Friday, May 25, 2007

M&D, Part 2

More beer, as it turns out. We went to the Cantillon brewery and took the tour and sampled the wares. People are always asking me for directions and so on, but nearly always the person is asking in French. I have no idea why this is--maybe the French speakers are more befuddled or more likely to travel without a map, or just have fewer hangups about asking than the rest of the world. Who knows. But with my parents around, Americans felt more comfortable approaching us to ask for advice. Two women had taken a cruise from Amsterdam and had apparently run into the same issue with closed museums, and the tourist information office put them in a cab and sent them over to Cantillon. The neighborhood looks pretty blighted if your eyes aren't open to its charms, and they weren't sure the best way to get back to their accommodations. I showed them where they were and where they were staying, and they decided to take a cab back. Probably for the best.

My dad didn't cotton to the gueuze, unfortunately, but that's probably because his sample wasn't large enough. He had enjoyed the kriek he consumed with his mussels, but the kriek at Cantillon was something else altogether: fruity, but not at all sweet; nothing except a waft of cherry between you and the sour hit of lambic. Delightful, but not to everyone's taste.

Following naps and a trip to the grocery for my parents, at which they agonized over the bread selection because the store was out of the one variety suitable for sandwiches, we went to the Ultieme Hallucinatie, an interesting space with lots of strange Art Nouveau touches. I had a misunderstanding with the waiter about the beer, and he arrived at our table with a Hoegaarden, which I reluctantly pointed out wasn't what I had ordered. Fortunately, it didn't go to waste and was delivered to a woman sitting by herself, already deeply in her cups and very quiet and far away, who finished off several more beers while we ate. I had morels in a cream sauce with pasta, and the morels were meaty and divine.

Tuesday, which was a holiday, I put them on the train to Bruges with some maps and suggestions. At the train station, while buying tickets, I noticed the option to purchase tickets for seniors, and it turns out they were incredibly cheap. Makes me look forward to old age, although they will have probably raised the bar on seniorship by then. We employed the discount throughout the remainder of the trip.

From what I hear, my parents had a lovely time in Bruges complete with hanging out at a bar with a bunch of singing rowdies. I had a quiet day of being crushed to within an inch of my life at a giant annual flea market (I thought it was going to be a secret gem, but since most everything else was closed that day, the entire city showed up) accompanied by a lovely grilled sausage sandwich eaten in a grassy oasis of calm.

Wednesday was the day we were to visit the royal greenhouses, because at my suggestion they had scheduled their trip around the dates it was open. I made the mistake of taking them there the longest possible way, involving a single tram ride that describes a wide arc around the city. It was very pleasant, but better suited to a day with unlimited time. The gardens were lovely, and appropriately astonishing to the visitors, and as different as day and night from the experience a few days prior for me. The fuchsias dripped from the ceiling of the glass passageway while a myriad geraniums climbed the walls. The tropical trees in lush green hues scraped the sky of the central atrium. Hydrangeas billowed out of every corner and orchids gracefully punctuated the scene here and there. We made sure to use the greenhouse's bathrooms, the toilet seats hand-scrubbed after each use by the hardest-working Madame Pipi of all time. And she wasn't even actively shilling for tips!

And then over to the Atomium, where two guys were rappelling down the side to do some cleaning. We had to haul a bit due to all the lost time on the tram, which didn't make my parents terribly happy. But then they got a bit of a break while I did my work, and they subsequently went over to the Horta house for a visit (senior discount) and then to the Wednesday market for strawberries, using a detailed map I had drawn them of the neighborhood since I lost my good visitor's map the day before on the metro. As I had an evening conference call, I supped on ramen while Jack and my parents found a new neighborhood gem.

Jack took Thursday off to make up for the holiday earlier in the week. To break up the monotony of having fantastic coffee and delicious croissants every morning, we went out for breakfast at a nearby spot. Jack and I had coffee and croissants, naturally, while my mom had goat cheese on bread and my dad had an omelet. We saw one of Jack's colleagues walking to work outside the window, which would have proved something, surely, if my parents had seen him as well. I bravely tried the Sirop de Liege on a slice of bread, and it turns out that it's quite tasty--like apple butter but a bit sweeter and finer-textured. Could this be the European condiment I decide I can't live without, purchasing it at outrageous prices at specialty shops in the US? The coffee was good, but naturally not as good as the hotel's.

We spent some time in the art museum (senior discount), the parents and chilluns visiting the old and new sections, respectively. My mom was impressed by the young age of the children being exposed to the art on class field trips, and the earnestness of the docents helping them understand what they were seeing. She was also wowed by the carpeting in the ancient art section, which she referred to as suede-like.

Because Jack felt they hadn't really experienced many of the highlights of the Belgian cuisine to the fullest extent, we stopped by the Chapel Church for frites with mayo. Unfortunately they don't serve them in the paper cone there; creating the cones is a masterful art that is quite mesmerizing to watch, and half the fun of getting fries. My mom snapped some photos of us noshing away with our tiny plastic forks. We then visited the church, which is where one of the Brueghel ("pronounced BROY-gull," my dad says sagely, for he remembers this random fact from an art history class he took in college) clan had a hasty wedding. Subsequently we went to the junk market at Place Jeu de Balle, and then for another break at a sit-down waffle place.

They then bought some chocolates for the folks back home, and we took the metro to the Parc du Cinquantenaire, in a last ditch effort to cram in some culture on their remaining afternoon. We recently discovered that the arch had a viewing platform on the top that was open to the public. Unfortunately the museum through which you access the stairs was closing for the day, so we had to make do with a visit to the park grounds. A walk through some other areas in the European Quarter readied us for dinner, so we made our way back downtown to go to the beer restaurant. We had the same waiter as always, but this time we let him talk us into the aperitif of white beer with kir in it, which was pleasantly refreshing (and, as promised by the French waiter, "it will not give you a 'angover.") The table next to ours was full of Americans as well, and they desperately wanted our opinion on the other restaurants they had made reservations at, none of which we had heard of. I had some really good meatballs. That place might be touristy, but they create out some worthwhile dishes.

We stopped a final time at the Grand Place to sip decaf in the gathering twilight at one of the restaurants there. Et voila! The trip was over. I took them to the train station the next morning for their Parisian extravaganza.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

M&D, Part 1

May marked our 1-year anniversary of living in Brussels and brought us our first visitors of the year (well, late April, actually, but who's quibbling?). My parents were doing a London-Brussels-Paris tour, and we met them at the train station after they took the Chunnel across.

Our first order of business was to get them checked in at their hotel. Although it was one of the few reasonably-priced places close to our house, I had looked it up on the web prior to their arrival and some of the comments made me a bit nervous, indicating that the owner was hostile and unaccommodating. We got there, rung the bell and were let in by the proprietor. She showed my parents how to use all the keys and told them not to let anyone in, because gypsies would try to give them a sob story about having lost their keys and then gain entrance and rob the place blind. She then declared that she wouldn't show us up to the room or help us with the bags, on account of the fact that she had just had knee surgery recently. She sat on a bench in the passage, pulled up her hem and showed us an old scar that wormed its way down her knee as evidence. I'm not sure why she thought we needed help, able bodied as we were, so we weren't inconvenienced.

The stairwell was full of stained glass and knickknacks, very quaint. Their room was tiny, with not much space for anything other than the bed, but sleep is sleep. Their window overlooked a tiny garden below. I was heartened to see they had a fan in their room, as the weather had been quite warm and might be unpleasant if you didn't have a cross breeze. Before they had even unlocked the door, the phone was ringing. It was the owner, two flights below, making sure everything was to their liking. Customer service at its best.

After a light lunch we commenced wandering, visiting the Sablon, the in-town palace, and an outdoor exhibit of aerial photos taken around the world. Before we knew it, it was dinnertime so we took them to our favorite moules-frites place. I had mine in diable sauce, which was good but difficult to sop up with just mussels and fries. Jack offered me €5 to drink out of the pot, so I did. I didn't need monetary persuasion, though, so I graciously turned down the cash (which anyone in their right mind should realize is legally mine, anyway).

The next day was Sunday, and they had asked us to take us to an interesting church service. Not being well-versed in the religious offerings of the area, I picked out the Notre Dame du Sablon, definitely one of the favorites for us and visitors, since there's a lot to look at. Much to our chagrin, the entire back of the church was closed for renovation, so everyone was crammed in the front, where a few rows of chairs had been set up. I had been looking forward to sitting in the waaay back, staring at some creepy gravestone entombed in the wall or some such while the priest's sonorous and unintelligible French ricocheted off the ceiling, columns, windows from every angle. After we were seated, the priest asked everyone to move closer, so he probably would've done the same if the whole church was open. The best part was the mini pipe organ they were using, which had these perfectly-formed doors to close over the pipes to muffle the sound. The organist periodically opened and closed them during the service, the hinges whining in protest.

We headed out for the Grand Place, which was overrun with scouts celebrating some kind of scouting anniversary. Having had enough of that, we took in the Mannekin and then visited a bar across the street. We strongly encouraged my mom to get the Kwak beer, which is something every tourist should be talked into, but somehow it managed to elude us in the past. Jack visited the restroom and reported back that the way there was filled with puppets. And scouts.

After lunch, we went to see some Art Nouveau stuff down by the Ixelles ponds (where I took a great spy photo of an amorous couple on the other side using my dad's huge telephoto lens) and then on to the Abbaye de la Cambre, which has some old buildings and gardens. There were more scouts. I had wandered down there by myself on a warm spring night not too long before, and was astonished to find a jazz band jamming in a courtyard. Jack was somewhat incredulous that I had witnessed this random bit of culture, but the selfsame band (who I suspect are students at the art school housed in one of the Abbaye's buildings) was playing when we went there with my parents. Vindication! We listened for a while, and as it was getting on towards dinnertime, I decided to make a foray into the Bois to visit the cafe there that I had attempted to go to several times previously (initially I couldn't find it, and then it was closed for the season). Happily, we found ourselves a nice table, enjoyed a beer, and then went out for Thai.

Every morning my parents reiterated what wonderful coffee they'd had at the hotel. The great croissants and yogurt and on and on...I was quite impressed by the spread they were offered, given that simple rolls and coffee seem to be the norm. Monday, after failing to send them off to the art museum due to its normal Monday closure, we went to the cathedral, much of which was off-limits as well because a service was starting. We visited the Galeries St. Hubert (like Parkington except nice) and then took in the Grand Place again, this time mercifully free of throngs of kids, and after a look at some of the original city walls and a too long sojourn for food, we lunched in the middle of a dust storm brought on by the drought, complete with little green bugs dropping out of the trees into everything. Monday wasn't getting a lot of popularity points. What was next? A general transit strike??

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Late April-early May is when the royal greenhouses are open to the public on the grounds of the residential palace. I had been the previous year by myself, stumbling upon it by accident, but I wanted to make sure that Jack got a chance to experience it and didn't relish the prospect of going during the busy weekend days. On weekends they are open at night, for some reason.

It's strange that a place that's normally so well-guarded would let the public tramp about for a couple weeks, and in particular at night when it would be extremely easy to dash off the path into darkness when a guard's back was turned, and then live off the fat of the land (fishing in the ponds, trapping small mammals, eating fiddleheads and mushrooms and wild strawberries, finding the crop of wacky weed that the black sheep prince surely grows in a hidden spot somewhere) for a couple weeks until an opportunity to escape presented itself. The darkness also lent a hint of intrigue that wouldn't otherwise be there: no streaming sunlight on the happy plants, and the spotlights often emphasized the plants' forms while the colorful flowers receded into the background, a dramatic role reversal. It was very cool.

Afterwards we walked by the church where the royals are buried and snapped some interesting photos. We ended up going back to the church a week later to visit the royal crypt, which turned out to be an extremely plain subterranean room. No pomp or nothin'. The graveyard surrounding the church is much more worthwhile.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Jack and I went to Antwerp last month. The express purpose was to see an exhibit of Flemish religious art from back in the day. We never made it to the museum, deciding instead to wander the streets gawking at stuff, as per usual. It was a really nice day and I just couldn't see us spending the time indoors shuffling from one painting to the next.

We had lunch at a restaurant that had rescued parts of Horta's Art Nouveau building Maison du Peuple, which was located in Brussels and torn down in the '60s to be replaced with an unremarkable office building. Other parts of the building have been incorporated into a tram stop in Brussels, and the rest is probably quietly rusting away somewhere.

Later we spent some time hanging out in the main square, where there's a statue/fountain of a guy who had just slain a giant. This has to do with the legend of the city's founding, as the young feller kills the giant, who has been making like difficult for the citizenry, and cuts off his hand. In the statue, the guy's in mid-toss, about to chuck the hand into the river. There's water spouting from the severed wrist. On the back side of the statue, where we sat, the giant lies dead at the feet of the hero. There is water spitting out of a variety of holes in the giant's body where he had received his mortal wounds. Wouldn't it be great if they took one of those staid statues of an unknown Civil War hero on his horse, bored a few holes in it in historically accurate locations, and hooked it up to the water supply? Instant notoriety.

After visiting some churches and drinking some beer, we were ready for dinner. The place we ended up was decent, but nothing exceptional. I had the eel in green sauce, which was not as good as the eel I had in Bruges. The highlight of the meal was undoubtedly when Jack excused himself to use the bathroom after finishing his dinner. I sat there looking into the middle distance for a moment, quietly enjoying thinking about nothing, when something caught my peripheral vision. Jack's napkin had unfurled from its crumpled position and caught on fire in the candle!

Turns out, nothing hushes a room more quickly than someone waving a flaming object. I whipped the burning napkin around in the space between tables as everyone turned to stare. ("Americans are so gauche, always needing to be the center of attention," I'm sure they were all whispering.) After a couple of flaps it was no longer actively alight but still smoldering, ready to burst back into flame as soon as I stopped, so I then proceeded to pound it on the table (on my paper placemat, naturally) to extinguish the glow. Everyone then turned back to their dining companions and the normal conversational hum resumed. The whole thing didn't last more than a few seconds, but I'm sure it was an evening's worth of entertainment in the repeated retelling for some. Who knew they'd get dinner AND a show?

The waiter came around to clear up the table, and I decided to play it cool thinking that there was a chance he wouldn't immediately toss me out for having allowed such a dangerous thing to occur. He noticed the burnt napkin and the black char marks on the placemat and said, "You had a little accident?" So I fessed up and apologized. He was very understanding and removed the offending articles. There was no evidence that anything amiss occurred by the time Jack returned to the table. I could be making this anecdote up--you'll never know.

On the train ride home, we got an upper berth so we could better watch the countryside fly by under cover of darkness. Jack was keeping an eye on two guys who were clearly plastered a few seats back from us. One of them kept speaking in a low, monotonous voice occasionally punctuated by loud gurgles. The whole thing seemed like an incident waiting to happen.

Sure enough, not long into our ride the more sober of the two came around to our seats hawking Liza Minnelli t-shirts from her 2006 tour (she had a show in Antwerp that evening). I declined to take one, and thankfully he moved on quickly without being insistent. As he went down the aisle, it became clear that he was giving them away for free. One person tried to give him some money and he seemed to indicate that the offer was breaking his heart. He ended up handing out about a dozen, including one to Jack. He was very sincere in his approach, and people began making a sport of it, asking for a second shirt or a different size to get a rise out of him. If I had been able to compose the sentence in French (we only had our Dutch dictionary with us, but everyone on the train was speaking French or, in the case of one elderly couple, Russian) I definitely would have asked everyone to hold up their shirt for a photo.