Grandma’s Gift: A Love of Textiles

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One of the greatest things I’ve experienced since leaving the corporate world has been a reawakening of creative thoughts, time to slow down and really “see” little details around me that I was in too much of a hurry before to notice – time to again pursue creative interests that, once passionate about, I had left in a state of “hibernation”. One of the quickest of these to raise its head has been the field of textile design.

Since childhood, I have been surrounded by colorful textiles. Any child growing up in Hawaii has the same experience – these brightly-colored botanical prints following us from the soft blankets (“kihei pili”) under our infant bellies to the billowing cloth of our mothers’ and grandmothers’ cool, cotton mu’umu’us, to the crisp and handsome “aloha shirts” of our fathers and grandfathers. When these were outgrown, worn out or damaged, the textiles were recycled – pieced together in colorful, patchwork blankets and quilts. A particularly brilliant one graced the pune’e (daybed) in our living room; and I spent hours lounging there, lost in the imagery represented in each swatch of fabric. Like a riotous, fabric jigsaw puzzle, I would look for the same print design in various pieces scattered throughout the blanket. I never tired of it. Who knows, decades later, whatever happened to it; but I would give anything to have that beautiful “kihei” again, wrapping me in my Hawaiian childhood.

Here I am at my 5th birthday party in Honolulu, surrounded by my siblings and cousins, all of us aglow in brilliant, 1960’s Hawaiian-print textiles (Yes, that’s me in the blue, mosaic print and shiny hair!):

My 5th birthday party, Honolulu, Nov 1969

My 5th birthday party, Honolulu, Nov 1969

That fascination in graphic design applied to the surface of cloth was soon followed by a curiosity of the structure and construction of the cloth itself, beneath the printed design. Watching my mother stitch flat scraps of Hawaiian-print fabric into clothing that conformed to the contours of mine and my siblings’ little, sun-tanned bodies was amazing. Studying her working that ancient, black Singer treadle sewing machine – amazed at how, all at once, she controlled the stitch speed with the filigreed foot treadle, raised the presser foot with a knee lever, and used one hand to guide the fabric while raising and lowering the needle with the other – she may as well have been a wizard or a one-man band from outer space, playing for an astonished-but-appreciative crowd of spectators. I noticed the difference between those soft, cotton broadcloths and the rough, course weave of the canvas fabric my father stretched over wooden frames for his paintings and thought, “Hmmmm…”

My grandmother spent hours at a time crocheting the most intricate doilies, tablecloths, shawls and jewelry, dripping with pearls or incorporating 3D bouquets of orchids and pansies in brilliantly-colored cotton thread of the finest denier. My sisters and I loved digging through bins of her work at her tiny apartment in Honolulu; and still, the acrid scent of naphthalene in the moth balls she used to preserve them takes me back to her, and my childhood. Our house was ornamented with her brilliant throw pillows quilted in the Hawaiian style – one brightly-colored botanical design appliqueed against another, brightly-colored ground. My brothers and I slept (and drooled) on them, engaged in mad pillow fights with them, and built giant piles of them on which to land, safely, from daredevil leaps on high. And when she, probably in an attempt to keep me and my sister busy and out of her hair, cut a square piece from a cardboard box, slit it in regular intervals on all sides and taught us how to weave a pot holder on it using strips of colored scrap fabric left over from her own sewing projects, I was smitten.

That love of textiles never left me; and I followed it, willingly, through a career in fashion design, then a passion for computer-aided textile and surface design, to a late-found love for interior design. And no matter what artistic twists and turns I took, from pottery to lighting and home furnishings, the influence of textiles – particularly the structure of the basic, basket-weave pattern – always revealed itself in my work:

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Ceramic bowl, 2001

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Ceramic and copper wire bowl, 2002

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Paper lanterns, 1999

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Wood and bungee cord chair, 2013

Living in New York City has continued to nurture that passion. I took up knitting in the East Village back in 2005 as a way to occupy myself on my daily subway ride, and to “connect” spiritually with my grandmother. About a year ago, I began practicing the free-form Japanese art of weaving, Saori, in a small, basement studio on the Upper East Side. The possibilities and offerings in this city are endless – at the tip of one’s fingers, one can seek and find classes in upholstery, shibori dyeing, portrait embroidery, lacemaking, yarn spinning, silkscreening, reverse appliquee or felting.

A few weekends ago, I stepped into a fairytale land of creativity and experimentation. Through some of my recent textile print-design work, I was notified of an opportunity to spend a weekend at the Textile Arts Center, experimenting with textiles under the guidance of Pascale Gueracague, textile designer for the fashion house of Helmut Lang. Knowing this fashion collection well for its pushing the boundaries of textile surface design and construction, I jumped at the opportunity to work with its creator and hopped on the R train to Brooklyn for the weekend.

Expecting a haughty, strict and probably judgmental European teacher, ruler in hand, ready to pounce on her hopeless and untalented American wanna-bes, I was thrilled to find instead a beautiful, young, half-French-half-American woman with a huge smile and kindness oozing from her pores. As she sat with her Mac laptop, struggling to make it “talk” to the video projector and ready to pull her hair out, I thought, “Ahhh…she’s one of us!” Little did I know that once she got the technology in sync and began her presentation of visual ideas and trends, me and the other handful of students in attendance would be completely and overwhelmingly inspired, our creative juices running amok, chomping at the bit, ready to start our weekend of artistic abandon.

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But, oh, no…forget about those baubles and beads, those brilliant prints and fabulous embellishments we all brought in our backpacks to work with! Au contraire! This will be a series of EXERCISES, of “quick studies” that will challenge us to analyze a fabric’s properties and take that fabric to a completely different level, Pascale tells us. As she leads us to the table of fabrics we are to work with, we are all, at some level, disappointed, challenged, confused…no, HORRIFIED at the selections cast before us. No Gaugin-esque, painterly prints in sight. No luscious limes, funky fuchsias, sparkly metallics here. No rock star, no Disney princess, not even a Downtown drag queen would be caught dead in these fabrics. (Well, there IS this one blindingly fluorescent orange fabric – a strange, stiff, transparent knit that could only be described as “radioactive construction-worker ballet-tutu”. We all stayed WAY away from that one!) “Breathe, release, accept the challenge,” I tell myself. “Hmmm, should I pick the flesh-colored toile, the spiderweb-colored organza, or the gray-black, casket-liner satin?!”

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Luckily, as it turns out, none of us have to pick at all. Pascale has chosen for us – a very pale gray crepe de Chine. We are all given a piece of the same fabric and a pair of scissors. Our challenge is to create a new fabric using only scissors; and we have 20 minutes to do so. Surprisingly, as soon as the fabric touches my skin, I am energized, excited, ready to take this on. I add yet another challenge on top of Pascale’s – to resist cutting the fabric into more than one piece and reconstruct it – but rather, to keep the entire piece intact. As if summoned by some silent incantation, I notice my creative self rising to the surface, leading me in the project. Folding the fabric in half lengthwise, I make a series of horizontal slits, cut the floating strips in the center of the fabric in half, and tie each half together in a knot:

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Once our time was up, we all pinned our swatches to a large, felt-covered presentation wall and described our thoughts, our processes, and received feedback and guidance. It was AWESOME!!! I think we were all completely hooked on Pascale’s process. The weekend consisted of one challenge after another, sometimes with fabrics Pascale chose for us, other times with fabrics we chose ourselves. Oftentimes, Pascale gave us a particular method/process with which to create; and at others, we could go “wild” and create our own challenges, using whatever method/process we felt compelled to use: sewing, pressing, cutting, tying, gluing, tearing, puncturing, stretching, sanding…the gerunds here could go on and on.

Challenge: Play with texture and “motion”. Rough-cut circles, sanded to fray the edges, plus a zigzag stitch on the sewing machine, creates both stationary and “moving” layers of texture. This would be fun to dance in:

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Challenge: Experiment with layers. I wanted to play with layers both at the main visual plane, above the main visual plane…and even beneath the main visual plane. I sandwiched 2 pieces of somewhat-transparent fabric together and stitched parallel rows across the entire surface to create texture at the initial visual level of the fabric. To add more texture ABOVE the initial visual level of the fabric, I cut small pieces of the fabric and stacked/assembled them into 3D fabric “roses”, attached with embroidery floss:

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And when, as a soft and feminine dress, its wearer passes the light of a window or doorway, the fabric reveals yet another, surprise level of texture – small pieces of the fabric “floating” between the two sandwiched layers, caught in the parallel rows of stitching:

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Challenge: Use the same fabric as before, but go in a different direction, using textures and layers, to transform it from soft, feminine and delicate to something harder and more “threatening”. Free-form, black zigzag stitching on two, sandwiched layers of flesh-colored fabric, then scissor-snipping and sanding to rough up the edges, creates a slightly ominous, “botched-surgery”/“Frankenstein” effect:

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Challenge: Tackle the freaky, DayGlo orange knit. Pascale encourages us to “sit” with a piece of fabric for a while – touching it, observing it closely, manipulating it with our hands to identify its innate qualities and characteristics. It was stiff-but-stretchy, bold in color but delicate in transparency…a very intriguing textile. I noticed when I pulled it in the bias direction that it began to curl inward or, by contrast, expand outward. It reminded me of an unusual sea creature – a coral or anemone, a sea fan or manta ray. At the sewing machine, I pulled it on the bias while stitching darts across it surface. To my astonishment and delight, it began to take a new and unexpected shape – a prehistoric, “living” creature, ready to attach itself, at just the perfect, stylish angle, to the head of some eccentric, Downtown fashion maven:

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Pascale models an amazing, iridescent, sequin-encrusted jacket she designed. Once we have gotten over the shock at its beauty and detail and ended our photo-taking frenzy, she explains that she used iridescent gift wrap from Party City, had it sent to India to be made into sequins, and had the sequins sewn all over the base garment:

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Challenge: Explore non-traditional materials and incorporate them into a sculptural textile. An avid “dumpster-diver” who has rescued many a “treasure” from a municipal-landfill grave (see wood chair pictured, above), I immediately head for the trash bin. Lo and behold, someone’s plastic, take-out salad-bowl lid calls to me. A quick rinse, a few snips of my scissors, some tearing of fabric, and some quick finger-weaving result in large, “sparkly” medallions – “Les Miserables”-style embellishments for the hem of a voluminous skirt in blood-red, duchesse satin:

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Challenge: Experiment with quilting in a different way than usual. Since poly batting is usually only used for loft and softness but never actually seen (since it is sandwiched inside 2 outer layers of fabric), I wanted the handler of the textile to actually SEE the batting. I sandwiched it between 2 layers of transparent fabric, a pale gray organza. After stitching my design for the quilted area, I hand-trimmed all the excess batting away, then continued to stitch the 2 layers of organza together with parallel rows of stitching. For additional texture, I shredded one side of the textile and left the other intact, creating a “jellyfish” effect:

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With light passing through the translucent fabric

Challenge: Use only waste material to create a textile. As many of us in the workshop spent lots of time shredding fabric to create “fringe”, it occurred to me that on many fabrics, the selvages (the lengthwise edges of a woven roll of fabric) are naturally “fringed”. In addition, on the production floor, all these selvages are cut away (not used in the final garment) and discarded. I gathered up lengths of selvages from the various fabrics we had been using in our quick studies throughout the weekend, reveling in their varied colors, widths and textures. I stitched them together, stacked one upon the other, to create a fun, colorful and highly-textured fabric that Pascale thinks would make a great, Chanel-style jacket:

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Challenge: Manipulate a striped fabric by incorporating the striped design into something new and unexpected. Pascale purposely had us work with solids the whole weekend, in order to concentrate on the structure and construction of the textile, rather than the surface graphic design. For our last challenge, though, she now wanted us to use a striped shirting fabric, giving us the opportunity to manipulate the visual graphic, as well as the structural qualities. I imagine the bright red stripes yearning to escape the staid, conservative fabric; so with a few slices to release every other stripe, then restitching the resulting gaps, my stripes leap from the 2D surface into a 3rd dimension, capped off with a knotted end to give them weight, movement and “life”:

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As our last day came to an end, no one wanted to stop. We were, as Pascale put it, “in the zone”. That’s the best place you can be as an artist or designer, with ideas swirling in your head, a cooperative and cohesive energy flowing between you and the other participants, a feeling of “oneness” with the materials you are handling, and an overwhelming sense of well-being. For me, I was also overcome with a mix of love, sadness and gratitude. Having lost my grandmother earlier in the year, this weekend connected me to her talent, her teaching, her love. My parents and siblings and I engaged in so many great discussions during and after our loss of her; and one of the common threads (no pun intended!) was the way in which immortality manifests itself through one’s teachings. We all learned from her and were inspired by her in different ways. For me, it was her textile arts – her gift to me. What greater gift can someone give to you than a lifelong passion? Mahalo nui, Grandma! I felt you next to me all weekend!

Dedicated to Rose Mary Ku’ualoha Mahelona, 1929-2013

Me and Grandma, Dallas, 1999

Me and Grandma, Dallas, 1999

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Immigration and America

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A few days ago, my longtime friend, Rodolfo Ramirez, became an American citizen. I was honored to be able to travel by train to New Haven, CT to witness his naturalization ceremony, along with his partner, John, and his dear friends, Maria, Gitte, Marge and Roberto. I have witnessed this wonderful, loving and talented man transition over the years from a young and magnetic coworker in Mexico City, to a wizened, mature and passionate teacher and resident of Connecticut, to a lifelong friend and confidant – and full-fledged citizen of the United States, to boot!

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The train ride through New England, and the purpose for the journey, awakened the ghosts of the original American patriots who lived, defended and died here. It made me reflective of my own sense of what patriotism feels like, and what role immigration plays in the spirit of national pride.

Upon arrival at the grand, column-flanked steps of New Haven’s US District Court, overlooking the well-manicured and snow-flecked New Haven Green and the stately, brownstone buildings of Yale University beyond,  a sense of formality, tradition and solemnity overwhelmed me. It was intimidating enough for an American-born citizen such as myself; but I can only guess at the magnitude of feeling instilled in those being naturalized today as they scaled these same, daunting steps, heard the clickety-clack of their heels echoing in the hallowed halls, lowered their voices to whispers soft enough that the sound of their racing heartbeats emerged. What must it feel like, the joy and sadness, of renouncing allegiance to your Motherland, but to finally be able to partake of the American Dream?

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As I passed through the metal detectors – a sad sign of the times – and surrendered my “deadly” Blackberry, i-Touch and NYC subway pass to the attending authorities, I marveled at the sheer diversity of ethnicities ahead of me in line, all going through the motions of surrendering their own, “dangerous contraband”.  (Can you tell I’m just slightly peeved by all this threat-of-terrorism brouhaha?!)  Mexicans, Colombians, Russians, Romanians, Indians, Filipinos, Portuguese, Chinese, Jamaicans, Ghanaians – it was so beautiful: the gorgeous, colorful, varied, happy, nervous faces.

As Rodolfo’s equally-nervous-and-excited cheering section, we settled into our row of seats in the soaring, wood-paneled-and-gilded courtroom; and it struck me that our row alone – each of us flanking our dear friend on his special day – were as diverse and varied ethnically as the crowd filing in.  Each one of us has proud, immigrant roots:  Rodolfo and Maria emigrated from Mexico, Roberto from Argentina, Gitte from Denmark.  John’s family emigrated from Portugal; and Marge’s family escaped the great Potato Famine in Ireland.  Some of my ancestors immigrated to Hawaii from Portugal and China, others from New Jersey via England and Ireland.  Even my “kanaka maoli” ancestors, the native Hawaiians, left their original homelands of Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands to establish a life in paradise.

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One of the things I love most about living in New York City is its thrilling cultural diversity.  I love being able to stand on a street corner and hear dozens of languages spoken all around me.  (Ralph and I love to eavesdrop, trying to identify all the musical, foreign tongues!)  I cherish the ability to have breakfast at a Ukranian deli, lunch at a Tibetan cafe, dinner at a chic, Peruvian hot spot – and then repeat the next day, with 3 completely different cuisines!  I feel fortunate to be able to cheer and clap along with the myriads lining the streets during Manhattan’s parades, celebrating the people and cultures of Puerto Rico, China, Ireland, India, etc.

On May 1, 2006, a year and half after moving to this amazing city, I left the office on my lunch break to attend the “Day without Immigrants” rally in Union Square.  This was a day in which immigrants nationwide didn’t show up for work (attending the rally, instead), to show how much their adopted cities depended on them to function smoothly.  It was a brilliant response to the anti-immigrant sentiment spreading through our nation at the time – a sentiment that concerned and troubled me.  I figured this sentiment had, at its base, a simple and understandable fear of the unknown.  I reflected on my own feelings; and though I had always had an open mind about it, I did find little “specks” of fear and discomfort in myself.

Day Without Immigrants - May 01, 2006, Union Square, New York - Photo by Daniel Alexander

Day Without Immigrants – May 01, 2006, Union Square, New York – Photo by Daniel Alexander

Attending that NYC rally was just what I needed.  Rather than mobs of conniving, opportunistic devils caricatured in political lampoons, here were masses (over 100,000 people) expressing their love for the United States and the American dream, appreciative of opportunity, with a willingness to work their fingers to the bone for little pay, few or no benefits and very little respect – just to be able to make a better life for their children.  I imagine my deeply-revered immigrant ancestors, as well as those of my fellow row-mates in this courtroom (and, quite frankly, all those here today to pledge their allegiance to our country), possessed the same dreams, hopes, determination, self-sacrifice and love for the U.S.

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I stood in awe of, and in solidarity with, this triumphant, unstoppable force of humanity.  My fears diminishing, an awakening began in me.  It became clear that this spirit, this influx of determination and drive, this willingness to “make do”, to improvise, to invent, to bring to the table a completely new range of achievements and experiences in overcoming adversity, is what made this country great – and will make it great, again.

My friend, Rodolfo, doesn’t take for granted the benefits, opportunities and privileges now afforded him.  He cannot wait to vote, to serve on a jury, to dive – face first – into the American Pie (one of which, hilariously, Gitte brought to the courthouse as a gift for him!).  He symbolizes the American spirit for me and encourages me to reawaken that spirit in myself.  Thank you, Rodolfo!  I am honored to be your FELLOW American!

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Backpacking-through-Europe Part VI: Vienna

Backpacking-through-Europe Part VI: Vienna

Sent Wednesday, April 01, 2009 9:11 PM

Before I visited Vienna, I had pretty strong visions of the city…and all of it, well, “classy and luxe”: The Vienna Opera House, the Viennese Waltz, Mozart, the Lippizaner Stallions, the grand ball held by Christopher Plummer and the wickedly gorgeous Countess in ‘The Sound of Music’, the Vienna Boys Choir, the mouth-watering Sacher Torte and other, luscious pastries. My first longing for Vienna, I sheepishly admit, started back in the ’70’s on TV, when those General Foods International Coffees commercials ruled the airwaves. The spot for Cafe Vienna hooked me, with its romantic images of sipping steaming cups of coffee from beautiful china cups at a charming Vienna cafe. I’m sure I bugged my Mom relentlessly until she bought a can of the hardly-Viennese, just-add-water, sugar-loaded coffee-flavored powder. But, on a chilly, Texas-winter day, it sure warmed my insides and made me feel, well, “classy and luxe”! (Oh, yeah…the not-so-little “dash” of Kahlua I snuck in there helped, too!)

And then there’s Vienna sausage; but somehow, those pale, watery, mushy fingerlings have no association with my grand visions of the legendary Austrian city. Incidentally, in Vienna, they call their city “Wien” (pronounced “vee-EHN”); and someone (or something, such as a sausage) that comes from Wien, or is in the style of Wien, is called “Wiener” (pronounced “vee-EHN-er”). How we took such a beautiful pronunciation and twisted it into the awful-sounding “WEE-ner” is beyond me!

Vienna did not disappoint. Its city center, within the well-trafficked “Ring”, is spotless-clean and filled with beautiful, wedding-cake buildings containing layer upon layer of ornate architectural flourishes. St. Stephan’s Cathedral (under construction since 1147) and the “twin” museums – Naturhistorisches and Kunsthistorisches, veritable palaces dedicated to, respectively, the sciences and the arts, are not to be missed. The Staats-Oper (Vienna State Opera House) is beautiful and iconic, but tastefully subdued, not garish. Arrive for one of the nightly musical performances in a glassed-in, Cinderella carriage pulled by a team of elegant horses. Afterward, finish your evening by crossing the street to the Sacher Hotel, home of the famous Sacher Torte: the indulgent, dark-chocolate-and-raspberry sweet.

Outide the “Ring”, government buildings, such as the towering Rathaus (City Hall) and the gleaming-white, classical Parliament Building, are a delight. My favorite visit was to the Naschmarkt, a bustling, open-air market. The fruit, vegetables, meats, cheeses and spices are an explosion of high-intensity colors and enticing aromas. Make sure to sample some of the mouthwatering dried fruit, little cheeses wrapped in prosciutto, honey-sweet dates and pickles so salty-sour that, once your lips start puckering, you’re in danger of sucking your own face right in! While you sashay down this epicurean catwalk, you can also pop into one of the myriad wine bars and cafes serving delicious Viennese fare. (You’ll never taste a wienerschnitzel or apfelstrudel as amazing as the ones you’ll find here, right in their own hometown!)

Like Paris (but much, much cleaner), wide boulevards, manicured parks and symmetry in building abound. Like Rome, the scale, detail and drama in Vienna’s mythological statuary are amazing! You know by now that I like a little “rough-edge” aesthetic in my cities; and except for the area surrounding the Wien Südbahnhof rail station we pulled into, Vienna might have been (a wee bit) too polished, a movie set, for my tastes. (However, I can understand how this is the very thing that makes Vienna so attractive to the traveling set, compared to some of its rode-hard, European sister cities.)

But, what I came to Vienna for most was her museums; and she does have some fantastic ones, mainly clustered (as Berlin had done) in a beautiful, open-air square known as the MuseumsQuartier, once the royal stables. In my last travelogue, I mentioned the hours spent in the library in college. My parents’ artistic, slightly-off-center views of the world had already begun shaping (misshaping? Haha!) my own outlook; but burying my head in glossy art books and cutting-edge design journals blasted a hole in it! ‘Twas here that I met the artists, designers and craftsmen, both past and contemporary, that would become my personal deities: Frida Kahlo, Dale Chihuly, Egon Schiele, Louise Nevelson, Cindy Sherman, Gustav Klimt, Francis Bacon, Phillipe Starck, Thierry Mugler. I’ve come to Vienna to worship two of them – Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt – sons of Vienna, both.

These extraordinarily talented men, contemporaries of each other at the turn of the last century, are both particular favorites of mine. Klimt is the better-known of the two…his work, especially his hauntingly beautiful, Eastern-inspired (and controversially erotic at the time) paintings of fin-de-siecle Austrian high society, have been exhibited around the world. These are here at Vienna’s LeopoldMuseum, too; but it’s also amazing to see his less-well-known landscapes, as well as earlier work before he developed his signature style. It’s also heartbreaking to see sketches and photographs of his greatest works, lost in a fire at the ImmendorfPalace in 1945.

Egon Schiele was a student of Klimt; and I have to say that I admire his work the most. I’m thrilled to be at the Leopold, which has the world’s largest collection of Schiele’s legacy. His paintings are dramatic and dark; but I’m most captivated by his drawings and watercolors…not just erotic, as with Klimt, but dripping with unabashed sexuality. His self-portraits are my favorite, revealing a rebellious, slightly tormented, sensual creature. He draws his subjects in slightly twisted, almost unnatural poses…and they look you, bold and defiant, right in the eye. Both artists shook the art world in their day, breaking several times from the art “establishment”. In 1918, Klimt died of a stroke. Schiele sketched the last portrait of the great master at the morgue and then, at the age of 28, died that same year. Their art remains, surprisingly contemporary…and powerful as ever.

Tonight, my hostel roommates, Edmund (born in Malaysia, living in Seattle and moving to Washington, D.C.) and Dimitry (born in Russia, living in Boston, moving to New York City) and I are celebrating our last night in Vienna. I’m heading to Budapest in the morning; they’re on to Prague. Edmund is the first hostel roommate I’ve had on this trip who is gay. He’s a party-boy…always wanting to go clubbing (kinda like me when I was young!). Dimitry is straight and studious, always on his laptop, checking on the status of the economy. (He’s moving to NY to work for Citicorp.) The three of us have been sightseeing separately, then meeting back in the evening at the hostel’s lounge to share our experiences of the day over boxes (yes, that’s BOXES!) of cheap wine. Tonight, though, we’ve finally given in to Edmund’s pleas to go out for one drink on our last night. Dimitry has never been to a gay bar; Edmund has already researched the name (The Village) and location (not far from our hostel) of a bar; and I am looking forward to sampling a few more European beers.

We stop for delicious, 2.5-euro doner kebabs on the way.  We arrive at The Village, a slow (no…dead) Sunday night; but the music is great. Dimitry is a great sport…a little nervous at first; but doing fine. Since the bar is empty, Edmund and I don’t have to bust out our Evil Gay Ninja moves to protect him from Leather Daddies or Lumberjacks. After finishing our Austrian Ottakringer and Puntigamer beers and listening to a few more songs, we shake hands with our bartender and walk back to the hostel…a subdued evening, but a great one amongst new friends. Dimitry arrives in NYC at the end of June; and Edmund will come into the city from D.C. to visit. We’re planning on getting together for a little reunion then, the 3 of us…The Wiener Boxwine Gang!

Backpacking-through-Europe Part V: Prague

Backpacking-through-Europe Part V:Prague

Sent Monday, March 30, 2009 9:51 AM

Prague is probably the city on this trip that I was most excited about.  All the capitals once behind the Iron Curtain have that appeal, I guess –  their one-time inaccessibility, their mystery, their time-warped technological advancement during Communist rule, which preserved a bygone way of life.  (I remember being so shocked when I went to work in the Soviet Union in 1990 at how their technology had seemingly frozen in time…the abacus being used at shops, rather than cash registers, street juice-vending machines having one, real glass – not disposable – and everyone using the same glass, etc.  But, Madonna t-shirts were for sale in my hotel gift shop!  Pop culture spreads faster than technology, apparently!)  Prague, however, is a modern city today, with all the modern comforts of home…but wrapped around a rich, medieval core.

Out of Berlin, with a stop in the famous German city of Dresden, we head for the Czech Republic.  The scenery changes as we glide beside the Vltava River…beautiful, sheer stone cliffs on the opposite side, an ancient castle or two above, and beautiful, tiny river-villages below.  The landscape turns hilly once we’re in the land of Kafka…and the hills are white!  It’s snowing heavily when my train pulls into Prague’s Holesovice railway station.  It’s a nice snow, big and fluffy; and with the onion-domed churches I pass on the brief walk to my hostel, I’m reminded of the movie ‘Dr. Zhivago’.  My hostel, Miss Sophie’s, is stunning.  It’s a boutique hostel, if ever there was such a thing…beautifully renovated in the latest style of furnishings, window treatments and chic lighting (after all, interior design is ALL about the lighting!).  This MORE than makes up for the strange hostel I just left in Berlin!

The snow has stopped; and the sun is trying hard to claw its way through the thick cloud cover (yeah!)…but it’s still freaking cold.  I’m staying in the Nové mesto (New Town) area of Prague.  The two main areas of interest here are Staré mesto (OldTown), where the Old Town Square is located and, across the Vltava River, Hradcany, the hilly area of Prague’s famous castle, Prazsky hrad.  A quick walk down Václavské námesti (Wenceslas Square…whodathunk good ol’ King Wenceslas from the Christmas carol was from Prague?!) into Staré mesto, and the best of Prague unfolds before my eyes.

As in Brugge, I’m dumbfounded by the absolute beauty of the Old Town Square, which originated in the 12th century.  From a quick cel-phone-pic I sent out, my friend, Jennifer, replied that it appeared as if I had stepped back in time; and that’s EXACTLY how I felt!  The architecture is typically medieval-east-European; but the thing that amazes me is the color…bright-orange tile roofs contrast and clash beautifully with stucco walls in lime sherbet, butter yellow, cool-mint blue and fresh-baked gingerbread. If color can be called “delicious”, this is it!  I can’t help but wonder if these are traditional color choices, or choices made to brighten up the days behind the Iron Curtain, or colors meant to draw the tourists like butterflies to a floral fantasy feast? Whatever it WAS, I’m glad it IS…I’m hooked on the aesthetics here!

The Old Town Square’s belfry (which I plan to climb tomorrow…a European tradition I started years ago at Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral) contains a famous, astronomical clock, with an on-the-hour, mechanized display of the Twelve Apostles passing by the windows, accompanied by bells and chimes galore.  At 10 minutes to the hour, the tourists have gathered below, cameras pointed and focused, as if the Pope himself were about to appear at the balcony…crowding each other, standing en pointe, shivering, all vying for the perfect position. The “spectacle” is over before you know it…cute enough, but I’m reminded of that song, “I Shaved My Legs for This?”.  My version would be, “I Froze My Butt Off for This?!”.

The sun is lowering over the hills; so I scurry towards the river for some (hopefully) great camera shots.  Parizska ulicka leads me directly to the Vltava. Walking the length of this beautiful street, I’m in danger of whiplash from the constant looking up, hypnotized by the luscious buildings on both sides, now housing the premier fashion boutiques from around the world.  I’m struck by the number of caryatids in the architecture: those fabulous architectural creatures, female (and sometimes, male) figures (usually in pairs on either side of a doorway) appearing to support the structure…in effect, columns in human form. They are one of my favorite architectural details. The fact that the male figures are beefy and RIPPLIN’ doesn’t hurt a bit…the fact that no one uses them in building anymore DOES!

The sudden, icy blast tells me I’m at the water…and what a view!  High on the hill, proud and strong, stands Prague Castle, the pride of Bohemia, both imposing and incredibly graceful. The effect is oil-painting perfect – the castle silhouetted against a mottled, grey-and-silver cloud background, pierced, sword-like, by rays of dusky sun.  I snap some shots and make my way south along the river to Karluv most, Charles Bridge, the most famous site in Prague. Crossing this majestic, stone bridge, guided safely across by the beautiful, blackened statues along its edges, leads you directly to the castle district. Looking up at the climb, I decide…uh…better make that journey tomorrow!

I did so well with my daily budget in Berlin that I’m treating myself to a nice, relaxing dinner back in Prague’s Old Town Square this evening.  Prague is proud of it’s traditional, roasted duck, and with good reason.  Succulent and falling-off-the-bone tender, accompanied by delicious, tart, salty-sweet red cabbage cooked with apples, not to mention the VERY filling Czech dumplings, it forced me into complete and utter gluttony.  Of course, it required the delicious, Czech beers, Pilsner Urquell and Krusovice, to wash it down! (My friend, Gloria, emails me that I’m going to come home sporting a beer belly!  If so, it will have been well worth it!)

On the way back to Miss Sophie’s, I happen upon the famous “Fred and Ginger” buildings.  Both modern buildings, “Fred” is geometric, rectilinear, proper and debonair.  “Ginger” is leaning against “Fred”, all curves and flowing, her “skirt” billowingly frozen mid-twirl.  I had seen a daytime photo in the travel guide of these 2 buildings and, not impressed, didn’t even put it on my to-do list; but at night, glittering with light, the pair is onstage and on fire, foxtrotting beside the River Vltava!  I’m so glad I stumbled upon them!  (That’s the beauty of wandering and getting lost in a place…the unexpected jewels you find along the way.)

Back at my oh-so-chic hostel, I meet 2 of my 3 roommates, Kurando and Barbara.  (A 4-bed “apartment”, which is Miss Sophie’s fancy-schmancy term for “dorm room”, I’ll meet my other roommate, Susanna, from Rochester, NY, later.)  This is the first hostel I’ve visited in which the dorm rooms are co-ed. Barbara and Kurando are a couple living in Dresden. He’s from the Dresden area originally; but she’s from Köln.  We hit it off immediately, mainly because we are all the offspring of multi-racial parents: Kurando is half-German-half-Japanese; and Barbara is half-German-half-East-Indian…and you know my mutt-mixture! (Ahem! That’s mutt with nobility in the Hawaiian AND German lines, thank you very much! Haha!)  Kurando and Barbara are thrilled that I, too, am part German (albeit just a little bit, “ein kleinen bisschen”)!

We carry our conversation downstairs to the hostel’s lounge/kitchen; so they can prepare their dinner.  On tighter budgets than mine, many of the younger hostellers cook their own dinners from groceries gathered during their daily sightseeing.  (Many of the hostels have a full kitchen for the use of their guests, complete with all the necessary accoutrements.)  Cooking wasn’t a part of MY particular backpacking plan; but I can dig it!  Having stuffed myself with so much duck that I’m about to “Quack!”, I politely turn down their kind offer to join them in their meal, but accept their offer to help them drink the wine they bought, provided they allow me to help them with the dishes afterward. Two bottles of wine later, our laughter and conversation probably annoying the few hostellers watching an old James Bond movie in the adjoining lodge (whatever!), we have become fast friends.  Their thirst for stories about Hawaii and New York now quenched, my list of places to visit next time in Germany appended, and dishes done, we call it a night.

A new morning, sunny and brisk, and my sustenance for the climb to the castle takes the form of a delicious, traditional pastry called trdelnik, a pizza-like dough wrapped around a hot, metal cylinder, spinning over an open flame. Once toasted perfectly, it’s rolled in sugar and chopped almonds and served hot…soft and crunchy at the same time, sweet and delicious!  Though marvelous on it’s own, I need some excuse to buy from a street-side stand another of what has become my beverage of choice in Prague, svarene vino. This hot, mulled, red wine has a nice, cinnamon-y spice to it; and though it’s quite strong, it goes down smooth on a chilly day.  Plus, I love a good buzz in the morning!

Always up for a good hike, and lightheaded from the sugar and wine, I take the old castle steps up to the top; but, if you prefer, a tram will drop you right at the castle gates. The castle complex is large, encompassing many buildings and several churches.  My favorite of all is the ornate St. Vitus Cathedral, which took 600 years to complete.  In Europe, the cathedrals are all so beautiful, each vying for your favor (well, actually, GOD’s).  It’s easy to get jaded after you’ve visited some of the more famous ones; but if you are patient and open, you will find something that makes each one unique…some little detail or story in its history that captures your admiration.

For me, it’s the stained-glass windows here that are so unique.  Normally, pieces of colored glass are cut into exact shapes to fulfill the design, then fitted together like a colorful, Holy jigsaw puzzle, with each piece in its special location in the finished work.  At St Vitus, though, I was intrigued by the tiny, uniformly-shaped pieces of glass put together at different angles and color combinations to form the design. They are, in effect, huge, sparkling mosaics of glass…absolutely amazing!  (Having recently finished a month-long mosaics class in New York and discovering that they’re much more difficult to execute than they appear, my appreciation for these windows is immense!)  That said, though, the piece de resistance is the one window designed by the world-renowned Czech artist, Alphonse Mucha.  Mucha was a brilliant designer of the Art Nouveau, probably my favorite stylistic movement of all.  (More about Mucha later.)  His window is the most beautiful stained-glass artwork I have EVER seen!  When you first walk into the church, a quick glance around at all the windows alerts you that one window is different from the rest.  Rather than the usual mixture of red, yellow, green and blue, this one glows a seductive, undersea palette of emerald, deep aqua, rich Prussian blue.  This is the Mucha window; and when you make your way around to it, you will stop, drop into a stupor, and want to get much closer to it than you can.  If you are already familiar with Mucha’s lithograph posters, imagine them in super-saturated, colored glass.  If you’re not, then you must go to see the window in person…you’ll understand when you are standing beneath it, gawking at its brilliance.  Note: If you can, find out about what time the sun will be shining through the great, rose window.  When I was there, this was around 3:30 pm.  If you go then (and it’s a clear day), the sun streaming directly through the colored glass will refract a kaleidoscope of rainbow-light-chips all over the cathedral’s interior…FABULOUS!!  It’s otherworldly; and I can see how, for the hard-working, down-trodden, Slavic townsfolk of several centuries prior, this WAS a religious experience!  Me? I felt like slipping on some bellbottoms and platform shoes and gettin’ DOWN, Y’all!

This area of Prague, Hradcany, has much to see; and it would be easy to spend an entire day on this side of the river.  I, however, have to head back across one of the city’s bridges to Staré Mesto to visit the Alphonse Mucha Museum, one of the things I most wanted to see on this trip.  When I was in college, I spent hours in the library, poring over art books.  Here, I discovered I was really seduced by the sinewy, underwater- and deep-forest-fantasy designs of the artists involved in the (quite-shocking-back-in-the-late-1800’s) Art Nouveau movement. I would get lost in the lithographs, paintings, sculpture, textiles and architecture of its great designers: Hector Guimard, Victor Horta, Gustav Klimt, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Alphonse Mucha.  (A few years later, on my first trip to Europe, I nearly hyperventilated upon approaching one of the original, Guimard-designed entryways to the Paris Metro.  At the end of this trip, I luxuriated in the Victor Horta Museum, originally his home, in the outskirts of Brussels!)  Mucha’s work is probably familiar to most.  His posters, usually featuring beautiful women with strands of their hair swirling around the image, flowers intertwined in their hair and the poster’s text, abound in the Mucha Museum.  It’s fascinating to learn about his life and see so many of his beautiful works of art.  I was most impressed, I think, with his preliminary sketches, which give you more of an insight to his thought processes, techniques and sheer talent than you get from the finished prints.  If you go to Prague, check out this museum.  You’ll also see his architectural prowess in several buildings throughout the city, including the most famous, the Obecni dum (Municipal House).

From here, I’m keeping my promise to myself to climb the Old Town’s belfry tower.  An easier climb than I expected, I’m rewarded by yet another fantastic view.  This is picture-perfect-Prague; and everyone else up here agrees with me. It’s nice, because you are on an outdoor balcony all the way around the tower, letting you soak in the panorama from every angle.  The soon-to-set sun is causing the orange-tiled roofs to glow like coals; and the long shadows being cast over the tiny cafe-sitters below on the cobblestone-paved square all epitomize this part of the world to me.  If any of my photos scream, “EUROPE!”, I bet they’ll be from the series I shot from way up here.  I could stay for hours; but it’s a small, cramped balcony; and before the awesome lighting fades, many more people waiting below should have this beautiful experience.

I leave for Vienna in the morning; and passing through the Old Town on the way to my hostel for the evening, an art gallery window brings me to a screeching halt.  In it are the most beautiful, fancy, fully-operational, crystal chandeliers…but they’re made completely of plastic water bottles. I peer beyond the chandeliers and see a display of potted cacti of all shapes, sizes and shades of green, some with spines, others sprouting blooms in vivid reds and yellow…again, all out of plastic water and soda bottles.  This is the work of Prague environmental artist, Veronika Richterova.  The gallery director invites me in; and I’m awestruck by enormous, rainbow-hued, plastic dragonflies, tranclucent schools of realistic, yet plastic, fish, and a tree hanging with a bevy of plastic, flying-fox bats.  A brief film documents the artist’s views on the problem of waste and shows her digging in trash receptacles for variously-colored plastic bottles (Dumpster-diving! I LOVE her!), cleaning them, and creating her art through various blow-torching and hot-wire-cutting techniques…wonderful!  She appeals to my own love of recycling, of creating beauty from the ordinary or offcast; and I feel an instant connection to her.  My last, engaging experience in Prague, this exhibit was also a reminder that this medieval city, capitalizing successfully on its Old World treasures, is yet a modern city with modern issues to deal with.  And Richterova symbolizes that modernism, calling for modern solutions to a modern ecological problem through her powerful, modern art.

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.

– – – – – – – – –

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.