Travels postsMonday July 01, 2019
Things I Learned On Vacation in Belgium and France
Our Lady stands.
- Motorized scooters are big in Paris even though nothing seems less Parisian
- Segways are big with tourists everywhere even though nothing seems less human
- From the traditional vantage point looking east, Notre Dame looks the same. We know it's not, but at least the exterior holds up
- There is actually a bigger and—dare I say it?—more beautiful Notre Dame in France: the one in Strasbourg, which was built between the 12th and 15th centuries. I thought I was done with European cathedrals from the Middle Ages until I saw that one; then my mouth just fell open.
- Spider-Man #3, with the introduction of Doc Ock, which cost 12 cents in the U.S., cost 9p in Britain. A comic shop south of Montemarte was selling this Brit pub, along with Tin Tin and a collection of Silver Age Marvel comics. I think the proprietor thought my French was better than it was, because he tore off on a story that was probably fascinating but with which I couldn't keep up. The gist: he bought the Marvel comics in NYC in the 1970s and ‘80s, when bookshops were everywhere, and man weren’t those the days? He was asking either 300€ for the Spidey (what was writen on the back of the plastic covering) or 1,000€ (what my shitty French thought he said). I was tempted
- The French version of “The Catcher in the Rye” is called “L‘attrape-coeur” (literally: “The Heart Catcher”), and the phrase “...and all that David Copperfield kind of crap” is translated as “...et toutes ces conneries a la David Copperfield.” One of those newstands/shops along the Seine was selling it, as well as Salilnger’s “Nine Stories” (“Nouvelles”). These I bought, but they were cheaper: 7€ for the deuce
- I could spend a lot of €s at those newstands/shops along the Seine; they have my stuff. I still regret passing on those Tour de France posters
- The only time I ever want to smoke is when I'm sitting alone at a small table at a Paris cafe watching the world go by. A cigarette feels de rigueur
- They‘ll use anything to sell anything: In this case, a photo of communist leader Che Guevara with a stogie to promote Father’s Day specials at a cigar and spirits shop in Brussels. I'd say Che is rolling over in his grave but, given the T-shirts and everything else, he's probably rolled out by now
- The train station in Antwerp should be declared an international treasure
- Is it a new fashion trend in Belgium for young women to wear men's dress shirts as dresses? I saw it a few times. Let me speak for all men in the world: We approve
- “Ghent” in Ghent is spelled “Gent.” Muscles from Brussels, Gent from Ghent. What does Antwerp get? Twerp? Seems unfair. Someone work on that
- Someone should publish a book about all the memorials in all the small towns throughout Europe to their WWI dead; I would be your first customer. They are heartbreaking
- Belgian breakfast cereals include Choco Clams and Honey Bubbles and Miel Pops Loops and Choco Cookies and “Cereal Flakes Met Pure Chocolade Au Chocolat Noir.” Really anything with chocolate
- It's hard to find pannekoeken in Ghent, which is a crime
- It's hard to find mussles in Ghent, which ditto
- Apparently the most stolen painting in the world is “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” 1432, by Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, and one of its panels, taken in 1934, is still missing. The painting was a key component of the George Clooney movie “The Monuments Men,” which almost makes me want to watch it again, even though I found it pretty disappointing upon its release in 2014
- Is adoring a mystic lamb far removed from idolizing a golden calf? Just tossing out
- Artists in the Middle Ages couldn't paint babies for shit
- Museums are best when they intermingle centuries-old art with modern art, as at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent
- If you bike outside the cities in Belgium you‘re going to see lots of cows and horses
- If you’re biking to an artists colony outside Ghent, chances are you‘ll find exactly zero artists and lots of rich people. It’s really a rich people's colony
- Not many groups of humans are known as “colonies.” I can think of three: leper, nudist, artist. The first two, in a way, contain elements of the third
- Cheese, chocolate and bread from a convenience store and eaten on a park bench is a way better lunch for the bike-ride-weary than anything you might get in, say, an expensive restaurant in a rich people's colony
- Remember to take video as well as photos. Coming across that classic car parade in Eke, for example, would‘ve been a good moment for video, Erik
- Get off the beaten path in Bruges; go to the danker places with the locals
- If you’re biking east of Bruges, the restaurant to go to is Siphon, which is a few miles east of Damme (pronounced DAH-me). It's a fourth-generation family-run restaurant that is closed on weekends but was packed on a Monday afternoon around 1:30 with older folks dressed to the nines. Oh, and get the steak. I didn‘t, but I saw it arrive for someone else and goddamn
- Getting zero laughs when you pronounce your team “Damme (pronounced DAH-me) bums” doesn’t necessarily mean they didn't hear you
- Go left at Siphon, rather than right, if you want to make Sluis, Holland. We went right. Which was wrong. We never made Holland
- Asking directions when you‘re lost is better than relying on maps or GPS
- I have a good sense of direction on a grid but add diagonals and curved streets and I’m hopeless
- European sports fans watch the Super Bowl! I had no idea. When we mentioned we were from Seattle to some Germans in Ghent for the weekend, the first thing they said was: “Seahawks!” Then they talked up the Super Bowl, which they said they watch every year. Because sports
- But they don't watch baseball. Because boring. To them
- Europeans are still wearing Yankees caps. Someone needs to tell them that they‘re wearing the cap of the favorite team of Donald Trump. OK, I will
- Trump has replaced Pinnochio as the international symbol for lying. A Dutch magazine we saw in a Ghent laundromat used this cover line: “Iedereen liegt: De Trump in elk van ons,” which translates to “Everyone lies: The Trump in all of us”
- A clothes store window in Ghent displays not only dresses and outfits but tiny versions of same on dolls. Fun!
- My name can pass as Flemish
- Expect to be admonished by wait staff if you don’t finish your charcuterie in Strasbourg
- Expect to get a “Bien sur” shrug by wait staff when asked if the charcuterie and cheese plates come with bread: “Oui, c‘est France”
- No Michelin guides for France were made between 1940 and 1944, for obvious reasons
- In museums, sometimes the story is the crowds around the artwork rather than the artwork
- Henri Matisse visited Harlem in 1930 and became a fan of jazz
- A lot of people in the 21st century trust their lives to that grinding gears of 19th century technology that is the Eiffel Tower. I am among them
- In France, the Waldo of “Where’s Waldo” is called Charlie: “Ou Est Charlie?” He looks the same
- There are those who maintain and those who let things get run down. The Hotel Chopin in Paris is among the former, and is recommended; the Midnight Hotel in Paris is among the latter, and isn't
- No number of yellow-vest protesters is so worrisome as to prevent a line of 3-4 cops from turning to check out a stunning blonde walking by
- Vive le France et Belgique
I first visited Europe in 2002 when I was 39, and Paris was one of the first cities I visited, and Notre-Dame was the first landmark my friend Joan I went to. It was my intro to the city. I wrote about it back then, thinking I would write more about the trip but never did.
Here's what I remember: Even though it was April, the line to go up the tower was long, so Joan and I spelled each other by checking out the inside of the cathedral. At one point, I chatted up a woman in line, who was pretty, from Sweden, and had a boyfriend. Two out of three. Joan, a platonic friend, had a Flat Stanley she was carting around Europe for a daughter's friend. This was the rest:
The early April sun was hot enough that we were grateful when the line reached the shade of the Cathedral, and, after several more pauses, we finally began to climb the stairwell, which, to my delight, was circular and cramped, with stone steps worn smooth, and with a slight indent in the middle from all the feet pounding up it over the centuries. Even better was emerging onto a walkway outside, 46 meters above the ground, called the chimeras gallery because of the famous stone gargoyles there watching over (or dismissing) the city. While construction on the cathedral had begun in 1163 and wasn't completed until 1245, the gargoyles weren't added until the 19th century, when, in the wake of Victor Hugo's novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the cathedral had been renovated by architects Lassus and Viollet-le-Duc. The latter designed the chimeras. A wire fence separated us from them, but we managed to take a few pictures of ourselves, and Flat Stanley, with these guys, surely what Viollet-le-Duc had in mind all along. The stryga, a winged demon with hands on face, is perhaps the most famous, but I was drawn to one creature gnawing the head off a smaller one. What truly astonished, though, was the view to the east, over the remainder of the cathedral. The immensity and detail were both astounding, and couldn't be captured by my sad point-and-shoot camera. The zoom couldn't zoom in far enough to capture the detail, and I couldn't stand back far enough to include the tower's immensity.
A huge fire, its plumes of smoke reminiscent of the twin towers on 9/11, tore through Notre-Dame yesterday, destroying the wood ceiling and spire; the remainder is “structurally sound,” according to reports. I'm half a world away, with no rights in this matter, as Roethke wrote, but felt nothing but sadness all day. Today, too. And tomorrow. On social media, people are posting happy pictures in front of the cathedral, and on top of it, and reminiscing, as I'm doing here. There's not much else to do.
Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story
I was walking around lower Manhattan last week, focusing on Chinatown, then decided to visit Trinity Church again. We'd been there in 2015 before “Hamilton” broke big—with me or the country—and I was curious if it felt any different. It didn‘t. Not much. There were a few more people hanging around, and a lot more reverence, and more coins left on the tombs of Alexander and Eliza. But that was about it on a hot, muggy Monday afternoon in early August.
This time I was particularly struck by the inscription on Hamilton’s marble tomb. It touts his career as a PATRIOT, SOLDIER and STATESMAN...
Whose TALENTS and VIRTUES will be admired
Long after this MARBLE shall have mouldered into DUST
Except between these two lines there's an ornamental flourish and the lines “Grateful Posterity,” so you don't initially connect the second line with the first. It reads like Hamilton is a patriot, soldier and statesman “whose talents and virtures will be admired.” I.e., one day. I.e., in the future. I.e., maybe after Lin-Manuel Miranda picks up Ron Chernow's biography for vacation reading, sees his father in the story, and music begins to form in his head.
All Mixed Up and Baked in a Beautiful Pie
Row AA, Seat 7
After Rehoboth, Patricia and I went up to New York for a few days and a few adventures. This was one of them.
We arrived Saturday afternoon, had dinner plans every evening, so the only chance for a Broadway show was a Sunday matinee. For a moment I considered a baseball game instead, but the Yankees were in Boston (getting their asses kicked), and the Mets were the Mets. I went Great White Way.
My nephew recommended the tkts app but P and I are old and had trouble making it work for us. More specifically: For the shows we wanted to see, the Times Square tkts booth wasn't available on the app. Other ones were: Brooklyn, etc. But we were staying near Union Square; we wanted Times Square.
The TS booth opened at 11 AM and last time we did this, January a few years ago, we wound up way back in line and got slim pickings. This time we arrived early: 9 AM. How early were we? There was no line yet, and no indication of where the line even began. There was just a lugubrious security guard in the glass booth, who looked at us, kind of shook his head, got up slowly, came to the door, and, somewhere between saddened and amused, let us know: “You guys are way too early. You can go get a good breakfast, take a walk around, and you‘d still be too early.” But he indicated the bench where the line began, and Patricia, who had blisters on her feet from a hike in Rehoboth, manned the position while I walked up to Central Park.
It was early but already getting hot and muggy. I wandered past a run, 5K or 10K, in the park. I walked past Trump Tower on 5th Avenue, shuddered, then walked past St. Patrick’s, Rockefeller Center. You can walk anywhere in New York and find something interesting or iconic. It's the best way to see the city. Then I picked up an iced coffee for Patricia and joined her on the bench. It was now 10 AM and the line was about 20 deep. We were at the front. We kept hearing the gossip from more seasoned theatergoers. We were leaning toward “The Band's Visit” but many were down on it. Others recommended “Come from Away” but when the booth finally opened, and we asked about it, only single seats were available. We asked about “Hello, Dolly!” but Bette Midler was off for the afternoon. So we went with “Waitress.” Mostly for this reason. I never even saw the film and I barely looked at the tickets. For some reason, I assumed we were in one of the balconies.
We weren‘t. We were in the front row. Way over to the left as you faced the stage, but front row. Right next to the stage. This close.
Those seats used to be mine.
The show was fine but “She Used to Be Mine” is the showstopper and it’s not close. Second-best song is way down there. Plus the story is kinda meh. It's good things happen to good people. It's the magic of baking. It's “Why is she putting up with this?” and then “Ah, at the 11th hour, she grows a spleen. OK.” Katharine McPhee played the lead, and she's got pipes, but is a little emotionally unavailable. Adam Shapiro as Ogie, and Erich Bergen as Dr. Pomatter, were audience faves. Mine was understudy Anastacia McCleskey as Becky. She fit into the scheme of things but also seemed like a real person. Some of the others weren‘t. Earl had no redeeming value whatsoever. He was a man’s dream: Every man looks good in comparison.
I still loved it. I love those snug Broadway theaters. And now I'll have an answer when someone asks me how close I got to the Broadway stage. Just a foot away.
I took this shot a week ago on our last full day in Rehoboth Beach, Del., a few hours before they closed the beaches for thunderstorms. I know: You don't exactly see storm clouds brewing. Nor was it particularly dark when they closed the beaches. But it was raining hard in Lewes, lightning had struck (or flashed?) nearby, and so, though we were merely feeling a nice schpritz under otherwise sunny skies, everyone was herded off the sand and the beach umbrellas were folded. For a few hours anyway. We had one last go at the waves.
This was my first trip back to Rehoboth—my childhood vacation spot—since 2010, and I wrote about it enough back then. I don't have much to add. It's mostly the same. Funland's still fun. There's still only one mini-golf course, where, either in homage or warning, the animal remnants of the old circus-themed mini-golf course litter its fairways. Most of the customer service people are still from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus. Even one Asian girl I talked to turned out to be from Kazakhstan. The anti-immigrant “Tea-shirts” (see here and here) are oddly toned down in the Trump era—although one on offer depicted a silhouette of a soldier crouching and taking aim in front of an American flag, emblazoned with the words: THIS IS HOW AMERICANS TAKE A KNEE. Grotto Pizza and Kohr Bros. prospers. Gus & Gus still does its thing. The Whitson and Bob's Bikes are still there, as is Lingo's grocery store, where my comic collecting began in the summer of ‘73. The week still goes by too fast.
We stayed in a big house three long blocks from the ocean, on Sussex Avenue, and set up camp on the north part of the beach, past where the boardwalk ends. Early on it looked like we would get thunderstorms every day but Monday was our only non-beach day. Normally we’d show up about high noon—stupidly for folks wary of getting too much sun—and stayed until the lifeguards left at 5 PM. Then drinks and dinner. We often ate out. We went to Funland twice. You get prizes now at Skee-Ball. Was that always the way?
There were injuries. The second day, after the lifeguards left, Patricia and I went in one last time. I ran in, like the kids do, but the sand was uneven and I hit a dropoff and went down hard. For a day it hurt to walk, and I worried I'd sprained my ankle, but it wasn't that bad: just a bad bruise on the top of my foot. Patricia got it worse. She kept hiking in the mornings in the Gordon Pond Wildlife Area and wound up with blisters. The ocean helped there. The ocean taketh away and giveth.
I think that's what I'll mostly remember: the waves and the density of the water, looking like mercury in the late afternoon sun.