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. 

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