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Archive for the ‘Weather’ Category

It Has Been a While Since Visitors Passed This Way

Although I would like to pride myself on being a hearty traveler, I suppose everyone has their breaking point. Late May,wearing my winter coat, in the rain, Bamberg, Germany, I hit it.

The excursion to the eastern Franconia region of Germany was to be a practice run for our campsite routine and an opportunity to sample the legendary brews at the outdoor kellers, or beer gardens. The weather reports depicted low temperatures with the chance of rain, but we had prevailed over an Ireland-like trip through Italy with daily showers and were confident we could do so again.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Then it began to rain. It did not stop. My fingers grew cold despite my gloves — gloves! May! These were followed by my nose and toes. After 24-hours of saturation even the dependable little tent sighed as its seams began to weep. After a long winter and the coldest spring in 60 years, the weather had beaten us down and we retreated, by way of a detour to the “Romantic Road,” back to Belgium.

Perhaps we should have known better than to try our luck at another tourist destination during an excursion bogged down in ill fate. Or perhaps we are the kind of couple of irony who, looking to redeem a trying trip with a little romance, find the Romantic Road closed.

Apparently, as part of the country-wide infrastructure stimulus package, the Romantic Road is under construction.  The detour signs lead us away from the promise of charming towns and idyllic views, past visitor information signs crackled with time and outdated with irrelevance.

Meistertrunk Festival

Eventually we made it to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, called the best preserved medieval city in Europe, with which I could not disagree. It was there that we were reaped the rewards of our weather-induced travel traumas.

The only draw back to this gem is that it suffers from serious overcrowding
Frommer’s Germany

Warm and Welcome

Unless, that is, you are there at 5 p.m. on a gray, wet and cold Thursday in May. Why, then you have the city wall ramparts entirely to yourself (they are covered too, conveniently enough). And it will be just you and a handful of random other soggy visitors who catch part of the city’s annual celebration of itself: a parade of locals — men, women and children — dressed up in medieval costume who parade around town and congregate at the Rathaus (city hall) all for their own amusement and not for ours.

Of course, all this whining is meant in jest, at least partially. We saw lovely towns, sampled some of the best beers in the world, enjoyed the historic beer hall culture and ate hearty meats laid atop mounds of sauerkraut. But my memory will be struck with that sense of appreciation for the fact that the locals seemed as peeved about the weather as me. In response, and to my relief, they cranked up those ceramic-tiled ancient wood stoves and kept their places cooking.

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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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Degree of Happiness

Although the Internet’s selection of easily accessible research on the matter tells me otherwise, I do believe that a mere few degrees of temperature increase that bridge a crucial point between cool and perfectly comfortable can make a human being happier. It can certainly make this human being happier.

Spring has arrived and with it those scattered days of perfect warmth and sunshine that we will soon enough take for granted without the grim cold of late winter still on our minds. Although March will prove to be like a lion — or perhaps a crocodile that clamps down and violently swings its weather prey — before a lamb, these blossoms of delight will get me through.

As the seasons change, new creatures come out, including a plethora of migrating birds attracted to the gentle streams and reedy ponds that surround our home. On a recent walk we discovered a bright yellow twitch of energy flitting from branch to branch  above the bubbling current of the Molenbeek. My husband recited a mental list of identifiable attributes and upon arriving home we paged through our Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe in order to label our grey wagtail.

Jogging around the abbey ponds a few days later, my ear caught an unusual call. Looking up, the commotion came from an eye-catching bird that I initially mistook for a duck . (I had to pause to consider whether I had ever seen a duck in a tree.) I stared as it barked — at me or another irritant — and coasted from tree to tree. I stared hard at it, attempting to recreate that checklist my husband had rattled off. And I ran on.

But the Peterson Field Guide failed me this time. Or, as my husband began to inquire about the specifics of what I had seen, I realized I had a long way to go before becoming a birder.

"Know your field marks. Good birders know the key parts of a bird's anatomy."

What were its feet like?
Um, ones that could hold onto a branch.

What color was the beak?
Um.

What was the call?
Loud.

About all I could recall was a swath of dark but iridescent blue across its wing span as it stretched to fly, a very rough estimate of its size and a general browness to the majority of its body. Evidently, this was not very helpful.

We have not yet seen the strange bird again. A few attempts have been made to guess at its identity — Little Bittern? And in the meantime, I’ll work on my field marks as the spring brings more feathered guests our way.

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March has roared in with bitter cold weather that shows not the slightest inclination of loosening its grip of winter to let spring pass. The disadvantages are obvious; the advantage has been a series of sunny, blue-sky days.

On one such day I caught Monsieur Godfrey atop his horse standing in the Royal Square of Brussels. He cut quite a figure.

So inspired, my book research continued from A History of Private Life, Revelations of the Medieval World. Some nuggets for your curiosity:

  • Just before dying noble men made a habit of lavishing their adoration upon their wives, followed up with a quick lecture on the chastity of widowhood and a request for a quickie divorce. Seeing as knightly duties were often in conflict with one’s likelihood to ascend to that higher place after death, these fellows would don the habit of St. Benedict at the last minute, along with offering a sizable donation to the monastery to pray for their souls.
  • Women were not thought of kindly by the era, particularly the clergy who did most of the writing. In their minds, ladies were infamous for their supposed poisonings, casting of spells, sowing of discord and ability to induce weakness, disease and death. Of course, some of this was justified. Conflicts with stepmothers and the “oppressive eye of the matriarchal mother-in-law” abound in the histories written at the time. And ladies were known to tip a drop of arsenic into the wine glass on occasion. Poor Robert Giroie ate a poisoned apple his wife Adelaide had meant for another. Mabille of Belleme, however, fully intended to poison Ernaud d’Echauffour. But if you had to hold on to a burning iron bar to prove your fidelity, you might get a little pissed at the male species too.
  • There were alternatives for ladies unhappy with their situations. You did not have to marry the man to whom you had been espoused, for example. Unfortunately, to avoid this you either had to throw yourself into the sea (while on route to said future husband), disfigure yourself so that no one would want to marry you or, seemingly the best option, arrange for an “abduction,” preferably to some strapping and brave knight. Of course, in this case, you might end up with the original fellow in the end anyway, as the daughter a castellan of Coucy discovered, when her “famous knight” was soon killed, as is wont to happen to a man of that profession. But if stuck in a marriage torn by family politics and war, you could always take your vows at the Order of Fontevraud, a refuge specifically for such situations.

And so ends our cheery discussion in celebration of this week’s International Women’s Day.

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Carnival

As we approach Fat Tuesday, carnival across the country has commenced, full throttle. We were fortunate to take in the Aalst Sunday carnival parade, an event currently under consideration for UNESCO cultural recognition. And what a show it is.

There were anatomical parts, of the most intimate variety, on display on costumes, massive floats and even some novel decor: spring-nipple-bulbs, anyone?; celebrations of fresh fish; men, many, many men, in drag; small costumed kids braving an hours-long circuitous city parade route in the snow; songs and dance about the Mexican flu (as Swine Flu was called here); many songs to the tune of Julie Andrews (via Mary Poppins and The Sounds of Music); onions dropping out the backside of a Trojan horse; oranges, candy, champagne, water and apples tossed, sprayed and hurled into the crowd; much spray paint and face paint; floats of foam and floats of greenery; swings and hydraulic lifts and manual seesaws and rolling library ladders; and all-out performances from intricately costumed local participants. This is a local, family affair, which makes the magnificence, quality and size of the spectacle really quite unbelievable for a not terribly large city. They call it the one time of year they get to say what they really mean, and they hold no punches; the church, politicians, athletes and even the royal family found their spot in the cross-hairs.

But as a visual event, it is best realized in images . . .

Trojan Horse Dumping Onions

Bzzzzzzzz

Real Feathers, Blown Everywhere

Champagne Spray

Mexican (Swine) Flu

Salute to the Belgian Military

And perchance I could be accused of the only one poking fun at Belgium’s handling of the excessive (from a historic perspective) snow coverage this winter, there were also a sprinkling of salt jokes and clowns taking donations to help fund a salt drive for the country.

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Snow Triggers Chaos on the Roads”

“Treacherous Conditions Across Flanders”

“. . . of spring there is no talk.”

Yes, another two inches fell earlier this week and the shock of it all brought the country to another standstill. As friends in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore dug through icy trenches and everyone up the U.S. East Coast braced for another truckload of the stuff to be dumped on their front step, here we found ourselves in yet another crisis over an embarrassingly paltry accumulation.

Drivers were stranded in their cars for hours, trucks were told to pull off the highways, buses were recalled to the garage and at one point nearly 1,000 kilometers of traffic wound its way across a not terribly large country; in fact, you could have lined those cars up and nearly traced the whole of Belgium’s border. The airport shut down and flights were canceled. In Antwerp, the second largest city in the country, they simply ran out of salt, and don’t expect more to arrive before next week.

It was the surprise attack that caught everyone off guard, we are told. This seems a bit irregular in this nation seemingly obsessed with its entirely unpredictable and fickle weather. Though, the range of its meteorological mood swings are generally less dramatic than witnessed this winter — which explains the general hysteria when the white blanket covers the first few green inches of those persistent early spring bulbs.

Indeed, there is some irony that the forecasts are calling for the snow cover to stay through the start of the “Crocus Holiday.” The upcoming school break (roughly a winter recess) which starts next week is named after that prelude to spring: the crocus flower. Of course, this year, it looks like the little guys are in for a challenge.

Not to fear, the snowdrops in the front garden declare, with more courage than  municipal workers on the job tearing up the street out front. Any time the temperature drops below 0 (as in just freezing), they get to stay home.

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A Snowy Day in Bruges

We stepped off the train on our latest trip to Bruges into a surprise snow flurry — a great whirling whiteness that made the enchanting city even more magical.

“I know I’m awake but it feels like I’m in a dream . . . It’s a fairytale town,” as two blokes were known to say.

Take a look at the video from our day in Bruges.

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