26 February 2007

Philip the Fair

This morning I was on my way to the train station to head into Antwerp for research. Because the forecasted "light rain" turned into a massive downpour, I was soaked from head to toe by the time I reached the ticket office. Feeling sorry for myself I got back on my bike and headed for home. Now I am sitting comfortably in my chair, a full lunch in my belly, and just enough time to post before nap time!

Last Friday I attended a wonderful exhibit at the
Royal Library of Belgium. Philip the Fair (named to distinguish him from the many other Burgundian Philips that reigned before him) was ruler over the Low Countries at the turn of the sixteenth century. His reign was short but peaceful, a time in which the arts flourished. Perhaps his greatest legacy was fathering Charles V, who would reign with the combined crowns of Duke of the Low Countries, King of Spain, and eventually Holy Roman Emperor.

The exhibit was a display of the many illuminated manuscripts produced around the time of Philip's reign, and which are today preserved at the Royal Library. These include prayer books, bibles, educational texts, and music. They are called "illuminated" because they contain illustrations, or illuminations. They are masterful and often rival actual paintings of the time in their use of color and attention to detail.

One of the finest examples on display was a very famous music manuscript, the Choirbook for Philip the Fair and Juana of Castile, (c.1504-06), ms. 9126. According to the Alamire Foundation it was a gift to the royal couple. It was produced by the famous workshop of Petrus Alamire, based in the Low Countries, and contains many famous pieces of sacred polyphony. I was lucky enough to attend the exhibit with my friend N, who is studying a manuscript from Bruges, and a new Fulbrighter J, who is an art history professor back in the states. This picture, taken from the manuscript (and which I have posted elsewhere) depicts Philip and Juana kneeling in prayer with each of their patron saints behind them. The piece is a mass by Pierre de la Rue, one of the most famous court composers of the time.

25 February 2007

Language Barrier

Today I needed a plunger. Typical. It's Sunday and EVERY store is closed. So I contacted some local friends I knew were in town for the weekend. I sent D a text message. The message was simply: "Do you have a plunger?" The answer was surprising:

D: "What's a plunger?"

Me: "You know, for clogged drains?"

D: "Oh, the thing cartoon characters always end with on their head and nose!"

It turns out that he didn't have one. So I called my Australian friend A with the same question.

A: "What's a plunger?"

Me: "You know, for clogged drains."

A: "Oh, you mean for the thunderpot!" [I'm pretty sure she was kidding around. Remember, these are the same people who call diapers "knappies" and pieces of candy "lollies."]

Finally, I texted S. Same question.

S: "I was not sure what a plunger was, but according to Google images I could borrow you one indeed. Hope it's not too bad ..." [I didn't want to ask with "it" referred to.]

So I learned a new Dutch word today: ontstopper.

24 February 2007

Taking stock

It's been a long week of work. My brain is being pulled in several different directions: Philips and Sint-Goedele in Brussels, Philips and Sint-Joriskerk in Antwerp, Philips and . . . well, you get my meaning. And so I am exercising my right as a doctoral student to do something complete brainless, pointless, and a complete waste of time. And to add insult to injury, I'm going to do it while watching a bad made-for-TV movie.

(A couple of weeks I did something similar with my best friends from high school. It was great fun! So just think of this as a little regression therapy . . .)

Have you ever written a song?
When I was young and just beginning piano lessons, I took the theme to the TV-miniseries "Lonesome Dove," altered a couple of notes, and called it my own. I think I fooled my sixth-grade music teacher, Mr. Wang, but considering the kind of "musician" he was, this isn't too surprising.

Can you make change for a dollar right now? A dollar? No. A euro? Yes.

Have you ever been in the opposite sex's public toilet? Yes, only once. And I clearly remember thinking as I walked in: "Wouldn't it be funny if I accidentally walked into the . . . ?" Oooops.

Do you like ketchup on or beside your fries? Yes, definitely, and way more than the mayonnaise the Belgians put on theirs. Fat on top of more fat?

Have you ever been a boy/girl scout? I was a Campfire girl for a few years, and a Girl Scout for one. I like camping now more than I ever did then.

Are you superstitious? No.

What is your biggest pet peeve? I go CRAZY when highway drivers "hang out" in the passing lane.

Do you slurp your drink after it's gone? Never. In fact, I generally leave a little of my drink at the bottom of the cup. This is one of Z's biggest pet peeves.

Would you ever parachute out of a plane? No.

What's the most daring thing you've done? Once, in college, I rode on the back of a motorcycle with a guy I barely knew. We were literally flying down a country highway. I was wearing a helmet, he wasn't. Come to think of it, it wasn't daring. It was stupid.

Did you have a baby blanket?
Yes, I loved it. It was blue, then gray, then it eventually disintegrated into nothingness.

Have you ever sleepwalked? Once when I was in high school I woke up, showered, got ready, ate breakfast, and walked out to the bus stop. I waited for about ten minutes. Not a single car drove by. Since I wasn't wearing a watch I went back to my house and looked at the clock. It was 1:30 AM.

What is your favorite cartoon of all time? Bloom County. My favorite character was Opus. I was so pleased to find out that Berkeley Breathed (pronounced BREATHE-ed) is from Iowa City.

Have you ever eaten a dog biscuit? Um, yes.

If so, would you eat another one? Um, no.

What is the last text you received on your cell? "Ik zal over 20min thuis zijn."

What one question would you add to this survey? "How has this survey improved your life?"

If you won a $5,000 shopping spree to any store, which store would you pick? Whoa, tough. Probably REI back in Seattle.

If you were to win a Grammy, what kind of music would it be for? Early music, of course! :)

Would you rather make your living as a singing cowboy or as one of the Simpsons voices? "Simpsons, dude."

21 February 2007

I pity the fool!

Two of my Flemish friends, N and S, are doctoral research fellows in musicology. Like many of their colleagues, they research projects which date before 1600 when Flanders reigned supreme in the western music world. N is doing an archival investigation of a music manuscript from 1542 Bruges, and S is studying the contrapuntal qualities of sixteenth-century Franco-Flemish ricercars. Their musical tastes run rather high-brow. They certainly know more about early music than most people in their 20s and pride themselves on their abilities to discern Ockeghem from Obrecht. Heck, don't we all? I thought I had them figured out, musically-speaking. And then this happened.

A week ago Monday, on our way up to choir rehearsal in Bruges, N, S, and I got stuck in traffic. For two hours were sitting "Boston-style" on the highway. Like any good former-junior-high-"used-to-ride-the-bus-with-rowdy-teenagers"-teacher, I taught them a few good car songs. We played twenty questions. I taught them the licence-plate game. It wasn't long before we pulled out that old stand-by, Name That Tune.

And do you know what happened? I hummed a little Beethoven Symphony. They weren't sure. I sang a few bars of Sting. Nothing. After they got the opening bars of Josquin's Missa Pange lingua (of course!), it was N's turn. After a brief pause she busted out with a loud, upbeat tune that I couldn't quite place. But S knew it right away.


And do you know what happened next? They both sat there and sang through the whole damn song. Even the B theme! I couldn't believe it. These Flemish musicologists who pride themselves on rarely watching TV. Move over, Gombert, Mr. T's layin' the smack down in Flanders!

(What I'm not saying is that I was able to sing the whole thing, too!)

16 February 2007

Pride and Joy

There are few people who succeed in bringing international attention to Belgium's great divide. Most of the time I think Belgians are happy to let their internal issues go unnoticed. They prefer to sit back and let the rest of us throw our problems onto the world stage; they like saying "I told you so."

In the world of women's tennis, however, Belgium's two worlds collide head-to-head. Justin Henin and Kim Clijsters have been rivals their entire careers. Henin seems to embody her French-ness perfectly: fiery, wiry, and maybe more than a little arrogant. Clijsters, on the other hand, is quintessential Fleming. She is modest, determined. She is a top player but never gives you the impression that she is too good. And she is retiring this year, at the peak of her game, to settle down and have children. In the tradition of all Flemings she will probably move back to her home town, buy a house on the same street as the rest of her family, and enjoy her early retirement.

I really like both Henin and Clijsters. But in Flanders there is no question. Wednesday night I attended Clijster's opening match at the Diamond Games in Antwerp and saw first hand just how crazy Flemish sporting fans can be. It was like attending an American basketball game! At the start of the match the lights were dimmed, and the players--Clijsters and her unfortunate opponent whose name I forget--strutted out onto the court with a disco ball gleaming from the center of the ceiling. "YMCA" hit the speakers, and the fans we on their feet. These were Belgians like I had never seen before! They were loud. They were colorful. They had bullhorns and Belgian flags. They were (almost) obnoxious. It was great!

Of course Clijsters won. Her opponent, who never had a chance, received (as Z would say) "a serious spanking": 6-0, 6-2. Afterwards Clijsters received a standing ovation for nearly five minutes. I think this tournament marks her last professional appearance in Belgium, so she was not leaving the court quickly. The crowd was so wooed that when the second match began random people continued to yell "Komaan Kim!" But then most of the crowd actually disappeared after that first match, retiring to the arena food booths for candy and champagne. Most of them lingered there well into the second match. I guess Belgians can sustain the role of "fanatic fan" for only so long.

13 February 2007

An American Football Fan in Antwerp

Well, first let's be clear, the word *fan* may be a little strong here. But I did feel it my patriotic duty to try and attend the Superbowl this year. And so, the other weekend a friend and I trekked up to Antwerp for "Superbowl Early Monday Morning."

Once you get past the fact that this adventure was going to cost us a full night's sleep, there really isn't much else exciting to tell. We met friends at an Irish pub off the Grote Markt around 12:30 AM. The owners of the pub had pulled out all the stops to provide a "typically American" environment: American flags, stale potato chips, empty beer glasses, sticky floors. H and I secured the best seats in the house, right between the big screen and the bar. While H opted for beer, I thought of the struggle to stay awake and drank grapefruit juice instead. Neither Belgian nor American, but good for my stamina!

In the end it was a great game. The Chicago fans in the room dealt gracefully with their defeat. I met a small handful of Europeans that showed a mild interest in the game and a greater interest in the fans' reactions. I arrived home, in my bed, at 7 AM and slept until noon. A small price to pay for a well-spent evening.

11 February 2007

Good Friends, Good Food, Good Beer: D

One of the greatest joys that has come of my time here in Belgium has been the opportunity to meet three wonderful (and wonderfully different) Belgians: D, N, and S. After hearing so much about how difficult it is to get to know Belgians, I was delighted to discover that within one month of my arrival last fall I had been invited to various social gatherings by each of them. By November they were loaning me kitchen appliances and offering me rides here and there. And now, even despite my resistance to speak Flemish and send the level of conversation back to "What if your favorite color?", I have achieved the revered status of "good friend."

A week ago Friday I spent the evening with one of my new good friends, D. I have mentioned him (and his fabulous kitchen) before. At last I was able to step (well, leap headfirst) into an apron and revisit my domestic side! The idea to join forces in the kitchen stemmed from a recent conversation on the train back from Bruges one Monday night. Somehow (after nearly five months of America-bashing) we got on the conversation of what's GOOD about the USA. D, who has spent time in Washington D.C., did not even blink after I asked what it was he most missed about living in the states: "Chocolate chip cookies." One week, and one agonizing hour at the grocery store later (with the best chocolate in the world, why haven't the Belgians figured out chocolate CHIPS?), we were in his kitchen preparing a dessert for the ages.

Now, I have to tell you, I was ridiculously excited about the idea of scurrying about a real kitchen, whipping up a batter, and seeing a real live oven in action. We got out all the measuring utensils. (No cups and tablespoons in Belgium: "I use these spoons for my tea, is that what you mean?") We did our best to translate cups to grams, fahrenheit to celsius. We broke chocolate bars into bite-sized chips. And, despite underestimating the baking soda, we came out with twenty-four scrumptious, mouth-watering cookies. They were to . . . die . . . for . . .

Now comes the part where you understand just what it means to be a friend with a Belgian. D was certainly generous enough to offer his kitchen to a clearly-desperate American. But the real treat came during dinner. D had one down to his basement to "grab a couple of beers." He came back with a Westvleteren for me.

National Geographic recently called Westvleteren the best beer in the world. Let's just take a moment to comprehend what this means. The WORLD! It goes without saying that this beer is difficult to come by, even for Belgians. It is not sold in stores, cafes, or most restaurants. The only way to actually acquire some is to drive to the
Abbey of Saint Sextus in a remote village in West Flanders, wait in line, and buy a crate. One crate per person per YEAR. So you can see that it's no small thing to give one away, especially to someone who ten years ago thought that Zima was top shelf. Westveleteren itself defies description, at least one that I could justly provide. It is dark and smooth with rich chocolate and coffee overtones. It was, in fact, the perfect accompaniment to fresh-baked cookies.

02 February 2007

Drum roll, please . . .

Today, after five frustrating hours, three minutes before the archives closed, I found this: the first EVER piece of hard documentation that Peter Philips died in 1628. And, thanks to this little piece of paper, we can say with certainty that it happened before October 2.

It was all I could do to keep myself from hunching down in my chair, drumming my fingers together, and doing a Mr. Burns-style evil cackle. "Smithers . . . at last . . . 'La meurte de Pierre Phillipe.'"