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January 17, 2011

I realize it’s been over two months since I’ve written.  I didn’t plan to abandon my efforts here, but stuff happened, as stuff is wont to do.  When last I wrote, I was in graceful, charming Amsterdam, land of fantastic cheese and fantastical bicycles.  My feet hurt, if memory serves, but I was otherwise happy and oddly at home.

I left Amsterdam for Brussels, and during my stay there jaunted out and about for day trips to Brugges, Ghent, and even Paris, the latter most being a long overdue visit to some old friends.  I wouldn’t even bother you with the details of these now two month old adventures except that I did chronicle them at the time – I just didn’t have internet access to make it legit.

Then I came home, promptly got very sick, and quickly fell back into the pace of life.  What follows is what I would have told you then, had I been able.


Belgium is an inherently pastry-scented nation.  The smells of warm butter and what can only be described as “flakiness” (but not in that California way) perfume the air everywhere.  Everywhere, that is, that does not smell faintly of medieval sewers.  Mostly it’s pastry, though.

In Amsterdam, the bicycle is king, so drivers are  cautious and pedestrians alert.  Not so in Brussels, where pretty much everyone on the move is an asshole.  A friend of mind who lives in Paris, and whom I should visit tomorrow if all goes well, told me that Brussels is like the love child of Paris and Amsterdam.  Not having been to Paris yet, perhaps it’s premature to say this, but I’d surmise that perhaps Brussels is more like a child unwittingly sired by Amsterdam when he and Paris spent a drunken weekend together in a seedy Avenue C hotel.  Stunning old world edifices abound in an odd mix of Dutch and Latin influence in the architecture, to be sure.  But there’s also a fair amount of grime and graffiti and a general air of get-out-of-my-way-ness that I did not find in Amsterdam.  Frankly, the place could use a good bath.

Still, there are plenty of beautiful things to see, and the Magritte museum, upon which I quite literally stumbled (stupid cobblestones) was a real treat.  I’d be willing to bet that the parks are a delight in the summer, as well, full as they are of long rows of trees punctuated by numerous sculptures and fountains.


I arrived in Brugges on Remembrance Day, November 11th, or what we in the US call Veterans’ Day, since we hate remembering the impact of our foreign policy and have never actually not been quietly at war at any point in modern history anyway.

Brugges is a beautiful town, the entire city having been designated a UN World Heritage site, putting it in the ranks of  such other greats as the Great Wall of China and the Great Barrier Reef.  Luckily, it’s beautiful even in an icy driving rain with umbrella-defeating gusts of wind, because that’s what the weather was like during my afternoon there.  Happiness coming from within and all, I channeled a warm happy place deep within my soul and enjoyed myself for a couple of hours.  I wandered the graceful stone streets admiring each quaintly charming building, stopping only for chocolate, more chocolate, and hot chocolate, which here is made by dropping a largish praline (lavender, in my case), into hot milk and stirring until melted.  Like any hot beverage in the Benelux (even train station tea), this is served with a side of chocolate.  If they’re going to charge three Euro for a cup, at least they do their level best to earn it.

Eventually, though, even the best efforts of the city’s many chocolatiers couldn’t mitigate the ravages of the unending rain.  Once I began to feel some dampness in my boots, I knew it was time to call the game – once my feet get cold, I become a ruthless miserable bitch.  Sometimes I feel like growing up is really just the process of parenting yourself, and it was time to get little Liska out of the cold.

While I’d love to share photos of the stunning variety I no doubt could have gathered under a sunnier sky, I’m afraid all I have recorded is a collection of red doors, a few random oddities, and of course this church belfry onto which, every 200 years or so, the good people of Brugges see fit to add another story.

It's almost time to add another layer to this cake, I think.


When I went to Greece four years ago, I flew on Air France.  Within this simple statement are embedded a number of implications:
1. I missed my connection at DeGaulle, or CDG as I like to call her
2. My passport was stamped in France, and would not be stamped again when I went to Greece.  This misrepresentation of my travels can only be rectified by (1) actually going to France and (2) someday clearing customs in Greece.
I have yet to collect a Greek passport stamp (and shit – now I have to add Belgium to the list with Greece and Canada!), but this trip did allow me to correct the unearned French stamp.  When I mentioned to an old friend from work that I was making my way to Brussels, I was commanded to come visit in Paris.  Who am I to argue with such an instruction?  My friend’s wife had just had her second baby, so this would be an opportunity to see a new city, earn that stamp, and hold a baby, and all for the low, low (okay, high, high) price of a Thalys high-speed train ticket.

Worth every Euro-penny.

My friend and his wife are professional-grade hosts, even, apparently, within 2 weeks of major abdominal surgery resulting in a very small, sleepy baby.  I was given a whirlwind tour of the top attractions, including Montmartre, the Champs Elysee, le Tour Eiffel, and the Arc du Triomphe.  All this, and we still had time for a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, and a decadent lunch, somehow squeezing in a trip to a chocolatier and some quality baby time.  We were accompanied for part of the day by my friends’ first child, a delightful two year old, still very much in the phase where her every thought pours unfiltered from her mouth in a near-endless stream of barely intelligible cuteness.

I somehow failed to photograph Montmartre, possibly because it’s at the top of many steps and I was dressed for the weather in Brussels, not the considerably warmer and dryer weather in Paris.  This meant that by the time we crested the nontrivial hill, the relatively sedentary pace of my last several weeks and the extended time spent in my own flat city became immediately evident.  I was winded.  Of course, with the amount of dairy fat coursing through my veins this week, it’s likely that my alveoli are thoroughly drenched in melted butter and are no longer operating at peak capacity, to boot.  So no photo of the beautiful church or the panoramic view of the city.

Hey there, Champ!

As we walked down the Champs on our way to pick up the evening’s truffle (and oh, what a truffle it would be!), I was instructed to cross the street.  “There’s a photograph you’re going to want to get.”  Halfway across the Champs in the crosswalk there was a tiny painted median.  And by “painted median” I refer not to a raised section of concreted or stone that happened to be painted, but rather to a small painted area on the pavement that served as a visual representation of a median without in any way physically obstructing the busy and aggressive traffic from running us down, toddler and all.  He was right, though.


I went to Ghent almost as an afterthought, and regretted doing so for about an hour.  That was approximately how long it took impatient me to walk from the train station to the historic neighborhood.  The walk was not particularly unpleasant, but it was very long, and it was probably 40 minutes or so before the town gave me any indication that it would be anything but a sleepy residential burg.  I was also hungry and having no luck at all in finding a cafe.  Eventually I hit upon a canal near which were some signs indicating attractions to my right.  Within a few minutes, the town had far more than vindicated itself.  I can’t say what exactly it was about Ghent that so endeared it to me – to credit the city for the slightly nicer weather or the slightly cheaper chocolate than what I’d been suffering the few days previous would cheapen its charms.  Perhaps because its historic center rivaled beautiful Brugges, but with a bit less pretense.  Or perhaps because all that preserved history is in the middle of a real live breathing city.  Or maybe I walked a very long time on very low blood sugar before diving head-long into an amazing waffle and coffee, and those factors clouded my perception.  Who cares?  It’s a nice town – give it a try if you’re ever in the ‘hood.

Brussels – Once more, with feeling!

I began my rainy Saturday a little early, easily beating the crowds to find a serene if gloomy Grand Place.  After a superbly disappointing waffle and passable coffee, I wandered the streets for a bit, pausing with my few fellow tourists under each available awning and overhang to look around or take a few grey photos.

I eventually happened on a lovely little café where, not exactly hungry yet, I gave breakfast a chance to redeem its good name.  It pulled through by presenting me with a damned fine croissant and some yogurt.

I’d like to pause in my narrative for a moment here to bitch about something that’s been bugging me all week:  Why the hell do we suffer such shit food in America?  Not to say there aren’t some amazing restaurants even in my mid-sized city, but standard fare in the states is crap.  Too processed, too flavorless, and too damned much of it.  Fuck margarine, and fuck high fructose corn syrup, too.  And you can take your soybean oil and stick it up your partially hydrogenated ass.

Pardon me.  What I meant to say there was that I had a lovely fresh-squeezed (as in – I watched my waitress do it) orange juice and a very flavorful croissant and some yogurt that came from a cow that has clearly eaten well and all of this made me superbly happy while simultaneously aware that such things cannot be had so easily at home.  Or rather, they would have to be made literally at home. In my home.  Because I wouldn’t find them in most restaurants.

I proceeded to wander the soggy cobbled streets for hours – including a few neighborhoods I might not have intentionally passed through – pausing only for the occasional chocolate or glass of wine until I saw through the basement window of an impressive Museumsplein edifice some sort of unearthed ruins.

The Coudenberg museum is the site of a 15th century palace that was eventually covered over by an 18th century palace.  Apparently the French architects of the 1700s were rather fond of flat squares, and the original, built into a hill and badly damaged by an earlier fire, was to provide the foundation for its successor.  Royalty were apparently at liberty to pave over or move anything that did not suit them.

The area was excavated several years ago, with portions of the original building and street now exposed as a basement-level museum under… well, other museums.  It’s a circle of life thing, I suppose.  The museum was cool, but not, as I’d hoped, catacombs.  There are some partially excavated catacombs at another archeological dig site not far from my hotel, but as far as I can ascertain their visiting hours seem to be restricted beyond what my travel arrangements will facilitate.  But I can peak at them as I walk by.

After the museum, I stopped by.. wait for it… a chocolaterie for a glass of wine and a few ridiculous pralines (peppercorn joining violet in the prestigious short list of top flavors… and please do not confuse ‘violet’ as a flavor with ‘purple’ as a flavor.  They’re unrelated, I assure you).

When I went to pay, I told the kindly older gentleman at the register rang up only my wine.  “Oh, I also had-”
“Shhh,” he whispered, forefinger to his lips.

That undid at least an hour’s worth of rain.

I wandered the streets a while more until a fruitless search for a particular cheese shop ended instead at a surprisingly un-touristy restaurant in an otherwise touristy area.  Here I ended my day nibbling on a warm chevre salad that took be the better part of 90 minutes to finish.  I retired to the hotel somewhat early to digest my dinner as if I were a python with a still-warm goat slowly beginning to dissolve in my alimentary canal.  Luckily my trip ends soon, else 2011 would surely be the year of the beached whale in my astrological chart.

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