Monday, December 01, 2008

Crazy is as crazy does

As I wait for the bus home from work, I often think of my Morning Friend and Afternoon Friend from when I last used to take that route. My Morning Friend has moved to Fairfax and, while my Afternoon Friend has the same job as before, I now take a later bus than she does so we rarely see one another.

My Morning Friend came from a conservative culture and had many problems with her husband, most of which could have been solved if it wasn't her duty to be subservient to him. Things were sort of working out when Jack and I moved to Brussels, as she had started a job (against his wishes) that would supplement the family income and allow them to be more stable financially. She was disappointed that I was moving to Belgium, because France was so much more cosmopolitan.

My Afternoon Friend was...different. She was an African-American acrophobic lesbian who seemed to have been raised in a culture that didn't tolerate differences very well. She had an unusual world view that included neither George Washington or Native Americans. She was being courted by the Jehovah's Witnesses but seemed to be playing them for the attention and free food it afforded. She would get agitated when the bus wouldn't come in a timely manner and begin cursing. She was, it must be said, a little bit out there. Crazy would not be too far a stretch.

I was thinking about them the other evening while waiting for my bus. It was dark, and there were three others waiting with me, all wrapped up in themselves, one using her cell phone, one smoking. I found the scrap of paper I had used to take down JW's phone number in the morning in my pants pocket, and so I eased past the woman on her phone to put it in the recycling can. She scooted half a foot to the right to accommodate me and then returned to her original spot. A minute or so later I put my hands in my coat pocket and discovered an empty seltzer water can that I had been sipping on at a meeting and kept with me because I didn't know where the recycling containers were in the building. I walked over to the recycling again and put the can in, again forcing the woman to move out of my way. I then decided to discover if there was anything else I could throw away. I came up with a receipt from the post office, which was on that thermal fax-like paper, so I went back to the trash can to throw it out (NB: apparently this may actually be recyclable). By this point the cell phone talker had vacated the immediate vicinity so I had no problems. I felt around some more and came up with a shopping list from the previous week on a Post-it and chucked it in the recycling.

At this point I realize I've just been pacing back and forth between my spot and the recycling/trash four times over five to six minutes. I begin thinking how bizarre, how CRAZY, that must look to the three other people, and then. Then I start giggling uncontrollably. I turn my back to the others so that they won't see that I am laughing. And can't stop. It was funny to think other people might think that I was crazy. And then I thought to myself, maybe this is what all crazy people think: the hilarity of others' interpretations of their actions, which to them are totally rational. Could it be that I'm going down that slippery slope? How wonderfully freeing it would be.

Here are some photos that I am reliably informed amply demonstrate my crazitude.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Jack makes the grade

His Flickr photo of a church facade detail in Federal Hill was included in this on-line guide to Baltimore.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Our time in the Eastern Hemisphere was running short. There was so much left to do and see, and we had squandered our days doing mundane things like visiting the police station and going to the movies. The weather was just starting to get nice, so we alternated between states of denial and panic as we tried to simultaneously take advantage of our remaining time and get done all the things we needed to do before we left.

We definitely needed to test more chocolates. I went out to Uccle and picked up a brand that we hadn't tried before called Galler. The shopkeeper was very nice and even gave me an extra free piece (for a total of two) after we bonded over the fact that we both weren't keen on lapsang souchong (which was one of their flavors). It was very good stuff. My other motivation for going there was to get a photo of a sign we had seen that amused us greatly what with our juvenile senses of humor. It being on the door to a school I felt a bit strange trying to get a shot of the "Retards" ("late ones") sign, but no one seemed to notice or care.

We needed to visit more of the parks encircling the city. This one had a pond, benches and grassy areas, really hairy cows, and an area cut up into tiny plots for either a garden or livestock. We took the long way back, dipping into the Flemish region for a few blocks, checking out a couple of cemeteries (one with a free bathroom, almost unheard of in this country), an old church of Roman origin, and some sheep grazing in an otherwise empty city block surrounded by buildings on all sides.

And of course we needed to eat at all the restaurants we had seen in the neighborhood and said "we should go there sometime" and then never did. This was complicated by the fact that people were also wanting to feed us as a goodbye gesture AND we were trying to use up what food we could in the time remaining. We did manage to do some good eating, though. I was happy with both Notos, a high-end modern Greek restaurant that we visited with friends, and Chumadia, a Slavic place.

Since we had tried to get into on a weekend one time in the past and it was full, we went to Chumadia on a weekday this time but they were still unable to seat us right away, so we got cocktails and retired to the back garden/storage space and hung out with the resident cat. Once we finally got in, though, we figured out what all the hubbub was about: massive portions of grilled meats for rock-bottom prices. If I recall correctly I made the mistake of getting an appetizer as well, having never seen platters of that size served in Belgium. It was all very tasty, and I was sad to see some chevapchichi left on my plate when I could finally eat no more. Jack tried to order the horse, but without success. Although it's on the standing menu, they apparently only get it in occasionally.

We had a party to get rid of food items and to guilt our guests into taking pantry and household items home with them, which was sadly only marginally successful, forcing us to force bags filled with half-used sacks of salt and lentils and so on on people when they were in no position to refuse. At the last minute, Jack's new Australian coworker was able to come to an arrangement with our landlord where she would rent the apartment and be able to keep all of our furniture in spite of the fact that he wanted to put down parquet flooring between tenants. I'm not sure how that all worked out, but it was a relief to not have to worry about it anymore.

I was having some issues with my caga tio, who seemed to be harboring a pest that was making ticking sounds that I could only hear when the house was totally silent. Not wanting to be the person who brought an insect to the US that decimated the oak population, I researched methods of eliminating it. (I initially decided that it was a death watch beetle, but after a while I realized that the light in my eyes wasn't slowly dimming, so I researched other insects.) The standard means is to heat the wood to a certain temperature for a certain time. I didn't want to damage the little guy, though, so I removed his cheery hat and smile before baking him. He looked so naked and pathetic in there, like he couldn't understand why he was being subjected to this torture. This stopped the ticking long enough for it to be shipped to the US without customs destroying it, and then it started back up again. I then went for the irradiating power of the microwave, which proved to be a more permanent solution after the second attempt.

We moved into a B&B for three nights after we gave our bed away. It was a single room in a house-behind-a-house one block over from our place. The woman renting it was a doctor of some sort who would put on her leather bomber jacket and drive off on her scooter in the mornings. She would set out breads and cheeses and fruit and yogurt and juice for us in the morning and we'd consume it at the dining table in the front house as the tenants made their way off to work on the other side of the frosted glass doors. After seeing innumerable Nespresso commercials at the movie theaters featuring George Clooney as an idiot who assumes these hot women are talking about him but really they're discussing their beverage, we had an opportunity to try it at the B&B. I guess it's okay for pod coffee, but it creates an annoying amount of waste.

We went to the commune to de-register. Surprisingly, we learned that the de-registration is done in a different building a half a mile from the registration place. As chaotic as that place always was, the new one seemed worse because the windows handled a bizarre array of issues and everyone seemed to be in a great hurry. Since there was once again no line or numbers, you had to keep an eye on everyone else to keep them honest. We paid them something like €20 each to legally leave the country, and then went to the post office and forked over a similar amount of cash to have our mail forwarded to Jack's office (entirely a waste of money since it seemed to be ineffective).

Finally, at long last, came moving day. I called my contact at the moving company in the US on Thursday and Friday to find out what time we could expect the movers on Monday, but heard nothing back. So we arrived at the house on Monday morning not knowing what to expect and discovered the painters were trying to get in, but no movers. We called the local firm and they had no record of a move scheduled for us. Panic set in at this point, yet we couldn't really do anything until the workday started in the US at 2 p.m. Brussels time. It was a very frustrating few hours. Fortunately, the local company was willing to tentatively schedule a move for the next day pending confirmation of our contract with the US company. So in the end we ended up needing that extra day of cushion that we had built in, but it all worked out. I was even able to rustle up some takeout coffee for the first time ever for the movers when they showed up on Tuesday, although carrying it over the bumpy cobblestones was no easy task.

Since we had accomplished all our administrative tasks, we had Tuesday afternoon free. We went on a tour of the Hotel de Ville in Brussels, something we had always wanted to do but the English tour was usually full up on weekends. We managed to get advance tickets due to the fact that I had to go to the bathroom, so they allowed us to purchase the tickets in advance which gained me admission to the facilities. We went over to Martyr's Square and sat in the brilliant sunshine and had our last beer and croque monsieurs at a cafe there.

Looked around for the last time, a bit wistfully, and then went home.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

RoI end

Our last day of our last European trip dawned dry and breezy. We had breakfast, made our picnic lunch, and returned the key to our hostess and said our farewells. The woman advised us that it'd take us about the same amount of time to get back to Dublin whether we took the highway or not.

We got on the road to seek out a cave and a holy well in town. The first, the Poll a Wee cave, was on an unnamed back road on the edge of town. Having no map with us, we had to rely on instinct and the memory of having passed such a road in the vicinity the previous day. The directions on the map we had researched the previous day said you could reach it by crossing a stile and entering someone's field, which we assumed would be okay since they told us how to get there. We drove down the road till it ended in a muddy rut by a farm, and turned around. There was no sign of a gap in a wall for pedestrian access, so we had to give up on it. The well was a bit easier to find, since it was on the main road just past the castle. It was overgrown and under-visited, just a cross sticking out of a patch of ivy surrounded by high grass, but it was our last chance for such holiness so we took it. I felt compelled to at least attempt to cut the grass with a conveniently-located mower.

Then we got on our way in earnest, passing the shores of Lough Rea and any number of small towns, and stopping briefly in Bullaun to see the rather disappointing Turoe Stone, which was practically invisible inside its unlit plywood shack. Fortunately, Turoe Farm and Leisure Park, which shares space with the stone, wasn't open for the season yet, or I would've felt strange tramping around their property looking for a large stone phallic symbol.

We got on the highway for a while, then got off again once it ended (the east-west thoroughfare is still under construction). After a fashion we found ourselves in the town of Kilbeggan (Ireland has more great town names per square mile than even one of them crazy southern states, I reckon). We passed another distillery and, having time to kill, decided to check it out. We paid our entrance fee for the self-guided tour of Locke's whiskey distillery. They don't actually produce any whiskey there, but when the place closed in the 1950s they left everything in place, as if just going on vacation for a few weeks. So everything is ancient and grime-covered and just waiting for it all to be resurrected. The self-guided tour was actually quite entertaining, as it went into the day-to-day conditions of the plant, down to the fact that workers apparently devised a lot of ways to secretly steal alcohol from the place. It was the main livelihood that supported the town, and when things would break the citizens would band together to pay for repairs so they could keep collecting a paycheck. They are currently storing and maturing whiskeys there, so we got to taste a sample given to us by a woman who clearly wanted to get back to chatting with the woman at the front desk. I got one question in before she abandoned us. Probably we should've gone around to the other side of the bar and helped ourselves to additional drinks to spite her.

Helpfully, there was an attached cafe which allowed us to ignore our picnic lunch. It was after the midday rush of tourists and there were just a few straggling locals at that point. The food was fairly standard and we didn't linger too long, having places to be. Back on the road to Dublin we picked up another section of actual highway, and listened to the afternoon shock jocks convincing one of their coworkers to go into an office building across the street from theirs, get past the lax security and make herself a cup of coffee. Titillating! Then it was two times 'round the airport to get to the gas station they clearly don't want you to use to fill up your car before returning it, as the place can only be entered while exiting the airport grounds. We checked in in plenty of time, had our last Irish Guinnesses, hopped on the plane and went home. For dinner: picnic sandwiches.

Monday, August 04, 2008

They Call Me Baby Driver

The next day started out with a pleasant breakfast of eggs, brown bread toast with Irish butter, orange slices, and Irish breakfast tea. Not quite as artery-clogging as the previous days, but one can't eat that way all the time. We researched the day's activities, which mostly consisted of driving around the Burren area and looking at ruined abbeys and the like.

I was thinking of putting together a route map to more accurately depict our day's travels. We did so much circling around and back-tracking and dithering that I can't remember all of it, although if I had it would've looked pretty spectacularly random. Suffice it to say that we spent a lot of time on the back roads of a relatively small area of the country, as we lost our way and corrected our route and stopped places and just drove around. I DO know that we saw the following:

+ Corcomroe Abbey (in ruins)
+ Poulnabrone megalithic tomb (which had fallen down recently but they found another slab rock to prop it up with)
+ Hillsides of the Burren free from any vegetation more than a couple inches high, thanks to cattle grazing that keeps the area tidy
+ Gravestones written in Gaelic
+ A Sheela na Gig near the town of Killinaboy
+ High cross of Kilfenora
+ Lots of ill-proportioned religious scenes carved in stone

We were denied having lunch in the Ailwee Cave because we felt it was wrong that they made you pay to park. After driving through the three roads of Ballyvaughan several times in an effort to find a place to eat, we took the back way round to Lisdoonvarna and traveled all three of THEIR roads, squeezing on such narrow thoroughfares that at one point I clipped the mirror of a parked car with my own. Fortunately in other countries the mirrors readily fold in for just such a reason, so no damage was done. We found ourselves at the Roadside Tavern, which specialized in smoked fish dishes. Having had quite a demanding morning, we grabbed a table next to the cheery coal fire and each ordered a Guinness.

A table of Australians across the way from us were just finishing their meal. For some reason they felt the need to complain about the fact that grocery stores are open on Sundays there. I had to resist the urge to go over and shake them by the shoulders and tell them that they didn't know how good they had it. I just sighed resignedly and ordered a smoked salmon dish. Jack got the smoked fish plate, which contained a variety of species. Both were very good, just the thing to ready us for the afternoon of more driving around. We lingered a bit after the meal, enjoying the quiet coziness of the place. At one point the proprietor came around and tsked himself for letting the fire dwindle, but he had a new pail of coal to toss on at the ready and it soon resumed its former strength.

Eventually we headed in the direction of the park containing the Cliffs of Moher, one of those things you have to see if you're in the area. We drove to the cliff's edge outside of the park and then looped back around on the Liscannor Bay side to come at it from the other direction. On the way, we happened by St. Bridget's Well, a cemetery and spring-fed pond featuring a life-sized statue of the saint encased in glass. A tunnel covered from floor to ceiling with rosaries, pictures, notes and statues led to a man-made pool where people go to get healed or whatever they do at places with supposedly mystical properties. All that needy hopefulness was kind of creepy. How many dreams were dashed after a visit here?

After that, we were ready for some unbridled scenery so we hit the cliffs. After an extensive, award-winning renovation, the cliffs are now essentially walled off and completely lacking in danger, giving this formerly wild place the air of a tourist-trappy attraction. It's a very pretty wall, for sure, but still I found it to be a real let-down. You could take photos of yourself and email them to your friends, but a gaggle of teens were using it so we didn't partake. The only exciting thing about it was the high winds, which forced us to walk at an angle at times. It was like being in a hurricane, except there was only a little spitting rain. We had a warm-up tea in the welcome center/museum/gift shop and then hit the road again, but not before the guy at the parking lot cashier's booth told us that the winds were quite normal, not anywhere near the extremes they sometimes see.

We returned to Kinvara to regroup for dinner. On the way back we bought some gas at a station on the other side of town. I went inside to pay. "Just the gas." "What kind?" "Oh, I don't know, whatever it was on that pump over there." [Gestures towards the car.] "Oh, I thought you said 'cigars'!"

Weatherwise it was another intermittently rainy, blustery day, and not really much fun being out. As the day drew to a close I walked to the grocery in town to forage for food for the next day. I thought we'd picnic on our way back to Dublin to save some time and money, rather than going to a restaurant. I got some tomatoes, cheese, a tube of English mustard, and some pastries for breakfast the next day. I also bought a bottle of Bulmers hard cider that we had seen advertised around but hadn't tried yet. The store wasn't very busy, and the cashier asked me where I was from (Washington) and whether they got snow there this winter (yyyyesss). I didn't want to get into the whole Belgian thing. Sometimes it's just too much for people to handle.

As night came on and the rain and wind picked up, it became clear that we were in no mood to venture out again. We made a meal of what we had on hand and drank the cider, which was good. Our host had this crazy hand-drawn map of the town showing all the ruins and various other items of note in minute detail. The map was printed in the 80s and falling apart, and we wished we could take it around with us because it had every street, alley and footpath noted on it, along with the locations of ruins, cemeteries, holy wells, caves, and other items of interest. But we made a mental note of a couple key features and hoped we might come across them in the morning on our way out of town.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Side note

You hear a lot about Irish people saying "how's the craic" as the starting point to a conversation about the latest news or gossip or whatnot. This phrase not being one that naturally rolls off the tongue, we gave our NI hosts a laugh by saying "what's the craic" or various other permutations as we tried to perfect our nonchalance. We never actually heard the phrase uttered, though, and were beginning to think that it was some kind of legend, until we were walking down the streets of Donegal, and a teenage girl uttered the phrase as a form of greeting instead of "hi" when she encountered some friends on the sidewalk. I was, frankly, astonished that people would adopt something so much more complicated when a simple one-syllable sound would suffice.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Donegal breaks the Brigadoon curse

After another poor night's sleep (although nothing could compete with the previous one) and another enormous breakfast, we got back in the car for the ride to County Galway. We mostly stuck to the larger roads, since it takes longer to get from place to place than you think it will on this island. This was compounded by the fact that we stopped a lot--to look at crumbling ruins, to step into charmed prehistoric circles of standing stones while sheep watched warily from the next field over, and to visit the town of Donegal, which is much more attractive than its namesake in PA.

Donegal was our lunch destination. We strolled past the obligatory castle, around the market square, which was bustling with the buying and selling of cheap food and merchandise, and then walked right out of town in an effort to get some hunger going. The town was small enough that this wasn't particularly difficult. We saw another graveyard on the grounds of a ruined abbey and stopped in to survey the inhabitants. There was a good range of headstone styles and ages, which made for some interesting looking. Some overlooked the water, a pleasant place for a final repose if there ever was one (although decaying bodies may negatively impact water quality when placed in a location with so little buffer).

The lunch places recommended in the book were all closed, so we selected a big barn of a place nearby that seemed popular with the locals. We got sandwiches in the pub part, opting not to sit in the wee snug for fear of being overlooked by the wait staff. (Turns out that they know to look in there--go figure.) The food was pretty standard, but the scene was lively, with a bustle not unlike the typical American after-church meal.

With our appetites satisfied, we navigated the narrow roads out of town and continued heading southwest. We passed Ballyshannon, Sligo, and the outskirts of Galway. Listening to the radio is one of our pastimes of driving vacations, and Ireland's stations were a mixed bag of dreck and entertainment. Some stations were in Gaelic, and at first I thought we were picking up a signal from the Netherlands, as the guttural sound of some letters tricked me. Given that we were driving in and out of An Ghaeltacht, as the Gaelic-speaking regions of Ireland are called, it should have come as no surprise. (What was surprising was the fact that, in spite of the warnings in guidebooks that one might have problems with signage in this area, everything was in both Gaelic and English so it was fine.) As afternoon wore on, the announcer on a station playing traditional music came on to recite the obituaries. This went on for about 10 minutes and covered several recently-departed individuals. We eventually switched to another station and discovered that they, too, were reading the obits. While passing through Galway around rush hour, we listened to a broadcast were the young DJ had an old man on the phone, clearly trying to get a rise out of him with an eye towards getting him to say something non-P.C. The old guy had that throaty Irish chuckle you hear Lucky the Leprechaun do on sugared cereal commercials. After staring at each other in disbelief that people actually did that here, we couldn't help but laugh ourselves.

We arrived in Kinvara about 6 p.m., parking our car in the small gravel lot by the house and converted barn owned by our host. She came out to greet us and took us into her place to get the keys, where she was knitting a spectacularly colorful array of baby clothes. She asked us if we had heard about her place on NPR, as one of their reporters comes there every summer and did a piece on it. She also said that John Prine summered in town with his family, sometimes jamming at the musical evenings that crop up so frequently around there. She then showed us to the barn where we'd be sleeping. It was thatched, with uneven whitewashed walls a foot or more thick, and filled with books and art. I thought to myself, I'll have no problems sleeping HERE, even though the barn is practically sitting in the road. Although the barn was supposed to be self-catering, she had stocked the fridge with breakfast supplies, earning our eternal gratitude.

After puttering around a bit in our cozy space, we made our way out to explore the Dunguaire castle across the street. This place has tours and medieval-style banquets in the more temperate months, so we just skirted around the outside on a slim, muddy track that gave way to the bay below. After a fashion it was time to decide about dinner, so we walked into the town proper and scoped things out. Let's see, should we go to the one nice restaurant with pricey food that was recommended? Or the self-dubbed "best food and music in town"? Or the other best food in town place, with free music nightly? It was awful difficult to discern between one place and the next there, and all of them seemed pretty quiet at that hour. We ended up at Keogh's, which had some stickers of various travel publications on the door, and sat in the pub area. Another so-so meal passed, as we listened to two very authentic looking old guys chatting at the bar and drinking endless cups of coffee. There was an acoustic guitar case propped up against the bar, a good sign, and a guy who would alternate between checking on it and having a shouted conversation with another person in the restaurant area. Eventually he left with his possessions, and after dawdling as much as we thought humanly possible, we exited as well and took another slow cruise around town, listening carefully for any distant strains of a violin or crooning, but all was still. We entered another bar, this one nearly barren of ornament and seemingly populated exclusively by locals. I got a couple beers at the bar and we had a sit at one of the tables, ignored by the rather boisterous group of varying ages (although women were heavily outnumbered). We sipped our way through the beers, waiting for something to happen, but nothing did so we went back to our place. We researched the next day's activities and called it a night.

(The title of the post references the fact that I fervently believe that stopping in Donegal somehow created the karmic connection that allowed us to find the elusive Maggie's on the Pike in Donegal, PA, last time we drove the PA turnpike. I've wanted to go there for years, and we actually tried one time but failed to find it. I referred to the place as the Brigadoon of Donegal, appearing every so often out of the mists so that mortals can visit it and sup on its vegetarian cuisine, and then disappearing again without a trace. Now the curse is broken. But given the fact that it's a ways off the turnpike and that it was a bit pricey, I doubt we'll be dropping in with any regularity.)

Monday, July 07, 2008

NI, day 2

Time and a decent breakfast make up for most, if not all, injustices perpetrated in the night, so after some grumbling and in-room tea, we descended the stairs for the morning's repast. The cheery husband served as waiter, and seemed befuddled when we came down, as he had apparently not been informed by the missus that we'd be dining at that hour. The buffet consisted of the usual B&B stuff (cereal, OJ, yogurt (including rhubarb!), caffeinated beverages), and then the guy brought out the Ulster fry: fried soda bread, fried eggs, bacon, really good sausage, fried tomato, and fried potato bread. Every bit of it delicious, and not a bit of it going to waste in spite of its immense proportions. Wikipedia informs me that it is traditionally all fried in lard. Loverly.

With that under our belts we hit the road back to Portstewart, having already told our hosts the day before what we would like to see. We all crammed into their Continental style van that they rented in France (with the steering wheel on the wrong wrong side) and made our way to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, a tourist attraction that connects some scenic cliffs with a tiny island. It was mighty windy on the narrow trail leading to the bridge, which was protected from the cliff's edge by a thick, thorny hedge of vigorously blooming whin (gorse). Once we started out it began to rain lightly. H. managed to make it across the scarily-jouncy bridge in spite of her fear of heights. The views were beautiful and the sea a lovely deep greeny-blue, but it was not an ideal day for hanging out. We lingered on the island a bit and then made our way back to the car, once again damp.

Our next stop was the Bushmill's distillery for the whiskey tour, paying a dear price for the privilege. We waited about a half hour for the tour to start, discovering in the meantime that the bathrooms had won an annual prize for nicest facilities in NI (although our hosts told us that nearly everyone has won it). We then had to trudge through the rain again to get to a connecting building. It was not all that interesting of a tour, primarily because there wasn't much to see aside from the giant copper distilling vessels and oak maturing barrels. And the bottling facility wasn't operating because it was a weekend, so we got shown a video instead. But our tour guide was nice and endlessly patient while answering all the questions she had answered a million times before, such as the fact that the water they use comes directly out of the stream outside the complex, but the triple-distillation process removes all the impurities and then the high-proof liquor is diluted to the proper strength with tap water. She informed us that Bushmill's had created a new whiskey for the distillery's 400th anniversary that was made with crystallized malts, giving it a distinctly different flavor than the others in their line. Once the tour was over we received one sample each of the whiskey of our choosing, although the new whiskey wasn't among the choices. The tour guide came around and chatted us up and I asked her about it, and she said she could give us a wee dram due to our specialness. I wasn't crazy about my first sample, but this one was very pleasant. I resolved to ask strangers more questions from then on, thinking that at least some of the time it would result in interesting things happening. That lasted about a week before I annoyed myself out of it.

When we concluded the tour after a look around the gift shop, the sun was peeking out and we ate lunch vagabond-style in the back of the van. We were well-provisioned with cheeses, crackers, strawberries, watermelon, and other delights. I had some special ANZAC biscuits that I had made at home and was carrying around in the unlikely event that I needed a snack, so I shared those as well. It was a nice light meal after such a heavy breakfast. Our next stop on the grand tour was to the Giant's Causeway, an unusual geologic formation made up of hexagonally-shaped stone columns rising out of the water. At £5 per car, it was a relative bargain when compared with Bushmill's. It is a UNESCO world heritage site, and in contrast to the reverential air of most such places, people were scrambling all over the rocks and having a good ol' time. Young couples were testing their bravery by getting their pictures taken while the water sprayed up behind them after hitting the rocks. Once we got our fill, we took the long way back past an organ pipe rock formation and up the hillside, gamely crawling under the "trail closed" barrier and scrambling over the not-at-all dangerous miniature landslide blocking the path, to enjoy the scenic views from on high.

Later we stopped off in the town of Bushmills for a pint while we waited for the dinner hour to arrive. We learned that the room we were in, which had space for about 8 people, was too big to be considered a "snug". We learned that we were pronouncing "Smithwick's" properly. We learned that C. was well on his way to becoming Irishified, with all his talk of "sweets" (candy) and "football pitches" (soccer fields) and "chips" (fries) and "crisps" (chips).

After a reasonable amount of time, we headed over to Portrush, Portstewart's tourist-trappy next-door neighbor. The arcades and rides gave it an Ocean City vibe, but this was March, when all the OC stuff would still be shuttered. In Ireland, though, the first day of spring is on February 1, so they were well into the season by the time we showed up. In spite of the hokiness, they did have some decent dining options there, and on this day everyone and their mother was trying to get into the Harbour Bistro, just like us. We put our names in the queue and then went to wait upstairs in their ample lounge. An hour later they called our names and we went down.

The system was similar to the one we encountered in London, where you peruse the menu at the table and then order up front. I got a nice piece of salmon with caramelized fennel and cep (porcini) foam. Jack got an amazing dish of mac & cheese with a side of garlic fries. Everything was well worth the wait, and if you forgot to convert the currency it even seemed to be reasonably priced.

Knowing we'd have a drive ahead of us the next day and given the previous night's lack of quality sleep, we headed back to the B&B after taking in Portstewart's nightlife of people eating ice cream in their cars, taxis waiting outside of the nightclub, and teens who wanted to be hooligans but weren't brave enough to act out in front of the cops cruising slowly down the strip. (All the police stations in NI look like prisons--high chain-link fences topped with barbed wire.) We were sad to have to leave after such a short visit, but it was time to head south.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Good for what ails ya

Our last trip of our European lives was to visit Jack's brother's family in Northern Ireland for a long weekend. This was way back in March, which according to some weather site or another, is the least precipitous month of the year. Right on! We were going to be driving, and to that end we had picked up a map of the Irish Isles when we were in Lille at the biggest bookstore in the known universe. (Thankfully the map section was right in front or else we would have been in there for hours.)

We flew into Dublin and went to the car rental place, where we picked up our automatic car, having learned from the experience in France that it is better to pay more than to have Jack do all the driving on a manual. I had been doing some mental imaging of driving on the wrong side so that I'd be prepared when we got here. Somehow, though, it didn't really stick till we were out on the roads. Jack drove first, and I was talking him through each turn, roundabout and lane change for his benefit and mine. It never quite became second nature, but after a bit of practice it wasn't so bad. Neither of us ever got the hang of the wipers or turn signals. It's probably a dead giveaway that people are tourists when they're constantly turning on their wipers in dry weather when exiting roundabouts.

We stopped in the mid-sized town of Drogheda for lunch on our drive north. We picked out the spot because there was a recommended eatery and because there was a saint's head on view in a church there. We enjoyed sandwiches and Smithwick's ale while overlooking the landscaped backyard of this upscale tavern. We paid close attention to the waitress when she pronounced the beer as "Smithick's", so we called it that the rest of the trip, hoping fervently that it was correct and not that our waitress had some kind of mental imbalance which prevented her from pronouncing the W sound. It was great being in an English-speaking country. Even better that we didn't have to immediately get some money, since the Republic uses euros.

We drove into the town proper and followed our less-than-adequate street map to get to the church. St. Peter's RC church sits diagonally across from St. Peter's Protestant, and you're just supposed to know which is which. We entered the first one we came to and were pleased to discover the head of St. Oliver Plunkett in residence. This wasn't one of those miraculous heads that haven't decayed with the passage of time--this looked like one you'd find on a post somewhere, serving as a warning to others who might think about crossing the inhabitants. I think we may have annoyed a couple of the devout people in the church, but really, what do they expect when they have a shrunken head on display?

After getting caught in a brief shower on our way back to the car that left us damp and cold, we drove to the nearby Monasterboice, an old ruined abbey filled with graves and celtic crosses. While this place was particularly well-known for the intricately-carved "cartoon" crosses they had there, we discovered that having a cemetery on the grounds of an old abbey was by no means unique--I suppose they figured that the land was already consecrated so it shouldn't go to waste. Besides the florid testimonials to the dearly departed, the headstones frequently told you who had erected them, which I found to be extremely prideful for dutiful Catholics.

Back on the road, we crossed over the border to Northern Ireland without any warning, aside from a couple of pieces of graffiti of a political nature. Shortly thereafter the highway became a two-lane road and we were caught in a backup on the road to Belfast. We made a quick decision to take the slightly less-direct route to the west of Lough Neagh, after which it was smooth sailing. Occasionally we'd end up behind a truck hauling hay or something, and they would courteously pull over 3/4 of the way onto the generous shoulder to allow people to pass while they continued driving at the same pokey speed. I had a good time trying to pronounce all the town names as we drove towards Coleraine, emphasizing what I had decided was a guttural "g" sound in Armagh, Maghera, Garvagh, and so on. We stopped and got some Northern Irish pounds in a small market town since we managed to forget our own British pounds at home.

We got to our B&B a bit after 6, parked and tried to check in. The downstairs was full of children who ignored the doorbell. Eventually I wandered into what was clearly the private part of the house, caught a kid's eye and she reluctantly left her rambunctiousness to go get her mam, who came out after a fashion looking a bit harried. Once we got our room we went back out to meet the family in Portstewart.

Having seen them just a few weeks prior, there was no tearful yet joyful reunion this time. We took in their labyrinthine flat, which had approximately the same square footage of hallways and blind alleys as it did rooms, and then headed out for a walk along the waterfront. It was windy and cool, but we had it almost all to ourselves at that hour. We then went into Coleraine for dinner at an Indian place. The food was tasty, the sauces all very rich and creamy. Mine was supposed to be really hot, given that it had 3 out of 4 stars, but it was fairly mild with just a bit of heat. K won the prize for the best line of the evening: "Dad, do 5-star restaurants only serve really spicy foods?"

Once back in Portstewart, we returned to the B&B for an early night of TV watching. Naturally there was nothing on, and Jack fell asleep right away. In the room next door, which seemed to be separated from ours by a thin scrim of paper, they sounded as if they were rearranging furniture. This went on for quite some time, but eventually I drifted off only to be woken at 2 a.m. by the doorbell ringing. Over and over again. A half hour or so elapses in this manner, and the guests finally gain entry and quiet down. In the morning I wake up early and unrefreshed to the sounds of kids thudding around and screaming. Sigh.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Lille was like being in Flanders yet speaking French. Lots of the typical architecture and Belgian-like food. It was also incredibly cheap and quick--you get to ride the Eurostar heading towards the chunnel and London, so anyone who just wants to go to Lille is a bonus for them. The weird thing is that since the majority of passengers are going to London, you have to pass through British immigration enforcement within the Brussels train station.

Upon arrival and orienting ourselves (which went something like "building shaped like massive ski boot behind us: check; giant psychedelic tulips in front: check"), we went to the tourist office, which is housed in a medieval building that used to be the residence of a count or something, by a most circuitous route, and bought a pamphlet of walks around town then went upstairs to their minuscule museum. They had some great stained glass up there, including this one of this guy calmly holding his own head while a fountain of blood shoots from his neck, and photos by kids in one of their sister cities.

Lunch was decent, Belgian-seeming cuisine with good beers in a nice old cafe. I believe I had rabbit in kriek sauce.

Following a visit to the old Bourse where we procured some vintage postcards from Alsace, we discovered that the opera house across the street was having an open day, so we wandered around in there a bit. The set on the stage was fantastic, but we were too antsy to stay for any of the programmed entertainment. More wandering ensued, leading us to the Cathedral anchoring the center of town. The church has a relatively new facade. At first I was put off by the monolithic look of the thing from the outside, all chunky black doors and white/grey paneling. But. Then you go inside. It is the most amazing transformative effect imaginable, as the dull paneling turns out to be marble which glows in the sunshine, and the black doors are textured glass that becomes translucent inside (the black arch on the door in the photo above corresponds to the one at the bottom of the photo below; there are a lot of better pictures of this on the web if you look for "Lille Cathedral"). I was hoping to come back after nightfall and see it lit from within but it was not meant to be.

Young people are always being hazed in Europe. Or at least that's how it appears to the untrained eye, anyway. Having to dress up in shapeless coveralls, kiss strangers while wearing a sandwich board, smash eggs on their heads for party money, or drink to excess and strip down to their skivvies and swim to a duck island in the middle of a pond. The skivvies were removed after this photo was taken. There was quite the amused/bemused audience watching this scene including one person in a gorilla costume. Oh, you crazy Lillois.

We crossed a canal and headed towards the military fortifications created by our 17th century nemesis, Vauban. The earthworks now enclose a military academy which is surrounded by a scummy moat that a reasonably fit person could hop over, which is in turn ringed by a jogging path. Being a nice day for March, many users were vying for space on the trail. We took a leisurely lap around and then dipped back into the main area of town. Through "Three Eels Passage", where we noticed one entrance led to a karate school. Over to the Hall of Sugars, which was noted on our map but sadly failed to be of any interest.

As it began to grow dark and spit rain, we made our way to a tarte flambee restaurant we had seen earlier. We hadn't encountered anything like that since we left Alsace, and despaired ever tasting that homey delicacy again, so we were pretty excited. We went inside and heard the dreaded words: "Vous avez une reservation?" Sadly, no. A mournful shake of the head let us know there was no space. Dang! We wandered the streets in a daze, wanting something exciting, something different, and ended up after a fashion at Buffalo Bill's for burgers. I thought it was going to be all American tourists in there, but everyone around us was speaking either French or British English. The burgers were decent but not exceptional.

Friday, April 18, 2008

No time to update right now, sadly, but there are a few of our favorite recent things on the flickr page.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

And THEN...

The fabulous W. family came. It had been a while since we had any guests to show around, so it was nice. We had a great time riding the public transportation, eating waffles (Brussels AND Liege styles), tasting beers, and checking out all the hot spots:

The flea market at Place Jeu de Balle (where Jack conducted some actual haggling and H. bought a surprise birthday gift for R. that she managed to conceal for the entire rest of the trip), the Atomium, the Manneken and Jeanneke, the Grand Place, the Military Museum (surprisingly popular with the kids, and where the once-a-month market meant that you could find rare books interspersed with the planes) and the view from the top of the arch.

K. and C. each stayed with us one night, and they were the perfect guests, going to sleep early and never waking once (not really surprising since we walked them around till their feet were bloody stumps). K. was on a tear of finding stuff, first plucking a €5 note out of the gutter, then a picking a painting with two slices in it off a sidewalk. C. was brave enough to try some snails that H. got from a street vendor--not every day you see a kid doing that.

Friday, April 04, 2008

In the news

The travelers (or at least 1400 of them, probably mostly Americans) have spoken: Brussels is the most boring city to visit in Europe.

Brussels new North wastewater treatment plants opens to rave reviews from the birds. Look at the clarity of that effluent! At notorious "bad plant" Blue Plains, you can see a plume of clean water entering the turbid Potomac from the air. I think Aquiris needs to fine-tune their processes and at least get rid of that embarrassing trail of foam.

As soon as it hit spring we were treated to 5 days of intermittent flurries and snow. One day there were the biggest flakes ever. Jack wanted to compare them with 7 cotton balls in size, but I made him change it to 6.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

London end game

The next morning we got up, checked out, and hit the pavement. Somehow I got it in my head that the Brick Lane neighborhood, the center of Bengali life in London, was the place to be on a Sunday morning, when the markets were in full swing.

We hopped on the subway and headed east. The southern end of Brick Lane, where we started, was churchday-quiet. Yet a number of shops were open, putting out delicious aromas of exotic sweets. As we headed north, though, we found that the markets of vendors of secondhand and homemade indie goods were just getting going, blessedly free of hipsters wearing their Sunday morning hangovers like a mantle. We picked out baked goods at one stall and fresh-pressed ginger-carrot-orange-apple juice at another. We breakfasted while looking at graphic tees and handmade purses and funny ties in the former Truman brewery. Across the way at another, nearly-identical market we got a coffee and perused stalls of the same stuff. The t-shirt about how dolphins are gay sharks was funny, but not funny enough to buy and wear around. I guess we're just getting too old for that sort of stuff.

Further north the flea market vibe reigned, with blankets set out with all kinds of junk spread on the sidewalks. A few blocks on it changed again--cheap but new clothes, electronics, food and housewares. I believe one could literally get anything one wanted without entering a store, as long as quality wasn't a consideration. Jack bought a winter hat for a quid and a CD for 100 pence. The actual storefronts contained vintage goods (we wandered into one of the larger ones and Jack walked away with a midnight blue corduroy blazer for £5) and fashionable clothes and products (I looked wistfully at the cool but too expensive items). As we were saving ourselves for lunch, we skipped the famous beigel (like a bagel) shop, much to my eternal regret. I have no idea why I decided it wasn't worth it to bring some home.

The street market petered out on one of the offshoot lanes and it was back to quiet Sunday again. We walked off the map to return back to the main drag, passing by a farm-park with a variety of depressed-looking animals. Apparently there is a lot of bad Bengali food to be had in Brick Lane these days and you have to know where to go to get something decent. A side street brought us to Meraz for Handi-style Indian cooking, with hot tea to stave off the chill. We both got the specials, fish balls for Jack and lamb for me, which hit the spot. It was pretty dead in the restaurant, but everyone who entered (mostly to chat or get takeout) was well-known to the proprietor, who seemed to be an activist in addition to a restaurateur, if the conversation was any guide. After we ate the cook came out to make sure that we liked everything. Awesome.

Leaving our leisurely lunch spot, we visited the larger, more established-looking Old Spitalfields Market and got some postcards. A green spot on our map that we tried to get to was in reality a military academy, so we ended up in the small Bunhill Fields Cemetery next door that held the remains of William Blake in addition to a variety of nice old stones. At this point we were mostly killing time till we had to be at the airport, since there wasn't really anything we could delve deeply into before we had to go.

We headed through the Barbican complex, a large and depressing area of apartment and office towers done in the Brutalist style using a lot of concrete. It had skyways connecting the buildings one story off street level, reminding me of Rosslyn on a much larger scale. It housed the Museum of London, though, which was free, so we bided our time there until we needed to head for the train.

Once at Liverpool station we returned our Oyster cards for cash (tip: if you plan on doing this, make sure you give yourself about 15 minutes extra time) and hopped on the train. We dined at the airport and in the bathroom I saw those powerful hand dryers again. Last time I had been afraid to use them but this time I took the plunge. It looked like my hands were in that James Bond flick where he's in the centrifuge going out of control--the skin was being pushed backwards off my palms. It certainly dried my hands in a jiffy.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

London Pt. 2

The night before we had spied a place not too far from the hotel that offered a cheap breakfast: free croissant with a coffee, or something along those lines. So we went there and got the special along with a fruit salad to counteract the previous days' emphasis on fried foods, and breakfasted while perusing our free copy of the Times with other early risers. We needed to be up and on our way at a reasonable hour to get to the half-price theater ticket window before it opened to be assured decent seats. Once we got there we realized they didn't have anything we were really excited about seeing--all the half price tickets for shows we wanted to catch were sold elsewhere. So after dithering for a bit we gave up and left.

We then went to the place where Billy Elliot was showing and didn't get tickets there, as the only ones left were obscured view seats. The woman at the counter leaned waaaay over to show us exactly how we'd have to sit in order to see the stage well. Not interested. We crossed over to the south side again to check out one more place that might be viable, taking a nice stroll along the waterfront to get there (affording the opportunity for Jack's shot of Parliament), but they had standing room only. Oh well--another of Jack's dreams dashed.

Fortunately, by this time and with this amount of wandering, we were well-placed and hungry enough to go to one of the restaurants we had picked out, a modern Polish joint called Baltic in the middle of nowhere. The streets were quiet with very little foot or car traffic, perhaps because the area was presided over by the teetotalers, who don't stand for a lot of guff.

There was hardly anyone in the place when we got there, and the white walls and skylights of the former coach house made it seem even emptier. We were seated at a cozy table and ordered some beverages and appetizers. I got a mushroom soup and Jack got some kind of eggplant-goat cheese deliciousness. The soup was very tasty--lots of chewy, flavorful mushrooms in a base that I couldn't stop sopping up with the fresh rye bread I had selected from the giant basket we could pick from. (This is after I had cleaned out the little pot of beet/horseradish spread they provided with the bread.) Jack's thing was good, but I was too busy with my soup to notice it much. For our mains I got pirogies filled with cheese and mashed potatoes and Jack got the blini sampler plate, which came with caviar and smoked fish and other delicacies. The service was respectful, the setting pleasant, the food well-executed, and all in all it was a great experience.

Happily floating towards our next destination, we made our way to the Tower Bridge, crossed and entered the Tower itself. The Tower, it turns out, is not a literal tower, but a complex of buildings that acted as a prison, detaining people who were out of favor with whichever royal family was in power at various points in time. We opted to get the audio tour, which allowed us to learn some interesting facts that we otherwise wouldn't have. Did you know that Sir Walter Raleigh, one of those guys you vaguely remember from history books as having something to do with the English colonization of America, was incarcerated in the Tower THREE TIMES, and was eventually beheaded there? This in addition to all his trips to the Americas. The man got around. (Note: this is not on the audio tour. But the desk where he did much of his writing is in one of the rooms, and one makes a mental note to find out why he was there. They do talk about two young princes who were murdered nearby for some reason having to do with the shifting tides of power.)

We arrived at the Tower towards the end of the afternoon and thus didn't get to examine everything as closely as we would have liked. We did get to see ravens and fake diamonds and real diamonds and this room where people appeared to have been confined for quite some time, if the depth and intricacy of their etching on the walls was any indication.

Having successfully made it through two meals without any fried foods, we rewarded ourselves with fish and chips for dinner at a place called Rock and Sole Plaice. This was supposed to be the oldest fish and chips place in London, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense given their name. Did a simple description of what they sold accidentally turn into a bad pun over the years as new forms of music were invented? We may never know. After we figured out there was table service in the basement, as opposed to the unruly scrum ordering takeout upstairs, we managed to squeeze through the kitchen and descend the stairs to grab the last spot. The walls depicted an elaborate aquatic mural, giving the room an air of a deep-sea dive. We ordered, fish and chips (there was also chicken on the menu, but why?) and Greek beer. The food was very good--light and crispy batter and fresh fish within. We each got a different fish, but I couldn't tell the difference between the two. The chips were also tasty, and the tartar sauce was homemade and pleasantly dilly.

We had scoured the listings in Time Out to discover if there were any evening options for us, and after striking out at the free jazz place we went to the £5 jazz place, which was actually a restaurant with a stage and a large bar area. It was crowded as sin, but after procuring some (very large) glasses of wine some people left and we got one of the bar tables. The band started and played some nice but not all that compelling standards. We slowly sipped our wine and enjoyed watching the stories play out in the dining area in front of us, which was almost like a second stage.

We must've looked like we were not that committed to staying, because I noticed people eying our seats, keeping track of our every shift that might indicate we were leaving. We did end up going after an hour or so, and I offered the chairs to some people next to us who had been enjoying themselves and ignoring us. As soon as we got up, though, a guy accosted Jack and asked whether we would give him and his lady friend our seats, and we had to turn them down. Tough luck, dude.

Friday, March 21, 2008

London revisited

You will recall, no doubt, the tragedy that was our last visit to London in 2000, me with a badly sprained ankle from our Cotswolds journey. Riding the tourist buses back and forth through town. Limping through the British Museum. Jack's dream of visiting the Tower of London deferred. The flaming Greek cheese, which was pretty much the highlight of the whole thing. And the really bad Chinese liquor.

This time was going to be different. We were both in reasonably good health for once. This time we were going to walk till our feet were bloody stumps and come home hobbled. On purpose!

Jack and I have different approaches to traveling: he likes to come up with a list of things to do and see, of which we actually get to some percentage. I'm happy to go just about anywhere and look at anything, so it doesn't really matter if I'm in a museum or in a litter-strewn sidestreet. (He is, too, but likes to have a more defined structure beforehand. Usually we'll go to see something famous and then see that the line is too long and decide to head for the nearest litter-strewn sidestreet.) He asked me what I want to do before we left and I said "eel pie!" That was it. I read about them several years ago in a Washington Post travel article. I just wanted an eel pie. Upon further research I discovered that the eel pie place had closed since the article was written so I had nothing.

We got cheap tickets from Ryanair, meaning we were flying out of Brussels Charleroi airport for the first time. Our flight was very early so we hopped on the bus at the Brussels train station for the 45-minute trip and got to the airport before dawn (which is no great feat in January).

Charleroi airport is known for being up until recently the exclusive domain of Ryanair, the granddaddy of cheap European carriers. It's dingy and small and not anywhere you'd want to spend much time--more like a bus station than an airport. There was a cafe at one end and we managed to get an decent cup of coffee there to wake us out of our morning fog since the check-in counter wasn't yet open. The guy operating the coffee machine was also working the cash register, so he'd serve a handful of people and then go around to the other side of the U and ring up the same handful of people, waiting impatiently to complete their transaction.

After we checked in I bought some snack mix at the small shop they had there, which is hands down the nicest space in the building. The woman who sold it to me asked me what my destination was. I forgot that "London" was a different word in French (Londres), so I just said "London" with a French accent which caused her to switch to English. I'll never get the hang of this crazy language.

Upon arrival at Stansted, which was much bigger and cleaner than our departure airport, and which had the most powerful hand dryers known to man, we got on the train to the center of town. We were delayed by some track issue halfway through our journey (I found the announcer more difficult to understand than the ones speaking French on the Belgian rail due to a combination of his accent and the crappy PA system), and in the interval Jack saw an Asian mini-deer flit by in the adjoining marshland. Apparently they're taking over the island and pushing out native species while eating everything in sight. But by god if they aren't the cutest things.

Even with the time change in our favor, it was nearly lunchtime by the time we got into Liverpool station (our flight was also late leaving). We took our time wending our way through the financial district to our selected lunch spot, and we got there at a reasonable time but early enough to avoid the rush.

The restaurant was located down a back alley and was staffed entirely by elderly women. One asked us if we had a reservation and then told us to sit anywhere we liked. We chose a spot that was like a booth cut in half--a wall on one side and three seats facing a wooden divider. Another elderly woman brought us beers. Jack ordered the "chump chop". The waitress asked, "Would you like a side of sausage with that?" Jack readily agreed. How could he pass up a side of sausage? Jack's chosen vegetable was (British) chips. I had a "beef and real ale pie" with pickled red cabbage. The food was just so-so, but the ambiance was lovely. The place began to fill up with hearty laughers and nearly-identical young men in fancy suits. The last unoccupied seat was the one next to Jack, and eventually it was taken by a cheery man who enjoyed visiting every few weeks. He also got the side of sausage, and told us that the people who frequented the establishment were all in the insurance business.

By the time we excused ourselves from our table the place was filled with those waiting for space, and more smoking in the alley outside. It seemed like they were all ready to get their Friday on even at this early hour. Their carbon-copy appearance was really quite disturbing. The only difference seemed to be the hues of their outrageously-colored ties.

We headed back out onto the streets and crossed over to the south side of the Thames via London Bridge. There was a really extensive food market exuding delicious aromas nearby, and we thought about deciding that this would've been a better lunch option, but between the beer and the atmosphere and the sitting at the first place, I think we made the right choice.

Our next stop was the Globe Theater. We paid our money and were told that the next tour would be starting in so many minutes. So we took our time on the exhibit space, which we thought was rather small, but when they rang the bell for the tour we saw that we had only covered a third of it, the talky boring part rather than the mannequin-laden re-creation part. Ah well. The guide was great and seemed to enjoy being there, which really made for a pleasant experience. While we were on the top level, a group of teenage dramatists came out on the stage. Their guide asked them to split up between girls and boys and recite a line, probably from Romeo and Juliet, in unison. First the girls approached and turned away, and the boys responded. It was amusing to be the private audience for what was surely an embarrassing spectacle for some of them.

We went back to the north side on the Millennium Bridge and made our way to our hotel. After checking in and having a little sit, we rushed back out again to try to catch evensong at Westminster Abbey. We hadn't had the opportunity to ride the Underground last time we were there due to my infirmity, so Jack was interested in checking that out. Conveniently, the subway is also a way to quickly get from one place to another. We got some rechargeable Oyster cards from the guy in the booth and were on our way.

We got to the church in time to get seats that were not in the choir stalls themselves but with a good view of them. I didn't really know what to expect--I thought maybe the boys would sing for a bit and then it'd be over. In reality it was an entire service with readings and the like. Some guy from the Australian Embassy was invited to the pulpit in honor of the impending Australia Day. The music was sublime. I wondered how much work the kids had to do on a weekly basis to be able to sing like that. I certainly wouldn't have stuck with it, but then again, I'm generally known to be lazy. On the way out we noted the tombs of the famous dead people such as Newton and Darwin as we passed. They didn't really want you eying stuff since you had to pay admission during the day, so we felt good about sneaking some looks in for free.

On the way back to the hotel to develop dinner plans, we decided to pop into a pub for a brewski. Every bar was packed with young people spilling out onto the sidewalks and streets. These people were practicing TGIF as if it was a religion and that day was the final judgment. I'm sure there was some snogging going on at some of these places. Where there's agglomerations of young Brits and alcohol, you can be certain that snogging will follow. We managed to find a place celebrating Australia Day that was slightly less full than the rest and I wiggled my way past the bodies to the bar and procured a couple of beers. I had little faith that I'd be able to locate Jack AND not spill anything at the same time, but he had miraculously found a table and was standing on the foot rungs of the chair waving his arms so I'd see him from across the room. Brilliant, as they say.

Thus restored we eventually decided on a dinner spot in a neighborhood of dinner spots on the northern end of Soho. We ended up at a fancy burger joint. Jack is always researching the perfect non-American burger--he finds that other countries don't get the bun-to-meat ratio right most of the time. When a burger is eaten with a knife and fork, as most uncivilized cultures are wont to do, the ratio doesn't matter that much, but picking it up is the true test of its mettle. The system at the restaurant was complicated--you were led to your table at the back, you looked at the menu, then you went back up to the front and ordered, having memorized your selections AND your meat temperature AND your table number. And the chips were called fries. I had the buffalo burger, which may very well have become the new king of the Most Expensive Burger, as it was something like £12 without any sides. But it was tasty and it was London and I was converting from euros and not dollars so I wasn't complaining.

On the way back we passed an open Roman Catholic church which featured this sign in the vestibule. There seems to be a lack of faith that one's neighbors will do the right thing. I'm glad they managed to get the very proper English word "whilst" in there--that's how you know they're not messing around.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Alst u blieft.

"Ghent is like Bruges, except bigger and it doesn't survive primarily off tourism," we were told. It was also reputed to be Belgium's design and fashion capital. After a year and a half, we had managed to never get there. But our determination finally won out in the end and we went in mid-January.

It was a surprisingly long haul from the train station to the historical center, so by the time we got there (on foot, not wanting to miss any of the charm that the suckers on the tram wouldn't see, although it turns out there wasn't any in that area) we were already half-dead. We briefly oohed and aahed over the neat buildings in the main square and then decided we had to procure some food. We found a nice canal-side establishment called Chez Leontine that couldn't seat the group of eight ahead of us, but managed to find a spot for two next to a wall of tchotchkes that allowed me to take this cool photo of our neighbors. We got a couple of local brews that were produced for the bar next door (and our waiter had to go outside to retrieve them from there), including the closest thing to an IPA that I had tasted in Belgium: Gandavum Dry Hopping. Crisp, hoppy, refreshing. I ordered a passable vol-au-vent and Jack got a delicious seafood version of the traditional Belgian waterzooi.

Towards the end of the meal I went upstairs to use the restroom. Having conducted my business I went to find the flushing mechanism and...all I have to say it was a lucky thing I wasn't trying to snort cocaine.

Thus fortified, we did some more gawking and then went to the Gravensteen Castle, initially the home of a count, then used as a factory for spinning cotton, and at some other point a prison before being forgotten about and falling into disrepair. Since its initial restoration over 100 years ago it has become a popular tourist attraction. There were some lovely views from the top, but the interpretation of the site was limited and I didn't get much out of the visit.

There was no question that Ghent was an interesting town, and the little details one would encounter on random streets would bolster this impression of quirkiness. There's a museum of outsider art housed in a former psychiatric institute that we were hoping to get to, but sadly there just wasn't enough time for that and all the wandering and gawking we needed to do (the giant space that I can't seem to get rid of just heightens the excitement!):

by canals,
in shop windows,
up alleys,
down sidestreets,
through beguinages,
in churches*,
and so on.

Later we stopped for a beer in a little bar off the market square. The waiter didn't remember my order so had to ask me again, and chided me for not understanding his question in Dutch. He said he didn't go to London and attempt to speak Dutch there, so my identity as a stupid American was protected. I attempted to apologize in Dutch ("het spijt me"), but my pronunciation must have been so far off that he didn't recognize that I was speaking to him. Later he said he had been kidding, but I wished he was able to realize that I had given it a try.

*I finally discovered on Wikipedia why St. Nicholas is always shown with a washtub full of naked kids. Check it out--quite gruesome, and some say the inspiration for Sweeney Todd.