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Monday, February 27, 2012

In Bruges

To celebrate my birthday, we went to one of my favorite places in the world:  Bruges. Town of canals, shell-shaped chocolates, step gables.
Even though it was February, Bruges drew a crowd. A word of warning to those visiting us in high season: plan your trip to Bruges for a non-weekend.

There was a great deal of art involved, plus considerable getting lost. Loved the Flemish Primitives at the Groeninge Museum. Why are they called Primitives? They seem very refined to me (except for certain paintings of flayings and Judgement Days). Liked the Brangwyns at the Arentshuis. Was very taken with a painting of a house carried off by angels in St. Salvatore Cathedral.

We did some shopping. As you can see, Phil found Beer Heaven and came home with six we'd never tried. Then we stopped for a cocktail at a cafe whose claim to fame was a visit by Marvin Gaye in 1982. They even had a "Marvin Gaye Menu." Though he just lunched there, apparently he ate seven courses. Mercy mercy me. 

We had dinner at a lovely traditional restaurant, and on the train ride home I found myself staring at a student who had a perfect Flemish Primitive face (minus the plucked hairline). Now I see them everywhere. A fabulous day, though sadly, no sign of Colin Farrell. I may be too old for him now...

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Amazing Race

Gent is the land of the bicycle. Everyone but us has one. The University area is especially rife with them -- you take your life into your hands stepping off the curb. The streets all have bike lanes. It isn't unusual to see a phalanx of 50 or 100 students, many half-asleep, the girls pedaling somehow in very short skirts and high heels, heading en masse from our part of town to one of the University's other campuses. How bicyclists manage on the cobblestones is beyond me, but I've never seen one go down.

Today we realized that biking is not just a way to get around but a sport here, even an obsession. For two days we'd been watching strange tents go up on St. Pietersplein, decorated with logos of local and national TV stations and newspapers. Something big was about to happen, we could tell.

Phil was hoping it would be the Gent version of the Palio race in Siena, where horses pound around the square, slipping on cobblestones and bashing their riders' brains out until one city ward or other is proclaimed the winner. But no: it was a bicycle race. An 120 kilometer international bicycle race! Called  the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, it's named after a newspaper that is now out of business.

We were going grocery shopping and stopped by just before the first riders crossed the finish line. The crowd wasn't very big; we chatted with a woman on the French team who wasn't riding because she was sick, and she told us
that this portion of the event was the women's race. Far more fans would turn out for the men's race. We sneered at the rampant sexism together and made a great deal of noise cheering the women as they sped into the square. The winner was Eleanora Van Dyck, a Dutchwoman. Later I learned that a Belgian won the men's race. So probably the cheering was louder.

And no, don't ask. I am not getting a bike.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Wall o' Beer

Just in case you were thinking that Phil wasn't completely nuts, here is the art that graces our apartment.

Yes, it is a Wall o' Beer. Well, a Wall o' Beer labels. Belgian beer labels. These are the ones we've consumed since we've been here. For those who haven't been subjected to it, the Professor also has a very large album of beer labels from other  visits to Belgium. (There is also a small but growing pile of cheese labels hidden in a basket in the dining area. I'm not supposed to know it's there.)

There is one label that isn't Belgian -- the La Trappe Quadrupel. Phil insists that it belongs on the Wall because it is made just over the border in the Netherlands, by the only Trappist monastery that is not in Belgium, in the Belgian style. (To set things straight, by the way, I was wrong when I wrote that a tripel is made with three times the usual amount of malt. Damn you, Wikipedia! A tripel is fermented three times. A dubbel is doubly fermented. A quadrupel, very rare indeed, is...yes, you got it.) Anyway, I don't feel the label should be up there, but it is Phil's Wall o' Beer, so I get no say. What do you think?

And should you believe that we are stumbling drunk all the time, you can count them. It works out to about one a day, which we split. Just enough alcohol to kill germs.

Sunday, February 19, 2012


Today is Dimanche Gras! What did you do to celebrate? It's a major  holiday in the Wallonian town of Binche, almost as big as Mardi Gras. And of course, in between, they celebrate Lundi Gras. So we jumped on the train and went to watch the festivities -- our third Dimanche Gras in Binche.

The Gilles

For those of you
who watch
Treme or have lived it (you know who you are), the traditions are almost as over-the-top as those in New Orleans. There are all-day parades. People drink nonstop. There's music, much costumery. Confetti. Fireworks. Throwing of oranges. And on Fat Tuesday, the Gilles come out. To be a Gilles, you must be a male born in Binche and a member of a Gilles family. On the Big Day, you wake long before dawn and are dressed by your wife or mother in a costume involving a giant headdress of ostrich feathers, shirt and pants stuffed with hay, wooden shoes, and a mask with a mustache and large green eyeglasses. This has the effect of making you look like a very flamboyant version of John Hodgeman from The Daily Show. At four a.m. you breakfast with the other several hundred Gilles on oysters and champagne. Then you spend the next twenty hours dancing in the streets in your wooden shoes and throwing oranges. We've never seen the Gilles (Phil does have to teach sometimes), but we did visit the Museum of Carnivale to learn about them.

We had a very late lunch in an upstairs restaurant, the better to watch the street festivities. We were seated at a long table with two charming couples from nearby Mons, who were kind enough to assist us with the menu when I became befuddled by "saucisse geante, sauce lapin." I'd gotten it right: giant sausage with rabbit sauce. They assured us that no rabbits are harmed in the preparation, but we chose steak frites.

More photos of the celebration below! Note the Smurfs. Did you know that Carnivale in Binche was proclaimed one of UNESCO's  Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity? Did you know there even was such a designation?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Some Enchanted Evening

Our friend Jo had 2 tickets to the Royal Ballet of Flanders, and we managed to score a third ticket and went with him last night to see Sleeping Beauty. Some of you may know that for more than a year I've been working on a book that uses the story of Sleeping Beauty as a springboard, so to be able to go to this particular ballet was really a joy (and totally tax-deductible!). I last saw it when Baryshnikov danced the prince, centuries ago, and this version held up beautifully.

We had fabulous seats in the fourth row -- well, Jo and I did; Phil was in the nosebleed section -- and the theater was recently restored to glory inside (forgive my crappy photo; no flash allowed). There was a slightly startling moment of silence that turned out not to memorialize a recent death but to acknowledge the departure of the director due to budget cuts (see last year's NYTimes article if interested, Royal Ballet Struggles).

The evil fairy Carabosse ruled the peformance. He was played by a cross-dressing male dancer who did astonishing things with huge lengths of black fabric that opened and closed scenes, entrapped characters, and functioned as wings, cloak, and disguise.

Afterward we went for drinks in the square near St. Bavo. It was a little mindblowing to walk up from the quiet, beautifully lighted center to the wilds of the university, where students spilled out of every bar and we had to dodge pools of vomit and piles of broken glass. They party HARD in Gent.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Rules to Live By

This will tell you something about the students at UGent, as the semester begins and Mardi Gras approaches. We too will try to abide by these guidelines.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Good (food) and Evil (in American literature)

How we HAVE been eating. Greek food at a lovely nearby restaurant (where some jolly patrons made copious fun of Phil for almost setting fire to his shirt). Pastries from every bakery we pass. Chocolates from Leonidas (declasse, according to some, but so good). A frite-o-licious dinner at a cafe on the Korenmarkt -- the main square -- with our friend Jo. As I write, in fact, Phil is preparing a meal that includes local delicacies endive and jambon d'Ardennes.

Luckily for our figures, we have also been walking. We seem to get lost every time we go out the door, which is partly because the streets curve gently, depositing us far from where we think we're going, and partly because I can't see the map without my reading glasses. So we've covered much of the area between the University and downtown several times in the last few days, now that the weather's warmed, dodging trolley cars and thousands of students on bicycles. Of course it rains much of the time, but we have fine new umbrellas.

Today was Phil's first lecture in his Evil in American Literature class for Masters students, and I went to hear it. Part was on the Puritan tradition and the concept of evil in American life (with nods to George W for reinstating it in the 21st century), and part was on Poe. Phil was brilliant and energetic, of course, and the students were transfixed, even though he didn't start talking about sex until 40 minutes in. A success in every way!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Out & About, Part II

This was rumored to be the last day before the Belgian monsoon hits, so we decided to do some more walking around, revisiting old haunts from our stay 20 years ago. The town was quiet; most shops are closed on Sunday, but cafes were open and filled with locals out for a drink or a long Sunday lunch. We went to the cathedral of St. Bavo and  spent a long time in front of the early 15th century Ghent Altarpiece, "The Adoration of the Lamb" by Jan and Hubert van Eyck. It's a glorious and complex work, with every detail a symbol or a historical or religious reference.

Stopped in a cafe on the Korenmarkt for cocoa (we're doing a comparison of hot chocolate in cafes throughout Gent, trying to choose the best, So far everyplace is winning). Phil was starving, so we had our first plate of fried cheese (aka fondu au fromage or kaaskroketten), a Belgian staple. Typically eaten with a spritz of lemon and sprinked with fried parsley, they're sort of like mozzarella sticks that died and went to heaven.

We kept walking, but soon realized that our extremities had grown numb and that an icy rain was beginning to fall. We were more than a mile from the apartment; by the time we reached it, we were sliding on the cobblestones and clutching each other for support. Home safe, in for the night -- or possibly several nights, if the ice storm keeps up!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Out & About in Gent

Klein Begijnhof
We did a little sightseeing today in the frigidness. Walked to the Small Beguinage, which was somewhat farther than it looked. Once a place where widows and spinsters who were not devout enough for the convent lived, it's now part convent, part regular housing. Very peaceful and lovely. And cold.

In the forest of Mytyl and Tyltyl
After that we hiked to St. Peters, where the city was holding a remarkable exhibition, organized around a series of theatrical tableaux, on Maurice Maeterlinck's mind-bending fairy tale "The Blue Bird." It was originally written as a play in 1908 and first put on by Stanislavski. There've also been a number of films based on it (including one with Shirley Temple and another starring Elizabeth Taylor) and an opera -- but the last picture book version was published in 1977. Hmm.... Anyway, it is one weird and creepy story, about siblings Mytyl and Tyltyl who travel, maybe in a dream, through strange forests, graveyards, and castles in search of a bluebird to give to a fairy's daughter who may or may not be dying. Along the way they meet their dead grandparents and learn the various types of joy, including the joy of running through a dewy field and the joy of motherhood. They find the bluebird at last, of course, in their own home. And yes, it is that bluebird -- the Bluebird of Happiness.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Fish on Friday

The supermarkets around here don't stock much fish, so on a whim this morning I typed "gent fish market" into my search engine. Imagine my happy surprise when I learned that Gent has a weekly Vrijdagmarkt, or Friday Market, which primarily sells fish! It takes place in the aptly named Vrijdagmarkt Square downtown, on the aptly chosen day Friday -- today. So we rushed out into the cold and walked down to the square. It's beautiful, paved with cobblestones and ringed with ornate step-gabled buildings. Today it was pretty much taken over by fish stands, featuring a lot of seafood we couldn't recognize either by name or appearance (snoekbaars, anyone? regenboogforel?). Some of it looked...well, a little frightening. There were also poultry counters (including quail and rabbit as well), pork and beef stands, and many booths selling clothing and other flea market-y items.

It wasn't easy to talk Phil out of buying eel, but I managed.

Fish for dinner tonight! And then The Descendants at the Decascoop theater.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Real World: Gent

We're both working! Phil's preparing his first class for next Wednesday (when the workmen let up enough to allow thought) and I'm rewriting/editing. The apartment has become very comfortable. We've acquired the world's oldest and largest television and matching DVD player at the local Kringwinkel. Kringwinkel. My new favorite word. It means "secondhand store," but it sounds like so much more.

We've had our first chocolates -- Neuhaus, which 20 years ago were considered the country's best, and may still be. I'm not sure how I feel about the trendy chocolates made with strange herbs and spices; I'm a traditionalist. A purist. The Neuhauses are utterly delicious: sweet, unctuous, so rich that one is very nearly enough.

We also had our first train-station waffle-stand waffle. From the Gent train station, so not as tasty as one from the Liege station, but still -- eaten warm while walking a mile home in 15-degree weather, pretty heavenly. For those who don't know, what we in the US call a Belgian waffle is a Brussels waffle, like the one shown here.

But what I think of as a Belgian waffle is a Liege waffle, or gaufre de Liege. It's not as pretty, but it's coated with a layer of sugar that gets carmelized as the waffle bakes in the iron. Sold from a stand, it's handed over in a paper wrapper and eaten, steaming, as quickly as you can scarf it down. Indescribably yum.

And yes, I'm aware you can buy both Neuhaus chocolates and Liege waffles in Manhattan. We've done it, in moments of desperation. But you will pay through the nose for both -- and they won't be quite as good.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

As I Like It

Just back from a whirlwind tour of the Ardennes, site of Shakepearean romps and devastating World War II battles. We visited the medieval towns of Durbuy and La Roche, the massive castle at Bouillon (where there is a chair you can sit in that will ensure marriage within six months), and the Cistercian abbey at Orval, where they make some of the world's best beer. We followed the Ourthe and Semois rivers as they meandered through deep forest.

The Reading Cow of Redu

We also ventured underground in the Grotte de Hoton, where we were given a tour by a charming multilingual cave gnome. Almost enough to make me like caves. Tried to visit Redu, the town of bookstores, but everything was closed.

Attacking the veal stew in Durbuy

The food was superb, though Phil was undone by his blanquette de veau and creme brulee (a bit much for a recovering food-poisoning victim).

Cemetery from the Battle of the Bulge
Returned laden with special beers of the region (including La Feodele de la Roche, named for a lovelorn maiden who flung herself from the castle in La Roche; her ghost still haunts the town) and the delicious jambon d'Ardennes, a supersalty ham.

Today we return the rental car, so our further adventures will be more...pedestrian.