Day two in Brussels (January 2013)

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The next day was warmer:  minus five instead of minus eight.  But the sun had disappeared behind thick cloud and the resulting gloom did not compel me to rush outdoors.  So I lingered over a second cappuccino in the breakfast room while listening to classical music and and poring over the stash of design books, maps, and travel brochures made available to guests.  There’s also a DVD collection.  (All rooms have a DVD player hooked up to a flatscreen TV.)  Sofie and another woman came in and we chatted about the flea market and antique stalls in nearby funky Marolles.  I’ll visit it the next time I’m in Brussels, I said, when the weather’s warmer and more conducive to strolling.  And this is why I like staying in B&B’s as opposed to hotels; it’s like being in someone’s home….well, you are in someone’s home.  The service is more personalized, you can pick up interesting tidbits of local information and, when the place has more guests in it than yourself, cross paths with like-minded travellers.

The above photograph, by the way, for those who don’t recognize Tintin, was taken in the window of a comic book shop. Comic books are big in Belgium. The Adventures of Tintin sells more than a million copies a year worldwide and is translated into more than 50 languages.  Tintin is a young Belgian reporter who is aided in his adventures by faithful dog Snowy (called Milou in the French edition.)  Every year there’s a Comic Book Festival where enormous balloon characters parade down the main streets of Brussels.

On my last day in this lovely city I would wander further afield and visit the new Magritte museum and the adjoining Musée des Beaux Arts.  There was also a lamp I wanted to buy.  I spotted it, late yesterday afternoon, in the window of an interior design shop.  It spoke to me.  I’m a bit of a lamp fetishist, I’m afraid.  I don’t really need another lamp, but this one is quite unique.  Last year I completely redecorated my flat in Paris.  Everything is white.  White lacquer furniture, white curtains, white laminate flooring, white and pale gray walls….this lamp, in the form of a shell, will be perfect on my credenza.

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Heading outside, I walked the 15 minutes in a straight line to the Grand Place and veered right towards the Place Albertine. Trudging through snow and over the still ice-encrusted sidewalks (it appears that the city’s snow removal services don’t do sidewalks), I eventually reached a park: a pristine, public park designed in a neoclassicist, geometric style.  As if frozen in time, its petrified sculptures lay under a mantle of snow:

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It was a pleasant experience walking through that silent, unpeopled park, the distant sounds of the city muffled by the snow. I finally reached the Magritte museum and spent the next hour wandering contentedly through its galleries, looking at and learning about the work of this Belgian surrealist artist (1898-1967):

The Great War
Castle in the Pyrenees
The Son of Man 

“Rene Magritte’s work has both philosophical and poetic content which corresponds to certain social and intellectual trends, particularly of the second half of the twentieth century. His work was not easy to approach at the outset, however, and makes a constant call on us to relinquish, at least temporarily, our usual expectations of art.  Magritte never responds to our demands and expectations. He offers us something else instead.”

Alas, it was time to return to Paris.  I reluctantly made my way back to the B&B.  I didn’t have time to visit the Musée des Beaux Arts, nor a dozen other places of interest on my list.  Collecting my belongings from the Sweet Brussels B&B, I walked the short distance to the train station only to learn that the train was delayed due to weather conditions. I bought a hot chocolate and a waffle in the food court.  I think I gained a few kilos which isn’t surprising considering I subsisted primarily on chocolate, fries, waffles and beer for two days.  Once we got underway, the trip back to Paris was comfortable and speedy, just over an hour.  Service on that route is operated by Thalys, the high-speed train operator jointly owned by French, German and Belgian national railways.  I’ll definitely return to Brussels.  What took me so long to discover the place??  I guess I was busy visiting other places.  What I particularly like about the city is its eclecticism – the blend of different styles and vibes ranging from Baroque to Art Nouveau, old-world to avant-garde, rebellious to conformist, flamboyant to austere, all with an underlying quirkiness.

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The Balzac cinema and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master

Le Balzac

What better way to escape the gloom of January than to go to the movies?

I went to the Balzac to see The Master starring Joaquin Phoenix. To be honest, as the film hobbled along (despite a magnificent opening), I derived more pleasure from sitting in my plush seat in the comfort of the gorgeous auditorium than from actually watching the movie. What prompted me to see the movie in the first place? (i) Arbitrage (my first choice) starring Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon was no longer playing at the Publicis cinema across the road; (ii) I loved Paul Thomas Anderson’s last movie, There Will Be Blood starring the sublime Daniel Day-Lewis, so figured The Master would be equally good; and (iii) I was blown away by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as Truman Capote in Bennett Miller’s Capote. (If you haven’t seen Capote, I urge you to rent or buy the DVD.  You won’t be disappointed.)

The Master opened well with strong visuals and the promise of a good story. As we settled deeper into our velvet seats in anticipation of being transported into the protagonist’s world of postwar America, something happened. What we were expecting to happen – an event that would change the lead character in some way – didn’t. (Phoenix’s character plays an alcoholic marginal recently discharged from the U.S. Navy.) He encounters an enigmatic stranger, played by Hoffman, on a boat – with whom he bonds. Why they bond is unclear, but they do. As I said, this is the defining event that’s supposed to propel the protagonist into the second act and take us all somewhere. But where?? 

For the rest of the film it isn’t clear at all where we’re going. Once we finally get off the claustrophobic boat, we go to Philadelphia only to get stuck in a big house to watch Phoenix’s character walk back and forth, back and forth, eyes closed, across a room. Then onwards to Arizona, but that’s equally boring. I’d like to know, for example, what the motorcycle scene in the desert was all about. Because I didn’t see the point in watching two guys hurtling across an expanse of desert on a motorcycle. Too much time was spent on seemingly purposeless activities.

My mind began to wander. I thought about the giant January sales I could be partaking in in the stores along the Champs Elysees. I also wondered if the Nespresso boutique still had those delicious hazelnut capsules in stock, a special flavoured coffee sold only at Christmas.

The problem with the storyline, as I see it, is that Joaquin Phoenix’s character is stuck in the same rut all throughout the film.  There’s no growth, no transformation, no revelation other than that Hoffman’s character, the cult leader, seems delusional and possibly homosexual.  Here’s my take in a nutshell – “Drifter meets guru, becomes a disciple, doesn’t understand what the guru’s on about (neither does anyone else), goes to England at behest of guru who’s now living there (why?) and craving Kool cigarettes. Drifter is as lost and directionless at end of film as he was at the beginning.”  End of story.  But hey, I’m no movie critic.

Here’s what Rolling Stone’s movie critic wrote – “Written, directed, acted, shot, edited and scored with a bracing vibrancy that restores your faith in film as an art form. The Master is nirvana for movie lovers.”   Oh, really?

Too bad Arbitrage’s run was over.  I hear it’s a good film. (no, that was a pretty crappy film as well).

Off to Brussels

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Paris Gare du Nord train station

Paris Gare du Nord train station

The high-speed train sped across the flat, snow-shrouded fields of northern France. Travel time from Paris to Brussels normally takes an hour and a quarter, but due to abundant snow and ice on the tracks the trip was lengthened by 50 minutes. By the time we pulled into Bruxelles-Midi station it was pitch black and freezing cold outside.  A taxi drove me the short distance to The Sweet Brussels B&B.

Pushing open a massive wooden door, I stepped into a dimly-lit entrance hall where several flights of stairs loomed before me.  I climbed the first flight and was met on the landing by a friendly Dutchwoman named Sofie who, thankfully, lugged my suitcase up two more flights of narrow, wooden stairs. Room number 3 was a massive, high-ceilinged room with marble fireplace, floor to ceiling windows and a gorgeous art deco lamp hanging over the queen-sized bed. Light-hued wooden floorboards stretched into the equally spacious ensuite bathroom. The Sweet Brussels is design-based. Design features, fixtures, and books on Art Nouveau and other artistic styles are everywhere.

Sofie and I chatted until I realized that it was 7 pm and I was starving.  I wanted only two things: a Belgian beer and a good meal.  My hostess recommended just such a place up the road.  I changed my shoes and within 5 minutes was outside again.

The thing about arriving at an unfamiliar address in the dark is you don’t know where the heck you are.  Although the B&B was decidedly hip, it seemed that the neighbourhood was not.  Even in the dark I could see that it wasn’t exactly swank.  Like all districts around train stations, it was kind of gritty. To be fair, I learned the next day that it borders the edgy, revitalized district of Marolles and is also within walking distance of both the Brussels Midi train station and the heart of the historic city center.  (Brussels has three train stations.)  Slipping and sliding on the ice-encrusted sidewalk, I cautiously made my way up the road in the direction Sofie had indicated.

Shining like a beacon in the dark, I saw the lighted sign of the Houtsiplou diner located on the Place Rouppe.  It was exactly the kind of place I was looking for: casual-cozy, funky music playing in the background, and a friendly waitstaff who greeted me upon entering.  Unravelling my multilayers of outer clothing, I chose a table next to a radiator and told the menu-bearing young man that I’d like a beer which, I suppose, is as silly as saying that you want some cheese in France.  “What kind?” he asked, “Belgium brews over 300 different varieties.”  In France I occasionally enjoy a dark ale called Pelforth and told him so.  He let me sample a few brews and, in the end, we mutually decided on Leffe.  Incidentally, the three official languages of Belgium are French, Dutch (also called Flemish) and German.  And if I’m not mistaken, the two official languages in Brussels are French and English.

The next thing to sample was fries because this is another Belgian specialty.  Belgian fries are a national institution. Generously-cut from a potato called bintje, deep-fried in fat (not oil), cooled and fried again, they’re then served hot, salted, and with ketchup or mayonnaise.  To die for.  I ordered a portion along with a gorgonzola cheeseburger.  Happy and warm, I sipped my delicious malty ale and flipped through a magazine while waiting for my meal.  The place was cozy…kinda like home….with a friendly, laid-back vibe.  Paris is a lot of things, I mused, but cozy isn’t one of them.  And “laid-back” isn’t exactly a word I’d use to describe the Parisians either.  My meal came, I ate every delicious morsel and ordered a slice of lemon meringue pie for dessert.

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After a round of hearty goodbyes, I stepped back out into the cold night and skidded along the slippery sidewalk to the B&B.  It was time for sweet dreams at the Sweet Brussels.  It turned out that, being mid-January, I was the only guest there.  Thank goodness Sofie and her family live in a flat on the ground floor because I would’ve felt awfully nervous being the sole occupant of a very tall, 19th-century building.  My room was silent as a tomb.

The next day was sunny and minus 8 degrees centigrade.  In the breakfast room, notes from a jazz soundtrack floated through the air and to my delight I spied a sophisticated-looking coffee machine that shared the counter with baskets of bread, croissants, cereal, cheese, fruit, juices and yogurts (all for me!). Sofie came in and showed me how the machine worked.  It’s Swiss-made, I learned, and the brand name is Jura.  If you must know, I’m a coffee aficionado hence my interest in all things java (or, to be more specific, arabica.)  At home I have a capsule-based Nespresso machine, so was interested to see that the Jura uses fresh coffee beans that are placed in a reservoir and ground for each cup.  It looked expensive.  And it made a divinely creamy cappuccino at the press of a button.

Passage obligé for the tourist visiting Brussels is the Grand Place.  Ringed with splendiferous gabled, gilded 17th and 18th century buildings, this has got to be the most stunning square in Europe.  I learned that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, so I guess it’s the most stunning square in Europe.

My photos don’t give it justice because it’s the panoramic sweep, the gold and grandeur – with you standing in the middle – which makes it so resplendent:

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My next destination was the nearby 19th-century shopping mall called the Royal Galeries.  Here are some random street shots that I took as I walked along, periodically popping into the ubiquitous chocolate shop to warm up and sample chocolates. Notice the absence of crowds; this is why I prefer to travel in the off-season.  I hate crowds.

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Royal Galeries of Saint-Hubert

This jewel of Brussels architecture was constructed in 1847. Wandering through the arcades, you can easily imagine men and women from a past era strolling under the glass-paned roof. I literally spent hours in this hushed, historical space browsing in every lovely shop, buying and sampling chocolates (again), taking photos, and stopping for lunch in a tea room:

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Also inside the gallery (and at other locations) is a marvellous chocolate shop called Mary, preferred chocolate supplier to Belgian’s Royal Family.

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Back outside again, I passed a second-hand clothing shop and bought some shearling-lined mittens for 20 euros. I know I keep harping on about the cold, but not only was I afraid my camera would seize up, my fingers were frozen stiff.  In another shop I purchased a toasty-warm, hand-knitted lambswool Tibetan hat.  I accosted a stranger in the Grand Place and asked him to take my photo.  Here’s me and my woolly Himalayan hat:

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As dusk fell over the city, I made my way back to the B&B to warm up and rest before going out again for an early dinner. I returned to the Houtsiplou at 6:30 pm and had practically the same meal as the night before, substituting the burger for a hearty, homemade beef stew. And then, tired but happy, I walked the ten minutes back to the Sweet Brussels, trudged up the three flights of stairs and settled into my vast, warm, quiet room for the night, tucking myself into bed and watching The Sopranos on DVD.  It had been a great day.

Galette des rois

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There’s a different kind of galette here that’s not a crepe made from buckwheat but rather a flat, round flaky pie baked and eaten traditionally throughout the month of January.  The cake of Kings (translation of galette des rois) celebrates the holiday of Epiphany (January 6th), the day when the Three Kings visited baby Jesus. 

As if the preceding feasts of Christmas and New Year’s Eve weren’t enough, now in January we are tempted by these incredibly fattening but oh-so-flaky buttery pies filled with almond paste called frangipani.  Hidden inside the pie is a small porcelain favour called a feve (which can actually break a tooth if you’re not careful.)

The person who finds the feve in his or her slice becomes king or queen for the day and is given a gold cardboard crown to wear.  As you walk the winter streets, you see the enchanting sight of children coming home from school, their heads adorned with a golden crown.

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Lille, January 2013

A new year, a new blog, a new way of looking at things.  Words I have chosen for this year: EXPAND and EVOLVE.  To expand my life in new directions and to continue to evolve; these are just two of my resolutions for 2013.  (Other resolutions are to be more creative.  And enterprising.)

January 1st was celebrated in the northern city of Lille with friend Rosemary visiting from London.  One doesn’t feel entirely in France when in Lille.  Situated not far from the Belgian border, the visitor imagines herself to have one foot in France and one in Brussels due to the Flemish architecture that graces the squares and cobbled streets of the old quarter.  The good citizens of Lille, referred to as Lillois, are friendlier and more laid-back than their fellow compatriots in Paris, so it’s a refreshing break to slip out of the capital for a few days and travel one hour northwards on the fast-speed train, the TGV (train à grande vitesse.)  Tip – If you book in advance on the SNCF website, you can get reduced fare tickets in first class.

We stayed at the friendly and affordable IBIS hotel for one night (firm beds, excellent breakfast buffet included in the price of the room) and, as a holiday treat, at the magnificent Hermitage hotel for the second night (fabulous room, very expensive breakfast buffet.)  This was only possible because I took advantage of promotional end-of-the-year rates offered on the internet. I don’t normally stay in 5-star hotels. The Hermitage Hotel is a historical building that was once a 16th-century hospice.

The highlight of our trip was a visit to the national art museum called the Palais des Beaux Arts to view the exposition called BABEL.  It was extraordinary.  I must admit that I never gave much thought to the mythical tower of Babel, but after viewing this exposition I came away more enlightened….and isn’t that the whole point of visiting museums and art galleries?

Thanks, Rosemary, for taking the last two photos. The last photo is a Babel-like tower constructed from books.

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Le Muse D Beaux Arts Lille 2012

Babel Lille

Here’s what I learned:

The following words aren’t mine, by the way. Written on the walls of the exhibit hall, I diligently scribbled them down on the back of an envelope.

“The Tower of Babel serves as a parable about human vanity and as a means to assess our present life.  The myth of Babel calls into question man’s thirst for power, symbolized by the construction of increasingly tall towers. (Donald Trump would love this exposition.)

The origin of the word is biblical. Babel is the Hebrew name for Babylon, the capital of Mesopotamia (present day Iraq).  It is also the name of the town founded by Noah’s descendants in Genesis and represents “a place full of confusion.”  The town and the tower of Babel was seen both as a marvel and a curse.

The Babel allegory, be it of religious inspiration or not, corresponds most accurately to the idea of a whirling aspiration, swirling up to distant heights, continuously projecting towards pinnacles and the giddiness of inspired elevation.  This visual metaphor marvellously illustrates the ziggurat, temple, fortress, cathedral, skyscraper and high-rise urban towers, all symbolic of a race to the top, like an absolute quest. The spiral anticipates the end of the world and the beginning of another one.

Babel’s tragic dimension has fascinated artists.  The devastation of the city and tower, followed by the dispersal of the bewildered population, presents a striking visual drama enriched by an edifying allegory of mankind’s vanity.  From there, mankind can only start again to rebuild.”

I came away from this exposition feeling utterly inspired.