a lot of good pictures and models and memorabilia, so you could fairly easily follow along.

Compare: both felt the need to address the rat question. Paris chose to display their rats frolicking in a forested setting, as if rats are ever found in unpopulated areas. Brussels put theirs in a box with a piece of pipe and a bar of soap or air freshener or something. Both locations allowed you to commune with actual sewers with actual sewage running through them. Brussels included a hand washing station after you had left the dirty areas.

Contrast: unlike the popular Paris attraction, I had the Brussels museum to myself for the entire duration, and I lingered there for longer than I probably would have if there were other people around. Once you got down in the main tunnel, which had a walkway and a railing separating you from the poop-filled Senne, it was a little creepy. Anything could happen down there. I half-wished I was involved in some kind of criminal enterprise and needed to dispose of evidence, because it was the perfect opportunity. Even if they were watching you on cameras from above, they couldn't make it down there in time to stop you from dropping something in the water. Of course, assuming it was a gun or something, it would probably sink right to the bottom, in which case they could dredge it back out. Unless you had planned ahead and somehow made it neutrally buoyant. One should probably experiment in one's own bathtub before undertaking such an endeavor.

Compare: both cities explored water quality challenges in general, although Paris focused on the health of the Seine River whereas Brussels tackled both the local and global situation. Brussels began fully treating their wastewater in...2007. Their first treatment facility came on line in...2000. Shocking yet true. Locally things can only get better. Maybe someday they'll stop using the Senne as a means of wastewater conveyance (yes, that is a photo of the river--contrast it to Paris' Seine on the right) and get rid of the sparsely used boulevards that cover it, returning a bit of pseudo-naturalism to the city. It would be positively enlightened.

Contrast: Brussels' sewers were never the turn of the century tourist attraction that Paris' were.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Various goings on.

Our best intentions of visiting the Museum of Central Africa (above; click on the photo to see the parade of elephants in front) were dashed when we ended up spending the day wandering the adjacent town of Tervuren and strolling about the grounds. The tram ride out to the museum takes you through wealthy suburbs and tree-lined avenues, and drops you some distance away from the entrance, so you have an easy excuse to get distracted when your eye catches on something closer. I've always had kind of an uneasy feeling about the museum, because the story of Belgium and its relationship with the Congo region is not a happy one, and apparently the museum does a poor job of describing it. But I thought I should visit it to be able to better understand Brussels and its environs. Once we alighted from the tram and walked a short distance towards our destination, our eyes lit upon a fountain containing a sculpture of animals playing band instruments, then an abandoned church, then fliers for a pancake fest occurring that day, and on and on until we got further and further away from the museum.

After failing to find the location for the pancake fest, we ended up having lunch at a tea room in Tervuren and then looking around the grounds in which the museum is situated, which comprise the tail end of the Foret de Soignes. There was a string of stagnant ponds putting out a sulfurous stench, some people riding horses, and these mushrooms with caps that appeared to be melting. They do everything so crazy in Europe. Maybe someday when the weather is truly miserable we'll find our way back to the museum.

We went to the Dieweg Cemetery earlier this month. While smaller than most, this eternal rest stop got its notoriety from the fact that "perpetual care" means something different than in most places. I'm actually not sure what it means at Dieweg. Some of the stones did have that phrase carved on them, but the evidence suggests that someone scarpered with the money. The cemetery is being allowed to revert to its natural state, and as the sign out front informs us, many lichens, butterflies, and native species have been found there. There were more crumbling, toppled headstones, overgrown shrubs, and perilous pathways than the other cemeteries around here, which is not to say that those items are lacking elsewhere. It's just done on a grander, more unified scale in this case. The author of the Tintin books is buried here. His grave is a pleasantly groomed oasis in the midst of the chaos.

A couple weekends later we went with one of Jack's coworkers to Leuven, the university town outside of the Brussels conurbation. She wanted to do some shopping and we hadn't yet been there, so we tagged along. The town is known for the schism of the Catholic University of Leuven that occurred in the 60s, when the Dutch and French-speaking groups split. The francophones set up a new school in a new town down the road a piece, which they named Louvain-la-Neuve ("New Leuven"). The virtually flavorless (by Belgian standards) beer Stella Artois is made in Leuven.

We wandered around a bit and discovered that the town had a lot of great old-school architecture in the center, like a mini Brussels. There were some interesting pieces of public art strewn about, the favorite of which is a bug stabbed on a pin, upside down and hugely magnified. This was done by Jan Fabre, who is the same guy who did the ceiling covered with beetle carapaces in the royal palace in Brussels.

We had some lunch, Jack bought a best of Ike and Tina collection (the later years of the relationship were a really bad time for them musically as well as personally, it turns out), and we purchased some waffles from a boy scout. Then it was back to Brussels for a night at the Toone theater. We entered through the bar on the ground floor, made our way up two narrow flights of stairs, and arrived at the theater in the attic, and looking up into the eaves you saw nothing but a forest of miniature legs.

The Toone puts on plays using marionettes. That evening's production was of El Cid. Although the show was in Bruxellois, which is a hybrid language of French and Dutch that almost no one actually speaks anymore, we thought we'd be okay because we rented the video the day before and because we can understand some French. It was not to be. The dialogue was impossible to follow, partially due to the dialect and partially due to the fact that one guy does all the voices and his falsetto for the females was a further hindrance to understanding. Also, the plot was an extremely pared down version of what we had seen the previous night and didn't seem to jibe well with the movie. Nevertheless, we had a good time. It was fascinating, and the characters were all very amusing. The atmosphere in the crowd was convivial, and at the intermission the guy who ran the place and did the voices and took the tickets (but did not operate the puppets) served reasonably-priced beer in the tiny museum on the floor below. There's a great history to the theater and I'm really glad that it exists and is able to keep people coming. Apparently the bar on the ground floor is a good hangout spot even if you're not attending a show, but we've saved that for another day.

On Thanksgiving while Jack went to work I visited the botanical gardens, which is in Flemish Brabant and right outside of the Brussels Region. Their outdoor collections were by this point almost devoid of any leaves, but it was a sunny day and nice to walk around the grounds, and I almost had the place to myself. The grounds were centered on the Bouchout Castle, where Leopold II's sister Charlotte retreated after her husband was executed for attempting to become the Emperor of Mexico.

After wandering the meandering paths I went into the greenhouses for some lush, humid warmth. Making my way through the groups of adolescents was a drag, but they had some interesting plants that I had never seen the likes of, including succulents that resembled tarantulas, bell-shaped peppers, and water plants that looked like floating, velvety lettuces. At the end of my tour I went to the town next door to find something to eat. There were some colorful chickens crossing the road. Why? I think we all know the answer to that.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Prior to a recent showing of "Michael Clayton", we were rather surprised to discover that our mutualité (basic health insurance) had a strip tease commercial in which a woman gets down to her briefs. We went with Mutualité Neutre on the advice of Jack's office manager, because they aren't affiliated with a political or religious organization (socalists, christians, etc.; they're neutral, you know?) and because they have an office right down the street from us. It didn't occur to us to research their position on soft porn when signing up. When I saw the ad I shrank down in my seat, as if everyone could tell that I was a member and they were glaring at me disapprovingly. Fortunately for you, I have found it on the web!! (WARNING: this site has an audio track and boobs. So probably not appropriate for the work environment. Click "Skip Intro" and then on "Le spot cinéma")

Friday, November 09, 2007

A pictorial review of our trip to the US.

Sunrise at Dulles airport.

Steakhouse in Williams, AZ. Jack ordered the "Lady's Cut" of beef.

Grand Canyon viewed with and without sunglasses.

Italians. As Jack's mom predicted based on her road trip experience 15 or so years ago, there were a lot of European visitors to the Grand Canyon.

Organ pipes, Scottsdale, AZ.

The 3-hour wait for the best pizza ever, Phoenix. We finally gave up and left.

Desert Winos Motel. Next door to the restaurant we ate at in Blythe, CA, which I believe was called "Steak and Cake". The cakes in question were of the pan variety. (Jack says, "Everybody knows what kind of cakes they are.")

Pacific Ocean.

Deer in its natural habitat of pipe trees, Youngstown, OH.

Glen Echo at twilight.

Op Corn, Glen Echo.


World's tiniest public park, Portland, OR.

Rattlesnake Lake, WA.

Seattle tree.

Pug, Arlington, VA.

Monday, November 05, 2007

August was such a busy month that for September we decided to lay low and drink beer. The first beer event was the annual Belgian Beer Weekend, in the Grand Place. Jack was away that time the previous year, and I went by to check it out but the thought of drinking beer in such a public spot by myself just depressed me, and I left.

The fest seemed to be mostly about groups of frat boys getting their drunk on, as the beers were generally cheaper than you can find elsewhere. I think we managed to try a couple things we hadn't had before, so it all worked out. The house on the square owned by the brewers was open, so we took a tour of it (in French). It was really rather mundane inside--institutional carpeting everywhere, and a large, dull conference room overlooking the Place. The highlight was the collection of beer steins and taps they had on display, which were astonishing in their variety.

The next weekend was the Bruxellensis fest, a much smaller to-do featuring "characterful beers" from around the world. It was totally full of beer nerds--either wearing t-shirts describing the other nerdy events they had been to, or scanning the crowd for their nerdy friends. Some were even taking notes on their tastings. Not that there's anything wrong with that. We tried some lovely brews from Germany, England, Finland and the good ol' US of A. This one was held inside a former ice warehouse in the commune next to ours, so very convenient. The price per beer was about the same as the larger one, but this gathering was much less crowded and more convivial. And it came with a keeper glass.

The next weekend Jack was off to the US and I was primed to go to the Grape Fest in the town where one of his coworkers lived. Two municipalities on the outskirts of Brussels, Hoeilaart and Overijse, have a grape rivalry going on, each having their fest a few weeks apart from the other's. Although each town has a long history of grape production, neither uses theirs for wine-making, just table grapes. Over breakfast I was plotting my weekend's activities when I discovered that it was Brussels' weekend of open houses. This is when many private structures open their doors to the public, frequently offering tours. I saw that one place around the corner from us was offering a tour within the next 15 minutes, so I dashed out of the house like a wild woman, not bothering to make myself presentable or gather any necessary items.

People were already standing in line, and my chances of getting in were slim, but I kept my place and was one of the last ones to squeak by. Hotel Wielemans is an Art Deco gem in an area that is dominated by Art Nouveau (you can take a virtual tour at the website--the pictures are much better than my own). The stucco facade intrigued us, but it is owned by the Generali Company in the skyscraper next door and only open for private events. Originally the home of the beer baron Leon Wieleman, whose Art Deco brewery in a nearby commune has recently been turned into an art center, the interior was done in a southern Spanish style that had Moorish influences, with lots of terra cotta and hand-made tiles and white walls in the airy great room at the center of the house. The tour was in French, but I managed to note that the "lady's boudoir" on the first floor contained a prayer niche in a wall that was brought back from Spain. The actual bedroom, which was on the second floor, was completely covered in aluminum leaf, which I thought looked pretty cool. (The website says silver, but I'm almost positive the woman said aluminum on the tour; besides, wouldn't silver become tarnished?) The bathroom was notable in that it had an "American-style" tub and shower arrangement, which was apparently all the rage amongst the well-to-do in the 20s. It looked like a regular tub/shower to me. Funny to think that some of the most prosaic things in life were once modern and fashionable. There was probably some old codger still taking baths in a tin tub with water that was heated on a stove thinking "it'll all blow over soon."

After the visit I went back to our place to get all my ducks in a row for an afternoon of touring around. All thoughts of the grape fest were banished from my mind. My next stop was a house that was curiously built into a municipal park, having no neighbors on either side for the length of the block. It was the Pelgrim house, which has been owned by the St. Gilles commune for many years and showed obvious signs of municipal neglect. The park in the back apparently used to be the owner's back yard. It was obvious that the building had been very beautiful when it was a private home, but aside from the one room that was kept up and the peeling crimson wallpaper in the stairwell, it was virtually empty and very utilitarian.

Next it was across town to the Van Eetvelde residence by Horta. Also owned by a private company, I believe the open doors day is the only time the public can view it. The long line was intimidating and barely creeping along. They promised that they were conducting tours in English in addition to French and Dutch, but those who were waiting for English got left high and dry, since they kept getting passed over. This place was more about the amazing Art Nouveau architecture than anything else, and although I went on the French tour, I can't recollect anything that was said. Our guide was too polite to tell us more than once not to take pictures, and most people ignored her after a decent interval. None of the other groups were taking pictures. Towards the end of the tour a cop snapped at some people and got them to stop, but by then the damage was done and we had all stolen our fill of images.

The house was simply amazing. From the mosaic floors to the railings to the painted walls to the windows to the light fixtures to the stained glass dome--everything was Art Nouveau-y. Almost too much, if that's possible. It seemed like it didn't get much use these days, which is a shame, but I must say if I was attending a work function in one of the rooms I'd have to take in everything and digest it before I could pay attention, so perhaps it's for the best.

After that, I went to an old printshop that had been turned into a local art center. A bit different than the rest of the things I had seen that day, but pretty cool nonetheless, particularly since they had a wide range of printing presses from the last 150 years. Upstairs was a drawing studio where the class had pinned up their studies of hair. Most had concentrated on the model, but in the mix was a drawing of Leopold II's famous beard.

That was Saturday. Sunday was more of the same. I made it just in time for a tour (in French) of Tour and Taxis, the decaying but partially rehabbed old train yard we wandered around last year. It was two hours long. Many of the people were older, and it was long even for those of us who were more sprightly, so I'm sure some of them were hurting. The best part was that some of the old folks were long-time Brussels residents, and they corrected the tour guide (who was originally from Germany) when he made some inaccurate comments about the industrial past of the city. There was also a civil engineer in the group who spoke about the construction of wide-span roofs with no center supports. I learned that the cluster of skyscrapers north of the center of town is called "petit Manhattan". And that the biggest and second-biggest structures (in terms of the land they occupied) in the city were located on the site, both of which were former train depots. And other things too numerous to mention.

The good thing about all this touring is that, even though I didn't understand but a fraction of what was being said, it caused me to think outside of my normal rutted patterns of French interactions: ordering food, buying stuff, and giving directions. Someone mentioned a "pousse-cafe" in one of the lines I waited in, which I remembered vaguely from one of the various sources we use. I looked it up when I got home, and discovered that it is an informal way of saying "liqueur". When I first heard that phrase I assumed that no one actually said it, but now I know better. Learning!

(Our usual method of determining which phrases are actually used by normal people is to have Jack repeat it to the French woman at his office. He can usually tell just by looking at her facial expression whether it's a go or no-go.)

After edging out of the Tour and Taxis visit a few minutes early, I headed up in the direction of the royal residence to take in the Museum of Funerary Arts, another place that was not regularly open to the public. It was across the street from the Notre Dame du Laeken where the royal family members are buried. I rushed in about a half hour before closing and immediately acted like I didn't know any pertinent language, for fear that the guy at the front desk was telling people photos were not allowed. It was a small museum, dedicated to showcasing the work of 3 generations of sculptors from the Salu family, who had been making monuments for the Laeken cemetery for 100 years up until the 1980s and whose workshop it was. It was strangely frozen in time, as if the tools set aside for just a moment until another generation of Salus took up the hammer and chisel. I'm not really sure what the point of the place was, but we had peered in the windows with curiosity the times we had been in the area, so I'm glad I got an opportunity to check it out.

On the way to the tram stop I saw an African woman dressed in her Sunday best bent over in front of a mail slot in a door, alternately shouting in it and stabbing in it with a stick. What could have possibly been on the other side? At the tram stop itself, two children were trying to get into an apartment by pounding on the front door to the building and shouting up to the second floor windows to no avail, followed by the younger girl crying and the older boy playing with a soccer ball. An older relative eventually came down the street, soothed them and let them in.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Three American products you can find on store shelves.

Sure, America is everywhere. But there's less infiltration into the grocery store market here than you might think. At a regular-sized store (meaning covering a similar area to one at home) you can find sodas and some sugar cereals and snack foods, of course, but beyond that, not much. Culinarily speaking, the US isn't all that. Every once in a while, though, something familiar will catch your eye and remind you that we have contributed a word or two to the international dialogue that is food:
  • Ocean Spray Cranberries; always around this time of year

  • Tabasco brand tabasco sauce (although I bought Louisiana brand because it was like 2 cents cheaper--totally not worth it)

  • Philadelphia cream cheese, which seems to be on some kind of astonishingly thorough marketing campaign, such that a variety of the quicky sandwich shops (even the non-chain ones) have "Philadelphia" sandwiches. I just noticed the packages in the grocery store for the first time the other day, although the sandwiches have been advertised for at least 6 months. I tried fromage blanc on my bagels the one time we made them, and it just wasn't the same (the texture wasn't creamy enough), so I'm looking forward to some real cream cheese next time.

Also of note is the fact that small children speaking French is just about the cutest thing ever.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Oy vey. So very behind.

We went to the Netherlands in August, a few weeks after returning from Germany. We had planned on staying in Amsterdam, but since we were only a couple days away from our departure date when we made our plans, everything within reason was already taken. We ended up in Haarlem, a 15-minute train ride outside of town, which was considerably cheaper. The train cost €6, which I believe was round-trip, but if you get a ticket that's valid for the whole weekend and they don't stamp it, then you can reuse it. Not that we would advocate this sort of behavior.

We got to Amsterdam on Friday around noon and, after having lunch in a charming restaurant called First Class in the train station, just wandered around all day. As we walked, I discovered that my mental geography of the city was significantly different than how it was actually laid out. It's good that we didn't rely on my memory. Later we had a beer at a lovely cafe by one of the canals. We got a good spot outdoors for people-watching, and later discovered that it was mentioned by our guidebook--the first time we've ended up at a recommended place by chance.

By late afternoon we were ready to kick back for a while, so we took the train to Haarlem and checked into our place. After a decent but extremely slow meal at an Italian place that seemed to favor the better-dressed patrons on the ground floor to us schlubs upstairs, we walked the dark streets of the quiet little town for a bit.

We spent the next morning exploring the hofjes in Haarlem. Hofjes are enclosed courtyards with small dwellings surrounding them. Most are open to the public but semi-private in nature in that you generally have to open a door and go through a passage to get to them, and can only see them during visiting hours. There always seem to be older women sunning themselves in them, and they always seem to find some task in their homes that requires their immediate attention when outsiders arrive.

We also checked out the grander of the two St. Bavo churches in town. It was full of interesting little touches throughout. Our favorite was the dog beaters' chapel. They had problems back in the day that people in this modern age can't conceive of, such as dogs attacking patrons of churches or perhaps coming inside and disrupting services. So they hired dog beaters to keep them at bay. So grateful were the people of St. Bavo's that they built the guys a chapel of their own, decorated by carvings of men beating dogs.

Built into the sides of the church were squat cottages containing shops. We checked out the old fish market where they were hosting a free art exhibit. The artist had taken white batting and placed it throughout the building to give the appearance of snow drifts. We put on booties and walked around in the softness and pretended to be cold. There was also an upside-down replica of the church rendered in lace hanging from the ceiling (behind Jack in the photo) and some fake bodies covered in shrouds, but it was all about the snow for us.

We then made our way into Amsterdam to check out the Van Gogh museum. Having printed out our tickets in advance, we avoided the lines of about 5 people deep at the admission booth. All our saved time was subsequently lost since the ticket reader couldn't get the hang of the UPCs we printed out on the ink jet printer. The museum was really crowded, but there was some interesting stuff I hadn't seen before.

After that we took the free ferry across to the other part of Amsterdam across the Ij. It was not at all touristy or canal-y, and therefore interesting in its normalcy (a mosque at left). At the port for the return journey was a fabulous Italian snack shop that I'm totally going to again if I'm ever in the area.

We crossed back and went to a small museum in one of the canal houses. The upper story of this home contained a Catholic church. Apparently, back in the day, being Catholic in the Netherlands was frowned upon, so they had to worship in secret. In this case it was a pretty open secret, as the churchgoers would all assemble at this guy's house at a certain time on Sundays. Many people also had prayer corners in their own homes designed for easy hiding. And some built elaborate religious scenes in bottles--much better than ships, if you ask me.

We found a bar overlooking a canal crossroads and watched the early evening traffic go by. There was a blind corner there, but no collisions occurred. There were occasional traffic jams, however. It was a great people watching opportunity--the solitary couple having cocktails on the much-too-large wood-paneled boat piloted by a dapper captain, the party boats playing thumping music and cruising the waters for members of the opposite (or same) sex, the penny-pinching boaters in their aluminum launches with a cooler of beer, the loungers with glasses of wine and a boat full of pillows. Also a boat with a guy painting a portrait of another person on board, advertising an open house at a school.

More wandering commenced, ending in dinner. Having had a pretty small lunch we were psyched to try the Indonesian rice table. Amazingly, one of the places in our guidebook actually had available tables, so we sat ourselves down and got ready for a feast. A rice table is composed of rice and a dozen or more different dishes. We concluded that we were in for a LOT of food, as we ordered the one with like 20 dishes. Once they arrived, we discovered that each was only a couple of bites of food, and although it was still more than we could finish, there wasn't a ton left as I thought there might be. Perfect for a grazer. Delicious and satisfying.

Having done the full-on tourist thing that day, we decided to complete the evening by going on a canal cruise. We succeeded in taking an awful lot of blurry night shots and having a lovely time.

Sunday, the day of rest, we rented bikes at the Haarlem train station and rode west. The bikes were old beaters that cost us €6 each to rent. They had coaster brakes and for the life of me I just could not get the hang of them--I think my normal foot position when I come to rest has to be modified. We wanted to go to the seaside, but the rental guy didn't have any maps and the Tourist Information center was closed. So we just...followed the signs. No problem. I would like to say we got some exercise, but it's about a 5 km ride to the water, nearly all flat. We took a lot of photos while biking to prove that we did it and to add some danger to the ride.

After taking in the North Sea we traveled down to Zandvoort, a lovely resort town. The beach was populated by small vacation shacks that I'm assuming didn't contain indoor plumbing as well as a number of bar/restaurants with various themes, one of which was Brussels. Ours had a weathered Caribbean shack look to it, and it was adjacent to the Cuban place. There didn't seem to be much variation on the menus, surprisingly. All the establishments had wind breaks, and some formed a warren of glassed-in rooms that people were tanning nakedly in. I'm not sure why health codes wouldn't prevent such a thing, but hey.

Following lunch it was time to conclude our trip, so we took the other way around back to Haarlem. Once in town we stopped by the other St. Bavo church, which was an Art Deco building that, although free to the visiting public (the first St. Bavo was €2), was virtually empty aside from us and the 3 old men who were staffing the information desk. Then we rode around a bit more, delaying the inevitable, went into the main square for beers and bitterballen (which were surprisingly not bitter), returned the bikes, hopped on the train, and headed home, towards new adventures yet to be realized.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Jack's birthday greetings announced by a bevy of frogs that surrounded the bird blind in which we were sitting last May. At first I thought we had discovered the mating call of some rare bird, and then eventually I spotted one of the culprits. The close listener will be rewarded by hearing Jack say "ribbit" about midway through. I can't hold the camera still because I'm giggling too much.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The next day, a Sunday, was another beautiful one. We went down for breakfast and were greeted by an astonishingly large buffet. Just as we were concluding our meal, D and T popped into the breakfast room. How do they do that??

We decided to check out the palace situated at the center of the wheel that is Karlsruhe--concentric streets connected by spoke streets running towards the palace. The grounds behind the palace were taken up by a lovely park. Shortly after arriving I realized there was a mini-train, and by gum if I didn't make it my mission to be on it. Once it opened for the day I went to buy tickets. The guy sized us up and told me he'd give me a group discount if I kept my friends in line. As if we were a bunch of hoodlum kids! Well, we WERE the only ones on the train without children, so naturally we must be up to no good. In reality, I just like me a mini-train.

This was no ordinary mini-train; it was wood-fired. As we cruised around, I waved to almost everyone we passed (except those tanning), and people responded with mostly blank stares. D and T took all this in with good grace, and didn't immediately conclude that I was insane, which was nice. Upon exiting, I wanted to pitch a fit and make them go around again, but sense got the better of me.

We then visited a fountain that contained polyp-like sculptural rock formations protruding from the ground. Water was mostly cascading down the sides of it, and walking between the polyps, like a cleaner shrimp out for its daily constitutional, provided a refreshing respite from the sun due to the light precipitation falling within. We continued on our stroll until we reached a playground. There was a zipwire we all had a go on, and I took too long a spin on a barfinator, causing me some serious queasiness. There was a small pool with an island in the center, and kids were paddling around on rafts using large sticks that seemed to have been collected from the nearby forest. Kids love water, and they all looked like they were having a good time. Our litigious American society has largely caused such pastimes to to disappear, sadly.

Once we milked all the enjoyment out of the palace grounds, we crossed it off our list, said "Done!", and went to have some sausage sandwiches. We sauntered our way back to the train station for the ride back to Cologne, taking our time and getting some ice cream on the way (I got a pretzel, which was called a "brezel", one "t" away from the French spelling). D and T saw us to our train, and then went to spend the afternoon at the zoo. We, on the other hand, had a rather dull 3-hour ride ahead of us.

About a half hour into the ride things started to get interesting. Instead of the more direct north-south route that we took on the way there, we began following the west bank of the Rhine. At first this was merely pleasant, because it was different than the ride down, but then we began seeing large castles dotting the hillsides of the opposite bank. Lots and lots of castles. Some were in a state of disrepair, but others were in good upkeep and appeared to be in use. It was pretty amazing to think that that many royals lived in such close proximity to one another at one time--perhaps they were all part of a large extended family or something. It was a hot day, and sunny on our side, so we had the window open and the shade down, and everytime a train came by going the opposite way, the window would snap shut. After about the fifth time of reopening it, Jack gave up with a shrug. You think you know wind currents until something like this happens.

We got to Cologne in the early evening, checked into our hotel, and set about getting our bearings and finding something to eat. Cologne has very few surviving buildings from the pre-WWII era, so aside from the cathedral there's not much to see charm-wise. But the town is nice anyway, people are friendly and used to tourists, and they put out a decent beer called Kölsch. We found ourselves a lovely spot on a terrace close to the river, had a nice meal, and continued meandering through the streets. Once the sun started setting, we positioned ourselves on the opposite bank of the Rhine to catch the light dying behind the cathedral, and took a lot of blurry pictures.

The next day, after a breakfast that left a lot to be desired compared with the previous day's feast, we checked out and promised ourselves that we would make the most of the day before heading back. The first stop was the cathedral. The tower had just opened for the day and we decided to make the climb. It was indeed a climb. There were none of the stopping off points like in the Bruges tower until you got to the belfry. Lawdy, it was a haul. At the next stop there was a lovely kiosk built into the center of the tower, which at this height was open to the air. I assume that it was staffed to assist any visitors who were feeling faint, but I imagine it would be an odd place to work, so far removed from your colleagues. You'd have to be in pretty good shape, as well. Maybe there was a secret elevator behind one of the unmarked doors we passed on the way up. From there, a short staircase led us to the top. There were great views of the city and the river, and there was a LOT of graffiti. We saw an American family encouraging their children to write on the church. What is up with that?

On our way back down there were a lot more people huffing their way up than there was a half hour before, so we congratulated ourselves for our decision (which was in reality pretty much happenstance) to go up early, before the heat set in. The interior of the church, as T had warned us, was nothing special, just extremely big.

Our next stop was an hour-long cruise on the river. This was a steal at under €7. The tinny, inaudible tape recording in several languages put a damper on the educational aspect of the cruise, so we mostly just sat there and baked under the midday sun. The lowlight of the tour was the "beach" on the bank that was entirely given over to old nude sunbathers. The highlight was...well, there was no highlight, really. It was just nice to be out there enjoying the sun and breeze and stuff. And there was an interesting mushroom-shaped building on the bank at one point, perhaps a closed revolving restaurant. I waved to people on shore.

Then came lunch: a delicious sausage platter for both of us while sitting by an open doorway in a shady restaurant. It was nice to hear the German burble around us as we ate our tubed meats and drank Kölsch from tiny glasses. I later discovered that the 0.2 liter glasses are the traditional size for serving Kölsch. You end up ordering a lot of beer this way, especially on a warm day. But such is life. You've gotta go with the flow.

Cologne had a lot of churches that were lovingly refurbished to their original appearance after the war, so we looked at some of those. We wandered in the old but renovated city hall (which features a statue graphically mooning passersby below from a squatting position) and watched an older couple exiting after having been married, grinning goofily and surrounded by family.

That was about it, really.