Feeling Continental.

Natalie and I got back a couple days ago after a nice long trip in the Benelux region (Netherlands & Belgium) last week. I can’t possibly catch up on the cool stuff we did or saw, so I’ll just give you some highlights:

APRIL 28: LEIDEN. We got up at 3AM to go by bike, train, and plane to Schiphol airport, then training again down to Leiden, where our friends Eric & Elisabeth from Madison currently live. Eric is doing his Ph.D. in English at UW and spent last year in Warwick England prior to a Fullbright which took him to the Netherlands as well. So we hadn’t seen them in nearly 2 years! That first day, we mostly wandered around the market, eating pickled herring which you dip in chopped onions and eat whole, as well as weird “eikoeken” (egg cakes) and other street food. We went to a grocery store with animatronic animals that sang and danced (freaky)… and I was so happy to see that beer is both (a) cheap and (b) good in Holland. Four bottles of not-crap ran us about €5 (US$7) there, instead of £6 (US$12). We also took naps, and saw the Marekerk, one of the first churches built for Protestant worship (architecturally a circle as opposed to a cross like most Catholic buildings).

Pickled Herring

APRIL 29: ROTTERDAM + NORTH SEA. The next day, Natalie and I went off to Rotterdam in Zuid-Holland (the south). I was expecting a much older city, but since it was virtually demolished during World War II, it has been rebuilt with some very odd and modern architecture. After wandering around a bit we found the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen which we were able to see for free thanks to the “Museumkarten” Eric & Elisabeth loaned us. Lots more abstract art, I think, than you see in most US art museums, and even other European museums for that matter. Even the public art in The Netherlands seems more abstract, but colorful and cool. I’ll let Natalie expand on her thoughts as to why this is so…

I’d hoped to get back to Leiden early enough to see the Asterix & Obelix exhibit at the Rijksmuseum in Leiden, but we’d have cut it pretty close so instead we stayed there and marveled and the odd mix of Architecture and public art around the city. Then we trained back, had pannekoeken for dinner (big yummy panckes with toppings like pizza), and took a bus out to the coast with Eric & Elisabeth to watch the sun set over the North Sea. It was a bit too cold to go swimming in, but we did wade our feet in a bit. It was gorgeous.

North Sea Sunset

APRIL 30: KONINGINNEDAG. This Queen’s Day celebration is a Dutch holiday involving techno music, boats on the canals, street sales of junk, and tons of revelers in tangerine. The four of us went in to Amsterdam for the day, and I have no clue how many people were flooding the streets. (A million?) It was decidedly smaller than the Love Parade I was at in Berlin 2000, but just as crazy and packed with people. After 8PM or so we caught the train back to Leiden, and proceeded to the University district where we caught the last couple hours of DJ Armin Van Büren’s party there. It was a lot more fun than the big stages in Amsterdam, because it was smaller and you could actually see the DJ. In Amsterdam, all you could see were jumbotron TVs, so you felt like a spectator instead of a participant. Anyway, I caught a video of Natalie and Eric (and crowd) jumping to the beats in Leiden:

MAY 1: AMSTERDAM. Natalie and I went back the next day to see the city modulo the mayhem. The main routes, particularly where the streetcars run (they weren’t running the day before) were very cleaned up, but further into the city you could still see a lot of trash down the alleys. Some of the areas with public street urinals (seriously) still reeked (seriously). We went to the Van Gogh Museum, which was amazing. I’ve always been a fan of Vincent Van Gogh anyway, but the particularly unique thing about this was that the collection comprised about a fifth of his painting and half of his drawings, spanning his entire career and every stage of his life, location, health, sanity, etc. It was saddening but inspiring, and the ability to contextualize everything was invaluable. I don’t think I’ve seen another artist’s work curated and hung in such a way. At least not as successfully. There was also an interesting exhibit in another wing on the work of German expatriate Max Beckmann during his exile in Amsterdam during World War II. We also toured the red light district (wow) and saw the thinnest buildings in Europe (only about arm’s length wide).

That evening we met up with my “online friends” Max and Rik for the first time. Max is a hotel caterer and Rik an artist, both of whom have participated in my FAWM project for the last couple of years and both have been big supporters of it. Their friends Murël and Joost we also along, and we all walked down to a bar called De Niewe Anita where we played music for a few hours in this relaxed acoustic setting. The bartenders actually leave the circular bar, and musicians sit behind it to play unamplified. Everyone is pretty quiet and listens attentively. We finally made it back to Leiden around 2AM, where poor Elisabeth had been staying up watching Batman cartoons on the internet to stay awake for us!!

De Niewe Anita (Wasser Umsonnst)

MAY 2: BRUSSELS + LEUVEN. The next morning we got up, re-stuffed our bags, and caught a train to Brussels (or Brüssel, or Bruxelles). It was very refreshing to be in a francophone place for me, and even more refreshing that, unlike a lot of Paris, they insist on speaking French with you so I got a lot of practice. It was a bit confusing at points, though, because of some dialectical differences. For example, when we checked in to the hostel she gave me the price, “septant-six” (”seventy-six”). However, Parisian French would say “soixant-seize” (”sixty-sixteen”… don’t ask why), so we had a mild bit of miscommunication as I’d never heard it the Belgian (and more logical) way before. The street slang appeared to be a weird mix of French and Dutch. We ate some Belgian waffles and a big old cone of “pommes frites” which are actually Belgian and not French at all.

Later in the evening we caught another train to Leuven in the Flemish part, where I was invited to play a set at an acoustic showcase. Singer-songwriter Milow organizes the showcase, and I helped him out with some gig in Madison when he went to visit a mutual friend last month so he returned the favor. The other musicians I played with that night were really cool, and when I played everyone (maybe 100+ people crammed in by the bar?) was completely quiet. It was very neat but intimidating as well… usually crowds that big aren’t that silent, and in fact they weren’t that silent for most of the night. I’m glad I did it.

Het Depot - Leuven, Belgium

MAY 3: BRUSSELS. We were a bit museumed-out by now, so we just took a low-key day wandering round the city. Which was good becuase the city is so awkwardly laid out we got lost a lot! ;) We found a small brewery Cantillon on the south side of town that offered cheap tours that included a tasting, so we gave it a go. They make a special kind of Belgian beer called Lambic that is still brewed using “spontaneous fermentation” with random airborne yeast instead of cultivated and injected strains. Until a couple hundred years ago, all beer was made this way apparently… and it can take 3 years for a batch to be ready. There was a sign in the storehouse that said “Le temps ne respecte pas ce qui se fait sans lui.” Roughly translated, “Time respects no one who works without him.” I like it.

We ran into an Indian tourist named Raoul during the tasting portion of the tour and ended up spending a fair bit of time with him and some native Brusseliers who were hosting him during his visit. We went to a “squatter bar” (pictured below) which was a location that fell out of use so someone just moved in and illegally started a bar there. Very informal, very cheap, very interesting vibe. Throughout the evening be basically went to a bar, had one or two beers, then got up and walked to another one… it was a cool way to do things: we got to try lots of different drinks and could easily gauge how drunk we were by walking (not to mention a little exercise as well). I hope to stay in touch with the folks we met in Belgium, both Brussels and Leuven. They were all really cool.

Squatter Bar in Brussels

MAY 4: LONDON. We walked around Brussels for a couple of hours in the morning before heading to the Eurostar terminal to catch our train to London. There we met our friends Eric and Jen from Minnesota who had been traveling for the last week elsewhere in the UK. We dumped our stuff at a hostel, ate a nice big dinner at a French café nearby, and then found our Cambridge roommate Keith at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, where we saw Othello. Eric noted that the actor playing Cassio is a famous British actor who was a regular on Black Adder. I’d never seen Othello before, but I was pretty sure it was a tragedy. However, the comic relief was so well delivered that halfway through I still wasn’t sure! Standing for four hours in the open-roof theatre (we had “groundling” tickets) proved to worsen my health a bit, though, as I’d picked up some sort of bug earlier that day and I’m even now still recovering, but it was worth it. I sort of have a sense of what theatre-going might have been like 400 years ago. ;)

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

MAY 5-8: CAMBRIDGE. Eric & Jen came back to Cambridge for a few days to stay with us. We had dinner one night at “The Eagle” which has been a pub since the 1660s (formerly “The Eagle & Child”) and the favored hangout of Watson & Crick who discussed their DNA research in there over 50 years ago.

That is what I’ll miss most about this place… the history. In Madison (indeed, most of the US) you’re lucky to find a building much older than 100 years. Here, the downtown grocery store is a few hundred years old. Newton walked these streets. C.S. Lewis. Even the guys from Pink Floyd if you want to be less academic about things. I’ve learned a lot about my lifestyle pace, my work habits, relationships, eating and spending, etc. while I’ve been here… but most of the things I’ve learned about myself I can take back with me and (hopefully) implement with success in my daily life stateside. The massive lush trees, however, the blackbirds (who really do sing in the dead of night), and the cobblestone streets laid before my country was even founded… I must leave them behind.

2 Responses to “Feeling Continental.”

  1. 1 Rachel May 11th, 2007 at 3:08 am

    Sigh… sounds like you had a wonderful time!!! Your stories bring back memories for us - when we went to the Netherlandsthe first time, we visited a lot of the same places - Rotterdam and Leiden, with a side trip out to the sea, then a day in Bruxelle on the way back to London. Except I think you may have seen the inside of a lot more bars than us. :) Then on our second visit, Eric and Elisabeth went to Amsterdam with us.

    Thanks for posting the video and photos of you and E & E. We miss you guys and are looking forward to your return.


  2. 2 Burr May 18th, 2007 at 7:02 pm

    Thanks Rachel!! We miss you guys, too… but we’ll be back in Mad-town in less than a week. Noah must be gettin’ pretty big by now!

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