Wednesday, August 26, 2015

FRITS IN BRUGES

THE FRIT NAZI
The line inside the fast food French fry restaurant, Best Frit, was disorganized and cramped. Customers were either leaning on the glass counter or using their shoulders and body posturing to jockey a little closer to the front of the queue that really wasn't a queue at all. The man in charge behind the counter was a burly guy in a red and white t-shirt, the uniform of all two of the employees working back by the deep fryers. We reluctantly joined the queue, as we were as determined as the unruly crowd to try these frites that came so highly recommended.
We forced our way forward and waited our turn as the big guy on the other side belted out orders to his poor attendant whose sole job seemed to be sweeping up after the more self-important t-shirted dude who was clearly in charge.
Emmy decided she'd try to help make things go a little faster by getting our drinks before we made it to the front of the line.  The glass-doored cooler with cans and bottles of sodas and beer was located by the front entrance. The minute she slid the door of the cooler to the side the big-gutted man in the red and white tee, who I believe must have had eyes in the back of his head yelled without even looking up, "No drinks until you pay!" It scared the Holy Beejesus out of Emmy. She let the door slam shut and meekly walked back to where the rest of us were standing.
Within minutes of the cooler outburst a woman with a small dog blithely walked in, the dog on a leash. "No dog, get out"
We were all pretty terrified by this time as we became little soldiers our heads bent and our arms now hanging straight against our sides. We were slowly inching our way to the front of the queue our fear becoming palpable as the couple in front of us heard, "No fries for you".
It fell on Laura to place our order, her being the lead Dutch speaker among us. She managed to squeak out our order for frites in paper cones and the various sodas Emmy had tried to pull from the cooler earlier. She, unfortunately, forgot to add we wanted our drinks in bottles not cans. The man was too fast and had already tabulated our bill. He was not happy. You don't try to change something on the guy with the voice that would make even Schwarzenegger tinkle a little.
After he miraculously reworked our check adding the additional charge for the bottle upgrade he pushed a little devise toward Laura that was supposed to buzz when our order was ready. Then he said, "You sit". We did, but that wasn't the end of it. There was a video screen above the order counter that cycled through the menu. A little line appeared at the bottom of one of the images telling us each table had to have a minimum of one drink on it or you couldn't use the tables to eat your fries. It was the demise of a table behind us as he shouted, "No drink, get out".
We were okay. We had ordered enough drinks. Finally our buzzer went off. Our fries were ready, in baskets not cones. We weren't about to complain, the frites were that good.
New York has its "Soup Nazi" made popular by the sitcom, Seinfeld. We found Bruges has its equivalent, "The Frit Nazi".

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

BRUGES ONE MORE TIME

ONE OF THE MOST PICTURESQUE CITIES IN EUROPE
We had spent part of our holiday retracing steps we had made years before. Bruges was the first port on the mainland Rick and I set sail for on our first European trip together. It was a time when you didn't need reservations. We'd travel with our Eurail passes and luggage without wheels, disembarking trains and stopping at the tourist information centers for local information. We'd ask for a hotel at the desk and choose from whatever was available. Travel was free and easy without any real need for schedules and advance reservations.
We slept in a hotel somewhere in the city center of Bruges. We had such a romantic memory of the city they called "The Venice of the North" we wanted to share it with our daughter and our friends. As we drove into Bruges, this time in our rented luxury Renault, we could sense that like the rest of the world it had moved on from our memory; its genuine sleepiness lost in the years that had gone by.
The quaint brick buildings still created a portrait where any fairytale princess would have felt at home.
The canals still remained waterways for flocks of swans, but the tatting women no longer sat in their doorways dressed in traditional costumes making lace
and the crowds of tourists had quadrupled in size. It was August, the high season for tourist traffic and the weather was overcast and drizzly for most of our stay, but the longer we walked the rain spattered streets the beauty of the city overtook us once again.
We ended up being just as in love with city as the first time we walked those cobbled streets. This time we had the opportunity of also seeing it through the fresh eyes of a new set of romantics.
Bruges remains one of the most photogenic of any of the cities we've seen.
The storefronts and displays showed off a wealth of objects of desire: Gorgeous vintage silver,
intricate lace work,
candy made as you watched,
gorgeous garden ware,
hats made for ladies to shield them from the sun,
liquor stores selling the most original craft brands,
and of course Belgian chocolate.
The architecture of its churches both from the exterior and interior was a spiritual journey into splendor and simplicity.
From the regal elegance of the Basilica of the Holy Blood where the blood of Christ is said to be stored
to the Begijnhof, a convent of Carmelite nuns with signs of silence
and an art installation of tree houses contrasting the playfulness of children who are not allowed to roam the grounds with the rigidity of the nuns way of life.
The chapel on the grounds of the convent was an inspiring departure from the monastic severity of the nun's quarters that formed the fortress of the convent.
The restaurants that surrounded the main square were completely picturesque but tourist traps to be avoided,
but once off the central plaza there were dozens of choices waiting with open seating and far better prices.
Rotterdam was the only other city that found all of us in the same place at the same time. We've melded our families together in a way that is rare and unique.
The boundaries between family and friends have disappeared as each of us has developed a bond so strong nothing is off limits.
Protocol is cast to the wind and we fly on the joy of each other's company.
It was too difficult to select what photos I wanted to add to this post so I'm leaving with the word, "Ciao", neither an hello nor a goodbye and the pictures I needed to include for the city we'll always want to return to, a place beyond belief.

Monday, August 24, 2015

DEN HAAG, THE NETHERLANDS

GOVERNMENT, PANORAMAS AND ANTIQUES
Den Haag hadn't been a blip on my must see itinerary. Not being very familiar with the geography of Holland I didn't really know where it was located in relation to Dordrecht, our home base. It turns out it was barely a ten minute trip beyond Delft and Delft wasn't all that far from Dordrecht.
The Netherlands is not that big geographically nor in its population (Amsterdam has a population about the size of Milwaukee) where it shows its muscle and becomes one of the big guys is inside its bank account and holdings around the world.
Den Haag is The Netherland's center of national government, although Amsterdam is the official capital, and the location of the International Court and Peace Palace. The Palace was built with funds supplied by Andrew Carnegie. It's an impressive structure housing the Permanent Court of Arbitration dedicated to ending wars and promoting world peace, not a bad idea.
Den Haag was also a city that suffered substantial damage during the Second World War. That damage can now be seen in its new and ever changing skyline.
The weather had turned brisk the day I left for a day trip with Wim and Marjam. They had wanted to play tour guide around the city they both clearly loved. I was the only taker. I had dressed in layers for the trip and brought an umbrella along, the sky was hanging low with a color palette of dreary greys, and dirty blues.
They wanted to park in an area that was near the Parliament buildings, an historic area of the city. They considered it a good location for walking around along the streets and pebble promenades of Den Haag.
The only problem, for them, was on this particular Sunday an antique fair was being held that blocked off the area where they had hoped to park. I, on the other hand, was like Natalie Wood at the end of A Miracle on 34th Street where from the backseat of the car she demands, "Stop, stop Uncle Fred" when she sees the house she had asked Santa for but had given up hope he could ever deliver.
Whether they were interested or not I was going to tour the fair. It did not disappoint. It was a high-end affair and the prices reflected the quality of the items they were offering.
There were beautiful wooden boxes along with glassware,
and fashion, and art. I came away with a trio of aluminum candlesticks and Wim, who was of the opinion that the fair would be mostly trash, found a couple of treasures of his own.
From there we headed off to lunch, which had been our primary first destination since we left Dordrecht around noon. We settled on an outdoor cafe Mirjam told us was a favorite spot for members of Parliament to sit and conduct unofficial meetings outside the halls of government.
After lunch we didn't have a whole lot of time left. We did a small walking tour of the area around the Parliament seeing some of the architecture that survived the WWII destruction done by both the Germans and the Allies.
Then we went to the Mesdag Museum. The museum is primarily dedicated to the work of Hendrik Willem Mesdag and his wife, Sientje Mesdag-van-Houten. They were instrumental in The Hague school of art. The museum has a relatively small collection of paintings from The Hague and Barbizon schools but the jewel of the collection and the main attraction is the Mesdag Panorama.
These types of paintings were also known as cycloramas and were very popular in the mid to late eighteen hundreds. The Mesdag Panorama depicts the village of Schenveningen and the sea and beaches that surrounded it in the 1880's. It is permanently housed in the museum and now remains the oldest of its type still housed in its original location.
You get to the painting by walking up a circular staircase that puts you on an observation deck in the center of the panorama. A faux beach stretches out around the deck obscuring the bottom of the painting and adding to the trompe l'oeil effect.
What I found most interesting about the painting is the magic of its perspective. This painting is huge. It is also done in a complete circle. I have a tough time developing perspective when drawing on a flat surface.
This painting is a continuous curve yet everything seems perfectly accurate with its vanishing points, horizons, and sense of space. I was impressed.
With Wim, no trip to Holland is complete without at least one trip to the sea. We capped our trip to Den Haag with drinks under a canopied café watching kite surfers catch the wind and soar into the sky.