Saturday, March 13, 2010

Dutch Adventures

Does the naming system I've devised for these five weeks of my life have any significance whatsoever? Of course not.

After all, the first two days of this week finds me and my increasingly impatient comrades still in German-speaking lands, and the last day finds us in France. To make matters even more distressing, I could not for the life of me think of a suitable synonym for "Dutch." Netherlandic? Hollandic? None of these are real words! You can tell because they underlined in spell check.

So we're all stuck with Dutch, which is a little boring; my apologies all around.

One more thing: To make things interesting, I've gone back and added a convenient Google Map to each journal post, showing the route we took across the continent. Peruse at your pleasure!

Day Twenty Two: Nuremberg, Heidelberg

We boarded once again our bus bound from Prague to Amsterdam, which geographers will note are about five hundred and fifty miles apart from each other. On a slow-moving bus, this distance amounts to approximately one infernal eternity, and nobody wants that. There's a whole country in the way! Fortunately, the Powers That Be, in their wisdom, granted us a few more German stops on our itinerary. Germany's a beautiful country to drive through, even for five or six hours a day, and at least I had more time to catch up on my book.

We stopped for lunch and a mini-micro-tour of Nuremberg, a city that, apart from its role in the Nazi era and the post-war trials, I knew next to nothing about. As one might imagine, the city was all too eager to show me its less controversial aspects, but lacking a guide, I mostly had to tease them out myself in a few short hours.

There's a medieval-looking castle, the Nürnberger Burg, on a hill that gives an excellent view of the city, though the climb is pretty steep for a hot summer's day. The castle is very old, having been a residence of the Holy Roman Emperors from the year 1050 to 1571. Along with a healthy collection of churches and statues, the castle confirms that the city does in fact have an extensive history pre-1930, and is actually quite well preserved from the good old days, despite a wave of ruinous Allied bombing. As is usual in this part of Europe, the churches are very, very pointy.

I had lunch with my sister and a few of her friends at a Thai place, though I probably would have preferred a good schnitzel. If you have difficulty ordering Thai food from an English menu, imagine my frustration at trying to decipher one written in German. Mustering all of my linguistic skill, I managed to order something pretty decent, though I have no idea what it was called. We stopped for refreshments at Starbucks, which is a terrible cop out for tourists; but in all fairness, it's probably the nicest looking Starbucks I've ever seen, with a charming patio view of the Pegnitz river.

My sister did a little further snooping around the city, where we found an upscale shopping district. Intriguingly, we discovered a small monument dedicated to a brigade of Nurembergers who fought in World War II. I wish I could have found out more about it, but a quick glance at our watches confirmed that our two hours were nearly up, and further exploration was necessarily limited. Before we left, we did have time for a little souvenir shopping: I bought a nifty German nutcracker for my mom, and some golf balls for my little brother. Because he likes golf, you see.

We made it back at the appointed time, but the bus still managed to leave ten minutes behind schedule, due to the tardiness of three dudes who carelessly "got lost" on the way back. Castigation was given, and well was it deserved!

A few hours later we arrived in "Heidelberg," only it wasn't really Heidelberg, but a small industrial city called Ludwigshafen am Rhein. Together with Mannheim and Heidelberg, the cities form a single metropolitan area, so I suppose it's close enough on a map. Ludwigshafen, however, does not presently have much to recommend it to tourists.

With nothing better to do, a few friends and I set out in search of food. What we found were scores of restaurants with closed doors and blinds, with unusually early closing times posted outside. If I had to guess, I'd say the recession had hit this place like a ton of bricks. We found one open Greek place which worked out pretty well, and on the way back to the hotel we hit up "Penny Market," a wondrous place of absurdly good deals. Is twenty cents for two liters of water too good to be true? Not at Penny Market!

Day Twenty Three: Heidelberg

Jacob and a couple of the girls did not accompany us on this tour, due to a sudden attack of acute illness; instead, they took a trip to a local hospital. Leaderless, two compatriots rose to the challenge in Jacob's place, which was much appreciated. However, rumor was spreading that Jacob was infected with the dreaded Swine Flu, and if such were the case, we'd all end up quarantined in God-forsaken Ludwigshafen. Perish the thought!

Rather than a tour, we had tickets for free exploration of the grounds of Heidelberg Castle (Heidelberger Schloss). It's pretty neat! I didn't care enough to cough up the euros needed for a tour of the most exclusive inner chambers, but I still had plenty to see. The "back porch" has a sweet view of the river; an unhelpful local told me it was the Rhine, but I found out later that it was the Necker, one of the Rhine's tributaries. The castle is in ruins and the turrets and bailey may not have been exactly safe, but they were still fun to sit and climb in.

In the basement was a former mad alchemist's laboratory (I imagine), which today houses a fascinating micro-museum about the history of German apothecaries. Inside were antique medical equipment, powdered drugs, potions, chemistry tools, and a reconstruction of a typical laboratory in a mostly-roped-off chamber.

Heidelberg Castle has one other major attraction for tourists: it claims in its wine cellar the world's largest wine barrel. Nobody intends to contest this claim, because the barrel is enormous. How big is it, you ask? According to Wikipedia, the Heidelberg Tun, as it is known locally, has a capacity of 220,000 liters, or 58,100 gallons. That, my friends, is a lot of wine. However, the barrel is empty today, because it's a little bit leaky. These days it's just a barrel: an unnecessarily big barrel.

The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the city of Heidelberg. As near as I can tell (we again lacked a local tour guide), the biggest attraction outside the castle is Heidelberg University, a school that has been in continuous operation since the fourteenth century (Go Fighting Heidelbergers!). The campus is very nice, though it's a little urban for my tastes, with Medieval buildings embedded right in the heart of the city with nary a tree or a lawn for relaxation purposes. There's a lot of good shopping and restaurants in the surrounding streets, plus some bars, so you know the students always have something to do. I got some schnitzel at a little beer garden with the girls (how I shall miss German food!), and then wandered the streets in search of the elusive ATM, which may be an endangered species in Germany.

After further adventures with pastry shops, pigeons, and navigational snafus, we relaxed at the river for a while, where a few people even rented rowboats, and others watched the larger watercraft float by. The bus took us back to Ludwigshafen at the appointed time, which for once came precisely soon enough for my tastes. On our return, we were relieved to learn that nobody had the flu, and all would proceed as planned the next day, whatever we managed to catch in close quarters on the bus.

After a pizza dinner, I elected to spend the evening in a more solitary fashion, listening to music and intently reading. Solitary as I hoped to be, I couldn't help being drawn into some seditious conversations. A revolt against Jacob seemed to be in the works, on the grounds that he was lazy, incompetent, unhelpful, discourteous, and ate children, or something. The murmurings had been there at least since Italy, and seemed to increase as Jacob became sicker and sicker, a fact I found frankly disgusting. I'm much too easy on people as a rule, but if someone wants to volunteer to lead fifty American kids with high expectations across a vastly multilingual continent, and catches some ungodly disease in the process, I'm inclined to cut the man some slack.

My words of moderation being largely ignored, I went to sleep and steeled my mind against the madness about to unfold in...

Day Twenty Four: Amsterdam

(Please Note: Nothing happened. NOTHING! Please skip ahead to Day Twenty Seven)

Feeling unproductive, and with six-plus hours of nothing to look forward to on the bus, I resolved to finish the Bhagavad Gita before we reached the hotel. I had only about a hundred pages of dense, dense prose to work through, and I managed to pull it off in about five hours, to my great satisfaction.

I would recommend the book, not only to people interested in Hinduism, but to anyone who wanted a better understanding of God, religion, or life. It is a very high-level work of theology (requiring careful, close reading), and most, if not all, of its principles I found meaningful to my understanding of religious issues. It's also very philosophically demanding (making the usual holy book claims of infallible revelation), and it didn't leave me bursting with the urge to chant Hare Krishna, but I felt just the slightest bit wiser for having read it, which is as much justification as I really need.

Halfway through the drive, we stopped at a McDonald's restaurant for lunch. Absorbed as I was in the book, I hadn't noticed that we'd entered the Netherlands; my first indication was the sudden appearance of Dutch words on the overhead menu. Not much happened here, with one tragic exception: I accidentally dropped my soft-serve ice cream cone on the floor, just after sitting down to enjoy my food. I will mourn you forever, ice cream cone!

Onward we drove, and I finished the Gita somewhere in Holland. Holland looked pretty much as I expected it would: very flat, with lots of grazing cattle, little rivers, and canals. Yes, of course, there were windmills, but the ones I saw were the enormous, modern, white monsters you see on so-called "wind farms," not the quaint wooden structures you see in old paintings. Interesting.

The Amsterdam hotel was another highlight, as hotels go. There was a pillar in the lobby with a marking that indicated the sea level: it was approximately six meters above the floor. Crazy upside-down country!

We didn't stay at the hotel long, because the stoners and libertines among us had had quite enough of waiting, and were now tingling with anticipation. A highly disorganized bus trip into the city was immediately arranged, and we were dropped in the city center to fend for ourselves.

What happened next is kind of a blur. We started in the middle of what was called the "Green Light" District, and group unity was quickly dissolved: we split into smaller groups, and rushed hither and thither into Amsterdam's famous "cafés." With ruthless efficiency, the most experienced pot heads acquired their long-denied weed (favorite quote: "it feels like the first time!") and immediately set to rolling, distributing and smoking. Just like every college party I'd ever been to, I sat on the sidelines, laughing at their silly jokes and looking askance at the sketchy guys in the corner. Well, that part was different, but not much else was.

Wandering the streets of Amsterdam, the group became progressively smaller (as certain members became more prone to distraction). Collective navigation became easier, but I was struck with feelings of concern for my very baked friends. Fortunately, there is probably no city in the world better for a stoned young person to wander around, and everything turned out alright for them.

We inexplicably found ourselves inexplicably in another café, this one specializing in so-called "special cakes." Feeling adventurous, and extremely peer-pressured, I ordered one and consumed it quickly, for it was very small. It tasted alright, with a bitter element that I assumed was the marijuana, having no experience with such things. I expected a more or less immediate effect, but none was forthcoming; I was then told it would take at least a half an hour. After two hours passed, I was fairly certain I'd been ripped off. There's nothing special about these cakes, no matter how tie-dyed they come!

After further exploration, we found ourselves in the infamous Red Light District. Setting all the rational arguments in favor of legalized and regulated prostitution aside, there is something very, very wrong about that place. The stories are true: scantily clad, surgically enhanced girls stand on display in glass windows, plying their trade at a rate of fifty euros for twenty minutes. The streets are lined with shops selling pornography and sex toys, theaters showing everything from peep shows to live stage performances (that is exactly what it sounds like), and some sort of otherworldly condom-themed art and sculpture shop. Now, for the ultimate bit of mind-fragging madness: the Red Light District is a residential neighborhood. Little children walked down the street with whom I hoped were their parents; flocks of water fowl swam serenely in the canal, oblivious to the human degradation that surrounded them.

Eventually, a determination was made that the group would attend a live sex show. Being a young man, I am of course susceptible to certain temptations and weaknesses. However, I felt within myself an acute crisis of conscience, and decided in the end that I simply could not go through with it. Watching a pair of trained professionals do the nasty right in front of me, surrounded by people I had to share a bus with for another week and a half, was just too far outside of my comfort zone.

Plus, the show cost fifty euros. Fifty euros!

Anyway, a similarly gun-shy girl also backed out of the expedition into Amsterdam's heart of sleaze, so the two of us joined forces and went in search of more wholesome entertainment. We took the short path to Dam Square, where by lucky chance we encountered another friend of ours, looking extremely disoriented by the World War II memorial. She too agreed to join our party, and a plan was made: to find live jazz, and to listen to it.

We set out for the Alto club, Amsterdam's oldest jazz music establishment, located in the happenin' quarter of town known as Leidesplein. Armed with a map and a small brochure from the hotel lobby, we charted our course, and found that we needed only to follow the tram tracks. I suggested actually taking the tram, but the concept flew over someone's head; in any event, we could use the walk. By this time night was falling, and I started mentally calculating our escape route from the city.

The Alto is indeed a groovy club, but it's extremely small, and there weren't enough seats for all three of us, with the crowd already at overflow capacity. We stood inside for a while and listened, waiting for something to open up, but it never did. There was a pretty good local band playing, with a typical horn-sax-piano-bass-drum combo, but I wasn't particularly impressed by them. I've heard better live jazz on several occasions in Eugene, Oregon, but it was still good music and a good time. When it was apparent we would never get good seats, we split for better spaces.

After that, through no fault of mine whatsoever, we got lost. Fortunately, Amsterdam's street plan essentially comes down to a series of concentric circles, so it was not terribly difficult to navigate (you try making a plan with stoned people!). Once I confirmed our location at the intersection of a main thoroughfare and one of the three principal canals, I could easily plot a course out to the metro line. First, however, a midnight snack was required, at a good old fashioned Amsterdam sandwich shop.

I should mention that our arrival in Amsterdam, by accident or by design, coincided with the eve of the annual Gay Pride Parade, the biggest such event on the continent. Gaudy pre-parade festivities were taking place all over the city, centered around the three largest canals and extending into the city center and Red Light District, with loudspeakers blaring well into the night. God bless the Dutch for their tolerance, specifically their tolerance for thump-thump music and awful karaoke. A deep-voiced Asian man, who might have been George Takei if I didn't know any better (truth be told, I didn't know any better) was butchering "More Today Than Yesterday;" in the distance, a woman sang a pronoun-reversed version of "It's in His Kiss," and I wondered why they didn't just give the song to a dude.

In spite of mutinous questions raised concerning my navigational abilities (entirely groundless), I located the metro around midnight or so, and managed to get myself and the girls back to the hotel for a good night's sleep. The score is 1 to 0, Amsterdam!

Day Twenty Five: More Amsterdam

At breakfast I encountered the attendees of the previous night's erotic revue, seemingly huddled together around the table for comfort. A brief survey revealed deeply traumatized souls, shattered minds, and deeply confused feelings, along with disturbing accounts of "audience participation." We're not even going to go there.

Our guide for the walking tour was one of the best guides yet, thanks largely to her crystal-clear American accent (she was, in fact, an ex-pat from the good old USA). We started out in a fancy neighborhood amidst the three principal canals, named for the local aristocracy, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the Princes of Orange ( in order, the Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht). Our guide knew quite a bit about the history of the Dutch and their maritime empire, as well as some of the peculiar practices of the city's residents. For example, Amsterdammers are accustomed to leaving their windows open at all times, as a sign of openness to the rest of the world. Nothing can deter this symbolic gesture, even when, say, a flotilla of gay pride boats should come blaring thump-thump music up and down the canal. God bless their open minds.

We next found ourselves in the old Jewish quarter, featuring a house once inhabited by Rembrandt van Rijn, who was not a Jew but really liked to paint them. Sadly, the Jews of Amsterdam were even more thoroughly destroyed by the Nazis than those of Prague. With the Jewish quarter depopulated and the city starving under blockade, locals further ruined the area by dismantling houses for firewood. Most of the buildings that stand there now are modern constructions, like museums and concert houses.

From there we wound our way to Nieumarkt, an area near the center of town with a plethora of shops, bars, and restaurants, as well as a conspicuous old guard tower that was once part of the city's original wall. Nieumarkt, I could tell in the light of morning, was where the bus had dropped us the night before, and I was pleased to see the scattered bits of geography I'd acquired begin to make sense. Soon, I would know Amsterdam like the back of my hand!

After Nieumarkt, we were led back into the Red Light District, which is even more profoundly unsettling in the morning hours, when the "premiere" prostitutes are off duty. The guide confirmed my worst suspicion, that the district was in fact a residential neighborhood; as a matter of fact, when she first moved to the city, her apartment had been situated directly upstairs from a brothel. She told a funny story about some "regular customers" that probably does not need to be repeated.

There is a Cathedral located in the district, built there on the logic that patrons of the world's oldest profession should have a place handy to confess their sins immediately after committing them. This is just one example of pragmatic Dutch planning: the whole idea of having a section for legalized prostitution was apparently thought up by a Catholic priest, in order to prevent the horny incoming sailors from terrorizing the poor citizens. The depths of sleaze being what they are, the church is now abandoned as such, but I'm sure they still use it for something or other.

Behind the church is a small monument dedicated to all of the proud sex workers of the world. If that wasn't funny enough, a weird little bronze relief of a woman's torso being groped by a male hand can be found on the ground nearby. I can't help but wonder if it was placed there by malicious Protestants.

We exited the district via the narrowest street in town, only just barely wide enough for two-way foot traffic, and lined on both sides by a gauntlet of girls in windows. Somebody, peeking through a door, witnessed something unspeakable; I kept my head down and scurried to safety.

After a brief rest and history lesson in Dam Square, we set out in search of the city's cleaner attractions. In the city center we saw various historic and government buildings, including a royal palace, though the Queen currently makes her official residence in the Hague. The tour concluded at the house where Anne Frank lived and wrote her famous diary, one of the best preserved sites from the war period. We intended to take a group tour of the house, but found an hour-long queue at the entrance. A decision was made to end the tour there, and for each to do the House tour on his own time, to be reimbursed for tickets by the tour company. Thus liberated, we set out in search of pancakes, for we were starving.

It's a well-known fact that the Dutch make the best damn pancakes in the world, and we ate them for brunch, living the dream as we were. The restaurant was really more of a pavilion than a building, and seemed to have been converted from an a giant carousel, which is to say it was really cool. After those delicious, delicious sugar pancakes, a friend and I decided to hit up the Van Gogh museum for some cultural edification. On the way there, we passed through the midst of the Gay Pride Parade, which was now in full swing and swollen to consume the city in ways that I never thought possible. As it happened, no one had seen Jacob all day; because he was gay, we jokingly assumed that he could be found gyrating amongst the teeming masses, but in actuality he was probably still sick in his room.

More peaceful conditions were to be found in the south part of the city, in the district known as the Museumplein. The area features a a lovely reflecting pool and public park, where dogs run free (and don't seem to mess up the grass too much), and museums line the sides of the enormous square. Largest of all is the stately Rijksmuseum, a public gallery that is home to paintings by the masters of the Dutch Golden Age. Spending just a little bit of time there left me in love with the city, hookers and all.

The Van Gogh Museum was wonderful, of course. It holds the largest collection of Van Gogh paintings in the world, which is not really surprising at all; it also has a lesser number of works by his friends and contemporaries. Being unfamiliar with the breadth of his work, I was fascinated by some of his late-period paintings, including some that were influenced by the style of classical Japanese woodcuts. However, my absolute favorite painting in the building was an early one, a still-life of a Bible (playfully juxtaposed with a small edition of Le Joie de Vivre), that for whatever reason appeared absolutely amazing to me in person. All in all, we "completed" the museum in about an hour and a half.

My friend was ready to head back to the hotel for a nap, but I had one more (depraved) item on my agenda. Though I am not and have never been a smoker, I was determined to purchase a classy-looking pipe as a souvenir, and keep it on my mantle for the purpose of freaking out my parents and amusing my friends. I have an odd sense of humor.

Not knowing exactly how one procures such paraphernalia, I trekked back amidst the chaos to Dam Square, then looked for a head shop in the Red Light District. I found a few, but each was decidedly the opposite of classy, and the souvenirs tended toward the ridiculous and obscene. Ultimately, I lost my nerve and headed for Nieumarkt, away from the girls who saw I was alone and stared just a little too intensely at me. Back in safe territory, I saw a comic book and Manga shop, and I was delighted to find that their products were printed in English: this was one indulgence I was unashamed to pursue. I bought the latest volume of Fullmetal Alchemist, which had not been released in America since I had been abroad, and left the store a very satisfied customer.

Near the metro station I saw a very classy head shop (named, appropriately enough, "The Head Shop,") filled with very classy-looking wares. My nerve had momentarily returned, and I marched boldly inside, announcing my intention to buy a pipe I never intended to use. I eschewed a fanciful glass piece, as they were expensive, and instead selected a modest wooden pipe. Flushed with libertine excitement, I proudly hid my prize deep in the bag from the Manga shop, walked straight to the metro station, and went home, making eye contact with no one.

I spent the rest of the afternoon at the hotel, reading, relaxing, and showing off my pipe to anyone who cared in the slightest. Not wishing to pay for a second metro ticket, I had dinner at the hotel restaurant, which was decent, except for the music. Before bed, my roommate and I turned on the TV to find, of all things, a biographical documentary about world-famous porn star Ron Jeremy, because Amsterdam is the weirdest city in the world.

Day Twenty Six: Even More Amsterdam

One of our few male companions left the group this morning, flying back to the States in order to attend a wedding, of all things. His departure marginally improved the already grossly lopsided male to female ratio, as if that was doing anyone the slightest bit of good. He will be missed.

I must confess, after two days in the city I was feeling both lazy and cheap; I've never been good at money management, so cheap-skating was my last and best line of defense against pauperism. The natural result was that I spent most of the day in the hotel room, listening to music, reading, and napping. By late afternoon I was feeling both guilty and hungry, but I did not relish the thought of eating at the hotel restaurant two nights in a row.

So I thought, and I thought, and I thought some more, and I remembered a place in Nieumarkt that seemed like a good bet. It was called the Cotton Club; if I remember my jazz history well enough, the original Cotton Club was a famous establishment in Washington, D.C. where luminaries like Duke Ellington got their start. "This place," I thought, "is likely a franchise of the original Cotton Club; it will have live jazz, drinks, and probably some good food; I will gather my friends, and there we will go." It also had the advantage of being about fifty feet from the metro station, and thus easy to find.

So I gathered my posse and boarded the train, flush with excitement at the thought of a lively evening out. Alas, all my hopes were shattered upon arrival: the Cotton Club was merely a bar, with only recorded jazz playing through speakers. I endured a well-deserved chastisement, and we went in search of a real food outlet. Nieumarkt is pretty well set up, so fortunately we did not have to go far.

My dinner that night was mashed potatoes mixed with Kale, a vegetable I'd never heard of, but which is basically like very bitter spinach. It was good, especially with gravy, but I think it would have been good of the place to inform me that there was more Kale than potato to be found in the mixture (I jokingly wondered aloud if I was being fed a plate of marijuana). You never know in this town.

As we ate, a baby was crying noisily in a stroller by a nearby table. I turned and made eye contact with the child, locking directly into its gaze. After a few hypnotic faces (mostly just blinking a lot) I permanently calmed him down, and thus discovered my latest super power: instant infant pacification. Nobody else thought it was a very impressive power, but clearly none of them have thought about having kids.

After dinner, we took one last stroll through the Red Light District, because we are all horrible people. We ran the narrow gauntlet a few times for kicks, feeling like aliens on a planet of vice and neon lights. We then returned to the Cotton Club for drinks and pool.

The drinks were good (the native Heineken is probably my favorite beer), but the pool table was a ramshackle affair. The table was only fixed to the floor by one leg, and was light enough that leaning on it would make it rotate, and cause the balls to roll completely out of place. There was no chalk and only one usable stick, the other being grossly crooked, but in spite of it we made a tournament out of our misery, and had the bar mostly to ourselves. I went two for four, along with one of my compatriots, which essentially makes us even. Hopefully, if we ever get a bar to ourselves like that again, a tie-breaking match will decide the championship!

Day Twenty Seven: Bruges and Brussels

I said farewell to the hotel room, particularly to the picture hanging on the wall. It was one of the oddest decorations I'd ever seen: a black and white sketch of an owl-themed super hero (or maybe a feathery park ranger?) seated on a table with, of all things, an owl. Anyone who has any idea what the hell this could be, please let me know. As depraved as the city had made me, I even thought of stuffing this bizarre treasure in my bag. Farewell, Owl-Man of Amsterdam!

In an hour or two we entered Belgium, which is a lot like the Netherlands both physically and culturally, except that the signs are all bilingual (Dutch and French), because the Belgians cannot make up their minds. French signs, at least, are fairly easy to make sense of, but I always pronounce them with caution.

Our first stop was in Bruges, a city about which I knew nothing apart from its recent appearance in the movie In Bruges, which I did not see. As it happens, Bruges is a surprisingly old-fashioned place, with very pleasant old-time architecture, and a lively market area at its core. My sister and I had lunch in the main square, which includes among other things the requisite pointy Cathedral and gargantuan clock tower.

After lunch, we went "souvenir shopping" at a chocolate shop, sampling some of the country's famous sweets (which were molded into some pretty hilarious shapes). Since we had extra time on our hands, the two of us went exploring around Bruge's canals, where we saw horse-drawn carriages (drawn by some pissed-off horses, judging by the impatient stomping)and the usual flocks of water fowl. Bruges, like Amsterdam, is one of many cities that calls itself the Venice of the North, seemingly on the basis that it has some canals. None of these cities should kid themselves; they're all much too clean to be Venice.

Quite by accident, we crossed over a little bridge and found ourselves wandering around in a convent. It was, as you might expect, very nice and peaceful inside, perhaps like a sanitarium, and several signs posted on the grounds instructed visitors to be silent. Even so, we had to laugh when we saw a pair of nuns climb into a hybrid and speed away. Nuns drive cars!?

By the time we reunited with the group, they were already walking back to the bus, because they are traitors. Miraculously, the group hasn't stranded anyone anywhere yet, as thoroughly improbable as it may seem given our relative lack of organization or group cohesion. I doubt they would have really left us, but they sure didn't mind telling us that they would.

Our sleeping spot in Brussels was a hostel, orders of magnitude beneath the one in Steinach in terms of quality. The rooms were barer and much more cramped, and the bathrooms bordered on abominable; some rooms reported roach infestations. The front door was also an inconsistent affair, seeming to open only upon the performance of some arcane ritual dance. We only had one night to stay there, and for some people that was far more than enough.

Now, if you're reasonably aware of things, you'll know that Brussels is not only the capital city of Belgium, but also the headquarters of the European Union, makers of the euro coins we'd all grown to love. If you are also a complete geek, like me, you will know that Brussels is a major center of comic book art, being in effect the capital of European comics. There is, in fact a comic book museum located in the main prt of town, which I had very much looked forward to seeing. Distressingly, the museum was already closed by the time we reached Brussels, and though I would have gladly traded half a day in Paris for half a day in Brussels (I am really that big of a geek), there are some things I cannot change. I went into town with a group of geekily-inclined girls, thinking that at the very least, we might see the museum's exterior.

To make a long story short, we never did find the museum, although we did find several of the city's famous comic strip murals, depicting works by reknowned artists such as Hergé, the creator of Tintin. Along the way we discovered a rather excellent pizzeria with some rather excellent pizza. We also found found the city's main square, which is perhaps the most unnecessarily gilded open space I have ever seen. And of course, we saw Mannekin Pis.

What's Mannekin Pis, you ask? Brussels' lost inexplicable artistic landmark, Mannekin Pis is a life-size statue of nude toddler urinating into a fountain. In case it's not absolutely clear, I'd like to emphasize that the statue is actually passing water from its wee parts into a basin, twenty four hours a day. It is adorable, obscene, and a great source of pride for the locals, who not only sell commemorative key-chains but ENORMOUS CHOCOLATE REPLICAS of Mannekin Pis (which, mercifully, do not actually urinate chocolate). The statue is considered a symbol of peaceful coexistence between French and Dutch-speaking Belgians, and that's just weird.

Other group members informed us that, if we would look a little harder, we would find statues of a urinating girl and a urinating dog. I did not think that was necessary.

Once again I was given the task of navigating our way home, and this time I really did get us lost. A man at some sort of café-bar gave us accurate directions to the hostel, and then started plying one of my companions with beer. Being the type of girl who consistently makes very poor decisions, we devoted all of our efforts to extracting her from what was probably a bad situation, and eventually we succeeded.

Crushing disappointments aside, Brussels is a fine city, with lots of modern buildings and good art to recommend it. I don't know why the Powers That Be did not grant us more time here, because it certainly seems to warrant it.

Day Twenty Eight: Paris

One thing I've noticed a lot in this part of the continent is the relative prevalence of nuclear reactors in the countryside. I guess it's not too surprising that France is way into the alternative energy scene, but I have some serious reservations about the use of nuclear power, due to the dangers posed by its waste products (not to mention the legacy of Chernobyl). I have no idea if radioactive waste is a soluble problem, but every time I see a reactor I shudder, because it hasn't been solved yet.

Our Paris hotel (simply named "Paris XV") was tucked behind some office buildings in a very remote part of town, so our expectations were not high. Appearances can be deceiving, however: our rooms were equipped with couches, kitchens, working air conditioning units, and free, unrestricted WiFi. When I realized there were even washing and drying units in the basement, I wept for joy, as I hadn't had a chance to do laundry since I was in Florence. Paris, you do alright.

Before we arrived, Jacob gave us some unexpected (but unsurprising) news: he was leaving the tour due to his illness, and hooking us up with a new tour guide, a French fellow called Eric. My first impulse was to think that, since he'd been getting better, he could have toughed it out one more week; Lord knows it hadn't been an easy trip for anyone at every point. But sick is sick, of course, and I can't say he didn't go further than I might have. A cloud hung over his departure, with rumors that he'd been fired on a complaint from someone in the group, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn it was true, given the amount of backbiting that tended to go in all directions. I, however, always believed he was doing an acceptable job.

Eric, however, was a clear improvement in terms of geniality and enthusiasm, and I took to calling him "Jacob 2.0." After we were settled in our rooms, he took us on a short tour via Paris' sophisticated underground metro system, and we stepped off at the Place Saint-Michel for a bit of free time. St. Michel is centrally located on the Seine river in the most historic part of town, just a few blocks away from the famous Notre Dame Cathedral. Its centerpiece is an impressive fountain, featuring a statue of the Archangel Michael in his traditional victory pose, stompin' on Satan for eternity. Nearby are a series of tourist-friendly market stalls, positively stuffed with glowing miniature Eiffel Towers.

A big group of us took advantage of our free time to have an early dinner at a small outdoor restaurant, the kind of classy setting with a live pianist (supplemented by Europop songs during his breaks). I didn't know much about French cuisine, except that it featured snails and was very expensive. This meal, however, was a revelation: though I ordered a humble plate of chicken, olives, and mashed potatoes, they may possibly have been the best chicken, olives, and mashed potatoes I had ever had in my life. If there's a secret to French cooking, it seems to be taking perfectly ordinary food and turning it into a quasi-religious experience. Or maybe it's LSD.

After regrouping, we made a pilgrimage to the city's most unquestionably famous monument, the Eiffel Tower, which is a ridiculously tall building. It hasn't been the tallest in the world for over a hundred years, but it is still the unquestioned master of the Paris skyline, and its old-style modernism gives it the look of something out of a Jules Verne book. As afternoon turned to evening, the tower lit up like a Christmas tree, and it was time to ascend to the top.

To be clear, I am very afraid of heights. It's not that I think I might fall; it's that I know I would fall if some catastrophe should befall the structure, and that is completely outside of my control. The fact that the tower looks like the bare skeleton of a normal building, with its grated floors, gusting winds, and crowded walkways, does not make me any more confident in its structural integrity. Though the tower has stood unchallenged for over a century, and is widely regarded as an engineering masterpiece, does not make me feel any better about what would happen if the floor gave way. Upon reaching the topmost observation deck I posed for pictures, admired the charming cityscape and the ascendant moon, and was the first one to go down again.

At this point we were turned loose, and as it was late in the evening I went in search of a Metro station. This took much longer than it should have, because I didn't have a map and had paid close to no attention to geographical landmarks. Even collaborating with friends, it took nearly an hour and a half to get to the right station, and once we reached our destination we wandered around the neighborhood for another half an hour. We might never have made it home were it not for the help of a kindly local bicyclist; back at the hotel, I started poring over maps in hopes of avoiding a similarly embarrassing failure in the future.

View Larger Map

No comments:

Post a Comment