Friends in the Low Countries

On Saturday, our last day in Dublin, we took the bus into town, and walked to a critically acclaimed coffeehouse (also recomended by a Dublinite we’d met) called The Fumbally, and had a most excellent and large breakfast: Green Eggs and Ham was simply eggs, avocado, and chorizo; a plate of bread with soft cheese and honey; a bowl of carrot soup, and a fruit and nut bar.

We spent some time at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the main cathedral for all of Ireland. Jonathan Swift served for many years as the dean there, and there were several monuments to him; he is buried there as well. The pews were very much like an airliner: first class pews faced towards the aisle, and behind Ireland’s coat of arms were seats for the President, with the seal of the presidency; the sun at various points shone directly on these emblems while we were there. Business class was another set of fenced-in cushioned pews facing forward; and economy were extremely simple chairs with handmade cushions for sitting or kneeling. The building has been there a very long time: Saint Patrick was there in 450 preaching at a well, some stone remains of which exist; documentation mentions a church there in 890; the current church was built in the 1200s. It’s been damaged over the ages by storm and fire; much renovation has been underwritten by Guinness over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries.

From there, we returned to Chester Beatty Library, a building located at Dublin Castle housing books and other items collected by Mr. Beatty. He seemed to have a special fondness for religious texts: Christian, Muslim, Buddhist. The library exhibits many of the interesting items in some museum rooms, but you know that there must be thousands more books stashed away in the stacks. There were examples of styles of paper, styles of printing, styles of bookbinding; it was quite a beautiful presentation. Also Chinese snuff bottles. Collectors drift.

After some Japanese food which was nothing special, we returned to the hotel.

Early Sunday morning, we headed to the airport and checked in for our flight to Amsterdam. It was your basic domestic flight: as happened to Ray several years ago on US Airways, they only offered water as a purchase; I complained to the steward that that was a disgraceful practice. He said “we would have given you a complimentary cup”. Fine, but I would have had to beg. Harumph. We picked up the rental car and headed to Antwerp, finding our Airbnb accomodations for the evening, a room in a physical therapy student’s flat for $25. For that price, so what if the beds were small, one was a mattress on the floor, and the bedding was probably what he grew up with as a kid? We targeted a restaurant two kilometers away and saw a few closed Antwerp sights, including the very impressive cathedral with the sun setting on its intricately sculptured door. It has a very intricate steeple as well. We reached Fiskebar, a very popular fish place; on this very warm evening everyone insisted in sitting outside. While waiting, Ray took some pictures, including some of a good-looking guy smoking, who turned out to be our waiter taking a break. He wasn’t a model. In California, a hot waiter is more likely to be a model. We ordered a small seafood platter and a grilled fish. The platter had three oysters, probably 10 medium prawns, dozens of small clams, and two different sizes of sea snails: whelks, about two inches long and pointy, which were very easy to get out of the shell; and periwinkles, spherical about three-quarters inch in diameter, which were very difficult to coerce the meat out of. Ray managed to master the technique though, and probably got about 70% out, compared to my paltry 30%. We hadn’t really had them since 1987, and they were pretty fun.

Monday we went to this very silly little town called Dendermonde, because its city hall bell tower featured carillon concerts every day in July and August at lunchtime. It was located next to a large town square full of little restaurants with seats extending out into the square under shade umbrellas. The concerts were a bit cheesy, with hits like Blue Danube, House of the Rising Sun, When You Wish Upon A Star, and Sunrise, Sunset. The accordionists and violinist in town must not have respected them much either, because they felt free to drown out the carillon with their even cheesier fare.

All the cities we visited in Belgium had something called a “begijnhof”, medieval women’s spaces that featured (in the case of the Dendermonde beguinage) a small triangular park plot surrounded by rows of little attached houses where widows and unmarried women were encouraged by the church to live a bit like nuns, but without taking any vows. A small church was located in the middle of the plot. It was Monday and the museum was closed.

Monday is also the market day of that town and everything in the world was being sold on the blocked off streets. We had to park some distance away.  Many stores were also closed because of the holiday: Belgium had crowned a king the day before.

After we escaped Dendermonde traffic, we headed to the Atomium. The Atomium is a building I remember reading about as a child and I always was curious to see it. It was built for the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958 and is the only pavilion still standing from that exhibition. Burning Man isn’t the only wasteful art show. The Atomium was resurfaced with Stainless Steel in 2006 (The original was aluminum) for its 50th anniverary. It seems in very good shape. Only a couple of the balls have exhibits in them, either of art depicting the times it was built in, or of rave music. Others are available for private functions, and one has a forest of hanging beds which school kids sleep over in on special field trips.

We also went downtown and looked at the exteriors of a couple of Art Nouveau houses designed by Victor Horta. His museum was closed because it was Monday and the houses are mostly private residences and office buildings.

Then we headed to Ghent where our friend Sebastian from Germany was staying with his friends in order to go to the Gentse Feesten, ten days of many stages of many types of music, with lots of beer being served to anyone 16 or over, all pretty much around the clock. It was quite crowded and chaotic; at one point some drunk girls came up and hugged all of us. In any case, it was nice to see him and hang out with his friends. We drove to Brugge, found the right Ibis hotel, and settled in. It was an Ibis Budget hotel, which did not waste a single square foot of space.

Tuesday we walked around Brugge, seeing its begijnhof, then having a damn fine apple pie and a Belgian waffle. The cathedral we looked at had a lot of renovation going on, and its entrance fee was marked down to 2 euro. The Groeningsmuseum had many fine works of the Flemish masters, and kind of a silly exhibit of very modern work supposedly inspired by them. We went to a free harp concert which was quite soporific, and then headed to the farm village of Kruishotem, checking into a quirky little hotel called B Hotel, not terribly unlike B Movies. The receptionist was a character out of Office Space — fortunately not out of Psycho. The front door had no doorknob on the inside, and could only be opened to exit by pressing a button some distance away. I muttered to myself that that was bizarre, and he said, “Bizarre? Why is that bizarre?”

On the outskirts of the village, next to fields of wheat, oats, and corn, is the three-Michelin-starred Hof Van Cleve, widely acclaimed to be one of the twenty top restaurants in the world. We started out on the patio, where they served no less than five amuses bouches. They then invited us into the thankfully air-conditioned interior where they brought the delicious lobster and frog leg starters, the delicious green bean salad (with young almonds and slices of truffle), and the delicious pigeon and sweetbread main courses. The cheese cart arrived with only three cheeses: three years of Comte, St. Marcellin, and a Belgian blue cheese they scooped out of the round with a spoon. Two rhubarb desserts followed, then three petits fours, then a petit fours cart from which they seemed disappointed we only had room for one or two choices. I was afraid to get the bill, but the unknowns for the water, the wine pairings, and the dessert and cheese turned out not to be that much. I suppose they serve much cheaper wine for their pairings then they feature on their list, which had scarcely any bottles less than 100 euros.

Wednesday we returned to Antwerp and toured the cathedral, an amazingly huge space. It has a 100-year-old organ for 200-year-old romantic French organ music, and a 10-year-old tracker organ for 400-year-old baroque music. An adjoining chapel had a large golden ark on the altar, and some mysterious instrument I’m guessing was some kind of harpsichord. Another had the statue Our Lady of Antwerp. There were many large oil paintings of the Flemish masters positioned around the space, including Ruebens’ Descent from the Cross. One corner had thirty or so life-sized wooden figures with benches between them serving as confessionals.

We headed back towards Amsterdam, but just after crossing the Netherlands border, visited Baarle-Hertog, a group of 26 Belgian exclaves, pieces of Belgian land completely surrounded by Netherlands. One place we found was a piece of the Netherlands inside one of the Belgian exclaves. We mailed a letter from the Belgian post office and drove on to fill up and return the rental car. We found our way to Meininger Hotel, one train stop out of town, the local equivalent of a Japanese coffin hotel — an extremely narrow room houses Ray and me and our friend Philipp. But hey, for $25 euro per person, that close to Amsterdam, one cannot complain. It’s very modern and clean, and so what if there was no hot water this morning? It works great now!

We headed into town and met up with our friends Mike and Carla, who met us in Amsterdam for a day before spending five weeks in London. By the time our dinner table was finally available, Philipp had arrived from Berlin. Dinner ended up being a bunch of little snacks, but it hit the spot.

Thursday was our One Perfect Day In Amsterdam. Breakfast was at a place which featured coffee, fresh juice, and bagels all in the same place; it was all really good. The Stedelijk Museum is the modern art museum Carla and I visited in 1978, with a massive new wing added since then. There were many cute items all over the museum, including Ed Kienholz’ The Beanery, a tiny space one person at a time could squeeze into. It was a dusty old bar, where all of the patrons had clocks as faces, and there were FAGOTS STAY OUT signs posted. A soundtrack of old music and crowd foley played through the speakers. Musicians of a certain age will remember that on Janis Joplin’s album with Big Brother and the Holding Company, Cheap Thrills, the liner notes credit crowd noises to Barney’s Beanery. That album was recorded around 1967 and the Barney’s Beanery piece here dates to 1965; I wonder how many hours of Barney’s Beanery samples were drifting around the recording studios of California at that time.

The museum FOAM is a photography museum which had a large exhibit of Edward Steichen, a fashion photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair starting in the 1920s. After a walk in the large and crowded Vondelpark, making us wonder why no one was working on a Thursday afternoon, we arrived at Blauw, a really nice Indonesian rice table place. Four orders of rice table and one order of lamb was more than enough to feed six people, including Victor, a local documentary filmmaker who we’d met on the 2008 trip to the China eclipse.

Now we prepare to leave for Cyprus, just as northern Europe gets its drizzling rain back.