June 28, 2005
We’re at a resting point in the Chocolate Duran Tour. Today, we bade goodbye to Pappy, and headed, the two of us alone again, via train from Brussels to Amsterdam for an overnighter.
And Brussels…? Well. I suppose, after everything so far, it was a bit refreshing to get to Brussels and not immediately love it. Sure, there were some beautiful, insanely-Gothic churches and town halls and cobbled streets and stuff, but mostly, the city felt dirty, unkempt, and …unloved. I expected more from a place that is the capital of the European Union, but all that meant, unfortunately, was a glut of contemporary office buildings in an up-and-coming downtown square.
The thing that struck me most about Brussels, though, was the trash. It’s piled in gutters, blowing on streets, scattered all over every park. There’s garbage in the central plazas, plastic bottles and crumpled papers rolling across the pavement, and the smell of pee lingering when you’re sitting at sidewalk cafés. There is dog shit EVERYWHERE. It was really sad to see the expanses of green parks, kids playing and people on blankets reading, with the whole place absolutely patchworked with trash, or to walk down a street and hardly be able to take three steps without having to step around another pile of dog poo. (This is yet another reason why cats are superior to dogs; cats don’t just leave their shit out in the middle of streets; they cover it up neatly. Well, usually.)
Our stay in Brussels started off somewhat tellingly. Me, The Husband-Type Man, and Pa-in-Law, despite a quite pleasant train trip, exchanged increasingly-apprehensive glances as our taxi driver tried to find our hotel, driving us around filthy streets with few things opened and lots of graffiti on every available surface. We finally found it on a shabby corner street. Sweating profusely in the continued European heatwave, we lugged our bags up a flimsy elevator that, when its doors opened on our floor, emitted an overwhelming stink… not from the piles of dirty towels and sheets all over the floor, mind, but from… the housekeeper. We had to push through a wall of stench to get to our room (lucky for Pappy, his was farther down the hall), and as we struggled with our key card, the housekeeper advised us in French to open the window. I thought maybe she was aware of the odor.
But no… it was because there was no air conditioning.
Our room was sweltering and oppressive, and it wasn’t just because of the hideous mustard-and-tangerine color scheme used for the dingy spreads and curtains, either. We collapsed, limply, me with a wet handtowel (because the bathroom didn’t have washcloths) on my head, THTM hanging out the opened window, both of us desperate to feel even a degree or two cooler. The night before, in Paris, our room’s air conditioning had given out, and we spent the night, lying wilted and pathetic, unable to sleep; at one point, between flipping and flopping trying to get comfortable, we caught each other’s miserable and pitiable gazes in the darkened room, and just started giggling at our own Miserability, because it was too hot and sweaty to cuddle, much less sleep!
But really. The thought of three more nights like that…?
After about five minutes, THTM, drops of sweat running down the sides of his face, groaned, “That’s it! I’ll be back in about an hour! Don’t unpack!” and strode out… opening the door to our room and letting in another blast of Overpowering Housekeeper Funk in the process.
Forty-five minutes later, he was back, grinning triumphantly. “We’re moving!” he announced, brandishing a couple non-dumpy-hotel room keys. After consulting a map and walking just a few blocks, he’d found an awesome place – business oriented (what with all the EU stuff), in a historical building, with free wireless Internet access, even! – for only 30 Euros more a night than The Dump. I happily abandoned my wet towel and grabbed my suitcases! In a half-hour, we were in a huge, spotlessly clean room with a comfy double bed, well-lit bathroom, no stinkiness, and, especially, AIR CONDITIONING!
We all decided to celebrate with dinner out, and THTM had seen a tapas place nearby. Pappy had never had tapas, and we hoped for a nice, leisurely meal out. But it was early for dinner by European city standards – not yet 6 – and the restaurant was opened, but, as the owner cautioned, “The cook isn’t here yet.” We decided to sit on the patio for an aperitif, and the owner advised us on this and that drink. He spoke limited English and French, mostly Dutch (the two languages of Brussels are French and Dutch, and French is predominant… sort of like Spanish and English in Southern California. There seemed to be a bit of a stigma, likewise, about the Dutch-speakers being somehow “lesser” than the French, but it would take more than a three-day visit to get a real bead on that). With our limited French and nonexistent Dutch (sorry, Birm!), we had fun trying to explain and describe the drinks, and the owner, with a red beard and proverbially-twinkling eyes, was enjoying it as much as we were. He brought sodas we’d never had before, beers, crackers, olives… By the time the cook arrived, we’d examined the menu at length, and ordered a slew of dishes. We got savory baked egg-and-tortilla things, a slow-cooked beef, cheeses and cured jamon, amazing bread that the owner told us was baked fresh just minutes before, and delicious olives marinated in herbed oil that we sopped up greedily with chunks of the bread. (Hey, we were hungry; we’d skipped lunch, and our epic experience at Angelina seemed very long ago!) In fact, the garlicky oil was so good and we ate so much bread that THTM asked for another order of just the olive oil. The owner issued a challenge: first, THTM had to dance… salsa, or merengue. “How about if I break dance?” THTM offered. “I’ll bring the bottle!” the owner rejoined.
Luckily, we were served more olives and oil without THTM having to serve anyone with his mad White Boy from Orange County dancing (ahem, “dancing”) skillz. I’m sure there are dozens of you in the know who just dropped to your knees in thankfulness.
After gorging on dinner, both Pa and I were ready to call it a night. THTM went for a bit of a stroll first, and encountered something special. From his travel recaps:
The business district also happens to border the “pink district” and I had a rather interesting encounter one night while out for a walk—a naughty nurse, complete with short skirt, stockings, and towering high heels. He was out for a stroll with his two burly buddies.
The next day, Sunday, we went on another one of those hop-on-hop-off bus tours, a convenient way to drag Pappy around and see the city. And like I mentioned before, I wasn’t too impressed with Brussels. Everything just seemed dirty. The buses. The buildings. The streets. There were palaces and churches, sure, but they were dingy, with caked dirt and shedding paint. In fact, the old parts of Brussels reminded me kind of a trying-to-be-Paris-but-failing; one of the churches, St. Michael’s, was modeled on Notre Dame, but, well, wasn’t. Since it was Sunday, though, we arrived there just as the bells started ringing, and they were gorgeous… rich, full, four distinct tones that repeated for long minutes with a rise and fall like a musical movement, finally fading to just one bell. Magnificent! There were other lovely details about the city, too; I particularly liked the light posts in the central part of the city, which were carved with ornate vine and floral decorations. I also liked the primarily eclectic architectural styles, cramming Gothic and Neo-Classic and Greek Revival all onto the same building in a spectacular mishmash. It was groovy to see the palaces – like, currently inhabited by a real royal family – right in the middle of things, too. My favorite place, though, was the Sablon Square, a small jewel of a place next to a Gothic church with one large fountain, lots of blooming lavender and miniature pink rosebushes, and, around the perimeter, were 48 statues representing various crafts and workers, the medieval guilds of Brussels. Plus it was the only public space I saw that wasn’t covered in trash and dog crap. It was a beautiful resting spot!
Another special think in Brussels is… Manneken Pis. No, it turns out that isn’t just white-trash garden décor… this is a real, honest-to-God historical thing in Brussels. It’s very disconcerting to see all these beautiful and official signs directing people to the “Pissing Boy”…!
Yesterday, Monday, was my 35 th birthday, and never, ever did I expect that I’d celebrate it in Brussels, Belgium! THTM got a restaurant recommendation and made a reservation, and we had a long, lovely dinner at a premier French restaurant near the Grand Place. It was also a bit of a farewell dinner for Pa-in-Law, who had an early flight in the morning, but really, it was all about Me and My Birthday (*headtoss*); when our waitress saw that Pappy was carrying a small wrapped package and a couple cards, she asked whose birthday it was, and brought us complimentary aperitifs: Kir Royales, champagne with Crème de Cassis, which were lovely, even though I’m not a big fan of the champers. I’ve gotten really fond of European-style dinning, surprisingly. Meals last about two hours, and when you’re seated at your table, it’s expected that you’re going to linger; there isn’t the American idea of quick turnover so more customers can be served… instead, this table is yours for the evening. You don’t get your check until you specifically ask for it, and even then, you’re welcome to linger over coffee. So we ordered Roquefort puffs which, instead of the small bite-size things I was used to, were big and crab-cakey and very savory, and especially yummy as we finished our Kir Royales. Then we moved on to salads, local meat dishes (a Belgian beef stew with meat so tender you could cut it with a fork), and rich desserts. I opted for a delicious chocolate gelato, but THTM won with a gingerbread-flavored European flan/mousse concoction. All the while, because it was My Birthday, we were fussed and fawned over by our waitress.
After, we meandered through the Grand Place, where people were gathering in expectant groups. We weren’t sure what was going on, but stuck around for a few anyway. Suddenly, some heavy, Wagnerian classical music started booming from various speakers, and all of the lights in the square dimmed, leaving only the gothic spires of the church lit up. It was totally eerie. Then, here and there, lights flickered and flashed as the just-this-side-of-really-fucking-disturbing music played. It was pretty low-budget, as far as light shows go, but the effect was all creepy and beautiful. Genuine ambiance can go pretty damned far.
Of course, any beautifully eerie mood of the square was totally canceled out by our trash-and-dog-shit-laden walk back to the hotel.
Pappy was out of Brussels by 7 this morning, but THTM, as another Birthday Treat, took me to what is considered the best place for hot chocolate (of course!) in Brussels, a café and pastry shop called Wittamer, where we got there early and indulged in some almost-as-good-as-Angelina cocoa and scribbled another batch of postcards to the young ‘uns before hopping a cab for the train station.
I also had the pleasure of Numerous Spectacular Dorky Luscious Husband-Type Man Moments in Brussels. I think it was a birthday treat. At one point, strolling past an advertisement for the local ballet performing Giselle, I told THTM “If we were gonna be here, I’d totally make you go see that.” “What’s it about?” he asked. I filled him in on the highlights of the story: engaged couple, premature death, dancing ghosts in the haunted woods, trapped spirits stuck on earth- “Oh yeah,” he said, “I think I read about a similar story in Pennsylvania.” Which earned him tickles. He was in rare form, extra flirty, too; since we were in a hotel and had no wrapping paper, he wrapped my Birthday Pressies in… various pairs of his (clean!) Cute Boy Underwear. (And no, what usually goes in the Cute Boy Underwear wasn’t my pressies! At least, not all of- Ah, never mind. Y’all just don’t need to know.) But the best thing was on the train out of Brussels, when THTM had a prolonged altercation with the Attack-Trained Automatic Doors on the train. I suspect the doors were after the giant shopping bag of Swiss and Belgian chocolates he had, and I prolly should’ve jumped to his defense after the third time the doors trapped his arm, but I was laughing too much at the look of complete and total injured indignation on his face.
How could I not adore and delight in this man?
Our leg from Brussels to Amsterdam was the last train trip of the Chocolate Duran Tour, and, to my surprise – with the exception of dear little Michael, of course – I’ve really enjoyed that aspect of our traveling. Watching the countries undulate in an endless ribbon outside our windows, catching glimpses of a lake or a church spire or a farm or a shoddy old depot, is much more appealing than being trapped in a tin can in the sky, or having to deal with the problems of driving ourselves in unfamiliar places. For the most part, the trains have been clean and comfortable, with plenty of room to stretch our legs. The last two trains we’ve been on, instead of having six-seat compartments, have had four-seat alcoves with larger tables in between, and plenty of electrical sockets, so we can write on our laptops or read comfortably. The people-watching on trains is also great good fun: there’re businesspeople (like the guy sitting a few seats in front of us on the way to Amsterdam, an obese man in a navy suit, with a bright red and white striped shirt, and a tie with red and white diagonal strips. He looks like a giant round peppermint candy dressed in business attire) who have to go between this or that major European city, there’re groups of students with their backpacks, there were, in Switzerland, lots of people traveling with their bicycles and hiking gear.
Speaking of Switzerland, I think that was, easily, the most gorgeous scenery out of all our train trips. Me and THTM and Pa kept running from one end of our compartment to the other on that trip, gaping out the windows as our train climbed and curved through the Alps. Stone houses with peaked roofs nestled in small valleys… little solitary villages clinging halfway up enormous green mountains… waterfalls foaming out from fissures in the rock… sky so blue and air so clear that it painfully dazzled the eyes… Alpine lakes, jade green and clear, the surface as glossy-smooth as polished stone… mountains so high and rocky that no trees or greenery of any kind grew up there, only rock covered with snow. At one point, we were momentarily confused by a strange new sound outside as we passed another Swiss farm, and realized it was the ringing of the cowbells on the cows ambling by. Positively pastoral! My second-favorite trip was the train to Paris, with the quiet, rolling countryside and the poplar trees – my favorites! – with tall spindly trunks, looking like gangly adolescent girls in short skirts. Granted, trains also usually pass through the grimiest urban areas, too, but, overall, I’d say that my “Take Eurail” item on my List was fulfilled quite brilliantly!
Amsterdam isn’t a new city for us; we’ve been here before, on the way to Namibia, for, like, six whole hours! We even had time to take a quick tour before our flight to Johannesburg. But this time, we actually got to stroll along the canals instead of sitting on a tour bus, which is always better! We found a sidewalk café for dinner, and, after an unremarkable meal, we shared a piece of incredible apple cake, with cinnamon ice cream, which was just dreamy and my taste buds are still singing!.
And now, it’s time to get some sleep before our flight tomorrow….