Nov. 25th, 2008 08:25 pm
jacktellslies: (circusfolk)

In the middle of my trip to Brussels, I ran off to Bruges. It's a delightful little town, touristy to an astounding degree, but perhaps rightly so. It is a medieval place, the old buildings snug between the canals, faces made of stone grinning or grimacing in every alley.

One of the first things I did was climb the clock tower in the main square. The place was the old seat of government, and the doors to the town records were guarded by nine locks, and the nine town magistrates each guarded their own of the nine keys. Thus decisions could only be made, certain documents and riches could only be viewed, with the consent of all of them. After a great deal of climbing, I found massive bells, a nice view, and best of all by far, active clockwork. At set times a given gear set to spinning, seemingly far too quickly, in a sort of freefall. I stood there admiring the device for long enough that I got to watch several groups of tourists jump at the sudden noise, believing that they'd somehow broken something. After a time the spinning set off the chimes, like the mechanisms of a gigantic music box. And always there was the soft grind of gears, a gentle ticking away of time.

It was in Bruges that I found and left my favourite bar in all the world. It was an old place, built in the 1600s. The walls were dark wood, and the ceilings were white and crossed with ceiling-beams, black and thick. They played nothing but Mozart there. I was not the only patron alone and reading, although I was consistently the youngest. As in the rest of Belgium, beer was always served with something small to eat, some interesting crackers or a small plate of cheese, so you could drink what you liked without getting drunk. This was good, as the beer list was so long that, in order to be effectively navigated, it had to be organised by alphabetical order; there were many hundreds of choices. Faced with so many options, and a place that I liked so much, it seemed perfectly normal that on most days I began drinking around one o'clock in the afternoon, if not ever so slightly earlier. I'd spend my pleasantly lazy days in Bruges wandering about the town, finding the faces of the doors, watching the ducks in the canals, and returning to the bar from time to time to sit, and drink, and watch people, and read. It was exceptionally pleasant.
jacktellslies: (Default)

And, of course, in Brussels one can find some excellent examples of art nouveau. The home of the architect Victor Horta has been transformed into a museum, and is simply breathtaking. The photographs I have of the place were taken quickly and covertly, as photography was not actually permitted inside. What little I can show you is admittedly poorly executed, and some of the best rooms were, alas, the most closely watched by the guard. But I loved the place, really and truly. Every detail curved, so seductive it seemed to drip. It was done in fleshy pinks with lines of gold, or lurid greens, as if a reminder of the natural results of excess were provided to force hesitation, making your submission to temptation all the more grave, and thus more delicious still. I couldn't help but think it: if you lived here. If a woman were to watch you, waiting, from the stairs. It would be too much. Your heart would break. While in the upstairs bedroom I was overpowered by a scent, thick and musky, floral perhaps, but too rich to be natural. I thought it to be incense until I came upon a hidden hothouse, the heat and the close quarters forcing the garden to produce a perfume almost against nature.

The museum also provided a map to twelve of the other homes in the city built in that style, and I spent a pleasant afternoon wandering between them. They were decorated with owls, seasons, hours, the wrestling of dogs with white horses, improbable lines and glorious windows, and I never grew accustomed to it. Every one surprised me with just how much I loved it.
jacktellslies: (bear girl)
One of my hosts in Brussels was a family consisting of a Spanish mother, a German father, and a five year old boy and a seven year old girl. The children spoke both languages, and French, and boasted a modest vocabulary of a few essential phrases in Flemish and English. Upon my arrival they asked their mother about me. "What languages does he speak?" "English," she explained. "Only English? But. Why?" Too true, children. Too true. Later, after they'd put on a delightful puppet show about witches and the devil and a wolf and a princess, the young boy sat down next to me and spoke. His mother laughed. She explained: he said, "You should learn French."
jacktellslies: (geroges barbier mermaid)

Brussels is also famous for waffles, chocolate, and beer. I can't believe a human exists that wouldn't like a city famous for waffles, chocolate, and beer. In the name of cultural enrichment, I sampled all three every day that I was in Belgium. Should you go there, you might want to know ahead of time that the excellent chocolate, unfortunately, is usually primarily a result of the country's continued relationship with its former colony, the war-torn Congo. The varieties of beer available, however, are so numerous and so diverse that not enjoying beer is not a reasonable excuse. While I had the opportunity I thought it best to experiment primarily with exciting and previously unheard of varieties of Lambic. Kriek, which is available at every bar in Belgium, is made from cherries, although that isn't immediately apparent in the flavour. I also quite liked the apple and Gueuze.

The city was home to the best flea markets I've yet found. Fascinating things spilled out onto the flagstones: keys, mannequins, chairs, suitcases full of matchbooks, and masks. I bought a mask there. She smiled shyly and slyly when I found her, but now she grins like a prophetess.

While in town I visited the gardens of an Art Deco home. There I found a hedge maze and a tree that I climbed. I explored the museum of musical instruments, too.

There was an art nouveau bar that I liked a great deal. I spent my afternoons there reading and sipping sweet beer. It was located on a pretty square lined with chocolate shops and antique stores. There was a formal garden and a church at its head.
jacktellslies: (rasputin)
I've been told by several people that most visitors are disappointed by Brussels. I suppose I might be able to see why. The city is, for one, filthy. On my first day in Dublin, I noticed something distressing: the pigeons were clean. They were so clean that I was actually embarrassed for Philadelphia's pigeons. I know that my town has a reputation for being, among other things, a bit slovenly, but having spent most of my life there I'm afraid that I'm less blind to it than I am actually perversely proud of our efforts. Encountering pigeons that looked as if they had better taste in cufflinks than I do, however, provided a new standard by which to judge. Pigeons across Europe are cleaner than Philadelphian pigeons. The only exception I've yet found to this rule is Brussels. The entire city is covered in a thick layer of grime. Following a blizzard, my city becomes coated in a slushy dust, black and thick, that has always reminded me of what one might have found coughed into the sleeve of an eight year old chimney sweep in London in 1842. Brussels was crusted with the stuff in the warm part of September. Due to my intense pride in my own dirty city, however, rather than judging Brussels for its scuffs and stains, I found that I was all the more endeared to it.

The other reason to dislike Brussels is that the city's mascot is a tiny statue of a urinating child. This is meant to express something about the city's rebellious spirit, but actually demonstrates what most of us already know: that most tourists are willing to stand in a crowd to take bad photographs of an ugly fountain.

My feelings about the place, however, can be explained thusly. As soon as I crawled out of the Central Train Station and onto the Metro, before I even had time to worry about whether or not I'd be able to find my host's house with my extremely limited vocabulary in either of the city's two official languages, I found this:

Might I present Orchestre International du Vetex.

Not only did I get surprise Balkan music, but the accordion player was wearing a hat that made him look like a bear. I dare you to name something that could please me more than accordions and bear hats. Furthermore, the adorably self-conscious shuffling dances were often made even better when during one member's solo the other musicians would surround him or her, fall to one knee, and reach to them with one hand while placing their other hand longingly on their hearts. I bought their CD immediately, and you should too.

Apparently this sort of thing is quite typical of Brussels: the city is famous for fantastic public events that were only ever halfway planned, were never advertised, and cannot really be sought out, but are delightful things to stumble upon.


jacktellslies: (Default)

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