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.