28 January 2007

A Sucker for Antwerp

Antwerp is often overlooked by tourists passing through Belgium. The greatest praise given it by the Rough Guide merely describes it as a city that is "rarely neat and tidy, but a hectic and immediately likable place." Rick Steves, a travel guide for whom I have great respect, doesn't even give it a passing mention in his book on "Amsterdam and, oh yeah, Brussels and Bruges, too, if you have time."

But for me, Antwerp is the center of all things Counter-Reformative in Belgium. Outside of Rome, it has great appeal for anyone interested in the propagandist nature of the Catholic revival of the late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-centuries. It was the site of the "Iconoclastic Fury" of 1566 when Protestant citizens swept through its cathedrals destroying their relics. In the following years it was torn between North and South, prompting the ruling Spanish to finally send in troops to slaughter thousands of its prominent citizens. And, yet, when most of the city's wealth was high-tailing it up to Amsterdam, enough people stayed that Antwerp continued its cultural growth. The print industry flourished here for decades into the seventeenth century, and Antwerp's "Golden Boy," Peter Paul Rubens, has left behind enough paintings, altars, and a well-preserved mansion to ensure the city's future as a tourist destination.

Last Thursday I decided to take a break from the books and spend the day in Antwerp. My plan was a simple one: see two museums, visit one church, have coffee with a friend and dinner with another. And--much to my surprise and delight--for one of the first times attempting such a day in Flanders, it worked! My first stop was to the Museum Plantin-Moretus on the quiet Vrijdagmarkt. This wonderful old mansion was the home and workshop of sixteenth-century printer Christopher Plantin. On his death the business to his son-in-law, Jan Moretus, where it was to remain in the family until 1876. Today the mansion houses not only many fine prints from the workshop itself but also famous manuscripts that Plantin collected during his lifetime. The museum itself takes your through almost the entirety of the home. I was immediately entranced: the private rooms with well-preserved paintings and furniture pieces as well as the work rooms with original print machinery and Plantin's vast collection of letters, numbers, and copper plates. I am happy to say that I will be back several times to visit the museum's archives.

From Vrijdagmarkt I headed into the Antwerp's residential district, Het Zuid, and the Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Fine Art Museum.) Like most museums in Belgium, this one houses an extensive collection of Renaissance and Baroque art with only a smattering of more modern works. The highlight of the museum, of course, is the room dedicated to Rubens's massive paintings. As the court painter, Rubens was primarily responsible for proclaiming the good news of Catholicism in art. His paintings are colorful and dramatic. I am more interested in the earlier, more understated paintings. For me the best part of the museum was viewing an in-progress restoration of some works by Hans Memling.

From Het Zuid I walked back into town to take a quick walk through St Carolus Borromeus, a famous Jesuit cathedral on Hendrik Conscienceplein. From there it was only a quick three-minute walk to Antwerp's great cafe district where I met a friend for a much-needed hot chocolate. I ended the evening with dinner with another friend, J, who was up from Brussels to work. He is a fellow Fulbrighter and perhaps the only American who is interested in Flemish Nationalism. Antwerp is the home of the infamous Vlaams Blok, a conservative right-wing political party that has increased in popularity in recent elections. We talked a great deal about his topic at dinner, mostly in hushed tones with some furtive glances all around. We ate at De Pelgrom, a wonderful little bistro located underground in a fifteenth-century wine cellar.

20 January 2007

"You bring meaning to my life"

Ladies and Gentlemen, I proudly present . . . My inspiration!

This is Peter Philips's Certificate of Residence, stating his intentions to live in Brussels under the employ of his new boss, Archduke Albert. It is a valuable document for many reasons: it is the only piece of his handwriting that we know to exist, it is the only piece of evidence we have that gives us an idea of his date of birth, and it is a unique detailing of his life up to 1597.

Before you get too excited (I mean, really, restrain yourself . . .), this is no great find on my part. I knew this document was here, waiting for me in the Algemeen Rijksarchief in Brussels. But after several weeks of trudging through various Spanish, Latin, Italian, and Flemish documents, it was like running into an old friend. Now all I have to do is figure out how to read it . . .

19 January 2007

A Mighty Wind

I thought I had left the winter winds behind in Iowa. In fact, it may have been on a similar date in a recent year that I woke up to face bitter cold temperatures, whipping winds, and twenty minutes of ice-scraping and curse-mumbling. There would be several mornings in conducting class in which I would stumble my way through a Handel anthem or a Copland motet with frozen fingers. But, despite harsh North American winters, I never remember an instance in which the wind literally stopped me in my tracks.

Yesterday the "Great Gale" of Northern Europe killed dozens of people, caused cancelled flights, kept trains from running, and caused general mayhem and confusion. My own experience was only mildly irritating: a couple of tiny leaks in my ceiling and a few perilous moments in which my bike was nearly blown off the sidewalk at street crossings. As I biked I was actually stopped--going downhill--on my way to the gym. The benefits? That same hill going home was a dream! I didn't even need to peddle. And I experienced a whole new dimension in hair body:

Now, this isn't me, but it does give you an idea of what kind of day it was.

15 January 2007

In Nederlands--deel twee

Oooog, ik heb een hoofdpijn. Ik heb juist nu mijn test uitkomen. Het heeft voor twee uren geduurt, en ik ben nog niet afgemaakt. Ik zal op dinsdag en donderdag twee meer delen hebben. Wat jammer.

Vandaag is het maandag, en het weer is mooi! De zon schijnt, de lucht is blauw en het is alleen een beetje koud. En prachtige dag! 's Middags ben ik mijn boedschappen gedaan. Ik heb groenten en vruchten gekocht. Ik vind dat de winkel op maandag een beetje druk is. De winkels in Belgie hebben op zondag gesloten, dus iedereen gaan op maandag naar de supermarkt. Ik ben voor 17h00 de boedschappen gedaan, dus ik was gelukkig. Vanavond zal ik een koor repetitie hebben. Tot straks!

(in English)

Oooog, I Have a headache. I have just returned from my test. It lasted for two hours, and I am still not finished. Ik have two more parts on Tuesday and Thursday. What a pity.

Today is Monday, and the weather is beautiful! The sun is shining, the sky is blue, and it is only a little bit cold. A gorgeous day! This afternoon I did my grocery shopping. I bought vegetables and fruit. I find that on Mondays the store is a little busy. The stores in Belgium are closed on Sunday, so everyone goes to the supermarket on Monday. I did my shopping before 5:00, so I was lucky. Tonight I have a choir rehearsal. See you later!

(So, I know it's not the most exciting conversation, but a big imrpovement over my last Flemish entry!)

09 January 2007

A Truly Cosmopolitan Gathering

In the summer of 2002 my life changed, musically-speaking. I attended a one-day workshop in West Hartford, CT run by Philip Cave and a few members of his early music ensemble, Magnificat. It was a full day of singing polyphony. I knew I had always been interested in early music, but never realized how fulfilling it was to me as a performer until I had been immersed in it so intensely. I was hooked. Since then I have attended a few workshops in England and France, indulging my passion and, I suppose, learning a little something more about polyphony at the same time.

Along the way I have been fortunate to meet people as enthusiastic about singing polyphony as I am. I have tried keeping up with some of these people, hoping that some day we might find ourselves with an opportunity to reunite. Luckily my stay in Belgium has made this kind of meeting more possible. I had been in touch with G, a good friend from my Tallis Scholars workshop years, and we decided to make something happen. He gathered the music, I secured the space, we both touched base with friends, and--viola!--on December 29 we had a sing! And it was a "truly cosmopolitan gathering" including:
  • Me, an American living in Leuven
  • G, a Canadian living in England
  • K, sister of G, married to a Belgian, and living in Germany
  • S, the Belgian living in Germany
  • D, my friend from Kortrijk
  • S, my friend from Brugge

We braved freezing cold temps and an array of dialects and accents to sing some beautiful music. And we sang it damn well, if I do say so myself! I was so jazzed after the evening that I have decided to turn our little ensemble into a small performing project. It's possible that we may be able to gather again in April to do a small concert at the American College Seminary here in Leuven.

07 January 2007

Rating Chocolate

When Z first arrived in Belgium, I made sure to add "chocolate" to my list of grocery items. On his first day I brought home a box of zeevruchten, chocolate in sea shell shapes. The brand was nothing too spectacular, just a favorite of mine that served to satisfy the late-night cravings. I believe Z's first words upon taking a bite out of a starfish was "Where did you get this, and where can I get more?" The box was half empty by dinner. Since then Z and I have set aside a fair portion of our time together sampling different varieties of chocolate. Some of our favorites include Dark Chocolate with Orange, Coffee-Flavored Truffles, and Cherry Cordials.

Yesterday I went to my favorite chocolate shop in Leuven to give Z a couple of small boxes to take home. Centho Chocolates has two shops in Belgium--Duisberg (near Brussels) and Leuven--and sells what are called "artisinal" chocolates. For those of you who have experienced top-shelf quality chocolate, you will understand what I mean when I say that there is nothing quite like it. And rather than try to put it into words, I will let the pictures speak for themselves.

At the moment Z is trying to determine how many clothes he can leave behind to make room in his suitcase for more boxes.

Earth Shake: Restaurant met wereldkeuken

One of my favorite things to do is eat out. And since Z shares my love of dining out, the two of us have been going to restaurants more than we normally might. (The fact that I have a kitchen the size of a cupboard certainly plays into this.) Z is a complete vegetarian, and so most of our gourmet experiences have necessarily included ethnic cuisine. So far, over the course of his three-week visit, we have eaten:
  • Pizza in Antwerp and Leuven
  • Thai food in Brussels

  • African cuisine in Leuven

  • Mediterranean cuisine in Aachen, Germany

  • Thai food in Bruges

  • Curry in London

Nearly every dining experience has been a "hit." As I've said before, eating out in Europe (and especially in Belgium) is always a treat: the atmosphere is cozy, the service often slow but always pressure-free, and the food delicious and well-presented. A typical meal might include an aperitif, a first course, a 1/2 litre of house wine (generally a French red, white, or rose), an entree, dessert, and coffee. It is an all-night affair.

Last Friday evening Z and I shared a truly special dining experience at one of Leuven's newest restaurants, Earth Shake. A friend had recommended the place, saying "the service is friendly and the portions are large" both of which are sometimes hard to come by in Belgium. As it's name implies, Earth Shake specializes in world cuisine with an emphasis on Spanish tapas and Eastern stir-fries. The menu had a wide range of vegetarian items, including dishes that included tofu and even "quorn." The place looked pleasantly packed with happy diners, too, and we were lucky to snag the last table-for-two.

The meal was exceptional. We began with some house wine, an Australian (not French!) shiraz from Riddle Creek wineries. It was a wonderfully spicy wine, finer by far than any other house I had ever tasted. (I have since tried to find Riddle Creek on the web but can't seem to track it down . . .) Since we were meeting friends later in the evening, we skipped the first course and went straight for the main meal. Our entrees were flavorful and abundant as promised. Z had a spicy noodle stir fry with vegetables, and I had a ratatouille-stuffed zucchini with patatas bravas. The food was so overwhelmingly wonderful that we almost couldn't hold together two sentences of our conversation without interjecting mmmmmm's and aaaaahhhh's. Without a second thought we phoned our friends to let them we would be late and ordered two desserts and coffee. Fried bananas in chocolate sauce and rum-poached pears with a cinnamon sauce in vanilla ice cream . . . mmmmmm. I don't mean to exaggerate, but we couldn't remember the last time we had enjoyed such a wonderful meal. It was so good, in fact, that we have decided to return tonight for our last evening before Z returns to the states.

04 January 2007

Greetings from the Queen

Z and I have just returned from a whirlwind three days in London. And while we didn't actually see the Queen (she was a little busy, as I understand . . .), we did make the most of our time with a fairly busy schedule and plenty of opportunities to visit with Z's brother, Th, and his girlfriend Iz.

First, I have to comment on how easy it is to travel from Belgium to England. Coming from the states as I do, it is sometimes difficult for me to comprehend just how convenient international travel can be in Europe. I booked our tickets for a journey on the Eurostar about three weeks in advance. On the morning of our departure we walked to the train station in Leuven (15 min.), traveled by express train to Brussel Zuid (28 min.), picked up our tickets and pushed through security at the Eurostar terminal (15 min.), were served at customs by a truly disgruntled English officer (10-but-felt-more-like-100 min.), boarded the train--with our luggage, mind you--and traveled to Waterloo Station in London (2 1/2 hours) with only two stops in Lille and Ashford. And had we not hesitated in Waterloo (in other words, had I not gawked at the blessedly-large cups of coffee being served in the blessedly-numerous espresso shops), we would have made our train to meet Th and Iz in Mortlake, a mere 20 more minutes. So in only about five hours door-to-door we were happily situated in wonderful everyone-speaks-my-language England!

Much of the first day was spent visiting with Th, getting to know Iz, and recovering from a lack of sleep the night before by taking a long nap, a long shower, and starving ourselves sufficiently in anticipation of a New Year’s Eve full of food and good English ale. We attended a lovely dinner party hosted by friends of Iz and made known our status as “Americans” by asking after the royal family and recanting favorite Saturday Night Live skits. Soon after dinner the bottles of wine were replaced with cans of Fosters, and we wisely left before the evening descended into something reminiscent of our undergrad fraternity parties. We rang in the New Year by playing cards, a family tradition, and wondering aloud if Dick Clark would make it through New York’s “Rockin’ New Year’s Eve” celebration without his jaw falling off his face. And Iz expertly withstood the onslaught of two slaphappy, competitive brothers!

Monday and Tuesday we “did” London. The weather on Monday was in our favor—sunny and mild—so we bravely set off without umbrellas (more on that later, of course) and hit the city. London at night, experienced around 4:00 in the winter, is beautiful. Th, Z and I wandered from Waterloo down to the Tate Modern Museum along the Thames pathway and took in such lovely, lit-up sights as Westminster and Big Ben, Saint Paul’s, and the famous London “eye.” The Tate was wonderful, though we all three agreed we shouldn’t have rushed straight to the ultra-modern urinal-on-the-wall types of sculpture and left more time for Monet, Picasso, and Kandinsky. But we did see a fascinating video collage involving four screens simultaneously playing musical moments in movies. It was raining when we left the Tate and decided that, rather than pay the outrageous £3 tube fee we would walk to our meeting point for dinner. Using a map that was clearly NOT to scale we hiked across the Thames, past Saint Paul’s, and along deserted streets of the financial district, pausing only briefly to pay homage to signs stating things like “Near this spot stood the home of Margaret Tuftswood, author of [insert name of little known English novel] and seventeenth president of the Wee Tea Cup Club” and other mildly interesting bits of information. Drenched and chilly, we met up with Iz and her friend to seek out Indian food along Brick Lane, London’s premiere curry district. Tired of being wet and a little discouraged at being hounded by the looming hosts with offers such as “free bottle of wine” and “25% off your first entrée,” we dashed into the first reasonable place we saw. Though the décor was a little bland and the service disappointing, the food was quite good. We capped off the evening with a visit to a local pub in Richmond and a couple of beers before the pub closed at . . . 10:30. Well, at least we had time for more cards!

The sun returned on Tuesday, and Z and I headed in for a full day in London. We were determined to see a show and set out to find the booth on Leicester Square that sells same-day, half-price tickets. I had, unfortunately, forgotten to check which tube stop would take us there and had to make a guess: Picadilly Square. Lucky for us the guess was good, especially since on January 2 the price of a single ride on the tube had gone up to £4! We purchased our tickets (Chicago!!!), and headed to lunch with friends of mine at another excellent Indian restaurant. After lunch it was a quick trip to the National Portrait Gallery where, among some famous Tudor portraits we also stumbled upon a wonderful portrait of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. The painter had perfectly captured the essence of Vaughan Williams in his final years: he sat slouched in a stuffed chair, white hair messed up, hearing aid dangling from one ear, a baton loosely held in his hand and a piece of music lightly sitting on his lap. This is how I have always imagined him, composing slowly, without any urgency, and always ready for his smoking pipe, a cup of tea, and probably a piece of dry toast with marmite.

Z left for a quick return to Richmond to practice his trumpet, and I headed down to Westminster Abbey. I had been before but had honestly forgotten just how wonderful it is. For only £7, a relatively small sum considering the high cost of EVERYTHING is London (need I mention again the tube?), you can see the tombs of most of England’s kings and queens dating back almost 800 years, the original coronation chair, and a place called Poet’s Corner where famous artists are either buried (Chaucer, T.S. Eliot, and G. F. Handel among them) or memorialized. I was lucky to be one of the last in before closing and enjoyed a peaceful walk through the Abbey’s many chapels. I decided that rather than rush down to the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square I would stay for Evensong. I thought it might be good to get a little church in my day before exposing myself to a tale of murder and deception at the theater that night. And speaking of, Chicago was, to say it as the Brits do, brilliant! London’s theaters are like those on Broadway, small and a little run-down but full of wonderful atmosphere. It was a great way to end our holiday. And a HUGE thank you to Th and Iz for such a wonderful visit and for being such excellent hosts!

I really love London. It is a huge city with a lot to see and do, a diverse population, and a fascinating history. But after living on the Continent for a few months now, I am struck by how un-European London actually seemed. I had asked Iz what it is that the young British see as their interests and concerns, and her first comment was that they would like to see Great Britain become more European and less American. I thought this was a very interesting and accurate statement, especially since I had heard my Belgian friends say that exact same thing about Great Britain. Perhaps it’s the proliferation of Starbucks—you know, the same ones I was pining after in September—or the insular nature of Britain, both geographic and social. But I couldn’t believe it, I found myself thinking like a, well, like a Belgian! The cars are too big. The people wear too many colors. And, I never thought I’d say this, but I thought that the beer was a bit . . . *gasp* . . . watery. Maybe Belgium has spoiled me forever. All I know is that the next time I see my Belgian friends they will greet me with a glass of cold, crisp Belgian beer and big “I told you so.”