Thursday, March 29, 2007

Another weekend that practically defies explanation: 3/24-25.

Saturday we went to CERIA, a trade school (and yet so much more) that was having an open house. I wasn't sure if it was more for people considering enrolling or everyone, but there were all kinds of tempting items in the announcement, so we had to check it out. Plus I had been intrigued by it since I first came across it (as described here). What was it? Why did it look abandoned yet under renovation? It was time to find out.

Disciplines covered at some level that we saw or were mentioned:
- chocolate, candy, pastry, bread, other food making
- chemistry, including beer making, odors, and paint
- microbiology
- hotel school
- phys ed
- floral arts
- photography
- decorative food arts: swans out of vegetables, inedible sugar sculptures, full-size landscapes of fruit
- and so on.

There were young people in black suits and red ties passing out brochures at the front gate, looking like they were straight out of an MTV video from the 80s. We followed the flow of traffic into a building containing a room filled with chocolate sculptures, including this full-size depiction of Einstein in a classroom of chocolate (the theme of the open house was "Alimentary, my dear Einstein!" ["Alimentaire, mon cher Einstein!"]). Then we went up the stairs and saw some chocolate making, and were offered the meltiest chocolate ever--your fingers just oozed right on in. Very sloppy eating. After some soft-serve ice cream, marshmallows and caramels, the latter of which we bought after sampling (after all, we are not total mooches), we went on and saw some bread making. They put the dough in a machine called a roller to make...rolls. It was pretty cool: the guy pus a loaf-sized piece of dough on a plate in there and pulls down the outsized handle (like one for an olde-tyme water pump) to close it. The thing vibrates around wildly for a few seconds, and the plate comes out with a bunch of perfectly formed spheres. Rad.

There was a room where a woman was making delicate sugar hearts as if they were blown glass. There was a corridor full of breads made into crustaceans. There was a waffle stand. Jack bought a waffle and we lumbered off to the building across the street. I'm not sure how the skills taught in this one differed from the first, except that they were making more complicated foods there: quiches and cakes and tarts and such. I had a bite of tuna served on a spoon, like an amuse bouche in a fancy restaurant.

Then we wandered off the beaten path and visited the chemistry/biochemistry building. Whereas the other parts were full of people of all ages buying delicious treats, this one seemed to contain only prospective students. We went up to one lab where they offered us a bite of whipped cream mixed with coconut, and then dipped into liquid nitrogen for an instant freeze. That's lab safety for you. That particular room was dedicated to odors, and they claimed to have solved a problem that Chimay was having with off aromas in their beer. We went into the microbiology lab and the guy went through his spiel in French, which was okay since many of the techniques were familiar. Then...the Paint Lab. Man, could that kid talk. It's not that his discussion (in English) of the vagaries of paint adherence and color matching wasn't interesting, but. There. Was. No. Food.

Downstairs was the beer lab, where another talk in French netted us a glass of pilsner. Since most of the group was leaving as we were arriving, we got singled out for some extra attention with an explanation of the beer ingredients, not too difficult to understand since we knew what everything was. At the end, in French, the woman asked if we had any questions. We said no, she seemed to think this was inadequate, so I added "C'est bon," and she said "C'est bon? Bleh, bleh, bleh". I don't know what. But at least she left us alone then.

After that, we mainly wandered around and saw the rest of the campus, and saw people swimming in the pool, checked out a photo exhibit and some other decorative arts, mostly trying to avoid being talked to or at. Many of the exhibits were shutting down at this point, as it was towards the end of the day. On the way out there were two giant bins of apples, and as a parting gift, the school offered one per person. I took my one while the woman next to me filled her shopping bag.

We wandered around the southern part of Anderlecht, the commune where I've increasingly come to conclude that everything interesting takes place, and then caught the metro home. As perhaps mentioned, all the metro stops have different art in them. This one had a colorful flying craft.

Sunday: even weirder?
There was an article in the weekly English-language magazine that described a company near Brussels that had constructed some buildings to show us what the future will look like. There's a house that is clad in a skin of metal slats that helps control the internal light and temperature. Sounds like a good idea! They haven't really focused on how life will improve for the average denizen of Belgium, though. My crystal ball predicts that life will be radically different for Belgians in the future. Changes may include:

+ Window screens. This major technological advance keeps flying insects from entering the house, and in particular mosquitoes can't get in and bite your face while you sleep.

+ Extended store hours. While this revolutionary idea isn't exactly "state-of-the-art", it would allow working people to shop for groceries at their leisure rather than cramming the aisles between 7-8 in the evening, pushing through the crowds with a half-crazed gleam in their eyes. It might cause a drop in revenue for the restaurant trade (and, in fact, they might be the shadowy cabal behind this conspiracy), but if restaurants themselves offered better food and/or service (newsflash: it is not a good business plan to open a middling Italian restaurant 2 doors down from a middling Italian restaurant), perhaps even takeout or (gasp!) delivery, they'd probably be fine. [This is not to say that there aren't good restaurants here; there are plenty, but there's also a lot of really terrible ones that are probably a front for the criminal underworld. How else would they stay open and yet remain always ominously empty?]

+ Street signs. This safety innovation specifies exactly who has the right of way at intersections. Ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking the law, but ignorance also causes accidents. UPDATE: Belgium recently passed a law that cars driving the wrong way down a one-way street do NOT have the right of way when entering traffic from the right. This is a step in the right direction!

+ Clean sidewalks free of multiple tripping hazards. I don't get the old-world charm of small paving stones and dog poop. I'd rather have clean, hazard-free concrete. Press in some patterns if you like to stare at squares. They make some really nice sidewalks out of recycled tires, for those who are ecologically conscious. For those who like to stare at turds, I got nothing.

+ Hoverbikes, Star-Trekky outfits, talking computers, gelatinous super-foods in tiny packets, all the normal Epcot-y stuff.

I know this is a radical vision, and it will take time and money and perseverance to achieve, but if Belgium wishes to enter the 21st century at long last, then they're going to have to make some changes around here.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Weekend in review.
(3/3 - 3/5 was the arts fest known as BRXLBRAVO, where €10 gives you entry into dozens of places around town [many of which normally charge admission] as well as free public transport for the whole weekend.)

0. Swung by ISELP to see their photo exhibit and they weren't open yet, even though they were supposed to be.
1. Went to Place Royale and saw the giant sandwich board entitled "Dear Prudence". It was up, but all was still very quiet.
2. Down the hill to check out the genetically-modified strawberries in "Strawberry Fields", but they were absent. I thought maybe the kids in the orange hats were supposed to be representative of the strawberries, which is not that far-fetched once you get to know these European arts fests, but it soon became clear that they were merely a tour group.
3. Went to the bookstore and purchased "Germs, Guns and Steel".
4. Gave directions to 2 groups of people in French. I hope they got where they were going.
5. Went to the Asian grocery and got Assam tea for Jack and shrimp chips for me.
6. Saw the maze set up in Place St. Catherine, but didn't go in for fear that the cluster of people outside it was just waiting for someone to get up the nerve to check it out, at which point they'd pounce and get all performance-arty on them.
6. At La Centrale Electrique, viewed a wonderful exhibit of photos by African artists of all nationalities. It was large but not overwhelming and very well put together.
7. Over in St. Gilles, checked out the "moving portraits" installed on the glass of a storefront.
8. Got home in time for lunch. I was wiped out.
9. Took a break in the mid-afternoon to take a look at the architectural installation at Flagey--it appeared as if the plastic houses were still getting their finishing touches.
10. Convinced Jack to visit the plastic houses a second time in the dark, but there wasn't much more to look at.
11. Ate pizza.
12. Bed.

1. Went to ISELP again. The exhibit was small, and the photos were behind tables in a cafe, so it was difficult to see them without getting in people's faces.
2. Back to the giant sandwich board. Now they had a bunch of mattresses piled at the bottom, and the ladder up to the top was open. People seemed to be enjoying the view from the top, but no one got up the gumption to jump while we were there.
3. The GM strawberries were hung, but sadly were not that interesting.
4. Across the street, the music museum was hosting a display of an "interactive room". It was small, interesting, and strange, but we mainly were awed by their collection of mundane and bizarre instruments (mechanical people on a player piano are shown). We didn't spend much time there, due to our punishing arts schedule for the weekend, but we'll be back.
5. Stopped by Pierre Marcolini to pick up some chocolates.
6. We almost missed "Cars and Composers" in Place Poelaert because of the distraction of the music museum, but we caught the tail end: souped-up hot rods blasting classical music. Some of the car owners had already gotten bored with the concept and had rolled up the windows so as to enjoy their own choice of tunes.
6.5 Took the tram from one stop to the next because we could.
7. Over to Molenbeek to see if we could catch up with one of the parades, but we were too late. And, by this point, starving. We wandered around for a while until our next event started.
8. Encountered a playground with all handmade equipment--the swingsets featured giant cutlery and fried eggs, one could climb on a turtle's back for a vantage point about 2 feet off the ground, and there was a hand protruding out of the ground, holding a knife, cutting a piece of cheese. If only the Belgian children realized how hilarious this was!
9. To the Molenbeek community center, which was hosting a trippy art exhibit as well as dancing and drumming demonstrations for kids. Jack was accosted by mimes while I was in the bathroom, which is apparently his greatest fear, and then on to...
10. Pancake Fest! Pancakes from around the world. Stuffed with potatoes and deep-fried from Tunisia; stretched to windowpane-thinness, refolded and pan-fried from Morocco; nearly-American from Russia (except toppings were jam, honey, concentrated sugar in a tube and/or cream); Breton crepes from France filled with cheese, greens, egg and mushrooms; dry buckwheat pancakes from Belgium topped with brown or powdered sugar; quesadillas from Mexico with homemade guacamole; and blinis. They only charged us one euro each for all this! The Russian women apparently thought Jack looked too thin, because they forced an extra one on him when he came by to borrow some cream for a Moroccan 'cake. As nothing ever, ever starts on time here, we got there a few minutes after the appointed hour and they hadn't really gotten the system down yet. But the first wave of people were the cheap young ones who typically show up at places featuring free or low-cost food. I commented to Jack afterwards that, had it been in DC, we probably would have at least recognized someone, since the same group of people seems to travel from one low-cost event to the next. Later came the people with children and others from the community who had a greater bond to the place and to each other. Everything about it was fab except the timing--we were supposed to arrive at a friend's house for dinner in another 3 hours!
11. Got on the train for the ride to Rixensart. At the second stop, the car filled with 8 year old scouts. The ones that sat at our seat were playing an elaborate version of "Pierre, Papier, Ciseaux" (rock, paper, scissors) in which one kid would show his hands first and then the other, and then the first would react in some comical fashion. Like kids everywhere, they were drawn to Jack and were showing off for his benefit. About 10 minutes into this display, the ringleader caught a bit of our conversation and discovered that we weren't speaking French. This caused a lot of sideways glances like we were some kind of talking animals. He tried to play it off as if everything was still cool, which was going fine until Jack sneezed, and the boy's eyes flew open and he stared at Jack as if he had suddenly sprouted a second head. It was pretty funny.
12. We arrived at our destination and managed to consume our meals without exploding, even though it included individual cheesecakes, birthday cake, and cloudberry and lingonberry liqueurs. The chocolates were a big hit. We kept an eye out for the lunar eclipse as we listened to old-school tunes from Cat Stevens and Sly and the Family Stone. I had promised everyone that the moon was going to be a spectacular blood-red, but apparently NASA was only predicting what it would look like in the US. We did see it, but it was just the regular color. Towards the end there was kind of a brownish cast over it, but that might have been more wishful thinking than anything else.
13. Ride home.
14. Bed.

1. Up early with no breakfast aside from coffee to go to the Horta Pavilion to see the "Human Passions" bas-relief and listen to a concert. We got there a few minutes before the start and were surprised to discover the place wasn't packed. The sculpture was lovely and in good condition considering that it had been cooped up in the decaying building for the last hundred years. The string trio played a selection of short pieces by Bach, and it was great to sit in the front row and experience the intensity of the performers.
2. Breakfast and people-watching in the Galleries St. Hubert.
3. Visit to the 13th century archaeological excavation under the Place Royale featuring an earlier palace, road, church, and assorted other buildings. We've wanted to go there for some time, so this was a good opportunity since it was essentially free. It was interesting to see how the area had changed over time.
4. We had only visited the merest fraction of the things set up for the weekend, and only about half of the items I flagged as worth checking out, and it was still early afternoon, but we were wiped out and our brains were full of new information that needed to be processed, so it was time to call it a day.
5. Washington Post, lounging, napping in some cases.
6. Dinner.
7. Bed.