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Tot Ziens

Somehow this journey has come to an end. Although we have ahead of us several weeks’ experiment in unplanned holiday-making in France, our time in Belgium is essentially up. And it would not seem right to end In Belgium, in France.

So, tot ziens!

Thank you for joining the ride, perhaps I will be able to offer you another sometime soon.

Now, onto life’s next adventure, in . . .

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Eyjafjallajokull Volcano

Tom Hanks made a move twenty years ago that quickly flopped and has become one of those jokes he charmingly chuckles about now. It was called Joe Versus the Volcano, and I loved it.

A quote from the movie quickly sums up the plot:

Joe Banks: I have less than six months to live. The Waponis believe they need a human sacrifice or their island is going to sink into the ocean. They have this mineral your father wants so he hired me to leap into their volcano.

Patricia: What?

Joe Banks: You’re not going to make me say that again, are you?

As the skies above Europe begin to fill with the familiar drone of airplane engines, it seems someone has volunteered for the job. “Take me to the volcano!”

And there ends my five-day run of “blame it on the volcano,” regardless of the nature of the problem. Slam my head into the corner of the stove vent hood again — blame it on the volcano. That email message went missing — blame it on the volcano. Google maps will not cooperate — blame it on the volcano.

Of course, there are more logical reasons to be pissed at this geological force of invisible dust. We have a friend stuck here who is unlikely to find a way home earlier than a week after his scheduled flight. There are friends coming from the other direction with a similar problem. And I have been all in a tizzy as The Great Tulip Caper has melted, day-by-day into the Tulip Caper, the Caper, and now, really just a day trip with a bike.

But the good news — for which I am grateful — is that The Great Tulip Caper, Abbreviated is on. Somewhere amidst a dissipated cloud of volcanic glass particles, my friend flies toward Holland. This means no blog posts for a few days — but plenty of fresh material next week.

But I remain a little nervous about our next set of travel plans. So far disaster has struck the transportation network on which we were dependent right before both of our extended excursions, whether it was one of the worst train crash disasters in Belgium’s history or a Icelandic volcano spitefully spewing its gripe over economic meltdown over the European continent. What next? Stay tuned.

In the meantime, a final note about Joe Versus the Volcano. Although — despite my every effort — I generally end up with the shambled look of a bag lady when I travel, I do have a fantasy love of fine luggage. I do not think it is likely to ever happen, but I smile at the picture in my mind of sauntering into an airport with a set of perfectly matching bags, preferably including a trunk. Joe, in preparing for his final voyage, found some pretty awesome suitcases, and I think that is really what I loved about the movie — its homage to fine luggage.

Joe Banks: And then I’ll be staying on a tiny island and I don’t know if I’ll be living in a hut, or what.

Luggage Salesman: Very exciting… as a luggage problem!

. . .

Luggage Salesman: This is our premier steamer trunk, it’s all handmade, only the finest materials. It’s even watertight, tight as a drum. If I had the need, and the wherewithal, Mr. Banks, this would be my trunk of choice.

Joe Banks: I’ll take four of them.

Luggage Salesman: May you live to be a thousand years old, sir.

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More Print History

By popular request, from the Plantin-Moretus Museum . . . Here in the print room to the left are the desks at which the lead letters, numbers, notes and decoration would be assembled backwards. To the right are the presses themselves — still in working order. The presses at the end of the room, however, are the treasures: the oldest surviving presses in the world, from the 16th century.

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Chinese Takeout

I believe there are few who believe their local Chinese take-out place in the States actually serves true Chinese food. In the nature of global consistencies, the same can be said for your average Chinese restaurant in Belgium. There is, however, a distinct difference between Chinese American menus and Chinese Belgian meals. Although, both, I suspect are identical in being unidentifiable as Chinese cuisine to anyone actually from that country.

So at a takeout supper with friends, we examined the menu and tasted carefully to determine how exactly the Chinese food here differs. What made it so, well, Belgian?

As far as flavors, the first distinction is a lack of fire power. So many U.S. dishes come labeled with that little chile pepper, and quite often it is not overstated. Here, you can order pikante sauce, but you are not likely to otherwise encounter that rogue dried pepper that leaves you sweating in your seat. There is also a thicker, sweeter nature to the sauces — Belgians love their saus — in which the dishes lie (and sauce cuddles almost every menu item).

But whereas the spicing may lack spiciness, it does not lack flavor. Rather, they range beyond hot and mild, and providean array of delicate aromas and distinct tastes. If the nature of the complex spicing of a gingerbread cookie (orspeculaas, as would be appropriate here) could be applied to a savory dish, that would best describe it.

Which made me think that in addition to the usual adaptation for local tongues and produce, perhaps the contrasts resulted  from the chefs’ geography. After doing a little searching, I discovered that the name of our regular place, NiHao, is Mandarin for Hello. (Take that with a giant grain of internet salt.) Since traditionally North America has been dominated by Cantonese traditions, perhaps this was the difference?

But the menu itself indicated perhaps a more telling origin. The third column offered a range of  nasigoreng, a word burned into the deep recesses of my brain after nearly a month straight of eating just that during a Southeast Asian jaunt. Whereas American Chinese food began its development in the 19th century, Chinese populations here — or rather in the nearby Netherlands — grew mostly during the 20th century, particularly in the second half from Indonesia. The influences of Indonesian cuisine  could be an explanation for that palette of  flavors offered to the takeout palate here.

Of course, my favorite menu item name — far outclassing the likes of General Tso’s Chicken or Moo Shu Pork — you are also not likely to see on a U.S. menu stapled to your brown paper takeout bag. It is the chef’s specialty, kickerbilletjes. That’s an all Belgian nod to a Kermit nightmare.

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The Writing Niche

I have finally established my writing nook, a carefully arranged desk nestled into a warm and comfortable corner surrounded by various books of reference and inspiration. There is a postcard of a Van Eyck painting that serves as a reminder of beauty, a jug of fresh flowers as a reminder of the world outside and an abundance of colored pens and pencils with which to take notes and draw up fantastic plot and character scenarios.

This also means it is time I get down to work, which leaves less freedom to ruminate on topics for In Belgium, as well as compose it. In fact, I hope very much to have days of pure writing adrenalin that keep me contentedly chained to my little desk and fed and watered by means of a manservant creeping quietly up the stairs with trays of nourishment. As personally rewarding as such incidents will be, they are  not likely to draw up any notable experiences of which anyone but myself and a few other construction-of-a-novel geeks would be interested.

So, if you will excuse the interruption, In Belgium will henceforth be available, fresh and inviting, Monday through Friday.

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It seems like it ought to be categorized amongst the colorful exclamations such as “Well, blow me down with a feather” or “Robert’s your uncle and fanny’s your aunt” or, one of my new favorites, “All my eye and Peggy Martin.”

But, no, this is just dessert.

Seated atop a fine chocolate ganache and kept company by a Santa and some geometric Christmas trees, there is little baby Jesus welcoming us to our post-meal sweet indulgence with a gesture of peace and stamped “China” on his backside.

Then again, it’s also tradition here to eat tiny marshmallow candies shaped like the Virgin Mary in tribute to the Immaculate Conception.

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In Bruges contains a scene in which the moping main character, Ray, addresses a plus-size American family outside the entrance to the bell tower on the main market square in Bruges:

Well you lot ain’t going up there.

Pardon me, why?

I mean it’s all winding stairs. I’m not being funny.

What exactly are you trying to say?

What exactly am I trying to say? You’s a bunch of fuckin’ elephants.

The scene concludes with the daughter bellowing at Ray’s more acrimonious compatriot who has just reappeared, understandably perplexed:

Screw you, motherfucker!

“Americans,” the Irish Ray offers with a shrug, by way of explanation.

The rest of the movie features a range of violence perpetuated against an array of nationalities: American, Canadian, Irish, English and Belgian. The tower plays backdrop to a good number of those bloody acts, whether by its base, at its peak or within its staircases.

In our own visit to Bruges, however, that tower, and specifically its staircases, revealed quite another, more optimistic point of view.

Bruges Belfry Stairs Up

The tower climb, a great right of passage for the tourist in Europe, comes in a caliber gradations. Between height of decent, degree of steepness, width of stairway and material of the step, the spiraling climb can be either a vigorous jaunt to a pleasant view or a gut-wrenching crawl to a death-defying drop.

The Bruges Belfort (belfry) falls somewhere in the middle, starting off on wide stone steps with shallow inclines and a sturdy handrail, but quickly intensifying to slippery wood planks too small to carry an average-size adult foot within a space unable to accommodate more than a single average-size man. Oh, and the staircase serves both up and down foot traffic.

Bruges Belfry Stairs Down

Filled with a throng of tourists from every corner of the free-to-travel world, the dual-direction traffic functions, in the absence of any local control, with perfect and polite anarchy. Climbing, pausing, letting others pass, pressing against the stone tower wall to create an extra inch of movable space is done with more civility and common sense that your average lines of merging traffic.

It thus occurred to me that if all of us in this tower — 70 international representatives of the world with various backgrounds, educations, cultures and manners — could act with such decency, kindness and good will upon 388 steps of potential slips and vertigo-induced panic, perhaps it is a small indication that peace on earth is possible.

Then again, maybe not.

Around the corner from the belfry is the tiny Basilica of the Holy Blood which houses a vial of what the church claims to be the blood of Jesus Christ. People make holy pilgrimages to the site and stand in line (from 10 am to noon and 2 pm to 4 pm — Belgians take the lunch break seriously) to kiss the vessel for whatever blessing it might bestow.

At the entrance a placard has been secured to the wooden door, decrying in several languages to those who come to to this sacred chapel for holy contemplation:

Beware of Pickpockets

Yes, peace on earth and goodwill toward man.

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