Thursday, January 3, 2019

Belgium



Yesterday at the comics museum in Brussels, I was thrumming with excitement and a strong desire to draw. I found the character sketches, which show faces in various states of emotion and at different angles, very interesting. The process leading up to the finished page lay right before me. I saw how famous cartoonists developed their characters, sketched layouts, studied movement, and blotted out imperfections with white ink. I especially loved the artwork of Aimee de Jongh, Jordi Lafebre, and Regis Loisel and Jean-Louis Tripp. I need to practice injecting life into my drawings. Statuesque and expressionless is unfortunately how I would describe some of my characters. I practiced a sketch of myself mid-yawn, not very flattering, yet exactly the kind of natural behavior I need to capture.

Today I felt more like painting. I hummed the Norah Jones song, “If I were a painter,” while snapping pictures of swirling cloudy skies with pink and orange hues. My flights of fleeting whimsy, one morning wanting to draw and the next afternoon wanting to paint, and the following evening wanting to write, means I hardly ever finish creative projects. I realized while walking around the Magritte Museum that passion has a habit of dying and that I should stick to one project at a time before my enthusiasm for it evaporates. I used to love Renee Magritte, but I walked through the museum unmoved. I didn’t care at all about his apples or pipes or bowler hats. I found the museum very pretentious and dull.

I guess tastes change. However, if my taste for Italian food and red wine ever goes away, I think it’s safe to assume my heart and soul have been possessed by aliens. My mom and I enjoyed the most satisfying and affordable feast at an Italian place right by our hotel. Il Colosseo doesn’t look like the classiest of venues on the outside, but on the inside it’s charming, vibrant, and redolent with cooking aromas.

Unlike London, where there was too much to do in too little time, Belgium has given us some welcome relief. We have explored Brussels, Bruges, and Leuven at our own pace, taking frequent cappuccino breaks, leisurely strolls, and dips into souvenir shops.

In Bruges, one of the highlights was feasting on mussels at a restaurant called Breydel-De Connick. The Groeninge museum featured paintings by Hieronymus Bosch and Botticelli and some Belgian masters I’d never heard of: Jacob Van Oost, Edmond Van Hove, and Joseph Benoit Suvee. My favorite painting was “Invention of the Art of Drawing,” by Suvee. I love it because it resonates with the thrill of discovery.

Belgium has some disturbing history, both recent and not so recent. I have been meaning to read the book, “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa,” by Adam Hochschild. I feel that in order to learn from history, we must study it evenly, and not just examine selective parts. Why is it that some genocidal maniacs escape people’s memory and moral judgement? I don’t understand.

One night my mom and I decided to toss back some beers in our Airbnb and watch the film, “In Bruges,” a dark comedy about two hitmen waiting for their next assignment. The reference to pedophilia in the film ignited my curiosity, so I decided to google it. Well, now I have some more disturbing associations with Belgium that I can’t get out of my mind, not to mention unanswered questions, and the feeling that justice was never served.

For New Year’s Eve, my mom and I traveled to Leuven. My research had informed me that Leuven was a college town and that the Old Market Square was dubbed “the longest bar in the world.” I anticipated that Leuven would be a lively place to ring in the new year, not realizing that most Belgian college students would take the train home for the holidays. Leuven was a ghost town and everything was closed. Fortunately, the town hall was lit up, but there was absolutely nothing to do but walk around and laugh and make sarcastic remarks about all the wild excitement happening in Leuven. It was a beautiful town and I would love to return when there’s more activity than just blowing tumbleweeds, like in an old Western movie.

Brussels is also beautiful, and we are enjoying our time here, even though the people here are not as friendly or as happy as they are in Bruges. The highlights of Brussels were the Comics Museum and walking around the Grand Place, a huge town square lined with 17th century buildings and accentuated by a dazzling Christmas tree, bedecked with twinkling blue lights. Tomorrow I return to normal life, refueled and fortified by my adventures around England and Belgium.  

Friday, December 28, 2018

So long, London!

View from the London Eye.
The past week in London has been magical. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Of all the enviable things England has, I envy it most its people.” I also envy their communal seating, their mince pies, their theatrical traditions, and their refusal to put their leaders on pedestals. While taking the Samuel Pepys walking tour on Christmas day, I listened to our guide talk about the public execution of Charles I and I thought how nice it would be to do away with some of our leaders, those who assume their power will go unchecked, who put their own selfish interests above those of the people.   
The British Museum. 
As for the mince pies, this was something I tried for the first time here and very much enjoyed. My taste buds declared the mulled wine at the Old Vic theater the Best Mulled Wine Ever. But not all English culinary traditions are admirable. I think it’s high time the Brits retire their tradition of eating mushy peas. Tonight when strangers sitting around me at the neighborhood pub overheard me order fish and chips and say, “No mushy peas,” they were utterly confounded. “No mushy peas?” Three men puzzled over my bizarre order. “You don’t like mushy peas?” Well, I might have some if I were absolutely starving, but there have been many culinary advances over the years that go beyond the caveman method of mashing things. I think I’ll stick to steamed vegetables, thanks.


My mom and I have managed to fit a lot into just one week, but we’ve still only made a dent in all there is to see and do here. Yesterday, we visited the British Museum and the National Gallery. I wanted to join the people sitting around the British Museum with their sketch books. Perhaps I will return to London on a sketching holiday. My mom and I admired the Elgin Marbles and wondered what kind of sound effects would accompany the slabs depicting man vs. satyr. Would the satyr be neighing like a horse or grunting and growling like a man? I most enjoyed the illustrations and the Japanese art, while my mom was taken with the Captain Cook exhibit and the Ancient Greek artifacts.

At the National Gallery, I saw Caravaggios, Botticellis, and Van Goghs, in addition to a painting of Venus admiring herself in the mirror, which I recognized from the film, “Venus,” starring Peter O’Toole. We also saw a couple Leonardo da Vincis and I thought back to an art critic on Youtube who questioned the validity of the most recently discovered painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. It is a pity that the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman, bought Salvator Mundi for $450 billion, when he could have fed all the starving people in Yemen for that much.
At The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden
One of the highlights of this trip was seeing the opera, Hansel
and Gretel, at Covent Garden. This fairy tale left me scarred when I was a child, but the opera version does not include Hansel and Gretel’s parents leading them out into the forest to be eaten by wild animals. The man playing the witch added both suspense and comic relief. He was a diabolical buffoon and was highly entertaining to watch. The woman who played Hansel was also very convincing as a little boy with all her energy and twitchy, herky-jerky non-stop motion. The special effects and set design were stunning, so even though it was a German opera, not French or Italian, it was still a highlight of the holiday season.
The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe. 


Today was the last day in London and I ran out of steam. I planned to go to the Tate Modern, but I just couldn’t fit one more thing into my schedule. After walking on average about ten miles every day, my legs are stiff and sore. My mom and I saw Dr. Faustus at the Globe, an interesting play but a little outdated with its many references to the horrors of hell. That sort of thing would have been frightful to Marlowe’s audience, but now it’s more amusing than frightening. I ended the day with beers and book shopping.

Tomorrow my mom and I bid farewell to London and head over to Brussels on the Eurostar. Good bye, London. I love you. Until we meet again!

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Boxing Day, a Day of Contrasts

My observations on this Boxing Day ran the gamut from excessive greed and extravagance all the way to beautiful displays of love and charity. I had no idea what Boxing Day was before I came to England, and to be honest, I don't like the idea of one of the world's largest cities practically shutting down for two whole days. Yesterday, my mom and I walked over 14 miles because there was no public transportation. Today, things were sort of back to normal. Many shops and restaurants were open, public transportation was up and running, but the museums were still closed. So, after wandering around Hampstead and seeing where John Keats and George Orwell once lived, we decided to go for a walk through Hyde Park and visit some department stores, just to say we did. 

We had coffee and dessert on the top floor of Harvey Nichols, an expensive but delicious treat. I liked the way the cherry blossoms decorating the cafe complemented my mom's grey hair and sweater, so I took some photos of her. One picture I took captures her expression just as the waitress came with our desserts. 

I have often heard students talking about Harrods, a huge luxury department store, so going inside was a way to check off something at the very bottom of my to-do list. The next time a student talks to be about Harrods I can say I've been there, but this experience has not left a positive impression on me. My mom wanted to see a shrine to Dodi and Diana, but since Mohammed al-Fayed sold the store to Qataris, the shrine has been moved. Out on the streets, people in Ferraris and Lamborghinis were showing off. A long line stretched outside, just for people who wanted to buy perfume. It all felt like a big gimmick, like something that is supposed to be fancy and exclusive, but it's really just targeting insecure people who think shopping at Harrods will boost their status. 

All this ostentatious, commercial nonsense could have been avoided if only the museums had been open. Fortunately, we had tickets to see A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic, so this Boxing Day wasn't a complete loss. The performance was magical. The actors utilized the entire theater, so no matter where you sat, you felt as though you were on the stage. While watching, I thought of our ridiculous president and how he could very well fit the part of Ebeneezer Scrooge. Instead of Tiny Tim, Trump could be confronted with the two immigrant children who died in U.S. custody in this month alone. 
After the play, the actor playing Ebeneezer asked the audience to dig into their pockets and donate to children in the UK who go hungry every day. Apparently, not much has changed since Dickens' day. But we must overcome greed and give out of love and charity. Giving to people in need would be way more valuable than anything you could buy at Harrods. 

Monday, December 24, 2018

Merry Christmas Eve from London

As Christmas approaches, our options for museums and other types of entertainment are dwindling. Almost everything in London closes on Christmas Day, including public transportation, so today my mom and I went to Borough Market, a historical market that is a must-see, to stock up on food for tomorrow. 

Our favorite stop was a cheese shop called Neal's Yard. The line outside was testament to the tastiness of their cheese. We got two types of cheese, a cheddar and a blue, to go with our loaf of olive bread and bottle of Shiraz for tomorrow. I also picked up a salami, despite my short-lived goal to not eat anything with hooves. I will go back to that goal when the holiday season is over. 
After the market, we walked along Millennium Bridge for a lovely view of the Thames, the Tower of London, and St. Paul's Cathedral. It was a glorious day, so we thought we might use our tickets for the London Eye, the big Ferris wheel, and soak up some more of the marvelous view, but when we found ourselves buried in an avalanche of people, we decided to move right along. The crowds finally dissipated when we reached St. James's Park, but the throngs of people came back with a vengeance on Regent Street. The Christmas lights were in the shape of angels, suspended in the air to give the impression of flying. It was a dazzling sight, but I was exhausted by the time we finally made it out of there and hopped on the tube. 


Our neighborhood, Hampstead, is adorable. It's quiet and charming and not too crowded. Our hotel has a French restaurant downstairs, which once was frequented by the actor, Peter O'Toole. My mom's favorite movie is Lawrence of Arabia, so she was understandably starstruck when she saw his portrait on the wall. 

Tomorrow we will walk to Trafalgar Square, one of the few locations my mom feels has remained the same since she lived here in 1968. It's going to be a long hike, but we both love exploring and the exercise will be salubrious. 


Sunday, December 23, 2018

Wassail!

Somebody please pinch me. Today I joined hands with other groundlings at the Globe Theater and formed a conga line, running around the place like a little kid. When my mom and I left the Globe after the wassail party was over, we heard the bells from St. Paul's Cathedral on the opposite side of the Thames. The party itself wasn't the basis for my excitement; I was just thrilled to be in the theater itself. I've wanted to visit the Globe for years now and it finally happened. 


On Friday, we will return for a performance of Dr. Faustus. I'm a bit more knowledgeable about the story line of Dr. Faustus than I was about what a wassail party entailed. I looked it up just now and found it's an Anglo-Saxon word meaning "good health." It's also a word for mulled cider, a drink I imbibed numerous times while walking along the Thames today. 

To be honest, the wassail party at the Globe was a bit too . . . um . . . English for my taste. I enjoyed being around so many festive people fully embracing the holiday spirit, but I didn't understand the humor. I guess I was in more of a jazzy mood, which was satisfied by the cool restaurant we went to next. The restaurant, called The Flask, is hidden down an alleyway in Hampstead. They played Blossom Dearie on the stereo and I gave my feet a well-deserved break after, according to my fitbit, walking over 20,000 steps today.  


Our other fun activity today was visiting Benjamin Franklin's London home. Our tour guide stayed in the character of Polly Stevenson, the daughter of his landlady, who stayed in touch with Benjamin Franklin for the remainder of his life. Although my mom is a Franklin fanatic who has read multiple biographies of Benjamin Franklin, including his autobiography, she still looked as if everything our tour guide was saying was new and interesting. I photographed my mom standing by the window where Franklin would take his "air baths," a term he used to describe his exhibitionist behavior. Franklin liked to sit in the window naked because he said the fresh air was good for his health. I think one does not have to be naked to enjoy the benefits of fresh air, but what do I know? I didn't even know what wassail meant.