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.