Monthly Archives: April 2012

Backpacking-through-Europe Part IV: Berlin

Sent Thursday, March 26, 2009 3:13 PM

From the wonderful, anything-goes city of Amsterdam, my train proceeds to Berlin, capital city of the new Germany.  After brief stops in the German cities of Osnabrück and Hannover, I arrive in this great city, contemplating my own, preconceived notions of the city – an eclectic mixed-bag of Adolf Hitler, Marlene Dietrich, Albert Einstein and Checkpoint Charlie…oh, yeah…and Liza Minelli in ‘Cabaret’!

After warm days in The Netherlands, Berlin is sunny and clear, but blusteringly, hand-and-ear-numbing-ly cold!  But, no worries!  Between my snazzy, long-john underwear and wool socks, the high-tech-fabric undershirt and jacket Mom & Dad helped me pick out at REI in Seattle along with the backpack (which, by the way, has been AWESOME!), the hoodie sweatshirt Ben and JoAn brought me back from Nantucket, the everything-proof Carhartt gloves I picked up in NYC and my favorite, hand-knitted-by-Ralph cap, I’m ready for any sharp, icy jabs Mother Nature decides to throw my way! (Bring it ON, Sistah!)  I won’t be toasting HER today!  Here’s to Polartek Fleece!

And, after great hostels in Brussels and, especially, Amsterdam, I arrive at my not-so-great hostel here.  No breakfast like the last two and, strangely, no reception!  When you arrive, you call a phone number; they arrive to give you your key and orientation; and they leave.  Bizarre!  Oh, well…I like the location, a neighborhood called Mitte-Prenzlauer Berg that used to be behind the Wall in Eastern Berlin.  It’s now a hip and trendy, sort-of-edgy ‘hood, where Berlin’s alternative subcultures thrive.  When the Wall came down, West Berlin’s artists, musicians, gays and students hastened to the East side, where rents were much cheaper and the “wasteland” of the East provided a fresh canvas on which to paint their lives…an ironic, reverse-direction “escape” from those that had been attempted over the past 40 years!  Here, bars, nightclubs and cheap eats abound…hence, the hostels.  Mitte-Prenzlauer Berg is within walking distance of about a third of the sights on my to-do list, and hosts several bus and tram lines. A good thing, since Berlin is quite large and spread out…the walk between sights will test even MY walking-legs…and THESE boots were made-for-walkin’!

Thankfully, Berlin has one of the most extensive, super-efficient (Hello! Germans!) transportation systems in the world.  There are buses, trams, and not one, but TWO, light rail systems, the S-Bahn and U-Bahn trains.  Berlin’s mass-transit is the epitome of the well-planned systems of Europe.  Tickets are good on all the various types of transit; and ticketing is on the honor system. Rather than the profit-paranoid, ticket-and-turnstyle system in the States, Europeans dutifully purchase their tickets and self-validate the tickets at convenient machines in the stations or on the buses, trams and trains. This validation stamp determines the start-to-end validity period of the ticket.  Compared to the ticket-machine- and turnstyle-bottlenecks in the NYC subways (which only happen when you’re in a rush), the European system is brilliant…and nope, the system’s not bleeding to death from travelers cheating it!

My first day, I venture through the ‘hood, passing the Stiftung Neue Synagogue of 1866, its facade and dome restored to its historic, sacred, golden glory, then cross over Berlin’s river Spree onto Museumsinsel, a beautiful island on which the city’s great museums reside.  Past the collection of museums, I’m stopped dead in my tracks by the incredibly beautiful Berliner Dom, the massive and ornate Lutheran cathedral built in 1900, whose green-black, verdigris domes and statues glow in the tangerine light of the waning sun.  I’m also duly impressed by the sheer number of statues up there! (Party on da rooftop!)

Alongside the Dom, I begin a long, long, long walk down the famous (and did I mention LONG?!) boulevard, Unter den Linden, to its terminus, the famous Brandenburger Tor, the Brandenburg Gate. Today, this beautiful structure, under which I’m filled with the same sense of awe I get standing under Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, leads you to the beautiful greenspace called Tiergarten, once the royal hunting grounds.  But the gate’s infamy stems from its service as the main gate of the dreaded Berlin Wall.  Once the sun sets for the day, the cold is unbearable (Mother Nature ain’t playin’ fair!); so a quick duck into a bäckerei (bakery) in Pariser Platz for a soul-warming coffee, then back to the hostel to hunker down for the night.  Tomorrow’s itinerary is gonna kick my ass!

Potsdamer Platz, the throbbing hub of Berlin life (on par with New York’s Times Square) from the turn of the century until the WWII bombings and its later leveling to serve as the no-man’s land between East and West Berlin, has been rebuilt in modern steel and glass.  Not very interesting to me in general (remember, I like OLD!); but the giant, modern, canvas-and-metal sunshade atop the Sony Center complex is a wonder: part sail, part fan, part bird-wing…and pure art…origami on a scale as grand as Berlin.  Go to Potsdamer Platz to see this, if nothing else.

Nearby is the sight at the tip-top of my list, the Reichstag.  But on the way, two memorials I’ve wanted badly to visit.  The Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe) is fantastic.  Encompassing an entire block, it’s a series of rectangular, concrete blocks of different heights, set into ground that has been UN-levelled intentionally, a rollercoaster surface causing you to labor up inclines, then drop into sudden depressions in the ground.  As you walk into the monument, the monoliths begin to suddenly tower over you and envelop you – a cold, dark, tomb-like feeling.  Add to this the uneven, snakey ground you’re trying to navigate; and you become disoriented and, to be honest, a little spooked…just the effect the memorial’s designer had in mind.  It gives us a sense of the disorientation and lost wandering the Jewish people experienced during this horrible period in history. This is another Berlin must-see.  The feeling is at once somber, wondrous and uneasy.  The design, however, is perfection.

Directly across the street is a small and obscure, but very unique, memorial – the Monument to Homosexual Holocaust Victims.  During Hitler’s reign of terror, homosexual men (but not lesbians, who were considered less of a threat) were also rounded up all over Europe and sent to the concentration camps, forced to wear a pink triangle sewn onto their clothing in the same way that Jews were required to wear the yellow Star of David. (This is why, worldwide, gays today have adopted the pink triangle as our symbol of pride, to celebrate survival.  “Knock-knock…we’re still HERE!”  Snap-snap-snap in Z-formation!  Haha!  The Cosmopolitan, originally known as the Pink Martini, was our “official” cocktail way before “Sex and the City”…just look at it…it’s a pink triangle in the glass!) The Homosexual Holocaust Victims monument is small and not very spectacular, looking like a cross between a misplaced concrete block from the Jewish memorial across the street and a metal garden shed, with a small window that is obviously meant for peering into. The placard for the memorial, right on the sidewalk, accessible to the reading eyes of any passerby, is far from the monument itself, a VERY interesting juxtaposition! The placard’s text is informative and touching, explaining the history I briefly mentioned above, then noting that a kiss between two lovers was reason enough for conviction, and ending with the following quote: “Because of its history, Germany has a special responsibility to actively oppose the violation of gay men’s and lesbians’ human rights.”

BUT, if you’re interested in learning more (and you can’t help but WANT to peer into that little window to see what the heck is in there!), you have to walk a designated trail from the placard to the monument…anyone passing by can see you (you’re, in effect, “outed”) making a conscious, knowing effort to take part in the honoring of these lost, gay men.  In fact, after proudly peering into the little window, I walked away and sat down on a bench away from the memorial, deep in thought.  Several men passed by, read the placard, then glanced around to see if anyone was around who might possibly see them before approaching the window.  Only when they were certain the coast was clear did they quickly and nervously proceed.  Some just never got up the nerve to go further; and some couples who approached separated at the placard, the female of the couple advancing to the window, leaving her partner behind…he more anxious than ever without his female partner to confirm his sexual preference to the passing public.  Interesting, huh?  Fear runs DEEP!

And just what IS inside that window?  A continually-running film showing various, gay male (and fully-clothed, mind you!) couples standing in the spot before the memorial was installed, hugging, laughing, whispering sweet nothings into each others’ ears, and kissing. It’s so beautiful; and it made me aware of how rare these images of gay couples are for all of us…being lovey-dovey and sweet, holding hands and each other, touching each others’ cheeks and hair, enamored and in love…and all above-the-belt. Wow…

Two “heavy” sights in a row; and I need major sustenance. You can’t NOT do sausages and beer in Germany; and you don’t have to go far to find both! (It was my first trip to Germany in 1994 that sent my 7-year, steak-and-burger-resistant vegetarian streak crashing like a Stuka in flames.  My Achilles’ Heel, a weakness for salt-cured meats like bacon and sausage, was brutally exposed. Blame it on a big, grilled Bratwurst in an outdoor market in Köln that had me at “sizzle!”)  Today’s perfect lunch is “Berliner” brand beer, “naturlisch!” (naturally!), accompanied by an extremely popular Berlin street-food, “curry-wurst”.  This is a big, grilled sausage, sliced, drizzled with a tangy-sweet, tomato-ey sauce, then liberally sprinkled all over with curry powder…yowzah!  Any of you who have dined with me know I’m all over this!

Refreshed, it’s on to my last Berlin sights this trip…Gendarmenmarkt and the Reichstag. Gendarmenmarket is a lovely, wide-open square featuring the Konzerthaus building in its center, bookended by two beautiful, nearly-twin churches: Französische Dom and Deutsche Dom, the French and German Cathedrals.  It’s the perfect square to pull up to a cafe table on a nice day, relax and watch the world go by.  Berlin should have been renamed “Phoenix”; because it has definitely risen from the ashes…both the bombings that flattened it in WWII, and the social neglect of Communist-ruled East Berlin.  I bought some postcards showing the most famous Berlin sights right after the Allied bombings…twisted metal amongst piles of crumbled, burning masonry…being stared at by stunned Berliners in total shock. These images, alongside the photos I took of the same sights today show the amazing restoration work! Gendarmenmarkt is just one of the sights portrayed, as is Brandenburger Tor and the Reichstag, my next stop.

The Reichstag is Berlin’s best-known structure, home to today’s German Parliament.  Famous is its dome, which burned in 1933 and was never replaced. That is, until the reunification, when a new, spectacular dome designed by Sir Norman Foster, one of the architects mentioned in an earlier travelogue, capped the symbolic structure. The new dome is the highlight of the Reichstag, if not all of Berlin!  All glass and metal, a spiral walkway lines its interior, affording you breathtaking, 360-degree views of the city.  The central column inside the dome is covered in an array of geometric mirrors at many different angles, reflecting the visitors, the outside panoramas of the city, and other mirrors, giving you that mirrors-to-infinity effect.  It’s a fantastic, space-age, dizzying wonderland in there…hold on to the railings if you lose your sense of balance!  Another must-see; but go early. The Reichstag is always free; and since only a limited number of visitors at a time are allowed in, the lines get long and move very slowly. But, whenever you go, it’s well worth the wait. You can even peer in on a session of Parliament, watching history in the making.

Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche is a totally different type of sight than you’ll see elsewhere in Berlin…a modern ruin. Another casualty of Allied bombers, this once-beautiful church was preserved in its bombed-out state, shored-up here and there to prevent it from crumbling further.  It’s beautiful in this state; though you can’t help but long for the parts of it that were lost.  I love that someone had the foresight to think of doing this!  It’s important to see the results of the destructive power we possess.  Berlin is not afraid of her difficult, marred past. Bravely, this city started with acceptance, then moved to reparations, healing, reunification and honoring those who suffered at her hand and, like the true world leader she is, made a pact with her citizens to prevent the same mistakes from ever entering her sparkling future.  It’s an honor to experience her!

Backpacking-through-Europe Part III: Amsterdam

Sent Wednesday, March 25, 2009 9:36 PM

I’m looking forward to experiencing Amsterdam, a city known for its extremely relaxed, live-and-let-live lifestyle. I read an opinion in an Amsterdam travel guidebook that my friend, Rob, loaned me that claimed that New York City’s own laissez-faire attitude is a holdover from the Dutch, who settled Manhattan (after swindling it from the native Lenape community!) and created “New Amsterdam”…interesting!  Amongst the hustle-and-bustle of NYC today, I forget about “New Amsterdam”; but it lives just under the radar…all the Dutch street names and neighborhoods (once separate villages) in the city, which stubbornly survived both British rule and American independence.  New York City used to be a canal city, even!  Yep, Canal Street used to be a REAL canal running east-west across Manhattan.  Imagine how awesome it would be today, had it remained a viable waterway!  Leave it to New Yorkers to pollute it and be forced to fill in the putrid, disease-causing mess.  And leave it to my peeps (the Chinese) to swoop in and revive that ol’ Dutch spirit of mercantilism, this time as a successful (if illegal) business venture in fake Guccis, “Louies” and Coach…”Good price…you like?”

After stops in the renowned Belgian and Dutch cities of Antwerpen, Delft, Rotterdam and den Haag (The Hague), my train pulls into the beautiful Amsterdam Centraal station.  Amsterdam is in the middle of an extensive, citywide renovation project; and most of the grand, historical buildings, including the rail station and the beautiful Rijksmuseum, are well on their way to emerging from their tarp cocoons.  Already, glittering brick-and-gold wings (East Wing, West Wing) are beginning to unfurl from under cover.  I can’t wait to return to see the transformation!

I catch a tram to my hostel, located right on Amsterdam’s version of Central Park, Vondelpark (People’s Park).  (Big plus for me, as my body is jonesing for some yoga and jogging!)  I’m in easy walking distance of the canals; and my camera and I are eager to make their acquaintance! The combination of the unique canals (called “gracht” here), the beautiful, gingerbread facades of the canal houses, the bridges and houseboats, make this an extremely photogenic city.  Surprisingly, the canals are a little dirty, the houseboats decrepit and rotting; and the parking of automobiles all along the sides of the canals begin to eat away at the Amsterdam charm.  But, it’s wonderful nonetheless.  I imagine the charm factor explodes once the trees have leafed out fully and all the window boxes are spilling over with multihued blossoms!

Amsterdam is a cycling city, no doubt about it.  When you step out of the rail station, the sight of the bike-park, thousands of sparkling, entangled handlebars arranged in row upon row upon row, is amazing and almost intimidating…an immense, overwhelming army of giant, steel-and-rubber insects, poised to launch their attack on the city.  And, they do attack, albeit individually.

Here, more than any city I’ve ever been (except Delhi, that is, where I actually got hit by a motorcycle-taxi), you REALLY have to watch out for yourself as a pedestrian. The streets beneath your feet are a spaghetti-strewn system of tram tracks; and the trams seem to appear out of nowhere like freakin’ ghost trams, headed right toward you. Between the trams, the automobiles and the bicycles, it’s easy to feel like a sitting duck, a pinball in the arcade. Thankfully, the streets are clearly marked with bicycle versus pedestrian paths. However, the cyclists will angrily ring their bells at you if you step into THEIR path; but they won’t hesitate at all to ride in yours. In Amsterdam, bicycles RULE…best to just accept it…and watch your ass!

My first day, I walked all the way down, then up, Prinsengracht. On the way, I passed several of the city’s famous “smoking coffee houses”, where you can buy a joint to go along with your coffee! It was odd to smell that oh-so-familiar, pungent smell wafting through the air and see tables of people openly sharing long drags, laughing and conversing amongst clouds of hazy, heavy, hunger-inducing smoke. “Coffee-house”…yeah, right…they undoubtedly sell less coffee than marijuana, and even more snack-foods when the “munchies” inevitably kick in!

A solution to the citywide munchies is to pop into one of the many Febo automat bars.  The once-common “automats”, a wall of glass-and-metal boxes filled with hot snacks (and precursors to today’s vending machines), are very popular in Amsterdam.  Drop in your coins; lift the glass door; retrieve your fresh or recently-prepared snack; scarf it down; repeat; repeat; repeat!  It’s great to see the older generations happen upon one of these snack bars…the thrill on their faces as they wax nostalgic, flooded with remembrances of their youth.  All smiles and giggles are they, giddily selecting hamburgers, cheeseburgers, or local faves, “kaassoufflé”, “kroketten” and “frikandellen” (fried cheese, meat croquettes and sausage-like meat sticks, respectively). One of life’s greatest pleasures is seeing our elders suddenly drunken and drenched by the Fountain of Youth! LOVE it!

Continuing my city exploration, I turn down a little side-lane into the famed red-light-district, expecting the cheesy-tacky-pornshop atmosphere like that in Brussels. I couldn’t have been more mistaken! Nestled discreetly in narrow, cobblestone lanes are the beautiful and charming canal houses.  Fancy, old gas lanterns, refitted with a red lightbulb, indicate a house of pleasure. Walk closer; and you’ll encounter beautiful windows, framed in beautiful draperies and soft, cherry-red light.  Amongst beautiful antique furniture and accent candlelighting will lounge the “merchandise”, in tight-fitting corsets of satin and lace.  It’s all a carefully-crafted atmosphere of luxurious, Old World, high-class pleasure. Pretty amazing, actually. Unfortunately, as in Brussels, most of the women don’t quite fit the aura. (Why is it that the ladies-of-the-night everywhere seem to be the least desirable women around? Johns, are you hearing me? Haha!) The ladies all invite me in as I pass…little do they know that what REALLY interests me are their intricately-carved, antique settees and heavily-embroidered, brocade window dressings!

Over the next 2 days, I spend my hours split between the canals, the sidewalk cafes and the world-class Amsterdam museums. I first attend the thought-provoking Anne Frank Huis. We’ve all heard the story about the house in which the Frank family, along with several other Amsterdam Jews, hid in the attic for several years before their hiding place was betrayed, resulting in their interment and deaths in the Nazi concentration camps.  I found the museum less powerful than I thought it would be, mostly due to the fact that Otto Frank, Anne’s father (and the only one who survived the camps), stipulated that the house would remain completely empty of furnishings and mementos. For me, not seeing the families’ surroundings (other than bare walls and floors) eliminated the small “connection” I might have been able to make with their experience there. Instead, I walked away having been happy to step into history for an hour or so, but not nearly as moved as I had been by the Jewish portraits in Brussels. Several excerpts from Anne’s diary are imprinted on the walls; and these did give me a sense of who Anne was, how deeply sensitive and intelligent she was, how wise she was for her age. I did come away from the experience amazed at the loss of her, at who she would have risen to become, had she not been stolen from humanity.

The Van Gogh Museum is a must-see.  Seeing the changes in his painting style as his life progressed (influenced by the places and people he came into contact with) and as his health REgressed is so interesting! Having been born Dutch and raised in the area, his early work is dark and muted in the typical Dutch painting style of the time.  As he moves to Paris and comes into contact with the painters of the up-and-coming Impressionist movement, Vincent’s work becomes colorful and Impressionist, as well. When he moves to Arles in the south of France, his work explodes with colorful images of the Arles countryside – the work we most recognize and treasure (those pricey sunflowers and irises!). Upon the advancement of his epilepsy and resulting commitment to an asylum, his work reflects his disappointment and sadness. (However, after seeing the full scope of his work at this museum, these last years of his work are my favorites!)

His relationship to Theo, his brother, is touching:  If it weren’t for Theo, an art dealer in Paris, and Theo’s wife Jo, we would never know Vincent’s work the way we do today. One of my favorites is the painting he painted to celebrate the birth of Theo’s son, painted during his illness and the year he committed suicide, 1890.  It’s a beautiful depiction of an almond branch, blooming in pink and white, against a vivid, turquoise ground. To me, it shows his ability to peel through the layers of desperation to tap into that loving, hopeful spirit within.

My favorite museum was the grand Rijksmuseum.  Known for its collection of Rembrandts, which were wonderful, I learned more about the power and innovation of the 16th-century Dutch (they ruled the world!) than I had known before. The scope of their influence remains intact, worldwide, today.  What an amazing culture!

Through years of studying art history, I have to say that I never really understood the appeal of Rembrandt and the Dutch Masters’ paintings.  Having really only seen them printed in art books and on postcards, though I appreciated their mastery of interpreting the nature of light in paint, I just couldn’t appreciate the colors: brown-on-brown, drab-on-drab, blah-blah-blah.  Thankfully, again, I’m mistaken.  Rembrandt van Rijn’s MASTERPIECES are much more colorful than I ever thought, with vivid blues, aquas, pinks and reds accenting the muted palette, drawing your attention to specific details in the painting.  So realistic is the effect of the light and coloring that you expect their bosoms to rise on an inhalation or their eyes to blink, causing a tear to drop from the edge of a watery, lower lid.  The extraordinarily simple and effective, single dot of white paint in the tear brings the entire work to life. With my background in textiles, I think I’m most impressed by Rembrandt’s execution of fabrics, particularly the detail in the delicate lace of the aristocratic neck ruffs and the way he paints transparent fabrics, revealing a hint of skin underneath.  I’ve been converted!

In addition, the Rijksmuseum exposed me to another painter of the time, Frans Hals, whose style I like even better than that of Rembrandt.  Hals has a looser, more rhythmic style of painting, a departure from the soft, photorealism in vogue at the time.  The faces in Hals’ paintings are realistic; but he leaves the brushstrokes visible and strong in the subjects’ clothing, simply suggesting the color, texture and movement of the fabric, rather than spelling it out for you. Unfortunately, an old and reoccurring story repeats itself here: Painter’s progressive style brings notoriety.  Notoriety brings biggest, most important commission of painter’s career.  Painter’s progressive style and project benefactors’ aesthetic sensibility (or lack of!) come into bitter conflict. Benefactors try to strong-arm painter to “tone it down”, royally pissing artist off.  (Can you say, “Michelangelo”? “Diego Rivera”? “World Trade Center Memorial”?)  Frans Hals abandons the commission, rather than change his style; and another painter finishes the work.  (When will the people with the money ever learn to deal with the money and let the artist deal with the art?!)  Interestingly, I learned that another famous painter of the period was a woman, Judith Leysetr, which was extremely rare for the time.  A woman making a living for herself painting portraits of wealthy Dutch merchant families?!  Oh, yeah…it was AMSTERDAM! You GO, Girl!

My last day in Amsterdam and more, leisurely canal-strolling, watching the reflected buildings wiggle in the water.  I stop to sit down, the lone customer, at a vast cafe outside de Waag…a beautiful, imposing structure that originally served as one of the protective gates to the city…to have a beer (surprise!) and call my sister, Malia, who, along with other family members and friends, has been checking on me periodically via email and text messages.  (My brother, Kawika, has even been tracking my progress on Google Earth, pinpointing my exact location from the few cel-phone-pix I’ve sent to family members from each city…mostly my big head in front of local, iconic buildings! Wow!)  A grey and cloudy morning, the sun suddenly bursts through; and in minutes, the empty, outdoor tables are suddenly packed solid. This is when I got my best taste of Amsterdam…from the people.

A fairly even mix of tourists from around the world and locals on a long, midday break, the beer started flowing; and the conversation began to rumble. Before I knew it, the Bulgarian tourist at the table to my left, the two local Amsterdammers at the table to my right and I had pushed our 3 tables together, began chatting as if we were old friends, and started regularly plunking down Euro coins to buy each other rounds of beer.  (Actually, the 2 guys from Amsterdam, Tim and Theis, and I were the only ones drinking.  Nikola, the Bulgarian gent, prefered puffing on the biggest, Cheech-and-Chong joint I’ve ever seen, which he purchased from the “coffee house” for a mere 3 Euros.) Nikola didn’t speak English well; but because he’s lived in Nantes, France for the past 15 years, his French is practically native.  Tim and Theis both speak Dutch and English, but neither French nor Bulgarian.  So, I became hasty interpreter, speaking French with Nikola as best as I could and translating to English for the Dutch boys.  It was really nice speaking French again, though the words often got stuck in my throat like a hairball…KACKHH…KAAAACHHH…AACHKK!  But, when the words DID flow, they felt so good swirling around my tongue, like a sweet, warm sip of Grand Marnier…Mmmmmmmm…

We shared stories about where we come from, our families, our professions, the sad state of the economy and politics. They are completely under New York City’s spell, having practically “grown up” in The Big Apple on TV and in the movies (just as Americans in all 50 states have done).  For them, New York City is the ultimate place to visit; and they find it amusing, yet flattering, that I love Europe so much and can’t seem to stop returning to the Continent.  I’ve gotten this same reaction throughout this trip…someone asks where I live; and when I tell them I’m from New York, you would have thought I had said, “Why, I come from The Great Land of Oz!”; and they’re ready to drop what they’re doing and follow me to Manhattan, to find that “something”, that “je ne sais quoi”.  And when I think about it, I guess that’s why I, like many other non-native New Yorkers, am there, too.

But on this day, I’ve found the exact spot on Earth I want to be (can you find me, Kawika?) – amongst new friends, laughing and rediscovering that commonality we thought we lost.  Yeah, I’m lovin’ being in this chair, at this cafe, in the sunshine…a New Amsterdammer in Old Amsterdam.

Backpacking-through-Europe Part II: Brussels and Brugge

Sent Sunday, March 22, 2009 9:28 AM

Brussels: A city that, to be honest, has never been high on my list of places to visit. The administrative center of the European Union, I imagine her sporting blocks of bad, 1970’s architecture, crawling with pompous diplomats…all under a perpetually grey and dreary sky. (Non, merci!) Although my first day in Brussels IS cold, grey and rainy (is she daring me to stay?), I stick with her; and she rewards me with sunny weather for the rest of my visit. The locals tell me I’m fortunate to be enjoying such weather; and I agree, toasting Mother Nature by holding my glass of Jupiler beer high. As I do, the bright sun shines through the glass of golden, bubbly liquid.

When I was a kid (ask my parents), I loved to lay out in the bright, Hawaiian sun and place glass marbles against my eyes, entranced by the sun coming through them, getting lost in the colors and air bubbles in the glass…my little, 6-year-old, psychedelic fantasyland. (Yeah, I was just as weird then as now.) I still return to that psychedelic fantasyland, but the portal now is candlelight dancing in my glass of Cabernet or, as today, sunrays gleaming through my Jupiler. I lose myself for a few seconds; and I want to dive right in. So, I do!

The hostel at which I’m staying is nearest the city’s north rail station; and like Paris’ Gare du Nord, Brussels’ Noord Station is located in a less-than-desirable neighborhood. (I stayed in Paris’ charming 17th Arrondisement area for years because it was near the flat of my best friend, Cindy…that is, until I discovered I could get a room around the Gare du Nord for about $37 a night, nevermind the neighborhood…or the toilets and showers being down the hall!)

My first day in Brussels, upon stepping out of the station, I’m shocked to discover I’m right in the middle of Brussels’ red-light district! I didn’t even know that Brussels HAD an Amsterdam-esque red-light district, where the ladies-of-the-night sit or stand in shop-front windows like live mannequins, advertising their goods. (Though THESE goods appear less-than-shiny-and-new! No Neiman-Marcus, this…Joe’s-Everything’s-a-Bargain-99-Cents-Emporium seems more the genre here!)

Brussels hasn’t quite put the “classy” spin on their prostitution industry the way Amsterdam has. Their lighting isn’t the mysterious, inviting, soft red lighting and candlelight preferred by Amsterdammers; nor is the setting in quaint, 17th-century Dutch canal houses with windows draped in rich velvets, silks and lace. In Brussels, it’s mostly shockingly bright, hot pink neon, silver mylar ribbon-curtains, and ear-blasting Eurodisco. All of this gives the women a tacky, carnival-freak-show-like aura…kinda frightening, actually…like a really bad drag show on acid!!

Seriously, though, I don’t mean to disrespect these women. I actually admire the sensibility of Europeans in the way they deal with difficult social issues like prostitution, drug use, abortion…all the issues that seem to make us Americans squirm. “Women-of-the-profession” like the aforementioned pay taxes, get good healthcare (including regular testing and treatment for STDs) and are important, contributing members of the society they live in. I think that’s a good thing! And come on…they provide a service that is, always has been and always will be in high demand. At least this way, they (and their customers) remain in good health, without being stigmatized by the rest of the (usually hypocritical) community. Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox, before I tick someone off! (What’s new?) Haha!

Over the next few days, I find Brussels to be quite a beautiful city! There are many things that make a city great and enticing: natural beauty, historical sights, cultural events, culinary fame, reknowned shopping, etc. For me, it’s architecture that captures my heart and makes me swoon. Give me old, worn and crumbling, or old and restored to greatness. Just don’t give me new…unless its more sculpture than building, designed by the likes of Daniel Libeskind, Norman Foster or Zaha Hadid (some of my favorite architects). Despite my love…no, obsession…with architecture, I never had the desire to be an architect. It’s not so much the structural engineering that piques my interest; it’s purely the decorative aspect. I guess that’s why I love older buildings so much…they are a riot of design motifs! Luckily, Brussels is all too happy to oblige. The grand, gorgeous buildings with their orgies of statuary and bas-relief have me in their grasp; and my camera goes wild! Former palaces of the royalty and nobility, grand boulevards and geometrically symmetrical, highly-manicured parks remind me much of Paris.

One such greenspace is the Parc de Bruxelles, facing the Palais Royale mentioned above. The day I walked through the park, enjoying the trees beginning to bud in vivid lime green and the early bulbs pushing through the soil after a winter nap, I came upon a sobering exhibit: billboard after billboard displaying portrait photos of Belgian Jews who were transfered to the concentration camps during WWII. It’s so shocking to see their faces, from toddlers to the elderly, gorgeous young men and women in their prime, youth in the midst of their studies, preparing for what were supposed to be bright futures.

We’ve seen all the horrific photos and film footage of emaciated prisoners behind barbed wire; and at some self-protective, psychological level, we filter out the idea that these are human beings like us. But these headshots, taken at the very beginning, at the time they were “registered” as Jews, show everyday people with talents, families, dreams. You can see in their faces that they have no idea of the horrors to come.

I walked slowly along the billboards, taking time to honor those portrayed by glancing at every single face looking back at me from the past. Traveling in this part of the world, I realize how far and removed the Holocaust is today for most Americans. For the people in this part of Europe, the memory is still strong, however; and the many memorials dedicated to the lost, including the Anne Frank Huis (Anne Frank House) in Amsterdam, the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe) in Berlin, and the Stary Zidovsky Hrbitov (Old Jewish Cemetery) in Prague, are incredibly moving. By the time I reached the last photograph, tears were running down my face. I’m so glad I had the experience. After sitting down in the park in silence for a few minutes to let it all sink in, I realize I’m hungry…for food, and for more wonderful experiences.

I quickly master the Brussels metro system in my quest for more of the city’s sensory delights. My friend, Anna, told me before I left to make sure to eat a waffle. I did…again and again! Once you eat a “gaufre” here, you’ll never again want to eat what we, back home, call a “Belgian waffle”. Get your gaufre from one of the little gaufre vans parked on the street. It’s sweeter, softer on the inside and crunchier on the outside, than what we’re used to. You eat it in your hands like a cookie, drizzled with chocolate sauce or topped with a dollop of whipped cream (my preference!)…and hot off the grill! The sugar in the batter caramelizes at the corners of the square-shaped waffle; so your first and last bite are sweet, crunchy, sticky, slightly-burnt, yummy delights!

Now, I need salt to balance the sweet. On my first trip to Montreal years ago, I was introduced to the famous Belgian “frîtes”. That was the day I started to prefer mayonnaise to ketchup on my fries; and I’ve never turned back! The reunion of hot, golden, crispy-salty frîtes and my tastebuds was a torrid, passionate affair, leaving me a voyeuristic third-wheel. After devouring the last, greasy, crunchy bits deep at the bottom of the paper cone, I’m satiated and smiling…and I imagine my tastebuds having an après-l’amour cigarette!

Europe definitely has a strong snacking culture, with snack stands and snack shops everywhere. The variety of street food is great compared to the hotdog-pretzel-halal-meat snack carts we have on the streets of NYC. Here, everything from sausages to fried fish to beer to hot, mulled wine are on offer for you to take away. Everyone here walks (or bicycles) everywhere; and snacking is a necessity for refueling and reenergizing! The food is hot, delicious…and cheap!

Since I’ll be returning to Brussels for 3 days at the end of my trip, I’ll hit the museums then. This time around, I’m just enjoying eating, drinking, enjoying the architecture, practicing my French and walking. I didn’t realize Brussels was so hilly…it doesn’t appear so; but believe me, your calves and thighs will tell you the truth! This creates the perfect excuse to cop a seat at a cafe, have a coffee or a beer, use the WC, write in my journal and take photos of the beautiful architecture, which is a unique and wonderful hybrid of Dutch and French styling.

The people, by the way, also display this unique mix. There’s a distinct border between French-speaking and Flemish-speaking Belgium. Look at a map of Belgium and notice the towns with French names or Flemish names; and the border will appear quite distinct. In Brussels, you’ll hear French spoken the most. Take the train to the beautiful towns of Gent, Brugge or Antwerpen, and the language immediately switches to Flemish. (Note: English is commonly spoken in Brussels, Brugge, Amsterdam, Berlin and Prague, making these cities ideal destinations for us monolingual Americans!)

My favorite place of all in Brussels is the Grand’Place. All European cities and towns have a main square; and Grand’Place is it for Brussels. And wow…is it ever aptly named! It’s not a particularly large, open square compared to those of many European capitals…but it’s small enclosure is what makes it so special, boxing you in and ravishing you with it’s beauty. The stonework on the surrounding buildings is as fine and delicate as Belgian lace; and the gilding on the buildings captivates with its hypnotic glimmering of gold on a sunny day! At night, all these architectural masterpieces are floodlit in more golden lighting…pure magic! Standing in the middle of Grand’Place feels like being in a treasure chest amongst jewels, a very special feeling. I have to peel myself away; because tomorrow is an early train ride…a day-trip to the Belgian canal-town of Brugge.

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The following day, after a stop in the town of Gent and an hour-long train ride, I arrive in Brugge. A quick bus ride from the rail station to the Grôte Markt, Brugge’s main square, and I have to pick my jaw up off the floor of the bus. Brugge is astonishingly beautiful. Every building’s Dutch-like facade is gorgeous and charming. Stocky, black horses and carriages are lined up, awaiting the tourists’ arrival. (Fortunately, I’m traveling before Easter, when the floodgates open in Europe for the masses…and, because I took the early train from Brussels, I practically have the city to myself for the first few hours!)

Narrow, cobblestone lanes and sparkling-clean, mirror-surfaced canals winding through the town make me feel like I’ve stepped into a storybook. I’m thinking this has become my favorite place in Europe! The size of the town is small and manageable; everything to see is within walking distance. The townspeople are extremely friendly and helpful. They seem to really enjoy you visiting their city (I would want to show it off, as well!), rather than just being interested in you dropping your Euros here.

A climb up the town’s belfry (bell tower) affords a breathtaking view of what was once the most important shipping town in Europe (and second only in size to London), before their river silted up several hundred years ago, severing their connection to the North Sea as well as their fortunes. For us visitors, this turned out to be a good thing, for it was this misfortune that froze Brugge in time and created such a unique place. I happened to be at the top of the belfry, standing right next to the gigantic, ancient bells when they began to ring. I can still feel the vibration in my bones; and I’m surprised I walked away with my hearing intact!

Before heading back to the big city, I try to soak up as much of this amazing city as I can, enjoying the late-afternoon sunshine at a bustling cafe, drinking a kriek, a delicious, Belgian cherry beer. It’s slightly sweet and very refreshing, with a gorgeous color, topped by a light-pink foam. Of course, I can’t resist holding it up to the sunlight and peering into it, 6 years old again, “dancing” with the bubbles rising in the sparkling, magenta liquid.