Wednesday, August 22, 2007

As everyone knows, D was on a top-secret mission to Germany to create an AI thingy for ZKM. Sadly, he was even more isolated than we are--in a relatively small town, not-quite-passable language skills, not many people interested in socializing, and a lot of work. His weekends were his own, though, and so he awoke before dawn one Friday and took the train up to see us on the weekend of National Day.

That day we did the usual: picked him up at the train station, took him around to see the major sights. Since he didn't know much about the city in advance of arriving, it was all a revelation to him. His one goal for the weekend was to eat some sausage. There's definitely something to be said for not over-researching a place before going so you can form opinions about it without outside influences. We went to the city museum, which we hadn't been to before, which contained artifacts from old buildings, a fascinating set of maps from various points in the city's history, and a selection of the Mannekin Pis' many outfits. Later we had dinner at a beer restaurant and introduced him to gueuze. Unlike most initiates D took a liking to the gueuze right away.

The next day we went to check out the National Day scene, which we had missed last year due to having gone to Luxembourg. We got the impression that there was going to be some kind of street festival and a parade, but we were surprised by the scope of it all. We got to look around inside the Palace of Justice, which is almost as intimidating inside as it is outside. I hope I can avoid committing a federal offense for the remainder of my stay. In the square in front of the building, every police and military unit had a tent. There wasn't much of interest to us except a zip wire extending from the top of one of the buildings to the cobblestones below, but Vivaqua and the Red Cross were both handing out free water, in Tetrapaks and square plastic bags, respectively. We took advantage of that, since we didn't bring any of our own.

As we walked down the street towards the palace, we took in the sights going on around us: bands playing, games for kids, people wearing inflatable crowns that looked like brain-sucking spiders, a newspaper from that same day encased in a block of ice, public works machinery, and on and on. The crowd was excited but not rowdy-excited. We stopped at the Sablon and watched a group perform folk dances while we dined on sausage sandwiches, beer and churros. We got free masks on a stick of the king and queen, and I immediately began employing Albert II's head as a fan.

We continued up the street and D bought some dried sausages at a stall, and we stopped in the park across from the palace to take in some shade and eat them. People were already gathering for the parade, which was still a couple hours off at that point. Once we exited the park we discovered that the Belgian Parliament building was open, so we got in line for that.

The building was quite nice, with green carpet representing the Chamber of Representatives one one side of the building and red for the Senate on the other. They had some nice art and antiquities strewn liberally about, including busts of the Prime Ministers on the Senate side. In the center was a connecting passageway that contained life-sized paintings of the royal family through the years. I made the mistake of referring to the current queen as Fabiola (who is the widow of the last king) instead of Paola, and in front of me a man whipped his head around so fast that I knew I had made a critical error.

After the tour, we found a spot to wait for the parade to begin. We were aware that it was more of a review of the troops for the king, who was sitting in a grandstand on the other side of the park from us, so we were undecided about whether it was worth hanging around for. The crowd didn't seem very enthusiastic, but there were a fair number of people. We stuck it out, and were treated to horses with checkered butts, jeeps dressed up like those mop dogs, and many, many marching people whose outfits were slightly different than the outfits of the people in the groups before and after them. Overhead, the entire contingent of military aircraft screamed by, for a grand total of about 10 planes (which we were later told were almost all leased from other countries). Oh, the mighty Belgian forces!

On our way back home to rest up and decide what to do for dinner, we noticed a number of Secret Service-like security agents by the Palace of Justice, and an expectant crowd was beginning to form. We knew it had to be something good, so we found a spot and waited. A tour bus that tried to get through was shooed quickly away. One agent informed another: "twee minuten" (two minutes). A cadre of black Beamers pulled up directly in front of us and...some people in summery formalwear got out. Who else wears hats except royalty?!?? We were titillated by our brush with fame, even though, even though, who cares, you know? They're just people. They just happened to be born into a class system that's overstayed its welcome by a couple hundred years. (For the record, it appeared to be Prince Philippe, Princess Mathilde, Princess Astrid. They met up with another person who arrived separately, perhaps a royal from another country, and it looked like they were placing flowers on one of the many statues to the dead of various wars that surround the square.)

We had some chili at home from one of J's packets, went to the Atomium at sunset as the top ball was open for free that day, then back to the park for fireworks. We got a seat that was only slightly obscured (there's just no good places to watch in a city that doesn't have either large open spaces or major waterways) and enjoyed the show.

Sunday began with coffee and croissants, proceeded to the Musical Instrument Museum, and ended with lunch and chocolates. We got D to his train and saw him off, and he was never heard from again.

Or was he??

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Jack and I went to the Ommegang pageant in July. Last year we went to the parade part, which was simultaneously fascinating and lame, aside from the fact that they gave the onlookers beer, which was just plain great. We had heard that the pageant was something to see, so we got tickets (which was another story in and of itself, albeit a less interesting one).

On the day of the show there was some weather brewing, so we prepared ourselves with rain gear, warm layers, and schnapps. We got to the Grand Place in plenty of time to find our seats and watch the performers limbering up, in the case of the acrobats, or promenading and greeting one another, in the case of the nobility. (Thankfully we had paid for the program, which gave a blow-by-blow accounting of the events in English, and we discovered that many of the people dressed up as nobility were, in fact, actual nobility.)

The whole point of the show was to reenact a procession in which Charles V came to Brussels in 1549 to much fanfare. So about half of it consisted of people in a variety of costumes entering the arena and slowly making their way up to the grandstand set up for the royal party. Everyone's outfit was described in meticulous detail in the program. ("Christine of Denmark, Duchess of Lorraine, blue and gold brocade dress with sumptuous fur wristbands.") It also related, with the benefit of 458 years of hindsight, some of the intrigue going on behind the scenes. You have to pity those who saw it the first time around, because they probably wouldn't have known any of this stuff. Charles V eventually came, and we were informed that the actor was wearing a prosthetic chin crafted for the event. The chin, thought to be a result of inbreeding amongst the Habsburg line, was covered by a beard, so there wasn't much to see.

Interspersed with the nobles, we got to see a horseman carrying the flag of America, back when America was part of the Spanish empire. It was too busy with symbols for my liking. Much better was the flag of Grenada, which featured a lovely watermelon, and the flag of the Indies, jaundice-yellow polka dots on a white field. In fact, there was a ton of flags to represent just about everything: the 7 gates of the city of Brussels, the European nations (modern and ancient), the prominent families of Brussels, and so on. Some of these were tossed in the air by flag corps to break up the monotony of the procession a bit.

The second half came as twilight receded and the rain began. There was a virgin on a litter, some giants, a dragon, a wheel of fortune, and peasants who performed some peasant dances. The beer guys came by, and also a cake lady this time, but we were too far in the middle of the stands to get any. Also popular were the two men in costume who had the job of cleaning up the horse poop. The jester began heckling some Asian people in front of us, although he was speaking in English and disparaging English-speaking tourists. (There were surprisingly few of these--most people around us seemed to speak French.) As the rain continued, many people abandoned their seats for drier pastures. We took sips of the schnapps and hunkered down.

Then came the stilt walkers of all sizes. After they had tromped around a bit the most real and therefore one of the most entertaining parts of the evening commenced: stilt fighting. A bunch of kids on stilts about 4 feet high, trying to knock each other down to the slippery cobblestones below. Yikes. I don't think anyone was seriously injured, but I bet there were some nasty bruises the next day.

At the very end, after the magician had disappeared himself and after the red flares were lit, causing the arena to fill with smoke and a hellacious glow, all the costumed revelers entered the square and began dancing. The ones that most particularly caught my eye were the Gilles of Binche, which had silly puffed-up costumes covered in cryptic symbols. They wore serious expressions and bells and clogs and white skullcaps with jaw straps as they walked rhythmically and held an upside-down basket aloft. Who could not be attracted towards such strangeness? This was followed by a laser show, probably not part of the original.

Then the king left and it was all over. Was it worth the €30? We had a good time, although I could've done with less rain and more beer. But I have my memories as well as a whole passel of blurry photos to document the event.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Jack went off to the US at the end of June for work and to visit family and I set about keeping myself busy any way I could. Anyone who knows me probably realizes I'm not terribly good at entertaining myself, but I'm trying to be better. I went to the movies ("The Maltese Falcon") by myself for the first time since freshman year of high school, when Allison F. stood me up at the Tyson's Corner movie theater when we were supposed to see "The Last Emperor" for an assignment for history class. I painted a design on our glass-top coffee table. I watched a cat in the backyard play with a dead bird for way too long. I probably cooked some good meals. I went to a cemetery and got locked in after closing hours. And I went to the Schaerbeek Cherry Festival.

The penultimate event was part of my efforts to visit all 19 of the communes that make up the Brussels Capital Region. This is like going to, say, Waldorf and Fairfax City for no other reason than to say one has been there, because as in the case of Evere I don't know of anything of note that would cause one to want to go (especially since the museum to the Belgian endive has closed). Many of the older communes have cemeteries that are outside of the locality--presumably at the time they were created they were waaaay out in the country, but now they've been surrounded by the 'burbs. Evere hosts Central Brussels' cemetery, I noted on my map. So I packed myself a snack and hopped on a tram.

The cemetery was great--very park-like with more open space and rabbits than graves. There was a woman talking with a military-looking guy at the entrance and I didn't want to get turned away so I tried to keep my head down and look purposeful when I passed through the gate. Row upon row of Brussels' top governmental officials from the 19th century greeted me, including many of the luminaries that the streets around town were named for. Sprinkled throughout were massive tributes from the French to the Belgians, the Bruxelloise to the "victims of want", whatever that means, and so on. Most graves were old, and many seemed to be in a state of neglect for lack of perpetual care, but the place was definitely still in use. The lightest possible rain began to fall while I was there, cooling the air slightly and shrouding the place in a decorous gloom that seemed more appropriate than the earlier sunny brilliance. There was an area for those who wanted to spread their loved one's ashes, and several graveyards containing war dead: one for the Germans, one for the Belgians, and one for the Allies. One section off in a corner of the property appeared to contain gravestones that had been rejected for some reason, jumbled together at odd angles with weeds poking up through them, nameplates and photos still attached in some cases. Then there was the mysterious building near the back--it looked more like an old school or office building than something one would associate with the disposal of mortal remains--the undertaker's quarters? At one point during my peregrinations I thought I saw a cop car go by out of the corner of my eye, but again I acted nonchalant and was left unbothered. According to my map, there was supposed to be a back entrance that led to another cemetery. Once I determined that this was not the case and wandered back towards the entrance, I discovered that I was locked in: separated from the outer world by a 12-foot high wrought-iron fence. Great.

I knew it was a few minutes to 5, but I didn't have any idea what time the cemetery closed until a guy got out of his car on the other side of the fence and informed me that the sign said the gate was locked at 4:30. The same sign I had neglected to check out because I was too busy looking like I was supposed to be there. He said that he and his wife were in town for their grandson's birthday party but had some time to kill before it started and thought they'd visit the cemetery, only to find it closed. Another onlooker appeared, this one clearly local given the fact that he had advice about where to scale the high brick wall surrounding the property to get out. I started to walk around the perimeter, and at a low point in the wall saw a guy in his back yard power-washing his patio. I thought if I could just get his attention I'd be able to walk out through his front door, but he didn't hear me. I got called back to the front entrance, as the couple had walked across the way where two cops were having a sit in a cafe, and told them of my predicament. After a while they came out, assessed the situation, and the older guy apparently made a joke about me being in there for 20 more years rather than 20 minutes, helpfully translated by my guardian angels.

They waited with me, and we went over the situation, how I'd heard a bell at an odd time that seemed to go on for a long while, which was probably the bell I was currently standing next to, rung to let people know that closing time was approaching. How the cop car went by but didn't stop to tell me to leave. How the fence almost looked like it was designed to be scaled from the inside, probably just for this reason, but I probably shouldn't try it since the police were now on the job. How there were plenty of nice overgrown shrubs under which one could curl up and nest comfortably on a mild evening such as the one that was approaching. We discussed the events of the day, how there was a naked bike ride for peace/the environment/whatever other cause you chose to espouse that was probably causing the traffic issues they encountered, and how the Cherry Festival was the next day. The man said the cherries were likely from Poland, which was where the Oud Beersel Brewery people told us they were getting cherries for their kriek gueuze. At one point the man tried to pick the lock with a grocery store savings card to no avail. It was a long 20 minutes. I kept telling them they could go, but they waited it out with me, perhaps because they had time to kill and it was more entertaining than nothing. They eventually lit upon the idea of taking my picture, and that was what we were doing when the cops got back to unlock the gate.

I thanked everyone profusely in any and all useful languages, and the policemen didn't seem to be at all put out by having to interrupt their low-crime Saturday afternoon reverie to deal with such a chore. So there the 5 of us stood, perhaps not ready to break the strange camaraderie that had developed, and the older cop said, "Do you speak French?" I replied, "A little," meaning "not very much at all but I'm not going to run the risk of offending you." He launched into "My colleage...", and the rest was lost to me, but everytime I looked at the younger guy, who was taking quick nips on his cigarette, he'd cast his eyes to the ground and smile a thin, pained smile of embarrassment. I have no idea what was said, but the other three laughed at the end so I smiled generally while the young guy continued to look like something shameful had been revealed. The couple didn't translate it for me. At this our little group dispersed, and I promised myself that I needn't return to Evere to potentially feel the wrath of the young cop who had been humiliated in front of everyone.

Upon further reflection but absolutely no supporting evidence, I decided that the cop had said "My colleague saw you when we were driving around clearing out the cemetery, and he decided you were hot, so he thought it would be a great way to meet you if you were 'accidentally' locked in." I still got it, baby!

The next day was the Schaerbeek Cherry Festival, which really isn't worth mentioning at all due to its lameness, aside from the fact that I learned that Schaerbeek and Evere share a police force, and so now there's two communes I can never go back to.

Friday, August 03, 2007

We had a day visit from J shortly after returning from France (I know, I know, I'm still 1.5 months behind). He greeted us with bountiful supply of Cincinnati chili mix packets. Just add meat and tomato paste (and cheese and hot sauce and sour cream and spaghetti and beans...) mmmm! He had been touring the countryside (he was adopted by a contingent from the New Belgium Brewery at one point) and sampling some of Belgium's finest beers, and was interested in exploring some breweries near the capital. The place he was targeting was just outside of town, in Beersel, far enough so the Brussels transit system didn't go there but too close to get there by train without having to take one out and then a second one to get closer in. So we took a tram to the end of the line and then hoofed it the remaining way. It was a beautiful day, perfect for this sort of thing.

...Until about five minutes after we hit the pavement, at which point it started pouring rain. We hid in a bus shelter until it tapered off, then went on our way again, tailed a few minutes later by another bout of rain. By this time we had arrived at the town and so we ducked into someone's recessed doorway. We must've made too much noise because it wasn't long before a light came on and we heard some voices on the other side of the door, so we got out of there before they could call the cops. Thankfully that was the end of the rain for the time being.

Oud Beersel Brewery is only open to the public on weekends, as it is run by people who have full-time jobs. There was a guy from Annapolis there, although we both claimed to be from Washington, D.C. when asked. Small world. We noted on our brief tour that the brewery was full of musty old charm, since it's been around a while. The previous owner retired a few years ago and shut the place down, only to have it restarted by two younger men passionate about beer. The retiree lives in the adjoining building, so he is there frequently to offer his good counsel.

After seeing the place, they offered us a taste of their three beers. The Old Gueuze really hit the spot, but after the samples we were all beginning to feel the effects due to our empty stomachs. Fortunately, the small town contains not one but two breweries, and the second had a restaurant, so we bought some beer and made our way back to the Drie Fonteinen for some grub. We got a pitcher of on-tap lambic to share. The pitchers were in a traditional style, grey with blue patterns, that beer has been served in since time immemorial. While the rain again let loose, J ordered a dessert with Schaerbeek cherries, which were used to make kriek beer before Schaerbeek became built up and they began importing them from Poland, and told us about his hopes of opening a brewpub in Cincinnati someday.

Once the rain let up we hit the store, bought some more beer, and went to see the castle after which the city was named. In contrast to the French piles of rocks we were accustomed to seeing, this one appeared to be in relatively decent shape. We picked up another dog on the way there, a shaggy golden retriever, who we declined to name in the hopes that he wouldn't latch onto us. He did, and after paying the admission fee we had to deny to the gatekeeper that we knew anything about him.

The castle was totally cool and afforded tons of stair climbing opportunities. Also you could pretend you were bombing the tourists with flaming tar waaay down below. The only off-note was that the moat was empty. One could hardly be expected to keep the angry hordes at bay when all they had to do was step through a couple feet of icky muckiness.

After tramping all through the castle and looking in all the nooks and crannies, we decided it was time to head back into town. We took the Flemish region bus line this time, paying more but walking much less. We took a brief breather at our house, then headed out to sample more beer. Michael Jackson directed us to this hole in the wall right off the Grand Place for lambic that they still sweeten in the old fashioned manner. We shared a pitcher of it over dinner.

For a digestive, we went to another bar that's hard to find and contains a strange combination of locals and those who seek it out. We had a beer, reminisced about all our good times together, and then went to aNOTHer, more popular spot, Delirium Tremens, which is a place that everyone who ever visited Belgium is always telling us to go to, but we had never braved the tourist throngs before. There we found the New Belgium crew that J had met up with earlier in his trip. They seemed like a nice bunch, and I'm glad that (a) the company supports their staff to the extent that they send 5-year employees to Europe and (b) they're making Belgian-style beer with a good reputation in the U.S.

After sharing a beer with Jack and noting that, for whatever reason, the Jennekin Pis was actually turned on for once, we took J back to his hotel. Sadly, we missed the last metro by that point (the cops who were standing at the entrance to the station flapping their jaws didn't point this out and let us go down there, validate our tickets, then figure it out), so we walked back home with our super-full bladders.

You may be under the impression at this point that the three of us are raging drunks for all the beer we consumed, but I'd like to point out that it was over a period of 12 or 13 hours and we studiously avoided driving any vehicles. Also, most of them were lighter lambic-based beers.