At PHL 3 hours early, pitiful that a well traveled person like myself would get so excited that she couldn’t figure out what to do besides go to the airport. Left my kittens, so sad, they are used to having me there almost all the time as I work at home. They are just about a year old and have each other for company. I have arranged a number of visitors too. And yet I worry about them without me. I think they call that an exaggerated sense of self importance. Anyway, with a bow and a “namaste” I said good bye. Picked up my wild child (Dori, 10) at school. She was fairly attacked by her friends as I dragged her out. The drive was like riding with a firecracker she was so wound up: “what time does the flight leave?!! This is the most amazing trip I have ever gone on!!!” Then, “I miss my friends; I want Mommy (tears included).” A minute or two then: “Can we go shopping in
By the time we get to the gate though, she is in full travel mode, relaxed and centered, she does it like an old pro. We talk a little about the trip and she says, “I wonder if
So we flew on American. Connecting through DFW adds 3 or 4 hours to the travel time over a
Our great little package includes a private airport transfer and the day use of a hotel in the Ricoleta district of Buenos Aires, a very ritzy address. Truly a typical hotel in a way that there is nothing typical of
In exchange for a guarantee of a swim later I dragged herself through the parks of the
We stopped for pizza for her and salad with chicken for me at an outside café, both of which were lovely and entirely familiar to my American palate. The former however leaned a bit Italian being baked in a true wood burning oven and eaten with knife and fork, much to the chagrin of my very hungry child. The price was, as reported, probably about half what we would have paid in the states. Service was great and in the style to which I am accustomed with the exception of the Spanglish practiced by the waitress and myself. It’s amazing how successful one can be knowing almost no Spanish. As we ate we got to watch the parade of well-to-do porteños (as those from
Though the weather here is pretty near perfect for me (which is a little warm for most people including my daughter) I am not sure it was worth the effort required for the park tour, elegant Spanish feeling parks canopied with grand acacias. We finally baled out at the sweet little Japanese garden complete with good size pond and masses of mammoth koi carp.
Tonight we do something summarily un-touristy. We will take the overnight bus to a distant smaller city called
Here I sit in Valeria’s office which overlooks one of 2 internal courtyards and stucco walls, a tile porch roof and the top of a lovely ficus tree. I don’t mind the heat one bit but I am glad the ceiling fan is on, I would guess it’s close to 90. My daughter who wanders boldly around in winter coatless is probably dying. I don’t know for sure since she is at school with Romina. Now, this is an opportunity of a lifetime for her (her mother says) so I pushed hard for her to be bold and go along. She had a look that was some combination of terror and exhaustion but went for it. But more on this later…
Last night we grabbed a taxi to the vast bus station (about $3!) where Valeria had arranged and pre-purchased the tickets for us. The driver made sure to drop us off at the right door to pick up tickets for our bus, counter 119 by the way. We walked with purpose into the station and tooled around on the first floor finding nothing recognizable as a ticket counter. Finally I asked someone with my more and more elaborate collection of hand motions and single words and was told that the counters were upstairs. Onto the up escalator we went and found to our amazement all of those counters 1 through 119 and then some. We walked along moving up the numbers and found 118 then 120.
And what a bus it was, mammoth, two levels, with seats only rivaled by Cadillacs from that era in the 70’s in which one felt as though one was driving their living room, plush and tilting almost flat with leg rests that pop up. The windows all covered and Velcroed together with heavy curtains to keep out the light. Once Dori was settled, reclined and tucked under the soft blanket in the AC she declared, “Ahhhhh, this is the life.” Need I mention the sharp contrast with the torturous seats on the flight? It turned out to be a nearly twelve hour ride which could not have been more painless. The driver was amazing, never hard on the brakes nor sharp on the steering all night, and a full time attendant served us a late dinner (composed of what we American would call meat, meat and meat) and a light breakfast complete with, for me, the all important café con leche.
Apparently we had to take a detour in the night hence the extra hour or so of drive time allowing us to cross some of the interior in daylight. Opening those curtains a bit we discovered what there is the most of in vast
We climbed off in Corrientes’ much smaller bus station relatively refreshed and waited a bit for our friends, as they predicted we might, hence we were fearless. Ah and there they were hugging us and giving an air kiss on both cheeks in that Mediterranean style. We meet Valeria’s now not so new and wonderful boyfriend
The contrast between Corrientes and Buenos Aires is so sharp that the two seem unrelated, the latter so cosmopolitan and the former so much more what I have come to think of as Latin American: full of Spanish Colonial remnants and tropical style houses: stucco, corrugated roofs interspersed with tile and always in every way with their back to the street, walled-in so that we have no idea if this might be an opulent home or a bare bones one.
Romina’s is no exception. We drive into a sort of garage under a section of the house and enter the first courtyard to find a lovely and large maze of a house with a sprawling kitchen and a couple of baths and plenty of rooms with high wooden ceilings and ceiling fans. In the rear courtyard we find a sweet little pool. Oh and a big lovable dog named
Then we wander the river front of the city, a place where all go to spend time and see and be seen.
We come back home in time to open the door for Julieta, Romina’s teenage sister who goes to school in the morning, and for what is usually the largest meal of the day, lunch. The main dish is called milanessa de pollo and looks like breaded chicken breast but when I ask Romina if it is meat she says no. Upon closer questioning of Valeria I discover that here in this country chicken is not meat only beef is meat. We finish the meal with typical local ice cream, deliciously gelato-like and called dulce de leche which is hand delivered at the door as we are finishing lunch.
And so, we drop the girls off at school, 1:30 to 6:30. Valeria and I walk in with them to remind the vice principal of Dori’s presence. The girls (all girls in this Catholic school) gather around Dori to get a better look and maybe a little touch. In this provincial city foreigners are very rare and English is widely studied so this is a grand opportunity for them. As we depart I can only describe her look as one of a deer in the headlights and I have to talk myself down knowing that she will survive this experience with these other little girls handily and have wonderful story to carry home and throughout her life.
Back home us grownups go to do the tropical thing and take a siesta. Amazing how easy that is for me on this warm afternoon. I could easily make a habit of it. I lay on Romina’s bed at the front of the house, shutters pulled, fan running with the street sounds of a car, a motor bike, a small group of children passing, the bells of an occasional vendor and the next thing I know I awake with the light at a different angle not sure how long I slept. This is an especially important nap today as tomorrow is Valeria’s birthday and tonight she has 27 people, family and friends coming for the traditional asado. You might never guess what that is….a meal of barbequed fine Argentinean organically-fed free range beef (all of it is like this since what they have most of is wide open space and warm weather) done over a charcoal fire on a special outside grill permanently housed in a kind of second kitchen at the back the courtyard of nearly every house.
How this event will be for me is dubious. I am essentially a shy person whose response to shyness is to ask questions and tell stories. This approach will be nearly impossible in a Spanish speaking crowd. In addition I am mostly an early bird and guests are not expected to arrive until nine or so with dinner being served around 11! At any rate my plan for my daughter is to collect her from school, feed her a snack and put her down for a nap along with her friend. Two ten year olds napping together, hmmm, I won’t hold my breath.
The first day of spring at home is the first day of autumn on this side of the equator. In
Now 8:30, Valeria has arisen and told me, with an “Oh my gosh” that her guests departed at around three. As I left the music was just getting started. Three men with three of those small deep Latin guitars singing and playing local songs full of longing and sweetness. Dinner was indeed served at eleven, meat, meat and meat. Hors d’oeuvres were a wonderful pastry pocket called empanadas full of….meat, ground in this case, with onion, olive oil, boiled egg, pepper and meat. Three kinds of sausage, different sizes (from varying sections of the intestines I try not to imagine) and different consistencies all beef of course. Then the crowning glory, asado, great slabs of….meat, salted but otherwise untainted. Dori made it only to the empanadas then nearly keeled over before asking me to get her settled in bed.
Interestingly the simple innocence of these provincial people does not trump the Argentinean general dissatisfaction which seems to spring from problems with a very impoverished and corrupt government and spread to life in general. The result is a liberal and open discussion of ones mental and emotional state as well as extremely common use of therapists and anti-depressants. This kind of conversation with a friend of Valeria’s in Spanglish is especially entertaining. One of the tour books I am using seems to trace this to the influx of Jews in the early part of the 20th century. I am unclear as to whether this is the truth or anti-Semitism.
Back on the bus….
8:30 PM, we have just said good bye to our amazing hosts with a few tears caused, for me, by the fact that there is no way of knowing when or if we will see any of them again. I offer the girls our home if they come to the states to study. These people are full of generosity and grace and I feel such gratitude for the time spent with them in the states and even more for the time spent in their home. We spent today mainly outside
Then onto to a point in the river above where the tributary that is full of mud enters. This is a wonderful sleepy beach town where we wander along the waterfront to see the crystal clear river on one side and the wonderful whimsical weekend houses on the other, finally stopping at a small resort to experience a native fish dish that turns out to be so substantial, so rich and buttery and in such a shape that it reminds me of….steak. Throughout our meal we are serenaded by a raucous bunch of about 20 white middle aged Speedo-clad Brazilian fisherman who are stretched out at a long table drinking, playing a guitar and a couple of drums as though it was Carnavale. Very entertaining. Valeria says that Argentineans frequently go to the beach in
It turns out that
Back at Romina’s we pack up and are carried with care to the bus station where we climb on for the next leg of our trip and the last non-bed night until our flight home. Wow we really are hard-core travelers!
Ok so maybe we aren’t such hard core travelers. You know as this itinerary shaped up at home I began referring to it as the Argentinean death march. I would never do this to my clients. One time I had a family that wanted me to arrange something nearly as intense and I really pushed them to consider another approach but they refused. It turned out that they had a great time but then they are Russians and Russians are very tough indeed. And on many levels so are we. My daughter has been traveling on grueling flights followed by punishing itineraries since she was very small. Once when we were flying to
This time though she left home with a little cough and as we proceeded to one difficult night of sleep after another followed by stressful days with people who speak little English and a real lack of vitamin C (though plenty of meat) she has slowly succumbed. Our plan for today, a prepaid one, to go on a mini-trek across a glacier here in
The part of Patagonia where we are staying is the town of
Ok so I guess I’ll go sit around. Too bad I don’t like the book I brought much.
So we ended up moving the glacier trekking excursion to today and we shopped til we dropped yesterday. This being a tourist town, those extremely low prices are hard to find. Even so we picked up an amazing white leather bag with orange and yellow shapes for my preteen (believe me when I say it’s very stylish) as well as some cool gifts as we walked along the one main shopping street. The town is nearly new and the only source of revenue is tourism. Spurred by the weak peso (visitors from the US, Europe and even Japan can be found here) and the fact that el presidente de Argentina has actively promoted the destination, bringing his friends, buying up land and creating a resort of his own thereby substantiating the suspicions that the locals have that he has his own selfish agenda, growth is exponential making the second largest business construction. We ended our shopping marathon at the supermarket where we picked up lunch for our glacier trek. They have ready-made empanadas of a multitude of varieties and since we didn’t share a language with the woman at the counter we just ordered one of each.
We go wild for dinner at the lovely little restaurant called La Tablita, lamb specialists, did I mention that the “meat” of
Then we amble up the hill put of town to our hotel which is today called the Patagonia Park but was owned by Kampinsky, an upscale old world hotelier, until recently and everyone in Calafete refers to it by its previous name and maybe always will. It perches overlooking the town then the lake, made moody by the angle of the sun and the amount and shade of the clouds, with some wonderful views of the snow capped mountains beyond. Other than that it’s pretty average with décor that somehow really doesn’t come together and odd music being played in the lobby that includes Stones covers sung by a very electronic group with a soft female almost Japanese sounding vocalist (think Tumbling Dice). It does have the all important pool however, and one of good size, which has entertained my aquatic daughter on a couple of occasions.
So our real glacier excursion begins with a civilized pick up time. The bus is comfortable although the driver looks way too young. There is no guide aboard and the youthful driver speaks only Spanish and that softly so we are not sure when we stop if it’s for el bano or an overlook. The country we cross is extremely reminiscent of west
But we ride along the banks of
We round one bend and sprawled before us across the lake is the glacier itself. We can see how this is truly a river of ice flowing from the snowy peak and undulating down and down and finally entering the water as a wall of ice. It takes my breath away and the bus is all a-whisper in “Oh my Gods!” in about a half a dozen languages. We ride along the edge of the water a while, alternately seeing then not seeing, and it is an astounding surprise each time it appears. Finally we reach a launch for the boat that carries us across the lake along the front of the ice to the trailhead to climb on. Luckily there is no rain and even plenty of spots of sun but the wind off the ice is chilling. We motor very close and the sight only gets more amazing with crags and cracks that are that same astounding color as the lake, made more brilliant by the sharp contrast with the external opaque white ice. Plenty of little bergs can be seen and little bits break off and fall in as we watch. In sharp contrast the national park employee on the mic drones on first en Espanol then in English about park rules.
We climb off and onto the golden brown rocks of the opposing shore and are divided into groups by language, one for Spanish and one for everyone else, which is to say for us very lucky Americans, the English speaking tour. We are with Italians and French and Japanese and a couple from
Interestingly there is an arc in the lake the top of which meets the glacier. In the winter, as the glacier advances it frequently cuts one side of the arc off from the other side. The north side connects to the larger part of the lake and has a creek that outlets eventually to the Atlantic but the north side, called the Rico Arm has no egress and is quite small. When the glacier disconnects this arm from the rest of the lake then continues to melt and calf, the water level rises and rises, usually only a few meters, before the glacier recedes and lake breaks through but back in ’88 the dam lasted two seasons and the lake level rose right into the forest and took with it many trees, an explanation for the fallen giants we saw along the trail. When it broke through the whole thing was quite dramatic and films of the event are available all over Calefete for sale.
Then we head for the little gravelly plateau to be fitted for our crampons which are strapped around our shoes very tightly. Our guide gives us some simple instruction in a combination of limited English and body motions. Keep your feet far apart as you walk so as not to hook the crampons to each other. When you walk up the glacier make small steps with your toes pointing out. When you walk down keep your back straight, don’t lean forward because you will begin to run then possibly roll. Keep your gloves on as the ice can be sharp.
And we climb on. I can’t help but grin the whole time. Using the crampons is a truly counter intuitive experience for people used to ice in the winter. I feel like a squirrel climbing a tree, they stick on each step like Velcro. Very cool. I need a pair of these at home. The ice looks like mounds of meringue. It has lots of cracks and in the cracks are puddles and streams of that opalescent water. Our guide shows us a sink whole where there was a river below the ice that eventually collapsed. The resulting hole becomes a drain of melt water that, because we are in the southern hemisphere, flows clockwise. We find an arch and each member of the group takes a picture standing in it.
We climb a hill and our guide tells us this will be our highest point. The wind howls but the sun is shining, thank goodness, and the process of getting up there has warmed us. The view down seems fairly far but we certainly have made almost no progress toward the mountain and it becomes clearer how vast this ice field really is. We cross one hill and find a wooden table with a number of tumblers, a bottle of whiskey and a bowl of confections. Our guide adds ice from the glacier (and water for those of us who don’t partake) and here we toast our good fortune in experiencing this glacier first hand. These guys have to carry all of these accoutrements up each day as this river of ice is on the move at such a great rate that the table may disappear or be found in a puddle or river or in the lake itself. Finally we walk like ducks, close to the edge overlooking the lake. The terminus of the glacier bows inward a bit and we can see the face of the other side. Here we wait in the wind for it to calf…and wait….and wait…..and wait a little more. Oh well, not today.
We meander off the ice and unwrap our crampons and reenter a world made richer by this experience. We hike back through that exotic forest and sit in a nice little pavilion, just as it begins to rain in earnest, and eat the lunch we packed, in our case our empanadas of various kinds, some pleasant surprises, a spinach one for me, and some not so pleasant, onion and potato, ewww. While we sit in view of the mountain but not the glacier we hear a thunderous crash, the calving we were awaiting. I run into the space overlooking the ice and see….not a thing, not even a splash or a wave. Finally we make our way back to the boat and begin the crossing. As a final gift the sun shines through the rain and over the Rico arm of the lake we see a brilliant rainbow!
For dinner this night we find a lovely little café, kind of artsy, that specializes in crepes, both sweet and sandwich-y. What a cool spot clearly made for cool people like us and with the bonus of overlooking the skate board park which is heavily used by teenage boys who are as good as any I have seen in
So we have decided to jettison any further early rising glacier exploration in favor of an extremely creative way to separate tourists from their dollars: A hybrid tourist bus and four wheel drive vehicle with tires nearly as tall as me. This rides into the vast ranches that cover the craggy mountain on the edge of town and gives us some wonderful lake
We arrive actually after
In the morning we fairly roll out and onto a city tour, big tour bus, guide in both Spanish and English, this is a very clean tour, what I mean is no dirt at all. First stop is the convention center or main municipal square of the town, the place of the Pink House, where the president works, but not where he lives. What is not mentioned is that the Argentinean people have been known to burn down their leaders’ residence if they are displeased enough so
Possibly the most interesting (and disturbing) thing on the square is the area where the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo have silently protested every Thursday afternoon since their children have become victims of the reign of terror that took place in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Those “disappeared” included babies taken from mothers for the ruling class (how sick and twisted is that?) as well as a large collection of men that the government then in power felt threatened by. Some ninety or so of these babies, now in their 30’s have been discovered, however none of those threatening men have been accounted for. Not much news on this from our sparkling clean guide.
Our tour continues on an exploration of the wonderful still gritty district known as La Boca which grew on the banks of the second port and was populated by impoverished French Basque and Genovese immigrants who found work there. The original houses were all made of corrugated sheet metal, and many still are, and painted a multitude of colors, sometimes a number of shades upon one house as a result of the use of left over
The original port is called Puerto Madera and it came into existence as a result of a political favor of some kind. It was constructed in a section of the river that silted up in a few decades. Dori and I have dinner there this last night after an ATM adventure. Though had used one in
So Puerto Madera has become a very upscale office complex with buildings belonging to Microsoft and the like. The original brick dock yard done in an English style in the mid-19th century has been converted to a collection of restaurants and office buildings reminiscent of Faneuil Hall in
After dinner we walk along the river and find a spot to get my daughter’s dulce de leche fix. We walk across a wonderful modern suspension bridge for pedestrians that has a tall angled tower with cables connecting to the base reminiscent of a harp. Pretty cool! By the way, the city finally settled on a functional port furthest down the river, easily accessible to the sea and not prone to silting. And it only took about 250 years!
Did I mention I love this hotel? I think it’s one of my favorite I have ever seen or stayed in; certainly it’s my favorite city hotel. All the basics are there (clean, good service, well equipped) but really my ardor is about the design, ultimately minimalist, a collection of rectangles laid all around from the couch to the flat screen TV to the recessed rectangle of lighting on the ceiling over the rectangular table, even the toilet and bidet take on this shape. They really hit the design, I find it flawless. The almost classical grounded stability of those shapes makes the place supremely peaceful.
Today we do what I want (said in a demanding tone), in my mind the two things, along with seeing La Boca, that cannot be missed in this city. First stop is
There are lots of people wandering the “
So the place just blows me away. It’s one of the highlights of my trip to
She does stick with me to find Evita’s grave, having seen the musical right before we left. (The day we departed she sang “Don’t cry for me” in the shower.) It was, as you might guess, the busiest spot in the place. Interestingly,
Next stop was the nearby MALBA:
There are only a few names I recognize a lovely Frida Kahlo self portrait with a parrot, a few Diego Rivera’s but the stuff I love is by artists whose names don’t even sound remotely familiar. As is often true of art of the last century, it is a combination of disturbing and humorous, one piece is more thought provoking than the last. It even holds my daughter’s interest…sort of. She and I both get popped for taking pictures. It’s wonderful for me to find all of the descriptions and explanations in each gallery strictly in Spanish. This stops me from focusing upon the words and background of the artist and forces me to really experience the art in a purer form, our own
So we use the last ten peso note I have to catch a taxi back to our hotel. When I hand the driver our bill he sees it has handwriting on it and refuses it. We find ourselves in a stale-mate as this is the only note we have and we are unable to successfully communicate this to him. Finally with something that is no doubt a curse he keeps the note and waves us out of his car. We head to a touristo café that will take our credit card and have our last jugo de naranja fresca (freshly squeezed orange juice) and people watch while we wait for our airport transfer.
Ok, I have softened on
We are on the final leg, flying home over night through
On US non-stop from PHL. What a luxury. No connection and no ride to Newark or, even further, JFK. The luxury is certainly offset by dealing with US Air. They will get us there though. Being a veteran of a number of BA flights, I am a bit spoiled, what with the little package found on every coach seat that includes your little sockies, eye mask, toothbrush and toothpaste. Most missed though is my private screen on the chair in front of me, with my choice of films. Instead I am tempted to crane my neck and see the mottled picture of a film in which I have no interest. Luckily I have my trusty laptop on which to blog. My daughter, who is eight, has this malingering cold with a hacking cough that is ugly enough for us to have considering canceling over it. It keeps her up through the night. Is it mothering or codependence that worries me enough to keep me staring at her rather than sleeping? I am not sure. Suffice it to say that it is a long flight but we all survive surprisingly well.
We have become quite the 21st century traveling family: A couple of MP3 players that we filled with the most current stuff stolen from Limewire. We left the portable DVD player at home to save some weight but that requires that I share my laptop with my daughter. How many times can I watch that scene in Goonies with the repro David statue? If you haven’t seen the movie it’s worth a look, if just for that scene (once is truly funny). I loaded Skype on this laptop and picked up a headset. I bought $10 worth of time and loaded the phone numbers of my favorite people in the speed dial (including a work contact). All three hotels have wi-fi in their lobbies and I emailed them to request rooms with wi-fi. Theoretically I should be able to call the US for 2 cents a minute. I will let you know. In addition, the wi-fi should give us access to things like Pandora.com, which has a number personalized radio stations for us to listen to in the room as we do our daily ablutions. Who knows, by the time we get back to Amsterdam, our last stop, I may be so good at the wi-fi thing that we will duck into a coffee shop to check an email or two. Like our old friend Bill Clinton, we won’t inhale. In the realm of IT we complete the picture with the DVD camcorder that we bought about six months ago. What a wonderful contraption, compact and producing crisply recorded mini DVD’s that can be dropped directly into the player when we get home.
We arrive in Amsterdam and pick up our luggage uneventfully, which is never our expectation and we are always grateful when it goes like that. It is a pleasure going through immigration as a family (two women and a child) in this incredibly modern city, without any risk of being questioned. Finding the train station is easy, as is the ride to the center. We stop at a bagel joint to pick up lunch to go. The price isn’t too bad; everything is fresh and delicious though the bagels are in no way authentic. There are clearly no Jews making them in Amsterdam these days. The lovely staff volunteers a few tourist pointers like, pay attention and don’t get robbed, which is very kind of them. We find the right platform for the next Brussels train and wait in the terribly damp cold for about 40 minutes watching the people and the pigeons and the ferryboats on the water outside the train barn.
There is something incredibly romantic about this leg of our trip. The weather is gray and moody, early spring is evident everywhere with green grasses and plenty of yellow blooms. The train rolls along quietly at a steady pace peeking into the lives of people so different than us yet not different at all. These lowlands have been inhabited for centuries and there is an easy peace between productive agriculture and the vibrant post modern architecture of the small cities we transit through, The Haag, Rotterdam, Mechelen. During the ride we pass from the Dutch speakers of The Netherlands to Flemish and onto the Belgian French, their edges blurred, most speaking at least two of these as well as extremely capable English. I have the impression of a Parisian sort of elegance from these people mixed with a surprising warmth and grace unexpected in such a densely populated place.
Upon arrival in Brussels we make a couple of false starts trying to get our bearings in finding our way to the hotel but, in spite of a light cold drizzle and serious wind, we pleasantly find our spot just off of the Grand Place or “The place to be” in this the capital of the European Union (EU). I am surprised by how few people of color I see in this city, though there are some, mostly North Africans from French speaking countries like Morocco. We hear lots of European languages though, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish as well as all of the local languages. We check in and head for our very stylistically current room. Europeans, with their long cultural history, seem never to have any fear of doing something new in terms of architecture and design, even with their moderate hotels. Unlike us Americans whose history has such shallow roots that we try to deceive ourselves and anyone else, that they are much deeper, often going to the extreme of references to the perfect order of Ancient Greece.
Though there is wi-fi in the room, it doesn’t seem to be read by my computer. Sad. I try again, in the lobby where the signal is definitely up, and get nothing at all. So much for my new high tech life! I don’t obsess and we move on into the gray wind to wander the streets. In spite of its international importance, Brussels feels very manageably sized to me, as well as shockingly friendly. I had heard rumors that it was scruffy and dirty. I cannot imagine to what other city that comparison was made. It certainly is an improvement in that realm over any American city to which I have been, as well as London, Paris and Rome.
We wander a restaurant street where each place has its wares displayed: fresh shellfish and incredibly appealing looking veggies as well as a jaunty taxidermied rabbit. (Wonder if it tasted like chicken?) Hawkers of varying motivation and talent stand out front to try to coax us in. We pry ourselves away from them all to find a basement restaurant that was recommended to us by a pretty and stylish young woman at the hotel’s front desk. To find it we must venture past the glass covered streets of the Galleries Royales St. Hubert, the first mall in the history of the world, 1847, which smells just as sweet as any place I have ever been as a result of its plethora of Belgian chocolateers, and into the Grand Place itself. How outrageous this square is, chocked full incredibly ornate gothic confection like buildings, all trimmed with a hefty dose of gold leaf and all seemingly with a patina of the smog of the last 100 or so years.
We dine beneath one of these architectural confections in a barrel vaulted room. Dinner in Brussels is as the Belgian’s bill it: the quantities of Germany and the qualities of France. Mussels in Brussels are divine, as is a wonderful cream based seafood stew called waterzooi. Best of all, my daughter gets to sample the country’s chief exported food idea: French (?) fries, which are Belgian in origin.
Today chilly gray meets us as we venture into the Belgian world. We cross the street to a spot that bills itself as a “tea room” with a front window full of waffles, crepes and croissants and a menu in Dutch, French, English, German and Spanish. Our Asian waiter moves gracefully from language to language as he negotiates the tables in his station. It is like watching ballet. Europe is a difficult place for an American coffee drinker. When I walk into a breakfast restaurant at home I like the cup to be on the table and the server to arrive with pot in hand and return frequently. Here they give me a nice strong but very small cup of coffee that leaves me with only the word “more” on my tongue. I call it a lesson in letting go. There are always lots of them when I travel.
From breakfast we grab a taxi and head for the starting place of our self-tour of upper town. This area is all business, full of the staid elegance of the neo-classical style, a result of the wealth acquired in the 19th century when King Leopold ravaged the Belgian Congo and a few other colonies that, though independent these days, remain crippled by the experience. A striking architectural exception to this is the art nouveau building that houses the musical instrument museum. This pristine example of the style was built as a department store in direct response to the then old fashioned staid look of the psuedo-Greek stuff in its neighborhood. It is full of soft curves and naturalistic wrought iron. We ride the elevator up the glass enclosed Queen Anne style turret and take in the vista across the rooftops of Brussels, then walk down the steps and look up to see the lovely floral joinings between the wrought iron columns and the ceilings.
Back out on the street we find a misty fog and light drizzle that envelopes everything. It begins to pool and drip from our raincoats, but we are pretty hard-core in this stuff. There is no better lesson in powerlessness when traveling than weather. We make our way to what may be the highest point in all of Benelux on top of which sits the scaffolding ensconced Palace of Justice. Under these conditions this pile is way too much - and might well be even without the scaffolding. We take a look at the wide-open view across Brussels found here, much of it socked in. To our left in the distance is the area known as Waterloo, yes that Waterloo. It’s inspiring as a tourist to stand in the rain and see a place where one of human history’s most dominant figures was taught about defeat.
From here we funnel down a cobble-stoned street into the much less formal lower city. We come to a neighborhood full of galleries and local restaurants. As we stop to get our bearings we see another nouveau gem, a place called The Parrot. Its façade covered with lovely bentwood, done in a floral style and with a salad and pita sandwich menu and a no-smoking policy (thank God we are seeing more of this over here than ever before). It is chocked full of tables filled with Bruxelloise families of all stripes. We are lucky enough to find a seat and partake of a lovely and reasonably priced light lunch. The staff as well as the patrons are of that unselfconscious, warm and elegant stock that we have happily discovered on this trip.
We wander down to the low point of this fair city where is found the thing that truly makes Brussels world famous. As we come around the corner we begin to see the crowd congregated around it. “It,” in this case, is a fountain that contains a very small statue of a young naked cherub-like boy peeing. His name is Manneken-Pis and the number of languages in which jokes about this poor boy are told can only be imagined if you don’t visit yourself. Our favorite jokester is a Scotsman holding a rubber ducky on high in order for his wife to snap a photo showing the boy relieving himself upon the bath toy. When we stare at him and chuckle he says, “don’t ask.” We continue on through the chocolaty streets of Brussels, pick up our luggage and head for the train station and our short ride to Bruges.
These trains are almost impossibly quiet and comfortable and we take our ride as a reprieve, not just from the weather but also from the stress of map watching and figuring what comes next. We pass small towns whose streets are lined with those impossibly steep pitched roofs covered in the crenulated tile that is the vernacular style of Benelux. We pass primeval irrigation canals whose history is so long that nature has encroached upon their edges so much so that it is as if they were laid out by God in the first seven days. We pass single story ancient sway backed barns surrounded by impossibly green fields dotted with grayish sheep that seem to reflect the moody sky. Just when we are starting to get into traveling reverie, the quick hour passes and we arrive at our destination.
In Brugge we catch a taxi to our hotel this time and check in. Our room overlooks the rooftops and faux-gables of this fairytale-like town. We see the backyard angle of the famous Belgian step gable as well as bell gables. I set my laptop on the windowsill and fire it up. Voila! There is a signal! I check my email and find no problems at all and a few notes from friends. I respond from my hi-tech roost and try not to make them too jealous. Then I try out the Skype phone on a comrade from home. I hear a crisp ring then a crystal clear, “hello”. We hold a lovely conversation and, as I sign off, I could not feel more 21st century. Oddly that is the last moment I had wi-fi access here, in spite of wandering the hallways, restaurants and lobbies of this property.
While I am playing with the computer my partner goes down to the lobby to ask for advice upon where to eat dinner. She asks for a place that offers a light meal for not too much money. I am not sure what went wrong. It could be that the staff here gives the same answer to the “where shall we go for dinner?” question no matter what other qualifications are added or it could be that I sent a non-travel agent to do a travel agent’s job but we end up in what is clearly a tourist trap. The good news first: there is a lovely fire burning in each room and the staff to diner ration is quite amazing, I would say 1 to 4 maybe. The bad news? We spend about $100 for the three of us on what is billed as traditional Flemish fare; tough stew beef, greasy French-fries and essentially un-spiced chicken stew, all presented in a singularly unappealing way. The staff was young and a bit bumbling in spite of the quantity of them. My daughter, always full of joie d’vivre, loved the experience, probably because of her wonderful dessert: a scoop of vanilla ice cream with rainbow sprinkles, a lollipop to go stuck in it and with a waffle cone, yes, waffle as in Belgian waffle, jutting from its side. The cone became the key to her jet-lagged giddiness by acting first as a hat, then a nose, then a body part which she does not possess. This being her fifth trip to Europe, I have learned not to fight too much over her public behavior when she gets in this jet lagged state. You can bet though, some of the staff and fellow patrons will not forget her anytime soon.
What an idyllic little city Brugge is! We wake to a nearly cloudless sky and temperatures climbing to the 50’s, thank God. One day is perfect to see it all by foot. We follow a tour in our guidebook that carries us to a starting point at Market Square, a vast cobble-stoned area surrounded on two sides by private enterprise, restaurants and cafes, shops and banks. On the other two sides are public buildings one of which is a gothic town hall with an incredibly high bell tower that you can pay good euros to torture yourself into climbing; three hundred and some steps, some worn stone, some wood, twisting this way and that and all packed with tourists from the world over. I love this stuff. We make it pantingly to the top to see in the distance that sprawl, the thing that we Americans thought we had a corner upon, has arrived in Benelux. We also see what this area is famous for: windmills, no, not that kind, modern wind farm windmills that are efficient producers of energy, and lots of them. The people of Benelux have a true vested interest in the global warming issue since much of their land is claimed from the sea which is held back with dykes and dams and lochs. Every centimeter of rising sea level creates monumental problems for
We climb back down those scary steps, hanging onto the railings with the exhilaration of beating death and crawl out into the ancient streets of what has become the consummate European tourist town. Brugge’s maze-like lanes are a medieval jumble, a dramatic contrast to the careful planning of Philadelphia or any city designed by the Enlightenment mind. Luckily we have a good map and a fine navigator in my partner and we find our way. This city boasts a Michelangelo, one of the few outside of Italy. It is in the Church of Our Lady and is displayed as part of a baroque wall of decorations and other sculptures. It stands out as a diamond would in a coalmine. We wander past the lace and tapestry shops designed to trap people like us. Slowly we find ourselves seduced. When I arrived here, I associated this type of weaving with the childhood memory of my father’s mother who had a dark house full of French provincial furniture and a blue boy lamp. By our last day here I must have one! Luckily they are not too expensive so that when we get home and wonder where the heck to hang it, we won’t feel too bad about stuffing it in a closet until we find the perfect spot. (It could take years.)
My daughter has been counting people’s dogs since we arrived. Apparently the Belgians have taken a cue from the French and seem to bring them everywhere. They clearly don’t enforce the poop scoop laws here, which is the only smudge we find in this handsome city. She has counted to around forty canines when I finally step in one of their gifts. My partner suggests that I wipe it off in the grass but Brugge has not seen grass in millennia. I scrape and scour my shoe across the cobblestones but to no avail. Finally we come upon a chunk of moss that must have fallen out of a rain gutter. I plant the offending foot directly upon it and the little piece of green disappears like magic. After some inquiry and much hysterics we find it stuck to the bottom of my shoe with the offending substance as an adhesive. I will move on to the next subject now but let me say finally that later that night, while writing this blog in the lobby bar I was accosted by an evil scent and could not imagine what it was until I removed my shoes in the room later on.
We finish our tour with a peaceful boat ride upon the canal. We slide between the ancient homes, past pansy filled window boxes and an occasional swan. It is difficult to explain the level of calm produced by the experience of gliding along with a passel of fellow tourists, even for my eight year old. Was it the water, the captain with the melodic Flemish accent in French then English or just the rest for our weary feet? We never work out the answer but we are grateful for it.
We are left with a short window before dinner during which we sit in a café on Burg Square, an elegant area and the birthplace of Brugge. For fifteen euros my daughter drinks a hot chocolate, my partner drinks a table wine and I have a pot of tea. Apparently the adage “location, location, location” does not just apply in real estate. My child continues her counting of dogs while pulling out my laptop and working on her own travel blog, to the amusement of the wait staff.
It may be true about doing as the Romans do but when in Brugge we eat fondue for dinner. We wander through the chilly night air into the warm environs of this restaurant. My daughter, not big on all things new, requires a pep talk to enter but has a blast. It is here that we discover the truth about the English language in Benelux. It began to be taught in earnest in the fifties, therefore almost everyone speaks it fluently. The wait-staff in this restaurant though are sixty pluses, and we count ourselves as lucky that the menu is as simple as it is. As we head back to our hotel for the night in the only jackets we brought with us, we get down wind of a greasy fondue scent that has now attached to us. Uh-oh, could be a stinky time in Amsterdam and yet another lesson in the letting go of travel.
I don’t seem to need nearly the sleep I used to. I wake early this morning and go for a walk on the path through the park that is next to the moat here in Brugge. It is another crisp blue-sky day. The grass is littered with early spring bulb flowers. There are sea gulls, doves and occasionally an individual of the globally successful cormorant hanging around. I pass lots of locals folks, some on foot, most on bikes and I think, “I could live here.” Maybe I will when I grow up.
We pack and head for the train station, ride for a half hour and jump off in Ghent, find a big locker in which to stash our stuff and grab a cab to the cathedral here. The ride takes us through those wide avenues I associate with cities like Madrid and Nice, full of tall modern apartment buildings, but is clearly missing the elegance of those places. We get a real working class feel from the town that is not disavowed by the cathedral itself, which is not particularly impressive in anyway, except that it is decorated in a manner that I have never seen in all of the ancient holy buildings in which I have been. It has cloth hangings in vertical rows strung between the columns. They are white and are splashed and dashed with abstract colors that clearly reflect the stained glass. Pretty cool. More proof of how unselfconscious and modern these Belgians are. There is a “no photos” sign in picto-form that makes its meaning clear in any language so I film as quickly as possible. Yes, I am a tacky American tourist. Hopefully God will forgive me.
Oddly there is an intact medieval castle right down the street and we head there to check it out. We are more than a little spoiled in the castle arena, having hung out one cold and rainy week in the north of Wales a couple of years ago. I don’t want to say, you seen one castle, you seen ‘em all but…. Just across the street from this edifice is a pizza joint. Probably a stinky tourist trap type place we figure, but we are pleasantly surprised by great salads and an elephant shaped pizza for my daughter complete with a green olive eye, her favorite! Is Ghent worth the stop? Yes, for me it is for a kind of silly reason. In all of my European trips, with the exception of the first one in my college years, I have never used the trains. I cannot imagine why, since it has been so bloody much fun this time! This stop, in this grimy Belgian city, gave us the chance to pop off, use the lockers and jump back on. I feel so grown up, globally friendly and worldly about the whole thing. It’s a joy that is as difficult to elucidate and is as ethereal as explaining why one would ride a carousel.
So we take the train to Brussels and make the easy connection to Amsterdam. This city is all youth, chaos and frenetic energy right from jump. The rail station is under construction so we walk out into chain link and scaffolding plus the omnipresent trolley wires graphing the sky above. We are immediately surrounded with hundreds of bicycles ridden by folks that know exactly how it’s done here, something that we learn immediately. Number one: bikes have the right of way over both cars and pedestrians. Every street has a wide bike lane that runs next to the car lane and God help you if you step into it at the wrong time. This is a hard and potentially painful lesson for us Americans who live and die by the almighty noisy four-wheeled automobile.
The directions to our hotel say to walk toward Dam Square. As we are discussing where this might be, an Amsterdamer overhears us and, with an indulging look, points us the right way. We find over and over that the kind Dutch seem to treat us as childlike and think we are faintly amusing. Since it is dinnertime, as I check in, my partner asks the concierge for a dinner suggestion. She is informed that there is no such thing as Dutch food and that the closest thing to it is Indonesian cuisine courtesy of the pillaging of the Dutch East Indies Company. Apparently the best restaurant of this genre is on the other side of the center of Amsterdam and, in spite of it being dark in a new city for us, as well as the fact that we have never had this type of food and we have a daughter that has made it to the age of eight subsisting on almost exclusively pizza, off we go with my partner navigating. It is much easier for me when traveling to detach from poor weather and lost luggage than from relatively small decisions made by my family. This is clearly a reflection of my control issues and is another opportunity for me to let go and trust the universe, Dutch-style.
As we wander the dark streets we discover that the brothels are not confined to the Red Light District. We pass a number of windows lit with both red and black lights, with scantily clothed woman of varying sizes and colors sitting in them. I think we saw both Barbie and Macy Gray. Finally the child’s concerns about Amsterdam are assuaged. In an effort to prepare her, we attempted to explain the sale of sex in eight-year-old terms. The net result was the simple declaration, “But I don’t want to see naked people!” We wander past a number of “smart shops”, an incredible misnomer, being full of all natural items like psilocybin mushrooms, home sex aids and marijuana seeds. The youth and youthful of the world litter the pavement along our way, flowing out of the famed Amsterdam coffee shops with names like Sky Hi, Kashmir Lounge and Smoky Boat. Finally we turn onto a neon restaurant lined street full of establishments of varying ethnicities and climb the steps for our Indonesian experience. We are treated by these Asian Dutch in that same kindly and amused way. They walk us through the menu, which is complete with chicken nuggets for the child. They suggest a fix price mixture, which turns out to be great stuff. All in all this adventure is a neat experience and my lesson for the day is complete.
The next day we put the rails to work for us again by making our way to Kuekenhof, the world’s largest bulb garden and one of the planet’s great tourist traps. We wander the sweet smelling paths here with thousands of day tripping Netherlandish seniors and folks speaking the languages you would expect plus Spanish, Italian, Russian and Japanese. We take my partner’s picture wearing two giant sized wooden shoes then my daughter’s in a shoe that is big enough for her to declare, “I could live in this thing!” After a while ode de Hyacinth and kitschy lawn art sporting multi-hundred euro price tags begin to overwhelm. However, the garden is surrounded on two sides by acres of blooming bulb flowers in yellow, orange, red and purple. The effect upon me is literally breath taking and makes the ride so worthwhile.
When we arrive back in town we walk the streets of the Jordan section, a wonderful upscale neighborhood where the windows are unabashedly wide open to the street. We meander along the elegant canals back into the center. My daughter is shockingly independent and fascinated, a testament to all of her travel experience. She stays a half a block ahead of us and we are required to slow her down and coax her from the railings hanging over the waterways repeatedly. We make a stop at the Homomonument, a pink marble triangle jutting into a canal, built in the name of all men and women who have suffered oppression as a result of their sexual orientation; pretty cool and consummately Amsterdam.
I have been dragging my daughter into museums since she was born. I don’t remember where we were but I do recall being on the threshold of one with her hand in mine and her trying to pull me away from the door, saying, “no, not a museum!” This is a two museum day. I present it as an unavoidable fact like a trip to the dentist and she acquiesces. I have learned that the best way to do this is to find out what the must sees are for me and breeze through the rest. I will never forget picking her up at the age of four and literally running through the Uffizi in Florence repeating the mantra, “I must see the Botticelli’s, you will not stop me from seeing the Botticelli’s.”
So we wander across the canals on yet another shockingly sunny day in this traditionally cloud covered city to the Rijksmuseum. Under construction like many of the public buildings in this renewing city, we can still get access to the good stuff. In one single room we find a number of paintings by those amazing 17th century Dutch Masters including a couple of wonderful Rembrandts and, in one corner, four, yes four, of a total of about 27 Vermeers in existence.
I fell in love with a piece by this artist when I lived in Boston. It was in the enchanting Gardner Museum. A tiny thing, like all of his works, it was painted with the astounding precision of those Netherlandish artists and a magical stillness that quiets the soul. That work, called The Concert, was stolen in an incredibly intriguing and successful heist a few years after I moved away and has not yet been recovered.
All four of these Vermeers in the Rijksmuseum are wonderful gems but one, The Kitchen Maid, is magic to me like The Concert was. With its distinct chunks of color, it is a harbinger of the near abstraction of Matisse and his sharply contrasting color planes, reducing the image to its simplest forms, while, at the very same time, exploring with amazing realism, the most minute detail in the scene that it represents. I feel it allows me to make contact with my very center and pulls my heart out to the light of day. No one could be more surprised about this feeling than me. I stare at it for a long time, then wander the gallery and come back to it. I might be staring at it still but for the insistence that I move on from my very patient eight year old.
Based on my past museum with kid experience, we save the Van Gogh for last. His bright colors and modern forms will hold my daughter’s attention much longer than those old Dutchmen. As it turns out, not only do they have a recorded guide specifically for children but they also have a scavenger hunt complete with a prize for successful completion. Right up her alley. We are all thrilled!
This artist is one that I know best. His sad story has been in my awareness since I was a child. My mother used to keep dried apricots to snack on and we called them Van Gough ears. Sick and sad I know, but if you can’t laugh about someone else’s tragedy, what can you laugh about? In addition I have studied this Post Impressionist in classes and seen more than one traveling exhibit of many of his works prior to coming here. But this time, being reminded of his experience of alienation touches me deeply. I look at a piece called Wheat Field with Crows painted in his final year, just before he shot himself. I think of how trapped and hopeless the guy felt. I see that fiery opalescent sky and the golden field painted with heavy brush strokes. I see the black crows in wide V’s reflecting the brush marks of the field but estranged from it. I feel Van Gough’s inspiration and isolation, as well as how those two factors were intimately connected then I start to cry. I have to stop thinking about it to avoid coming completely undone in the gallery. I gather my wits as I walk down the steps and we take my daughter’s completed guide and collect her prize. She chooses a postcard reprint of a self portrait. This kid has a real fascination for people, reflected in her choice that has been duly satisfied here in Benelux.
The very first day when our flight originally arrived in Amsterdam, I promised my daughter we would rent bikes and ride. In her special way she has never let me forget that pact we made. This being the afternoon of the last day I must summon all of my courage and make good. We head to the Central Station and rent from the collection of serious potheads at Mac Bike. They have a Dutch-style tandem with a lower child seat in front complete with immovable handlebars but functioning pedals, and a higher adult seat behind with the real steerable handle bars. The good news is the kid, who thought she would be safely bringing up the rear, is out in front and gets to experience all of the terror of riding the wild and wooly bike lanes in this fine city. She almost chickens out but now I am gunning for the ride and off we go. It’s actually easier than I would have expected, mostly because there are so many bikes that there is always someone before us tracing the correct lane for us. We ride parallel to the front of the train station and through a shopping street of a working class neighborhood then on through a park. We only nearly crash once, nearly run off a curb once, nearly ride down some steps once and, to top it all off, as we return to Mac Bike, ride where only the trolleys are supposed to go and slip into the trolley tracks once. All the while the child is making alternately nervous, motivating and snide comments. It’s a grand and empowering experience for us both.
It’s late. We all eat dinner at an Italian place right across from the hotel. We need to pack but we just can’t bring ourselves to leave the street. We go looking for ice cream and end up in a lovely square called Rembrandt Splein where we find single small scoops of Hagen Daas for what amounts to almost three dollars apiece. We sit café style outside savoring every taste and watching the crowd parade by. We ride the tram most of the way back, we are old pros by now, and, as we walk the final blocks, we pass one of Amsterdam’s professional woman in a red lit window, and my ever gregarious daughter exchanges waves with her. Our experience is now complete.
I have had an amazing thing happen in this city, something I have always aspired to when in Europe. I have been asked directions and therefore been mistaken for a local four times! What does this mean? I would like to say that it is because I am incredibly stylish in a worldly way, but I suspect the truth is not so exciting. First of all I lost a bunch of weight since my last visit so I don’t have that obvious pudgy American look. The main thing is though that Amsterdam is so casual and unassuming that nearly everyone blends.
This city is not a romantic place like many in Europe. It feels instead culturally cutting edge, hot in the sense of both style and sex. It is magically modern in terms of legislation and culture. It is, in fact, the global hub of the western young adult universe. The rumors of dirty streets littered with trash and drug addicts proved to be completely unfounded as far as we could see. The automobile traffic is relatively light allowing even the air to be clean. We found Amsterdam to be in no way pretentious, which gives it an undercurrent of relaxed charm. The city’s newest promotion is an attractive one. It is a logo which says: “I amsterdam” with the “I am” in red and the balance in white. After our days here, I would agree, we all are.