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Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Perpetual Flux and the Immovable Stability

After my words about Marrakech, readers have accused me of having lived too much in the first world. I admit it's true. Except for a trip to Costa Rica (where we were very comfortable, because it was the off-season), I've traveled entirely in Europe, the Caribbean, and North America. So...welcome, Diane, to the rest of the world.

We were doing better by dinnertime last night. We ate at a tourist place, but it had its unusual touches. It was a 17th century palace, and the location for a scene from Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much.

It also had a sort of belly dancer, Xtreme version.

Today we stayed away from the souks. It was easier to find our way. Our reflexes were better; there were fewer near misses with motorbikes. We were forced into only one unintended tour, and we only overpaid a little for it.

We started out at the Saadian Tombs, from the 16th century. They include three ornate, enormous mausoleums containing marbled tombs of  Ahmed el Mansour and his family and descendents.

Then we took a taxi to the Majorelle Gardens and Berber Museum. The gardens were exquisite. They're known for two things: the blue color with which much of the plasterwork and tile is painted, and the fact that the house and garden were owned for a while by Yves Saint Laurent.

After that, we went to the Dar Si Said Museum, in a 19th century palace. The sultan who lived there had four wives and eight concubines. When troupes of dancing men performed for the sultan, the women watched through screens upstairs, looking down and across into mirrors that reflected the dancers so they didn't look directly at the men.  

Then we were hijacked by a tour guide, who took us around to a dozen or more workshops -- huts, really, where men crafted metal, glass, and wood into gorgeous lamps and tables.

Our final stop with him was the government pharmacy, which made and sold herbal cures for anything that might ail you. Phil was quite intrigued by the mandrake root, offered as a cure for baldness. But I pointed out that it was both poisonous and hallucinogenic, so we decided against it.

After delicious tagines,we walked over to admire the Koutoubia mosque in the moonlight, finishing off with ice creams on the Jemaa el-Fna square while watching the nightly parade of crazy.

Tomorrow Phil gets to drive. We may find ourselves longing for the alleyways full of Vespas again.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Dark, Fierce, and Fanatical*

We've been in Marrakech just over a day. I don't even have adjectives to describe it. Here's the best I can do.

Unbelievably loud.

La Madersa Ben-Youssef




Le Musee de Marrakech


We've been lost almost without ceasing since getting here. The souks are fascinating labyrinths. Every time we stop to look at something, the sellers descend en masse. We have purchased many items, some of which we never intended to. We are very, very bad at bargaining and very, very bad at saying no.

Because of our badness at these things, we ended up touring the tanneries, where leathers are made from camel, goat, and sheep skin. They were fascinating, grotesque, and extremely smelly. We were given clumps of mint to use "as gas masks," as our guide told us. They didn't work that well.

We visited a historic madrassa, pictured above, and the Marrakech museum, also above, located in a 19th century palace. The contrast between the impossibly hot, Vespa-riddled, loud streets and the quiet, calm interiors is bewildering.

In fact, bewildered is how Marrakech makes me feel. I've never had this reaction to anyplace I've visited before. But then again, I've never experienced hand-rape by a henna tattoo artist before either.

*from Edith Wharton's In Morocco

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Fleshly School

While my child bride packed for our trip to Morocco, I took the Youthful One to Antwerp. We began at the spacious and cleverly designed zoo, next to the train station. We were amused by some of the signs that urge children to ask parents potentially awkward questions about anatomy.

After a delightful sojourn among the mammals, reptiles, and many birds, we met my old friend Bart at Rubens House, the 17th-century mansion that he helped to design and where the great painter lived during his most prolific years. The furnished rooms displayed many of his canvases. We observed that Rubens penchant for fleshy females and muscle-bound males seems to have developed immediately after his visit to Italy where he was smiten with Michelangelo's heroic depictions of naked human forms. Ironically, Rubens self-portrait presents a slender, elegantly dressed man with a narrow, shapely nose. After a few refreshing glasses of the local favorite, De Koninck, Bart took us to the city's glorious Gothic cathedral, where a Pentecost mass was going, and to the waterfront, where an underground tunnel takes pedestrians to the other bank of the Scheldt.

All of this sightseeing was in preparation for the day's most stunning revelation: Bart's apartment, a minimalist masterpiece in black and white, full of geometrical nooks and featuring a two-story high spiral staircase and a baby grand piano. The Youth was overcome by a paroxysm of admiration and we had to pry him off a wall when we left for dinner at an Italian restaurant in the neighorhood.

Dashing for the train, we arrived back in Ghent just in time for a muscial performance by another Belgian friend, Michel Delville from Liege, whose band "The Wrong Object" delivered a fascinating fusion of progresssive jazz and rock at a cafe in the medieval quarter of Ghent.

Today's cultural immersion took us to the Ghent museum of art, where Lad got his fill of Bosch, Breughel, and more Rubens (of course). As he observed on leaving, "I can tolerate exposure to a great deal of glistening female flesh."

Saturday, May 26, 2012

There and Back Again

We're back in Gent for a brief stint before leaving for Morocco on Monday. And Ben has arrived!

London was grand -- cold and gray, as it should be (and as Gent has been up until two days ago), and full of friends and fun. We spent Monday, before our train, visiting Sue's place of work, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. It's a real treat going through exhibits with her. She's a museum curator, so any question you ask will have an informed and fascinating answer. We looked at displays of pharmacy/apothecary objects through the ages (and learned the difference between pharmacists and apothecaries. But you have to look it up). Phil was most intrigued by a display of badger testicles, which apparently were used to cure baldness. In fact, there were many, many cures for baldness in the exhibit. Phil found it quite disturbing that in an era when bubonic plague was rampant, baldness was considered a disease.

Sue pointed out only one error in my latest novel, which has several apothecary scenes. There may have been many more mistakes, but she was kind enough to stick to one. And she excused it by pointing out that it's fantasy, after all, so glass jars could well have been used in my make-believe apothecary shop. Oops. Corrections will be made in the 2nd edition, should there be one.

We also had a delicious and fiery Chinese meal to fuel us for the Eurostar back. It included a hot and sour soup that made us all very red in the face, and ended with some peculiar objects that looked like mints, set on a little platform atop a steaming moat of water. We tried to eat them.

Turned out you were supposed to drop them in the hot water, where they unwound like those little fireworks snakes and became warm cloths to wipe off dirty hands and hot-and-sour-soup sweat. Oops.

On Thursday Phil gave his last lecture, and we celebrated with -- what else? -- beer. On a boat. It floats on what we've thought for 20 years was the canal outside our window but turns out to be the River Scheldt. Oops. I, of course, peeled off the beer labels with my fingernails while the waitress wasn't looking.

Yesterday when Ben had recovered a little from his journey, we went out to find the Augustijn monastery in Gent, where once was brewed one of the finest of Belgian beers (now made by a conglomerate that uses the monks' recipe). We got quite lost. When we found it, we convinced a tiny, ancient monk to take us through the place. He gave us a personal tour, using a mix of his Dutch, his mediocre French, his nonexistent English, my mediocre French, and my Dutch (you can get pretty far with "please" in Dutch, it turns out). It's a beautiful place, founded in the 12th century but rebuilt in the 18th after a fire.

Tonight we're going to a local nightclub, Trefpunt, to hear our friend Michel Delville perform with his band, The Wrong Object. Apparently they play a mix of progressive jazz and Frank Zappa. I am trying to get my head around that.

And then we're off to a new continent entirely, where I'm sure we'll spend a good deal of time lost and confused. Just to cover us, I say in advance: Oops.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A Whole Bunch of Beauty -- Some Truth Too

And here we are in England. It's amazing -- you hop on a train from Brussels, and in the same amount of time it would take to get from Wassaic to Grand Central, you're in London. We don't have trains that fast in America.

We're visiting Klauser & Sue. Haven't been here in ages --  9 years for Phil and 14 for me. Their apartment is somewhat nicer than Home Heymans. It has beautifully painted plasterwork and tons of lovely art, including a seventeenth century portrait of an actual ancestor. We barely HAVE a seventeenth century in America. And our dear friends have insisted that we stay in their bedroom on their very comfy bed. (This is the same couple whom we forced to sleep on air mattresses on our living room floor. You may draw your own conclusions about the comparative generosity of British and American hosts.) On arrival we were fed a lovely dish concocted by Sue called Autumn Hotpot, in honor of the freezing weather.

Yesterday we went to the British Library so Phil could look at Joyce manuscripts and we could see the exhibit "Writing Britain." Dozens and dozens of examples of literary treatments of nature and industry, often in manuscript form or first edition, by a thousand years' worth of British writers. We don't have a thousand years of literature in America. Some of my favorite children's writers were included -- Alan Garner, Susan Cooper. There were notebooks with first versions of Alice in Wonderland and Jane Eyre. Lines crossed out by Wordsworth and galleys marked up by D.H. Lawrence. We were pretty much in book heaven.

Next, a very pleasing stop for tea in the magnificent St. Pancras hotel.

We went on to Westminster, to tour Parliament. I was trying to get a sense of what the area would have looked like in the fifteenth century for a book I'm working on.The Westminster Palace of that time burned down almost completely in the 1800s, but there were a few pieces left. The main hall, for example, pictured.

 Our tour guide walked us through the Houses of Parliament -- the Westminster Palace of today -- and taught us about the British political system. Her explanation, given in the tones of a rather strict nanny, was on about a fifth-grade level. We were quite well behaved and remembered all we were told, as we didn't want our knuckles rapped.

Afterward, we dashed across the street to Westminster Abbey. Though it was closed, we somehow managed to sneak into the cloister and then into the Chapter House, which none of us had ever seen. (I think it was a delayed reaction to the nanny guide that made us slip past the "Closed" sign. Naughty, naughty!) The Chapter House held magnificent tiles and wall paintings, and the Oldest Door in England, dated about 1050. We definitely do not have doors from 1050 in America.

Our double-decker bus tour guide
We came back by double-decker bus, because we ARE tourists after all. Saw a gentleman playing a tuba that shot out flames when he blew into it. We don't have flaming tubas in America. Or in Belgium for that matter.

Today we hiked on Hampstead Heath, shivering slightly and admiring the many dogs and waterfowl.

A spinnet. Or a virginal. Or maybe a clavichord.
 We visited Fenton House, a homey 17th century manse with a stunning collection of musical instruments. I now know the differences among a clavichord, a harpsichord, a piano, a spinnet, and a virginal.

The English gardens were as manicured as the Heath was open and wild.

A stop at a pub was restorative. Phil ate a scotch egg. We don't have those in America, which is a good thing. It was disgusting. He enjoyed it very much.

Keats' death mask
Then on to John Keats' house, newly restored and reopened. Phil wandered about reciting, but quietly, so we weren't kicked out.

Tonight, Klauser is cooking lamb, and I am making pine-nut and honey tart. Our hosts have an oven! We do not have that in Belgium.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Honorary Belgians

We've achieved a milestone. According to our friends Kries and Annie, we have become honorary Belgians.

It's not because of the Wall o' Beer, though I'm sure that helps.

It's not because of our successful pilgrimage to Westvleteren.

It has nothing to do with the fact that I can now say "please" in Flemish.

It's because we've eaten eel. Paling, to be Flemish about it.

I know they're endangered. It's the fault of the Spanish, we're told -- their love of little tiny baby eels (anguilas) has left the few remaining adults eels to the rest of the world. As I discovered with the foie gras, though, guilt adds a certain spice to food.

Kries and Annie took us to a marvelous place, Restaurant Siphon, in Damme. It's known for its preparation of eel, a Flemish specialty. I've sampled eel before, as part of Phil's renowned Feast of the Nine Fishes on Christmas Eve. It was kind of disgusting, but I ate it. And I was determined to eat it again, this time prepared the Belgian way.

The restaurant was beautiful, located amid dairy farms deep in the West Flemish countryside. We started with an appetizer of white asparagus a la Flamande, made with a pound of butter and hard boiled egg -- delicious. Then on to the main attraction. I had eel in cream sauce; Phil had it in green sauce, made with 13 herbs. The owner and his son came by twice to be sure we could handle it. And you know what?

It was very tasty indeed. Tender, succulent, not slimy at all.

So now we've done it. We've plunged deeply into the culture...and we have no regrets.

Monday, May 14, 2012

A Tale in Three Parts

Part I: The Grail Achieved

At last! The months of effort have been rewarded. With the generosity of our friend Jo and a great deal of luck, we have not only tasted the coveted Westvleteren 12, we have purchased some.

But how? you ask, eyes wide and mouth agape. You could not raise the monks by telephone. How have you managed such a feat?

Grotto at Westvleteren
Here's the tale: We spent Sunday night at Jo's seaside place, and on Monday he drove us to the Abbey of St. Sixtus, where we knew the attached cafe would sell us a glassful of the 12 (there is also a blond and an 8). There was quite a crowd, some who'd gotten through to the monks on the phone and had come to pick up their beer (many driving Porsches and Mercedeses) and some visiting because the abbey also has a grotto fashioned after the grotto in Lourdes, where people go to be healed. In fact, a large contingent in wheelchairs came in to have lunch, drink beers, and get healed while we were there. Anyway, we ordered lunch and three 12s.

The beer came. We drank.

Indeed, dear reader, it was ambrosial. We agreed that even taking into account the absurd amount of hype, the Westvleteren 12 is a truly special beer. Very possibly the best in the world, though we have a few more to try before we can make that judgment.

Our waitress told us that occasionally they sell a few bottles in the gift shop, but there were no extras today. This made Phil a little sad. So I coralled a waiter and asked him if maybe, possibly, there was a bottle lurking somewhere that he could sell us, as we had come from America to taste the beer. "Ah," he replied, "look! They are selling a few right now. If you hurry you can get some." And it was true! A line of people had suddenly materialized at the gift shop (how did they know?) and they were selling a very limited number of gift packs of 4 beers, including one 12, and a glass for an outrageous price. So we bought two gift packs.

And, borne by hands unseen, they all beheld
A chalice with a light veil over it --
The Holy Grale glide through the lighted hall

Part II: By the Beautiful Sea

Before this miracle, we spent a glorious day at the seaside, where we hiked (8 miles total!) on the beach and were lucky enough to see a local oddity, the horse fishermen of Oostduinkerke. They trawl for shrimp in the waves on their massive Belgian draft horses. Very peculiar and wonderful.

Jo cooked for us and the next day drove us all over West Flanders. We visited the beautiful town of Veurne, made our miraculous stop at Westvleteren, and then headed for Diksmuide.

Part III: In Flanders Fields

This strange-looking tower in Diksmuide has an equally strange history. It is part World War I history museum, part peace park, and part commemoration of the rise of Flemish nationalism. Flanders, as you no doubt know, was the site of terrible battles in World War I. At that time the country was run politically by the French-speaking Walloons, and the Flemish were often treated as second-class citizens. When the king asked the Flemish to fight in the war, he promised them equality at war's end -- but he did not keep his promise.

View from Yser Tower 
As a result, a powerful movement grew up, immortalized in the abbreviation on the tower: AVVVK, "All for Flanders, Flanders for Christ." This abbreviation was carved in the headstones of the Flemish soldiers who fell during the war. The first tower was blown up in 1946 -- some say by Walloon nationalists -- but was soon rebuilt.

World War I trench
 The museum inside the tower chronicles the horrors of the war in Flanders in a way that makes the devastation it inflicted all too clear. It's something that we in the US rarely think about.

As you can imagine, we are still reeling from our visit to West Flanders. A beery miracle, shrimp-fishing horses, World War I -- it's a lot to take in. We will mull it over while consuming our Westvletern.

"Fair sirs, great marvels have we seen to-day,
The Holy Grale we happy men have seen,
Which some deemed lost for ever to this earth."