Monday, November 19, 2012

What Not To Do

My last day in Ghent was consumed by attending conference sessions, listening to keynotes, chatting with colleagues, making contacts.  As is usual with academic conferences, the talks varied markedly.  The morning keynote was brilliant, a rethinking of intellectual property law in light of tenant rights, whereas the afternoon one was perhaps the craziest talk I’ve ever heard—and I mean crazy on the magnitude of “I’ve been kidnapped by aliens” crazy.  When the speaker (who will remain nameless) ended, there was dead silence in the audience.  I’m sure our collective expressions resembled those of the audience in Mel Brooks’ The Producers when the “Spring Time for Hitler” number concludes.  Yes, it was that bad, and all anyone could talk about afterwards.  Attendees huddled in corners, anxiously checking with each other for affirmation (“was that just as insane as I thought?”). 

One of the pleasures, however, of attending a conference in a gorgeously appointed thirteenth-century building is the sumptuousness of the setting.  When a paper bores, or in this instance, completely confuses, one can always study the delicate lines of gothic arches along the ceiling.  By far, this is the most spectacularly beautiful conference I have ever attended, between the building, the ancient university, and the town.  I've attached several photos to this post.

The crazy talk concluded the proceedings for Saturday, and at 6.00 we made our way to De Foyer Brasserie in the city center for the conference dinner.  The food was good (not great), but it was especially nice being able to chat at length with talented young scholars from across the EU.  Some were on post-doctoral fellowships; others were finishing their dissertations.  All were delightful.
Dinner concluded around 8.30, and I intended going back to my hotel for an early night.  

This is what not to do the night before an early-morning departure, especially if you’re (sigh) middle-aged: accept an invitation from European graduate students and young academics to go out pub-crawling.  Accept I did, and I had a wonderful time, but I rolled into my hotel around 2.30 a.m., which meant I had about three hours of sleep.  I was also a bit, um, worse for wear, and as I sit here on my flight, pounding away on my laptop, I am nursing a slight hangover.  This is not the best state for flying.

Security at Brussels Airport was intense because of the Mideast crisis.  I was pulled out of the line and questioned very hard.  I suppose my passport triggered this response since I hardly fit the “average” profile for an American traveler.  I had the conflicted reaction I often experience during these occasions, on the one hand, being grateful for the enhanced security, but then, on the other, wondering if it’s really necessary.

This return flight on United is as pleasant as the outbound flight was horrible.  We’re in a very comfortable wide-bodied jet with modern amenities.  The stewards are excellent, and lunch was actually quite good.  I had a vegetarian Indian lunch that was fresh and flavorful.  Go figure.

I will end this installment of my blog with a few passing observations about Belgium and the Netherlands.

  • ·      The Belgian draft horse graces drawings, designs, and objets.  While I appreciate the strong national attachment to this animal, I do wish the Belgians didn’t breed them largely for food these days
  • ·      Both in Belgium and the Netherlands, young people unconsciously switch to English when making statements of emphasis (“do you know what I mean?” or “is that okay?”), a linguistic pattern I find intriguing
  • ·      Speaking of English, it is almost universally spoken, especially in Amsterdam.  I met several international students in Amsterdam who complained of the impossibility of learning Dutch since locals immediate switch into English if they hear the slightest hesitation in fluency 
  • ·      Despite le crise, funding seems to be very good for doctoral and post-doctoral students in the EU; most of the students attending the conference were fully funded and many had generous grants for research and study abroad
  • ·      Similarly the conference itself was handsomely underwritten.  The conference was one of the outcomes of a five-year grant secured by a cohort at the University of Belgian to examine theories of literary authorship, and the grant is clearly generous by American standards given how we were wined and dined and feted
  • ·      Everyone I spoke to in the Netherlands and Belgium is relieved that Obama was elected; as for me, I’m relieved I won’t have to skulk around as I did during the Bush years pretending to be Canadian
  • ·      I was surprised at how many people, especially young women, still smoke despite strong government campaigns
  • ·      And, finally, public transportation is impressive.  Electric trams run in both Amsterdam and Ghent, although the canals limit their coverage.  A couple of times I hopped on trams in Amsterdam, and they were clean, efficient, and quiet, running every couple of minutes.  Indeed, the only problem is that they are so quiet one can be run over if unawares, as I warned by François.   Evidently, gormless tourists sometimes meet their demise in this fashion.  Fortunately, your devoted blogger was sufficiently careful as to avoid death by tram

Friday, November 16, 2012

La Vie Continue

I made an alarming discovery on the streets of Ghent: culinary entrepreneurs sell homemade chocolate truffles.  The ones I had today were slightly warm and very good indeed.  I’m not sure this is a good thing to know.

I like Ghent very much, and I am thoroughly enjoying myself, but the town has not exerted the same appeal as Amsterdam.  I find “museum towns” charming, but usually after a couple of days I’m ready to move on.  I left Amsterdam feeling I had barely scratched the surface, whereas by Sunday, when I fly home, I will feel as though I’ve exhausted Ghent.

My train ride from Amsterdam on Thursday morning was a bit harrowing.  Everyone was on edge because of the previous day’s strike, and I had an unpleasant exchange with a sour agent in Amsterdam Centraal who refused to issue my ticket.  When I booked online, the instructions said simply to present my credit card at the station; the agent, however, insisted on a reservation number (which I did not bother to write down).  She also told me it was impossible to pay by American Express, which I had already done online: the Thalys web site clearly lists Amex as a payment option.  What ensued was like the stories I’ve heard from people who traveled years ago in Soviet Russia or Eastern bloc countries.  The ticket agent refused to look online to verify my explanation; rather, she turned her hands up in a gesture of non-compliance and repeated her position, over and over again.  The upshot was that I missed my train.  Finally in desperation I booted up my phone even though I had not paid for international data and accessed my reservation number.  And I asked for a different agent.

Once I actually boarded the (later) train, things improved.  High-speed and efficient, the train glided swiftly from Amsterdam to Antwerp in 75 minutes.  We were served decent coffee and pastries, and I had a comfortable workspace if unusable WiFi.  No one yet seems to have figured out how to combine wireless with locomotion.  The high-speed trains come into the new terminals, which are modern with fun Art Deco flourishes; for instance, the escalators feature turning cogs, like something out of Chaplin’s Modern Times.  Certainly, Antwerp deserves its reputation for having one of the most beautiful train stations in the world.  I changed to a local train that stopped at several small towns before ending in Ghent-St-Pieters. 

I wasn’t about to haul my luggage all the way to the hotel by foot, especially given my penchant for getting lost.  A nice older taxi driver took my fare, and he was very good despite blasting Brittany Spears.  It was a bit strange to see this seventy-something man rocking to “I’m a Slave 4 U.”  He was very kind, though, in pointing out prominent sights on our way to the hotel.  A native of Ghent, he was clearly proud of his hometown.

Once settled, I struck out to explore the town and eat a late lunch.  I saw one brasserie in particular, Du Progres, that was packed—always a good sign—and I took a chance.  I didn’t have especially high hopes for Belgium cuisine, but the food was excellent, as was the service.  I tried a seasonal beer recommended by my waiter that was perfect for the cold weather, dark and hearty.  Lentil soup preceded the course of cod menuière and vegetables.  Of course, this being Belgium, a hearty helping of frites accompanies just about everything.  The cod was perhaps the best I’ve ever had: it was absolutely fresh and sitting in a prodigious amount of melted butter.  I’m not exaggerating—I’ve never seen anything like it.  At first I recoiled since I tend not to like a lot of butter or cream.  This butter, though, was unbelievably sweet and flavorful, a perfect accompaniment to the cod.  Belgian dairy products in general are superb.  Perhaps they serenade the cows with soothing music while they’re being milked.

Over lunch I chatted with the elderly woman to my right, a lovely creature who lives in la campagne and comes into Ghent twice a week to shop and eat out.  She speaks Flemish and French, but, unlike the younger generation, she did not know English.  I haven’t used French in a while, and I was tongue-tied the first few minutes, but she was patient and waited for me to relax once again into the language.  She’s a regular who comes for the fine food, but she complained about the loneliness of eating alone (like me, she is widowed) and gestured toward the couples in the restaurant.  “Que peut-on faire?” she asked.  And then, as if to answer herself, added resignedly, “la vie continue.”  Indeed it does, although not always as we would like.

Belgians, incidentally, really like their meat.  Even at lunch one sees men and women packing away steaks, stews, and ribs, all washed down with beer or wine.  The old lady had a generous portion of chateaubriand smothered in a rich reduction sauce, vegetables, and, of course, frites.  She cleaned the plate and announced after lunch that she was setting out for her favorite chocolatier.  If ever there were an argument for an Atkins-style diet, she would be it.

For many Belgians, however, that heavy diet does eventually pack on pounds.  Young people are slim, but by middle age, men look like the well-fed burghers in Flemish paintings (middle-aged women aren't quite as stout).  By contrast, Dutchmen stay slim and muscular into their sixties and seventies.  Young people here, especially at the university, bicycle everywhere, but you don't see the same number of middle-aged and elderly people cycling as you do in Amsterdam, which might partly account for the difference.  And the Dutch don't eat as much meat; indeed, many are vegetarian.

After lunch I hiked over to the Het Pand building at the university, where I registered and heard the first keynote address of the conference.  Sadly, it was not very good, although I did enjoy chatting with folks afterwards.  As in Seville last March, I admired the lavishness of the conference, which is well-staffed by doctoral students and expertly organized.  At the reception, we sipped champagne while waiters whizzed by with trays of excellent canapés.  At American conferences it is cash bar only, and if one is lucky, some crackers, a few slices of indifferent cheese, and desiccated grapes.  This is pretty fancy by comparison.

This morning I delivered my talk, which seemed to go over quite well, and then heard the second keynote of the conference, which was excellent.  Europeans like keynotes very much, and they will often pack four or five into a three-day conference.  After listening to another panel, I headed out to see the  cathedral and several other historic buildings (including the castle around the corner from my hotel).  The cathedral is exceptionally beautiful and has the famous altarpiece by Jan Van Eyck, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.  It is just breathtaking.  An audio guide takes visitors through the dense iconography in the painting; all told, I probably spent a good half-hour slowly working my way through each of the panels with the help of the recording. 

By 4.00 p.m., I was done and looking again for food.  Lest I give the impression of gluttony, I hasten to add that I’m pretty much running on a light breakfast and one meal a day (and endless hours of walking).  Oh yes--and the occasional chocolate truffle.  I stopped worrying about the richness of the food yesterday when I realized my skirt, despite the butter and cream and croissants, was loose on me.  So with that reprieve in mind, I walked over to Restaurant de Graslei, highly recommended on Yelp, and ordered mussels in cream and garlic.  Once again, the traditional Belgian cuisine was excellent, and the waiter unfailing pleasant.  I don’t find food here or in Amsterdam especially expensive by Washington, D.C. standards, even with the exchange rate (not too bad these days).  32 euros got me a glass of good dry Prosecco, mussels, vegetables, frites, and mint tea, roughly forty bucks, including tip, for a first-rate meal.  And Restaurant de Graslei managed what no other eatery has ever accomplished in serving me more mussels than I could finish, a first. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Of Railway Strikes, B&B’s, and Modernism

I am condemned, so it appears, to spend another night in this delightful city.  An anti-austerity railway strike has rendered travel impossible across several countries, including Belgium.  Fortunately, my room at the Posthoorn is available for another night, so I’ve adjusted my train ticket for departure tomorrow morning. 

Speaking of B&B’s, this one is excellent.  I’ve had a range of experiences over the years, most of them ordinary and some at the far ends of the spectrum.  The nadir was a B&B in Ireland—in Kerry, as I recall—run by a sour Irish woman.  The room was dirty and the unchanged sheets were soiled.  She insisted they were freshly laundered and bristled when I asked for fresh linens.  It was thoroughly unpleasant. 

By contrast, François, who just purchased this seventeenth-century home two years ago, has made every effort to ensure the comfort of his guests.  The three rooms are handsomely appointed and immaculate, with freshly tiled, modern en-suite bathrooms.  I have a little kitchenette, a microwave, and a coffee maker, all quite handy.  The fridge is stocked with wine, juice, milk, and water, all included, and the breakfasts are excellent, if overly lavish in quantity.  The next time I come to Amsterdam, this will be my residence unless I decide to do something impulsive (like swapping houses with someone for a month in the summer).  Indeed, I am so smitten with the city that I have been entertaining seriously the notion of a sublet or house swap, particularly if I can find something in the Jordaan neighborhood, which I like immensely. 

I took the tram to the museum district and walked over to the Concertgebouw to queue for the free Wednesday noontime concert.  I arrived early and sat with the locals on the carpeted steps leading to the concert hall, reading the latest issue of The New York Review of Books, an activity that immediately prompted questions from several people.  The Dutch are great readers—easily half of the crowd whiled away the time immersed in books or tablets—and they were curious about an American publication devoted entirely to books. 

At noon we were permitted to enter, but the concert didn’t begin for another twenty minutes or so.  The hall is lovely, and the acoustics are exceptional.  I wasn’t wild, however, about the program, which was very modern.  The first two pieces were random bits of noise, like John Cage on steroids.  I’m sure the music can be explained in theoretical terms that might attempt to make sense of this cacophony, but I was having none of it.  My mind drifted to that parodic scene in Funny Face where Audrey Hepburn, dressed like a beatnik, does a strange contorted dance to similarly dissonant music, an association I’m not sure the composer would appreciate. 

The final piece was more interesting to me, sort of a modernist version of Bolero that repeated the central phrase and intensified the sound until the climactic end.  Again, it was a bit discordant for my undoubtedly bourgeois tastes but musically dense and even, at points, appealing.  The orchestra attacked all three pieces with verve and skill, and the largely Dutch audience applauded enthusiastically. 

The concert lasted less than an hour; nonetheless, a bit overcome by all of that, uh, sound, I headed for the café in the concert hall to fortify myself with additional caffeine.  I ended up sitting next to a fascinating older woman named Annika, a retired flutist (she also taught for years) who had spent part of her youth in South Africa.  We spoke at length about all manner of things and exchanged business cards (which I keep collecting here).  I have not lacked for conversation. 

Modernism was the theme for the day: near the Concertgebouw is the simply splendid Stedelijk Museum, a fabulous collection of modern art and design.  The light is superb, and everything is beautifully displayed.  They have Chagall’s famous painting of the fiddler, which is just extraordinary, and a terrific collection of Malevich’s drawings. 

I also discovered several Flemish and Dutch modern painters, including Charley Toorop, whose self-portrait and painting of an old woman amidst the ruins of WWII just knocked my socks off.  I continue to be dismayed at the limitation of our exhibits in the U.S.  Museums recycle the same periods (I never want to see another show on Impressionism again, ever) and the same artists, but we rarely get to see anything beyond the usual suspects.  I’ve seen, for instance, amazing Russian and Scandinavian art that was simply unknown to me.  I found much the same today, as I marveled at various Dutch pieces.  We always tend to associate modernist art movements with cities like Paris, Vienna, and New York, but I now appreciate what a vital role Amsterdam played as well. 

The last hour was the best, as I worked through room after room of posters, photographs, objects, and furniture, delighting in nearly every piece.  Does any period marry form and function as well as high modernism?  I think not.  Normally I’m not terribly keen on installation art, but I saw several here that captivated me.  My favorite, not surprisingly, was Ed Kienholz’s Barney’s Beanery, a painstaking recreation of the venerable eatery in L.A. that made me laugh out loud.  The only change Kienholz made was to give the regular customers clocks for heads, an indication, I suppose, of how one forgets time in this drunken, ratty environment (Jim Morrison of the Doors was supposedly ejected for pissing on the bar).

Happy but hungry, I headed back to my neighborhood.  I didn’t have the energy to hunt down another of François’ recommendations, and I randomly picked an Italian joint frequented by the locals.  The wine bordered on rotgut, but the salad of grilled vegetables and the pasta with mushrooms were surprisingly decent. 

Tomorrow, Belgium.