Archive for November, 2012

Belgium for Thanksgiving 2012, Part 1.

Friday, November 30th, 2012

I think I have lived in America too long. I consider myself an open-minded person, but after a week in Europe I realize that the puritanical values America is famous for have rubbed off on me in a big way. Let me tell you about my first 36 hours in Belgium. Remember a bunch of posts ago when I wrote about Tardar Sauce the Grumpy Cat? While walking around the streets of Belgium, I made a specific Grumpy-Cat face every time I was confronted with a big chunk of political incorrectness, which I will place here periodically for emphasis.

I arrived in Belgium at 9:00 a.m., and as soon as The Moomins and I got off the plane we headed to the major train station so we could go to a city called Tongeren. We went because it’s the oldest city in Belgium, but more importantly it has an enormous antiques market on Sunday. The train station we had to transfer in was beautifully-designed and airy:

While we were there we grabbed some late-ish breakfast (fantastic, the food in Belgium is fantastic, more on that later) where I saw a man have a glass of red wine with his meal. At 10:00. I saw a lot of that. I think they are not as miffed by drinking as we are here. I decided that everyone there would be classified in America as a “functioning alcoholic”. So, so very much beer consumption. Holy crap-badgers.

Moving on. We arrived in Tongeren eventually where I fell asleep for the next fourteen hours. I hadn’t really slept in going on four days and I thought I was going to die. Also, I wanted to be rested for the antiques market the next day. At 7:00 a.m., we woke up and toddled off to look around the city center and the various large open spaces where people had set up booths. At this time I was introduced to Swartepiet.

Brace yourselves.

They don’t have Santa Claus the way we have him. If you have been good, Saint Nick the Bishop comes to your house and gives you gifts. However, if you’ve been bad, a black man names Zwartepiet (Black Peter) comes to your house and whips you. Imagine what it must have been like in, say, the 1910s and 1920s. You’re a black man from the Belgian Congo and you come to Belgium, but everywhere you go children who have never seen a black man freak out and scream as you approach. Sounds delightful, no? Apparently, since travel is so prevalent now and there are black people over here and white people over there and everyone’s mixed together, Zwartepiet’s role has been changed to Saint Nick’s helper. Okay, better. BUT, whenever he is performed by a living breathing human, it is always a white person in blackface. ALWAYS. And it’s EVERYWHERE.

I was APPALLED. I wanted to walk up to everybody and say, “Ummm, you know you’re not allowed to do that?” And there was no escaping it. I kept waiting for Al Jolson to come out singing about Mammy, it was so offensive.

During my unavoidable tour of racist imagery, I was walking in and out of booths people had set up on the street. I ended up buying some art nouveau stuff, it was great. And then there were two or three booths selling… Nazi memorabilia.

Tongeren is on the border with Germany, so it’s pretty easy to come by that stuff. It’s just weird to me to see passports and books and medals and helmets with swastikas and scary black eagles on them all out in the open. There was a second-edition copy of Mein Kampf sitting out there, so I thumbed through it. And I was saddened, but not for the reason you’d think. I realized the entire book, every last word, is written in the Olde Englishe typeface. Who can read that? I found a sample page to show you how difficult it is to read (by the way, I recommend not typing in “Mein Kampf” into Google and hitting images – not good):

How obnoxious would it be if, because I am white, I wrote my whole blog like this?

Or even worst, because I’m an Eastern-European Jew, how about this?

Horrible. I quickly shimmied away from the creepy Nazi stuff and had an amazing lunch and then we went to visit the big church in the middle of town. Cricket asked me later in the week how many museums I had gone to and I said, “None.” He was puzzled and asked what I was doing. I said, “Going to churches.” He said, “Why?” and I said, “Because that’s where they keep the art here.” I went to about seven churches/cathedrals in six days. Here’s the Tongeren church.

We got to the church around 12:30 where… the local nuns were hosting a cocktail party in the aisles. At 12:30 on a Sunday.

I turned to The Moomins and said quietly, “Is everyone in the village getting drunk on nun wine in the middle of the day? Aren’t they supposed to be praying or something?” Call me old-fashioned, but I think Brides of Christ should be tending to the poor or teaching children to read, not getting tipsy and jocular at noon in a House of God, in front of a giant wooden sculpture of Jesus on the cross bleeding.

I took a bunch more pictures of the church (very lovely) and The Moomins and I wandered around the city looking at old ruins. It used to be a Roman garrison and there are still bits of wall left over from when there were Gauls and Huns, marauding hordes, all that good stuff.

Speaking of Huns, in one of their squares they have a giant statue of a Hun and he looks exactly like Thor, with the winged helmet and an axe instead of a hammer. The base had boar’s heads and spears all around, it was terrific.

In another square, however, there was another statue and I could not believe my eyes when I saw it. Could not. It was, and I’m not making any of this up, a fountain slash bronze sculpture of three whores, two of whom are arguing and one who is WASHING HER NO-NO PLACE AND YOU CAN SEE HER LABIA OH MY GOD WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE.

Are there no rules in your country? Is everyone just perpetually drunk and in blackface, proudly displaying their Third Reich trinkets while doing genital ablutions in the town square??? Seriously, Europe, get it together.

Not to imply that Tongeren wasn’t lovely. It was. For example, outside the church was a small metal model of the church with braille so blind people could figure out the layout. That is super-thoughtful.

And the local pastry shop was exquisite. The Moomins and I stood in front of the window and almost wept at the beauty of the baked goods.

And everyone was really nice at the antiques market. Really gracious and pleasant. So please don’t get the wrong idea. As I said at the beginning, I think I have become extremely politically correct against my best intentions, so when I encounter things like this, it throws me a bit.

Coming up next: Brussels and some Antwerp.

And I’m back.

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

Belgium for Thanksgiving with The Moomins was wonderful. We walked a lot, ate a lot, and looked at a lot of art and architecture. I am at present sorting through 1,071 photos to pick out the bestest. It’s a saga. Several people asked me why I chose to go to Belgium, and there were a few reasons, like THIS*:


Or how about THIS and THIS:

Long story short, get ready for some pictures of buildings. Many, many pictures of buildings.

*It helps if you imagine me wisking away a cape like a magician when I say “THIS”.

Head’s up.

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

I am going to be in Belgium from November 16th to November 24th because the hell with Thanksgiving. I will be in Belgium eating mussels and frites and not even remotely thinking about how pilgrims gave smallpox to Native Americans. It’s going to be super-swell. Except that I found out today that it’s been raining in Brussels since… January. Really. That’s what the nice lady who lives there that The Moomins spoke to. “It’s been raining here since January.” I’m bringing a million pairs of socks because they’re going to get soaked every fifteen minutes. Maybe if the gods love me I will get to see the goose parade.

Fun bits.

Friday, November 9th, 2012

1. Alcoholic spirits are called that because when they distill them, the alcohol (“spirit”) is separated from the fermented base (“body”). When you drink liquor, you are drinking the ghost of potatoes or wheat or corn. Incidentally, “Potato Ghost” would be a cool name for a vodka. Thank you, Modern Marvels.

2. I went to go vote in my district for the first time even though I have lived in White Plains for six years. The last time I voted in my old district. I found out I needed to go to a church down the street from from my apartment. Lovely church. Built in 1923. Everything was going great until I saw their sign.

Does everyone see that?

What’s… what’s with the itty-bitty “h”?! There’s a full-size “h” four letters before! I’m really glad I don’t see that every day because that would really chap my rump. Stupid tiny “h”.

3. It’s really great that I am not a thin fashionable woman because I would spend all my monies on clothes. For example, these sequined pants. Sequins in cool stripes on a nude background. They are SHNAZZY. If I wore them I would feel like I had the backdrop to “Solid Gold” wrapped around my legs.

The Epic Trek.

Friday, November 2nd, 2012

Oh hey everyone, did y’all notice that storm that blew through here? Sandy, I think they called it? Wasn’t that just a blasty-blast? I am considering moving to the Australian outback and living in a hole in the ground where it is nice and dry and never rains. They do that in the Outback, you know. When I was in high school I saw “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and there’s a mining town where it’s really warm and people pop up like moles at night from their cool subterranean dwellings to drink beer and loiter. I bet they don’t wake up in the morning to branches everywhere and bleeping disconnected phones and news footage of an entire roller coaster sitting in the ocean.

So here’s my saga: I was sitting in bed eating (because what else are you going to do right after a hurricane that is also a tornado/flash flood/biblical plague?) on Tuesday evening when I got a text from my boss. “How R U”, it said. I, unwisely, said I was fine and I had electricity and internet and phones. He said, “Please contact M. and find out if you can help on this pitch” so I texted my co-worker M. and D. got involved and then all of a sudden C. and B. were contacting me asking me if I could help with this pitch, but I didn’t have a laptop so all my files and fonts were at work. We all agreed that it was a dick move that the potential client wouldn’t change their meeting from Friday to a later date because, you know, the East Coast is so very damp right now, but they wouldn’t and people were flipping out. It became abundantly clear that I needed to go into work on Wednesday, where we had electricity and phones but no internet. There were no trains, no subways, tree branches everywhere, wires down, bridges closed, etc. I called my co-worker Nessa who lives in Queens and asked if I could stay with her, and then I called my dad and had him drive me to Queens. Nessa was thoroughly delightful and showed rom-coms to me. I saw “How To Lose A Man In 10 Days” and I’m ashamed to say that I liked it. Who knew Kate Hudson was funny? Anyway, I asked how we would get into the city and she said, “Oh, we can walk over the Queensboro Bridge. It’ll only take 45 minutes.” I found out later that this was a LIE.

We woke up at 10:00 a.m. Wednesday and started walking with the rest of Astoria and Long Island City. It looked like a mass exodus from an abandoned nuclear wasteland to the one town with a functioning Wal-Mart that has three cans of beans still untainted by radiation.

We walked and walked and finally got to the Queenboro Bridge which was awash with a-hole bicyclists. Yes, I understand that you cycle to work every day, Mr. Bike-Man, but there’s a ton more people on your bike path today, so you think you could stop fring-fringing and yelling at everyone and just walk your bike across the bridge like a civilized member of society? Maybe?

At one point an ancient crusty man who looked like a sailor from a crab boat hollered in Nessa’s ear, “ON YOUR RRRRRIGHT!!!” in a thick Scottish accent and Nessa just snapped. “I WILL PUSH YOU OFF YOUR BIKE, SIR.” Once we got to the Manhattan side and sauntered down Park Avenue we saw a Rottweiler dressed as a skunk (it was Halloween, remember) take a giant mushy dump in front of an apartment building and the owner, a tall slim blonde woman on her phone, made absolutely no attempt to pick it up which caused the doorman in front of the building to chastise her and she ignored him because poop-scooping was beneath her, the entitled snotbag. The whole interaction reminded me how much I hate everyone (except for the skunk-weiler, he seemed to be free of fault). Finally, after walking for 5.3 miles, we got to work and about twenty minutes after I got there I got a phone call that the meeting had been postponed for two weeks. All this for nothing. I grumpily pottered around on my computer organizing files and whatnot, and about three hours later Nessa and I decided, ah, the hell with it, let’s go home. Maybe we can get on a bus. And then we saw the lines for the buses.

Yeah, no bus for us. Since the sun was getting low in the sky and it was chilly and windy, and because I figured I would be walking for another hour-and-a-half, I put on my extremely warm and extremely stupid-looking American Eagle bonnet with knitted horns on it that I kept at my office to startle interns.

As Nessa and I were trudging over to the East Side we tried to cab it for a little while, but that didn’t go too great. Our driver tried to rip us off twice and we were getting car-sick from the stop and go and stop and go and rinse and repeat. So we walked onward. And encountered The Barrier.

I think it’s there to keep bicyclists and walkers from wandering right out into the street. We had a choice: we could walk aaaaaaaaall the way down the block, around The Barrier and aaaaaaaaaall the way back, or we could just climb over this thing like everyone else. I was all for the walking option, but Nessa is sporty and had no problem hopping over this. So I decided to make a go of it. And a horrible-looking go it was. I am many things, but athletic is not one of them. I get winded taking the elevator. In between laughing at me, Nessa took pictures.

Nessa promised that we could have these really good milkshakes at a local joint as soon as we got to Astoria. I felt bad for that bartender. We dragged our sorry tired selves into this nice establishment and the bartender asked us what we want, assuming that we were adults and would want adult beverages. Nope. Milkshakes. Strawberry for me, Salted Caramel for Nessa. Make ’em snappy. Did I mention that at this point I’m still wearing my Hagrid-Hat and Nessa is wearing cat ears and a sombrero on her backpack for no reason whatsoever? And we’re drinking milkshakes at a bar? We are very cool. And I didn’t even feel guilty about this tasty treat since I had walked over ten miles that day. Woo, my thighs were tight for the rest of the evening. Every time I got up off the couch to go to the bathroom, I creaked like a haunted attic.

The next day some of the subways were running, so we took the subway in and sang a big chunk of the time. Harmonizing stuff. I considered putting out my hat to collect change. When we got to work we had email and internet so work actually got done and Metro-North was partially running, so I thanked Nessa for putting me up for two days (thank you, Nessa) and walked to Grand Central to catch a train back to White Plains. It’s still electricity-starved in New York. On 37th and 6th, when I looked left I saw this:

But when I looked right, I saw THIS:

Dark. Dark and terrifying.

Anyway, for me it’s all over now, everything’s back to normal-ish and I feel extremely lucky to have had no permanent damage to myself and my possessions and my loved ones. I got off easy on this one.

Two unrelated photos: Astoria is predominantly Greek? Don’t believe me? This picture really captures the Greekiness, I think.

And while sitting on the couch in the evenings I got to pet Gizzy, my second favorite cat in the whole world. She’s extremely fine-boned but she has a big udder hangin’ from her midsection, so she looks like an elongated beanbag. She’s a love-monster and she lets me pick her up and rub on her udder. Great cat.