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.

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