Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Greetings from: Luxembourg (again)

We end where we begin: in Luxembourg. Probably not a moment too soon: Matthew and I are now loaded down with at least fifty pounds worth of new purchases.

We have dinner in a Laotian restaurant -- an odd cuisine to find in Luxembourg. Even more odd: as we come in, a muscular man wearing an Armani t-shirt is singing Thai karaoke. He says that Thai is his sixth language, and that’s he’s working on a seventh: Japanese. He also says, essentially, that he’s learned these languages in order to impress the girls of those countries, which is honest enough, I suppose. His comrade-in-arms, if not in tongues, has the build of a fireman. The polyglot laughs and jokes with the owner of the restaurant. He’s brought his own bootleg karaoke CDs. He has sets of harmonicas that he plays, blues-style, to a few songs. We applaud when appropriate.

This song, he tells us, is about a guy who brings his girlfriend to a certain part of the city. The next time he sees his girlfriend, though, she’s with another guy. So it’s a very fast, very angry song. Too fast for him to sing along.

The owner speaks to us in French. He moved to Luxembourg from Paris, and finds the Grand Duchy somewhat dull.

Well, yes, I can see how that’s possible.

But Luxembourg is what it is. Our Armani-clad friend says that the country is too conservative. Luxembourg has the highest income per capita in Europe, he says, but many people don’t know anything beyond their own borders. He’s going back to Thailand and Laos in a few months.

What’s your line of work? we ask. He’s an electrical engineer.

The evening pulls forth -- we have a plane to catch tomorrow. And how is it, that we’re in a Laotian restaurant run by a former Parisian, speaking English to a man who can sing Thai karaoke. The screens now show hideously cheesy videos, replete with ruffle-clad dancers and a singer who stands with the dignity of a former Miss Universe winner. The two men speaking French next to us switch to English when they address the two blonde ladies at the far table. And for this meal, sipping our fresh coconut juice, it seems as if Luxembourg has become a microcosm of the larger world.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Greetings from: BRUGES

The expectations game is an extraordinarily bad one to play while on vacation, but when armed with foreknowledge of a place, it becomes impossible not to play it. Today’s contestant: Bruges. It already has two strikes going against it: 1) we’ve heard it’s extremely touristy (it has little industry of its own outside of tourism; blame the French); 2) Matthew has read that most of the buildings are more recent constructions, rather than the more authentic medieval buildings of Ghent.

And so, even as we wander about Bruges, we’re not so taken with it. At the open air ‘antiques’ market, one vendor has a large map of the city all done in lace. The souvenir shops themselves offer your initials in lace, as if trying to personalize the experience. We do see one actual lace maker at her work, but she has a small dish for tips next to her as she manipulates the pins and the string, and it reminds me of Colonial Williamsburg more than anything. The canal cruises are 1€ more expensive than in Ghent, the boats are more crowded, and they don’t even give you a free beer!

We meander along the canal the rings the city, and I get the sense that this is an interrupted city. There’s an old seminary for sale. A monastery that’s been turned into a hostel (of sorts). An abandoned apartment building with everything ripped out of it except for the light fixtures and some vinyl cling-on decorations for a kid’s room. It would be a sad sight, if it weren’t the life cycle of any city you could name.

Eventually we come to a small street fair. More Flemish rock, but on a more intimate scale. The band -- who seem to be aging bikers in their spare time -- perform hard rock classics. The rest of the street has become a huge garage sale, with all the junk that you expect from garage sales. It’s like the antique market that we passed earlier, except with pretensions or the ridiculous prices. They don’t trying to pass off their crap by claiming its authenticity.

Greetings from: GHENT

When I was young, I always wanted to live in a castle. I imagined a moat, a drawbridge, a livery -- the works. Having not been born into European nobility, however, my chances were extremely slim. Maybe this is why I was so captivated by Ghent: there’s Gravenstein Castle right in the town center. It’s a museum now, and I’m not sure how excited I’d be to live in a museum, but it does bring back all of the childhood dreams.

We arrive in Ghent in the middle of its summer festival, and what should be an easy stroll becomes a maze of concert tents and tourists. Music reverberates off the old stones. People sing along to famous Flemish rock songs, but no one dances. But it’s early in the afternoon still, and who knows what happens after people get a few beers into them.

In the Bloemenmarkt, I had a cone of lily-flavored ice cream (having once eaten sautéed tiger lily buds, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect), but the taste was pleasingly floral, sweet. Belgians sure do love their sweets. Waffles studded with pebbles of sugar and then doused in chocolate or whipped cream; crepes dressed in the same finery. They even have yogurt that proudly displays its sucre content. I haven’t yet taken a good look at Belgian teeth to determine the extent of their dental issues. Along with canal, street food stalls fill the air with the smell of spiced, sizzling meats.

It seems as if the fair threatens to overwhelm little Ghent. But it’s stood for centuries already; some bad free-jazz trios aren’t going to bring it down now. Matthew and I take a canal cruise that, theoretically, should inform us of the city’s history, but the boat’s speaker on our side has gone out, and we sit next to the motor, which drowns out whatever the cruise operator might be saying, however perfunctorily. No matter: we sluice through the water and cautiously sip the free Duvel beer that came with the 6€ boat trip fee. The castle seems temptingly within reach.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Greetings from: the Eurostar from LONDON to BRUSSELS

A cabal of four Australian young men sits across from us, fully iPodded, all legs and earpieces, feeling the full vigor of their youth. The South Asian, nearest to the aisle and directly across from me, reads from a large paperback, The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists. Another, a gangly, brown-haired man who seems too young to be going bald so quickly, records the world passing outside the window with his camera, as if this were the only way to keep the world from passing through his fingers entirely.

My ears fill and pop—the compression and decompression as we pass in and out of tunnels. The English countryside rocks back and forth.


Belgium has always been the butt of jokes. When I went on my European tour with my parents oh-so-many years ago, a Frenchman (of course) told me this joke:

Why does Belgium have so few birds?

Because they can’t fly like this. (He flaps one arm and holds his nose with his other.)

On that tour, the tour bus drove through Belgium, but didn’t stop. So now, 25 years later, I finally get to experience Brussels. My judgment: why must everyone pick on poor Brussels? The old city center is cute—touristy, yes, but you could say the same about St. Mark’s Square in Venice. And in St. Mark’s, you don’t get a gaggle of male Australian tourists, one dressed in an USA-themed Morphsuit (though that’s something I’d like to see).

Plus, it’s difficult to bad-mouth a city that has a chocolate shop on every street corner. Maybe outside of the historic center you begin to see fewer murals and more graffiti, but from my brief exposure so far, I’d have to say that I feel about Brussels the way I felt about Brussels sprouts: people keep telling me how awful they are, but until you try it for yourself, you never know how you’ll feel about it.


Brussels, at night, takes on a different character, as all cities do. The Foire has just started: a mile-long carnival along the Rue du Midi, which smells of fried food. You can hear screams synchronize with the lights of the rides spinning them into disorientation. This is the first shift of the night: the bar-goers, the club-goers. The young sit outside, chat and smoke, and families make their way back home, pushing strollers, herding along children who, they hope, will fall asleep immediately.

The second shift of the night comes when the bars have closed, and the darkness masks the motives of those still moving about. The full moon peeks in and out from behind clouds. There are still groups of young men roaming, and sometimes they break into song, thinking the night will swallow their voices, when it amplifies them. As you walk, you don’t feel unsafe, but you don’t let down your guard, either. Daytime tourists visit the Mannekin Pis and Jeanneke Pis, but nighttime tourists can smell the actual piss -- or see it produced.

No matter: by morning, Brussels will wipe itself clean. The shadows cast by street lamps will peel off the Palais and the Grand Place, making them clean and white again, and the man-shaped mirrors in the shop of the Magritte Museum will reflect something other than the faces of the night-dwellers who pass by, wondering how they ended up here.