Monday, June 27, 2011

Brussels is the Pis

I loved Brussels. Beautiful place, small, friendly, very walkable.

One of the first things we noticed was the street art everywhere. Many works would take up an entire wall, stretching from the ground to the top of the building.

Others were simply awesome.

Then there were the sculptures, which were odd and occasionally inexplicable:

(Giant purple rabbit? What? Our best guess was that it was for Easter. The Coke thing just added to the absurdity of the scene.)

Of course we headed immediately for the Grand Place, which is supposed to be one of the most beautiful contained public squares in Europe. Well, many things claim to be "the most" whatever, but this place was pretty incredible:

There's a huge outdoor flower market that happens here in the spring, but sadly, we weren't there for that.

Then we wandered around, looking for the Mannekin Pis, which is a statue of a little boy peeing that is, for some reason, super famous and the symbol of Brussels. He even gets costumes for holidays. When we found it, my first thought was that it was smaller than I'd expected (no pun intended):

By the way, I thought that there should definitely be a t-shirt with this little guy on them and the words "Brussels is the Pis" (hence the title of the post), but there were none to be found. Tragic.

As we wandered, we were certain to take note of the examples of famous Belgian fare.




Did you know that Brussels is the capital of the European Union? Yeah, we didn't either. But we learned that, and a lot more, at a nifty little park called Mini-Europe. This place was way, way cool. It had miniature models, done to scale and in amazingly exacting detail, of some of the most famous places in the European Union. Some of the highlights:

The Leaning Tower of Pisa:

The Arc de Triomphe:


The Chunnel:


Serious Face:

Parliament and Big Ben:

Windmills Good:

Oil Rigs Bad:

The Eiffel Tower:

Grand Place:

The Atomium, a giant model of an iron atom:


Warrior Rachel:


It was like we saw the whole European Union in a few hours!

That's all for Brussels -- up next, Amsterdam!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

When being a tourist sucks

Something that I wrote in Rome. Parts of it might not make much sense... This was at a point when cities were really starting to get to us, so I was feeling a bit negative:

My ears gradually fill with pressure until a minute jaw adjustment, a clenching, releases the buildup in a satisfying pop. Then we are above ground, in the sunlight, surrounded by green. A foreign language spoken into both ears. It is animated, as if spoken by actors in a perpetual play of life. It is the language spoken in the stereotypical Hollywood films. The Mafia, spaghetti, pizza, sometimes poor immigrants, exaggerated hand gestures. Almost none of it is true, although the food is truly delicious.

Where do you sit in a city with no parks? The weather is hot, balmy in the evenings, and your body longs to remain outside as long as possible, to feel free and full of potential. But where do you sit?

How do you live in a city where walking is more hazardous than driving? Burning fossil fuels is perpetuated by a lack of pedestrian infrastructure. Especially in a city so small, what a disgrace. A disgrace to match that of the Catholic Church which presides over the streets.

I leave this place through fields of green. Maybe this is where the real world is. Few people take pictures because "What is there to see?" But what is there to see in an ostentatious display of corruption, wealth, power, murder, and intolerance? What can you see over the sea of crowds that engulf you into its mass of ignorant tourists? Does anybody even know what they are seeing? Can we even learn when a solid block of bodies obstructs the way to the information placard, or worse, pushes us back and back and back until we give up from exhaustion? Does anybody even care to learn?

Traveling has become a play in a foreign language where you have the obstructed view seats. You try to peer around the columns, try to understand something about what unfolds or has unfolded before you, but you are forced, in the end, to sit back while flashes go off around you. Once in a while, you pull out your camera and reach to snap a shot because there must be something interesting out there if everyone else is taking pictures. Right?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

The ducks in Amsterdam know what's up.

We were sitting on the edge of a canal and saw a duck, a coot actually.

She was dragging something that we identified as a plastic cup, the type typically used in beer pong. Because the cup kept filling up with water and becoming too heavy, she repeatedly dropped it and readjusted her beak grip. On the other side of the canal, there was a half-sunken boat covered by a tarp towards which this coot appeared to be heading. Our curiosity piqued, we crossed a bridge to investigate.

This is what we discovered

Do you see her in her nest? What a collection! Turns out she has been working for the the city of Amsterdam public works, cleaning up the canals. And she is not the only one. Other coots around the city built similar nests. In a more residential district, they used mostly twigs and organic materials but still managed to round up some reusable inorganic items (the white stuff). The babies were already up and cheeping.

Compare these nests to one coot's nest in Interlaken

All sticks. This is a testament to Interlaken's pristine subalpine environment. Not even enough plastic floating in the waters for a coot's nest.

I have mixed feelings about this discovery in Amsterdam. On one hand, I am saddened and appalled that we have created a world where it is easier for birds to find non-biodegradable material than twigs, leaves, and grasses. Another example of humans' careless overuse and disposal of human-made items in combination with our destruction of natural habitat. On the other hand, I was awed by the birds' resourcefulness. I am certainly not advocating that humans should not take responsibility for our "waste", but I am delighted that other creatures can put at least some of it to use. As long as they are not trying to eat it or feed it to their chicks... A likely possibility.

We are all doomed.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Europe sure is full of big old stuff.

Okay. So.

I know we promised you all this big beautiful blog full of amazing stories and pictures and wonderfulness, and then I led you on with that post about London, but...

Internet access is seriously difficult here. As in, either impossible or prohibitively expensive (we're on a budget here!) and good posts are quite time consuming even without considering the frustration that comes with a rearranged keyboard (oh QWERTY, I will never take you for granted again).

Now, this isn't to say that I'm giving up, or that you won't get the action-packed blog I'm sure you were all waiting expectantly for. It just means that you may have to wait until we get back to get it.

I will say that we're in Berlin now, having hit London, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen. We'll be here for about a week, then we're off to Prague.

Honestly, I'm just glad I got to shower today. I hadn't showered since Amsterdam because the ONE shower in our Copenhagen hostel broke.

And there goes my net time. Love from Europe!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011



Just wanted to leave a quick note to say that getting Internet access is proving more difficult than we anticipated, so it might be a while before the next post. But have no fear, we're alive and well in our travels and I promise some amazing stories and pics as soon as possible!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Gay Paree

Day 5 -- April 8th

After a morning of wandering around London a bit more, we packed up our bags and trooped to the train station to take the aptly-named Chunnel (tunnel + English Channel... so clever) to Paris. The trip was amazingly fast, only about two and a half hours.

We managed to pass the time.

The plan when we got there was to stay with Rachel's friend Juliette, who has an apartment right in the middle of the city. However, when we arrived, we realized we had no way of getting into the apartment and no way of contacting Juliette, who was at work until 8.


So we walked around for a bit, lugging our big backpacks and carrying our smaller daypacks across our fronts and looking like the complete tourists that we are, trying to find an internet cafe. Did I mention it was hot?

The internet cafe we stumbled on was just a long room filled with boxes and old computers and smelling vaguely of urine, but as they say, any port in a storm. The price was exorbitant -- €1.50 for 15 minutes -- but Rachel managed to send a message off and get Juliette's phone number.

Then came the problem of finding a phone to use. All of the pay phones required a phone card, which we don't have, so we did the next best thing: we found a Starbucks and asked to use their phone. The barista was extremely kind (maybe the huge backpacks and looks of desperation provoked some sympathy) and let us use his cell phone. However, upon calling the number that Rachel had found in her gmail, she learned that it was not Juliette's number, but a different friend's with a similar name. Oops.

By this time it was getting kinda late and we were both quite hungry, so we stopped in a bakery for a baguette and a supermarket for some cheese, and sat on a bench near the apartment to eat. Despite the situation, I was in pretty high spirits, enjoying the experience and relishing the fact that we were managing without having the help of technology.

As we ate, Rachel spotted someone coming out of Juliette's building, so she ran over to see if he would let us in. Turns out it was Juliette's roommate looking for us, as she had called him to tell him to be on the lookout for us. So that was solved. Whew.

That night, we headed to a friend's apartment to hang out. Everyone was way cool and I was just happy that everyone spoke English. At about 3am, everyone wanted to go out to a bar, but Rachel and I, being used to the states where bars close down at 2, caught a cab and passed out.

Day 6 -- April 9th

This is the day that I woke up sick (and, I should mention, I was sick for all of Paris and only in the last couple of days feeling really up to snuff again). But we couldn't let this stop us, so we got a croissant and an espresso and headed to the Louvre Garden to walk around.

Then, I'll admit, we went back to the apartment so I could rest.

Day 7 -- April 10th

We'd bought an unlimited 5-day Metro pass and this was the day that we started to put it to use. The Paris Metro, by the way, is amazing. It goes everywhere and the trains come about every three minutes, no exaggeration. Best public transit system I've ever used.

The first thing we did was stop by a major station to book Eurail tickets. The bookings can only be done in person, not online, and some need to be done far in advance. This we discovered a it late, as all the trains to Madrid were booked and none of the alternatives we could come up with were feasible.

So. Change of plans. Instead of heading south and east through Spain and Italy first, we're going to go in the opposite direction, heading north and east to Brussels and Amsterdam next, then south, then west. We'll hit all the same cities we planned, just in opposite order. I have to give major credit to the woman working the ticket window, because we were there for over half an hour trying to figure all this out and she never lost patience. Props to her.

After that stressful but ultimately productive morning, we took the Metro up to Montmartre, which was packed with people as it was a weekend and unseasonably warm outside. We dodged the hordes of people trying to sell overpriced trinkets to tourists to take in the incredible view:

then dropped a euro into the collection basket and stepped inside Sacré Coeur, the huge church at the top of the hill. Inside, it was your typical grand old cathedral -- stained glass, huge arches, elaborate moldings and the like. But as we walked around, all I noticed were the many places to give offerings of money to various saints or pay €2 or €10 to light a candle, and I kept thinking about the corruption of the Catholic Church and how phony it all was until I was completely disgusted and just wanted to leave. Looking at the outside was much nicer.

At the bottom of the hill is Paris's sort of Red Light District, full of sex shops and strip clubs. I of course had to see the place that inspired one of my favorite movies:

Nearby, we went into the Paris Erotic Museum, which was full of erotic artwork from throughout human history and all over the world. African wood carvings, pictures from the Kama Sutra, ancient Chinese drawings, early 20th century "porn" movies, etc. It was fascinating and sometimes hilarious.

Day 8 -- April 11th

By this time, we'd been in Paris nearly three full days and we hadn't been to the Eiffel Tower. Clearly this had to be our next stop.

Once again we avoided the many sellers with their piles of multicolored miniature Eiffel Tower statues to feast our eyes on the real thing. I have to be honest though -- the Eiffel Tower is kinda ugly up close. It's much nicer from far away, when you don't see the dun-brown color of it and you're not swarmed by other tourists on all sides.

We didn't go up because we figured it wasn't worth the long line or the price -- besides, what good is a view of all of Paris without the Eiffel Tower itself in it?

Still, the photo ops were impossible to pass up.

After this was Notre Dame, which, with its free entrance and lack of money-grubbiness (though you could still buy a candle for €4), pissed me off a lot less than the Sacré Coeur.

My distaste for Catholicism notwithstanding, the place is really very beautiful. I took some pictures, though they of course can't do it justice.

The stained glass, the archways, the moldings, the paintings, the huge extravagance of it all really made me understand why this is one of the big places to see in Paris. Very impressive.

When we left, we stood by the river for a minute while we figured out what to do next. Rachel thought she remembered the famous bookstore Shakespeare and Co. being nearby, so she pulled out her map to see if it was listed there. As she looked, I let my gaze wander across the street and spotted something.

"Is that it?" I asked, pointing directly across from where we happened to be standing. Rachel looked up and grinned. Serendipity.

I loved this bookstore, even though it was a bit too crowded for comfort. It's everything a bookstore should be: smallish, books crammed in every available space, kinda quirky. Lovely.

At dinner that night, we experienced some of that famous French hospitality -- you know, where they ignore you for long periods of time. Eventually, being impatient Americans, we forced the issue and asked if we could pay just to get out of there. I guess this is one of the reasons you don't tip here.

Day 9 -- April 12th

We wanted to go to the catacombs, but as soon as we saw the line we turned around and headed straight back.

Instead, we walked around the kinda gay neighborhood and hit up some thrift stores, which were tiny and crowded and even a bit claustrophobic. When a square meter of space is worth as much as it is here, you learn to economize.

Juliette had told us about a falafel place, not remembering the name but only that it had a green front and would have a line, which was actually perfect information to help us find it. It was delicious, though I felt sorry for the falafel place directly across the tiny street that was getting no business. Location, location, location.

Day 10 -- April 13th

[We somehow managed to lose all the pictures from this one day. So, apologies, but there are no pics for the catacombs and the Louvre.]

We went back to the catacombs, determined to see some old bones no matter how long the line. We got the youth price (yeah! under 25!) and headed down the 100+ stairs to the catacombs deep beneath the city, below the sewers and the subway.

It was creepy, even before we got to the bones. The passage was narrow and not terribly well lit, with dripping ceilings so low we nearly had to stoop to stay clear of them. Plus, there were these dark iron gates blocking off the side passages, and I kept joking that that's where they keep the monsters.

Because that's totally where they'd keep the monsters.

The part of the catacombs with the bones was incredible. I couldn't even begin to guess how many skeletons were down there, the long arm and leg bones arranged neatly to form walls of bones with skulls placed artistically in rows and crosses among them. So. Many. Bones.

It was hard not to get creeped out, I'll admit, being around so many dead people. But then I'd see a parent with a couple of kids and feel sheepish about being scared. Anyway. Cool experience, not recommended for the squeamish.

After a pizza lunch (we've eaten so much cheese here -- it's everywhere and we're both pretty sick of it by now), we went to the Louvre.

The Louvre is so big that it would take all day just to walk through all the galleries, let alone see every work of art. So we decided to hit the big ones.

First, the Venus de Milo and all the other ancient Greek sculptures.

We stopped by the Mona Lisa, of course, but it was in bulletproof glass and separated by a wooden barrier and a rope, plus it was mobbed by people. Not really that impressive, though I do appreciate that it was revolutionary for its time and all that.

The best part, I thought, were the apartments of Napoleon III, with incredible chandeliers, gold-plated EVERYTHING, plush carpets, giant paintings, and ornate furniture.

Day 11 -- April 14th

We visited Paris's modern art museum, the Pompidou, which has some pretty great views of the city:

plus, you know, some really cool artwork.

Then we walked down Champs-Elyssés to the Arc de Triomphe. Huge and impressive.

Brussels is next!