Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A Brush with Brussels

My faithful readers,

It has been a crazy couple of weeks, most of which found me without an internet connection. While I would normally relish the opportunity to divorce myself from technology for a few days, it means I've kept everyone a bit out of the loop. Hopefully I'll be able to update everyone on my travel itinerary in the coming two weeks. We'll see. Anyway, here's an entry about a trip I took three weekends ago. Enjoy!

Here are the illustrations. I'll also provide them at the end.

Erin and I, recently recovered from Karneval, caught the train to Brussels from Aachen. Aachen is a small city on the Dutch/Belgian/German border (the tri-country area, if you will) that you may or may not remember as home to the beautiful horses Ronja and Fleur. We explored the capital of Belgium by wandering the winding city streets with maps clutched in hand. My dad left Brigitte the GPS behind to help me navigate confusing city streets, but she can't be easily shoved into my back pocket or easily marked with interesting side trips and restaurants. It's also important to remember I am a paleontologist who also toyed with archeology. I like old stuff.

A view of city hall, one of the buildings lining the Grand Place, the heart of the old city.

Brussels is the capital of Belgium, a country divided linguistically. The French-speaking south is politically opposed to the Dutch-speaking north. Thus the capital is a bilingual city. This was especially convenient since Dutch, German, and English are all closely related. Throw in a Romance language and we could figure out most signage in the city.

Brussels is also the capital of the EU. The Belgians are a reserved, neutral people, making it a suitably developed city with few antagonistic political symbols. Really, Brussels is the perfect stage for the titans of European politics to meet and discuss bank-bailouts and Eastern European inclusion in the Union. As with most European cities, Brussels is a weird mix of old and new with Gothic guild halls cozying up to modern apartment high rises. New development is usually sparked when bombings by Napoleon and Hitler (among others) clear space for building projects throughout history. The Old English and the Royal palace roost on the same steep hill overlooking the city with modern and imperial facades.

A turn-of-the-last-century shopping mall. A lot of "Neo" going on.

Most importantly we sampled the tastes of Brussels and Belgium: Lambic top-fermented beer, chocolate, mussels, and waffles. I'm sorry I can't let you in on the flavors. Know that all are just as wonderful as you've heard, though maybe not as fully appreciated as they could have been. As far as I'm concerned, the chocolate of the European continent far exceeds the chocolate I normally get to savor in the States. This makes discerning the best of European chocolate a difficult process for a poorly refined palate. Same with the beer. I think I would need at least two weeks to begin to appreciate all the variety contained in Belgium.

What I tasted in Belgium was very different from German brew. The Belgians never instituted the German purity laws, so they can get a little more creative with their brewing ingredients (Germans can only use water, barley, yeast, and hops). The Trappist Brown Ale was incredibly smooth and creamy, the Delerium wheat light and maybe better suited for a warm summer day...Great stuff.

Mussels in Brussels, a key experience in the capitol of Belgium. This restaurant is one of the places you should go before you die. I think you can really pick any of the establishments in the old city and be just fine.

Other highlights include seeing Bosch, Rubens, Jordaens at the "Old Fine Art Museum." The Modern Fine Art Museum, which is connected to the Old one and houses art from the mid 19th century up to the present, was under renovation. I'll need to get my Impressionist and Expressionist fix somewhere else.

Bruegel the Elder gettin' trippy with it. (Fall of the Rebel Angles, 1562)

We also saw the city symbol of Brussels: The Manneken Pis. The small statue is near the Grand Place and depicts a little boy taking a wiz into the fountain below him. Apparently a statue taking a leak has been in place since the 14th century. Today he is an endless source of amusement to tourists and locals who belong to the organization "The Friends of the Menneken Pis" an organization responsible for dressing him up in costume. It's unclear to me why the statue is so famous, except maybe it appeals to the broad humor beloved by many a European. It is pretty funny, but should a figure the size of a Cabbage Patch doll really be featured on every postcard and key-chain in Brussels?

The more impressive symbol Erin and I visited was the Atomium. This is the national symbol of Belgium, in the same iconic vein as the Eifel Tower for France, or the Statue of Liberty for the U.S. Travel agencies love to make tableaux’s with monumental statuary in collage. The Atomium is featured if they want to highlight Belgium (an admittedly rare urge).

The Atomium was built for the 1956 World Fair and represents an iron crystal 102 meters tall. The atoms in the crystal house a restaurant, exhibit halls, and an impressive view of Brussels. Unfortunately, Erin and I arrived too late to climb into the towering crystal. Instead, we took out our Trappist beer and chocolate, bought from a grocery store in the metro station, and had a snack and wander around the Atomium park. Unfortunately, neither of us had a bottle opener, and a struggled to pop off the caps by using an iron railing. Instead of lifting off the cap, I succeeded in breaking the bottle at the neck, making for a slightly dangerous sampling experience.

Once we finally had our gastronomic symbols of the country ready to go, we headed into the park, suddenly skittish about open-container laws in Belgium (in Germany you can drink wherever/whenever you want to. We didn’t know if this was the case in Brussels). Again, I had to imagine what the hedge-lined amphitheater and meandering stream must look like with leaves and flowers. This is the real problem of only having one year to take in an entire continent. Every city will be heartbreakingly beautiful for May. Unfortunately, my stipend wouldn't support hitting every city on my list in such a brief time frame.

As the sun set, we took our final pictures of the Atomic Age cast in concrete and steel, and headed back into the city. Our destination was the Cinematek, a film museum that is currently under renovation. Fortunately the theaters are still open. Every day they show about six movies. Their specialty is silent film. Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin are accompanied by live piano for two Euro. We arrived at the box office when only one ticket remained for Buster. I still had a hankering to see something, and for two Euro, I was willing to see anything. Anything included their next showing, a 1980 movie entitled Heaven's Gate. My slightly older readers may recognize the title and may have just cringed.

I knew I had heard the name before and it seemed to have an incredible cast that included John Hurt, Jeff Bridges, and Christopher Walken. Plus it was a Western with French and Dutch subtitles. It didn’t seem like a bad way to spend the early evening. We grabbed a dinner of Pommes Frites (French Fries, did I mention thinly sliced, fried potatoes call Belgium home?) and Frikadella (fried sausage). I had the fries and sausage on the same bun along with a salad topping of lettuce, tomato and corn kernels all tucked away under the traditional glob of mayo, the condiment of choice for the fry-eating European populace.

The movie was awful. Apparently it was Michael Cimino’s post-Deer Hunter movie. After winning an Oscar, the studio (United Artists) gave him a blank check to make his next one. Bad plan. His anti-western ran way over budget and over time, bankrupting the studio. The original cut was five hours. Then Cimino whittled it down to 3.5 hours. The foreign cut is 2.3 hours. If it was once a decent movie, the severe reduction must have cut out a ton of character development. Even at half the size it was supposed to be, the movie dragged.

The story involves cattle barons taking advantage of the new European immigrants in 1890’s Wyoming. All the elements that would be important to a foreign audience were left in. The sweeping Western panorama, rousing nationalistic speeches in German, epic gun battles, and gratuitous sex. Of course none of it related to each other. The most interesting aspect of the experience was the subtitles in French and Dutch. When the characters launched into German, my head nearly exploded with the effort of keeping all the translations straight.

About halfway through the movie, I was ready to cut my losses and go back into the Brusselian night, but we had hemmed ourselves in by sitting in the middle of the aisle, and no one else was moving. I had already delayed the movie with a last minute bathroom break (the projectionist literally waited for me to take a seat before rolling) so I didn’t want to disturb anybody by rudely leaving what the museum deems an important movie.

The next step was a visit to Delerium, home of 2,000 types of beer. Erin and I only sampled two before heading back to the hostel, leaving a gaggle of Spanish tourists to snap up our table.

The next morning was chilly, but clear. We first wended towards the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, a massive Gothic structure built between the 12th and 15th centuries. Belgian royals have been getting hitched in the cathedral since the 11th century. The mass was in French which meant I occupied myself by admiring a baroque, wooden lectionary, and the stained glass. I had a moment of communion with the Brusselers when we got to the Our Father. Everything had been proceeding in the peculiar, guttural accent of southern Belgium when the prayer started “Pater noster qui es in caelis…” Yeah, Latin!

I feel like Catholics get really bad pre-Reformation wrap for using Latin. Even at St. X we were taught about the vulgate with a kind of derision as if to say, “Can you believe we used this dead language when everyone else was switching to the language of the people? Luther was right on with getting rid of the stuff.” I think we forget how different the world was before the printed word was readily available. Dialects of German, English, Spanish, you name it, were so variable before Guttenberg started churning out cheap printed paper. Luthur’s translation of the Bible is directly responsible for standardizing German, just as the King James Bible standardized English. Before things were cheap, monks sat at their desks and copied manuscripts. The bibles they copied and illuminated might be made in southern France, but eventually enter bishop’s library in Warsaw. Latin was a common language for Europe. Back in the 14th century, if I was new to town, I wouldn’t be able to speak to anyone, but I would be able to participate in the Mass. The church offered stability in a tumultuous time…anyway, as a modern visitor to a new city/country, it felt good to participate in the service, if only for 35 seconds.

After speaking the Pater Noster as Latin Jack taught me, I was given an approving nod from the older gentlemen in the next row. Thanks again LJ.

From there, we continued exploring churches as a way of guiding our trek up the hills of Brussels. We finally arrived at the massive parliament building with its soaring dome (it was under construction, of course) and took in the full scope of the city while eating Belgian waffles purchased off a truck (Info point sign: “Don’t ask us for the best waffles in town. They all taste the same”. I would then add: “They all taste delicious”.).

The other problem with scaffolding, besides that it blocks the view, is my urge to climb it whenever I see it. I don't think the Brusslers would approve of my clamoring over their parliament buildings, so I wrestle my vertical urges into the back of my mind.

Our guide-map (picked up form the snarky Info point) suggested the “Africa Museum” as an interesting spot. We didn’t have any other ideas, so we caught the tram from the city center, way into the fringe of the city after wandering by the glass and steel EU campus where a summit was underway. The Royal Museum for Central Africa was built by King Leopold II for the world exhibition in 1897 as a showcase for the Belgian Congo, a region that is still screwed up, due largely to the imperial legacy of the country.

The King built the museum to show his subjects what they were up to on the Dark Continent. He failed to mention the horrendous conditions on the rubber plantations, but that’s part of what made the museum interesting. Since the 1960s, the curators and directors have tried to create an ethnological and zoological museum, but the statues - such as a white female figure cradling two African children - speak to the more dubious history of the museum. The building is an artifact of another time and mindset. Many of the displays haven’t been updated since the 1960’s, adding another layer of history to think about as tapeworms bob in formaldehyde and threadbare, stuffed lions leer at reconstructed rhinos.

The ethnographic material is mostly contained in one hall and bears little to no explanation, making the masks, musical instruments, and cooking pots seem especially alien to a western viewer. The final exhibit in the museum is a recently installed display addressing the history of the Belgian Congo. It was relatively small and didn’t fully address the current civil war that plagues the Central African country. Several visitors pointed this out in the guestbook with varying degrees of exasperation.

Our final destination before leaving Belgium was dinner Le Grande Café, where we hoped to get a final round of traditional Belgian cuisine and beer. Unfortunately, they messed up my order, bringing open-faced chicken shepherds pie instead of less English fare. I didn’t want to argue about the mix-up though because we had a train to catch. When Erin and I had finished our cherry flavored beer, we tried to pay. Emphasis on try.

There had been a staff change, and our new waiter was determined to ignore us. European waiters are generally less attentive than their American counterparts. I think this is partially due to the European idea of a lingering meal. When the waiter comes to check up on your progress, you might feel you should hurry along. I think this is also due to the drink policy. Free refills are unheard of on the continent, a situation I have fully adapted to. This means the waiter doesn’t need to keep an eye on your water or iced tea levels to ensure a tip. But the new guy at Le Grande Café had neglectful habits that went beyond the traditions of his profession.

Erin and I were practically doing jumping jacks trying to catch his eye, but he was determined not to look our way. We didn’t know he French for “Excuse me” so we would mumble an “Entschuldigung” or “excuse me” whenever he got within ear-shot. Finally, with our train’s departure bearing down on us, I got up and cornered him at the server’s stand with a wad of cash in my hand. I hope I didn’t come off as a pushy American as I explained we really needed to leave and would like to get the bill taken care of.

Regardless, we finally left the premises and struck out for the station, grabbing a few bars of chocolate and Belgian beers from a grocery store in the station. The ride back to Deutschland was especially pleasant because we rode first-class (it was cheaper to ride as a student in first than as a regular passenger in second. Weird, I know). Apparently you are served fish or chicken in first-class along with free wine. Erin and I had just eaten, but it seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up.

Erin hopped off in Aachen and I rode on to Cologne, despite a ticket that directed me to get off in Aachen as well. The next couple of minutes were a little tense as I tried to lay low every time a staff person walked down the aisle. That’s right, schwartzfahren on the train again. But this time I got lucky, and made it home in half the time it would have taken if I had caught a train from Aachen.

Thus ends the Belgian journey. I didn’t feel like I would need to eat or drink again for a couple of days. Those fries can carry you a long way. I hope your week is going well and you manage to thank the Belgians as you sample the greasy snacks they sent our way (think about using Mayo instead of ketchup for the full experience).


The photos again.

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