Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Where there's smoke...


   Our last stop on the travel circuit with Katie's parents was Amsterdam.  As usual, securing a room for the night was the first order of business so we set the car's GPS to a budget hotel on the outskirts of town.  The hotel was full but they arranged for us to rent an apartment down the street for one night.  It was minimally furnished and had the same spongy carpet and white walls that was in my friends' first apartments after they moved out of their parents' houses.  Once again Katie and I snagged the double bed while Bill and Dorothy slept on the two singles.

   Even though the wind chill kept the outside temperature below freezing, there was an extraordinary amount of movement on the streets.  Swarms of tourists were wandering around, alternating between examining their guidebooks and squinting at street signs.  Locals were easy to spot, as they moved at a much faster pace and didn't have Canadian flag patches stitched to their backpacks.  Impervious to the biting wind, the stylishly dressed city dwellers were either running errands with several bags in each hand or walking intently to or from their places of business.
   And then there were the bikes.  There were at least twenty-five bicyclists for every one car on the road.  The rules of traffic in Holland appeared to be more freeform than Germany's, but there are stipulations.  First of all, one's bicycle must look like it would be more at home on a dirt road in the Guizhou province.  The newer it is the faster it will be stolen.  Secondly, one should only be limited in adding accessories to one's bike by the availability of frame space to weld things to - that means crazy utility bicycles with a wheelbarrow attached to the front, a basket on the handlebars, a massive trailer big enough to haul a piano in back, and a few water bottle cages thrown in for good measure.  Also,  bicycling should, before all else, be a family affair.  I saw a woman riding on the side of a busy street with two small helmetless children in kiddie seats behind her and a baby balanced on her lap.  (Once I also saw twenty acrobats simultaneously riding a single bicycle, but c'mon, they're professionals.)

   We made our tour through the city to hit all of the big spots.  The Anne Frank house was moving (emotionally, not literally) and well worth waiting in any line.  The Rijksmuseum was undergoing renovations and consequently a good portion of their collection was not on display - I recommend taking a pass until the full exhibits reopen.  The Van Gogh museum has a great range of the master's works and some from his friends and influences.  The red light district is never more than mildly interesting to all but those people going there for serious intentions.  The city of Amsterdam is currently in the process of disassembling that particular center of seediness, which may or may not change anything.  In Berlin I saw the "world's oldest profession" practiced with more visibility than anything in Amsterdam.

   Whatever happens when you're traveling, new things will be learned.  I learned that driving around Amsterdam elevates my stress levels because there are precious few places to park and things pass by too quickly for me to know if it is interesting enough to stop and check out.  Dorothy learned the not-so-subtle difference between a coffee shop and a cafe.  Based on an informational sign in the window, she also calculated how many grams of magic mushrooms she would have to ingest to take her brain out for a spin.  However that was as far as things went, as Dorothy kept in line with her motto about "doing high risk things in a low risk way".

   For the final night of our trip, we ate dinner at a nice Dutch restaurant on the outermost canal ring of the city.  Katie made Michael Pollan proud by eating a local venison dish, Bill and Dorothy had the hare's leg, and I idiotically opted for the pork satay, which tasted fine but lacked the game chic credentials of my dinner partners' choices.  Just as it was everywhere on our five day trip, we were served huge plates of pommes frites (french fries) with our main courses.

   On the following day, which happened to be my 27th birthday, we visited a museum and walked around for a little while longer.  Then we drove the 3 1/2 hours back to Bonn and ate doner kebabs, a symbolic act to acknowledge that we were finally back in Germany.


Friday, January 18, 2008


   What other people have in mind when they visit Belgium is their own business, but I expected to see waffles, mussels, and with some luck, Jean Claude Van Damme.  The first two we had in spades while visiting Brussels, the oh so cosmopolitan yet unofficial seat of the EU.  Because Brussels is effectively located in Flanders, the language doubles to French and Flemish (local Dutch dialect) and there is a different vibe too.  Flanders is generally more wealthy than Wallonie, the tourism industry is more firmly embedded, and people will automatically start talking to you in English before any other language.

    Brussels has a beautiful historic centre that is surrounded farther out by a mishmash of glass and steel buildings and crumbly ornate facades.  We stood in the Grand Place and turned around in a circle, getting the architectural equivalent of a sampler platter of Gothic and Baroque styles.  The city has been very intentional about conserving this landmark square, and even with reconstruction of one of the buildings the overall effect is very harmonious.  Every chance he could get, Bill indulged his sweet tooth on the Belgian waffles, or gaufres.  We went to a crowded multilevel restaurant on a narrow street and had some lunch.  I ordered the moules proven├žale and was kicking myself for it afterwards, because it took a perfectly good plate of mussels and turned it into nachos by dumping cheese and tomatoes on it.  We only needed to follow the gawking tourists to locate the Mannekin Pis, which is a charming little statue of a cherubic boy eternally urinating.  Check it out for yourself if you must, just remember that it is no special thing in Europe to see someone peeing in public.  I could have easily spent a week wandering around Brussels and sitting in brasseries drinking famous Belgian beers.  But the show must go on...

   We drove straight from the Ardennes on January 1st to Bruges, where I had reserved a quad (what was I thinking?) in a tiny hotel on the edge of town.  First we went to an ice sculpture exhibit (Bill's expression sums it up for me) and had a major pileup on the ice slide.  Then we walked into the town.  Because of the numerous canals that wind in and out of the buildings, Bruges has earned the moniker Venice Of The North - but it also has to share that illustrious title with St Petersburg, Amsterdam, Stockholm, and a slew of other watery burghs.  I will admit that Bruges is beautiful and the city has immaculately preserved the medieval charm that it (probably) held at its zenith, but keep in mind that everyone else knows that too.  Souvenir shops and trendy, overpriced restaurants abound on those cobbled streets.  Every few minutes a horse drawn carriage went clattering by with a chilly looking British couple remembering the comforts of automobile travel.  In the afternoon we jumped into a minibus where we put on headphones and listened to a prerecorded tour guide talk about nuns and guilds.  We spent an hour driving past all of the sites that we had previously walked through and everyone fell asleep except for me.  The driver collected the fee as we got out of the minibus and it ended up costing about 70 US dollars for 4 people.  Such is Bruges.

   The coast of the North Sea is a twenty minute drive west of Bruges.  We drove out there in the evening and walked along the boardwalk in Oostende.  Elderly women in fur coats walking their dogs were out en masse and children barely old enough to walk were careening in and out of the crowds in their various rented pedalcarts.  All of the waterfront property was limited to a continuous wall of condominiums that had all the charm of a Soviet office building.  When we walked out onto the beach and stood by the calm water, I half expected to see the cliffs of Dover, but instead there was fog and a few dimly lit ships in the distance bobbing up and down.

   [As a sort-of footnote, I am happy to report that my opinion of Belgian beer has much improved.  I previously thought of the Belgian varieties as tasting too mouthy and sometimes cloying.  The golden ales have excellent flavors and are surprisingly refreshing, as are the pilsners.  A Trappist dubbel really got me questioning my unbridled allegiance to pale ales.  Sadly I did not try any of the lambic beers, but that is for next time.  Also, the Belgian beers pair really well with local cuisine, like the Flemish beef stew.  What would you expect from a culture that takes their beer brewing as seriously as the French do their winemaking?]    

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Wallonie = Friendly French

[I am very pleased that blogger/google has beefed up their weblog publishing tools.  This is officially the most advanced word processor that my computer currently has access to, given that I am Microsoft deficient at the moment.  But don't expect any big changes or improvements.  After all, a hack with a Stradivarius is still a hack.]

   Sunday morning after church we hopped into our station wagon rental and drove directly westward into Belgium on the ol' A3.  Looking out the passenger window, I watched the flat farmland and clusters of white German houses transition to rolling green pastures dappled with grey stone Belgian cottages.  Within two hours we arrived at our destination Thon, in the northwestern edge of the Ardennes.  The chambre d'hotes (B&B) that we were planning to stay at was dark and no one was in sight (perfectly normal, because I had not actually confirmed our arrival with the owners).  Great I thought, ironically, and went to the stable next door to see if someone could help me.  I opened the door and, faced with an impenetrable wall of grey-white cigarette smoke, felt the instinct to drop to my hands and knees and crawl towards the nearest exit.  But I was already standing in the entrance way, so I sucked in a deep breath and walked into the middle of the room.  Through watery eyes I made out the shapes of what looked to be patrons sitting on stools and bartender standing behind a counter.  In first year level French, I asked the bartender if she knew the owners of the place next door.  In a matter of minutes and a few Belgian beers, the family that owned the B&B arrived and made up our rooms.  Notes to self: virtually every stable in Wallonie has a bar, and the Wallonians are generally very gracious hosts.

   Despite some middle-of-the-night creeping around by Dorothy, we slept well and in the morning had the quintessential crusty baguette with various spreads accompanied by a cafe au lait.  I stepped outside to check out the scenery and immediately recalled the green hills of West Virginia's mining country, home to the first generations of my own americanized ancestors from the Douglass clan.  Katie and Dorothy came walking up a horse path that was made into a Sleepy Hollowesque tunnel by overhanging bushes.  The temperature was well above freezing, and in the wintery mist everything took on the look of being permanently wet, like it had never been dry nor would it ever be.

   We drove to the mid-sized town of Namur and passed by the town square and casino - too early in the morning for that - on our way up the impressive mass of stone and earth that composes the citadel.  From the citadel we could see the river Meuse make a sluggish arc through the soggy city, only broken up by a measly looking dam and small lock.  Bill was clearly impressed by the view at the top. "Manure, is it?" he asked.  "Close" I said, "Namur".

   From Namur we continued on to Brussels and tooled around there for the rest of the day.  For the sake of regional distinction I am going to include that in the next section on Flanders - even though the city is in itself a distinct province of Belgium.

   We arrived back at the B&B in Thon to spend the remainder of our evening inside.  It was New Year's Eve, so Katie tried to chill a bottle of champagne in the bathroom sink and tough it out to midnight, but it never happened.  After a couple games of euchre and gin rummy the Lewis's were off to bed and I followed suit.  About an hour later, the skylight above my bed lit up with explosive bursts of color and I heard the muffled sounds of revellers in the nearby town singing Auld Lang Syne.  Katie and I went outside to witness the efforts of the local pyromaniacs.  Far off in the distance we could see the glow of a larger firework show and hear the booms - Liege perhaps?  I imagined that lumbering squadrons of Luftwaffe planes were flying over our heads in the darkness, on their way to drop their loads on the Allies.  Admittedly, this mental construction I probably owe more to Band of Brothers than history books.  Once the damp air gave us an adequate chill, we jumped back in bed and started off the new year in proper form, by sleeping for the first 8 hours of it. 

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Tower Infernal

Katie's parents came for a visit and put in some serious traveling. Naturally, our first trip was to Cologne for some window shopping, touring the Lindt chocolate factory, and eating and drinking at the Fruh Kolsch brauhaus. I slipped up on the order of events and planned the walk up the 509 steps to the top of the southern spire...after all of the shopping and beer drinking. Mea culpa. Bill and Dorothy made an excellent showing with 200 steps gained before the turnaround. Unfortunately, I was not there to assist because I only have one speed for going up stairs and it is somewhat brisk. Coupled to that is the fact that the only way to the top consists of a single spiral staircase, where descenders have the outside railing and about 2 feet of the step, and the ascender has about 1 foot of step that diminishes to nothing on the inside. Halfway up the spire hangs the largest free swinging bell in the world, named "Dicke Pitter" or "Thick (St.) Peter" in the local dialect. I was fortunate enough to be there for the "klang" and let me tell you it was LOUD. Katie and I had a rendezvous at the top viewing platform, where we checked out the remarkable 100 meter high view of the very horizontal city of Cologne.