Sunday, May 18, 2008

bruxelles, brussel, brussels

recently adam had a conference in brussels, so gracie and i came along to see the sights. i LOVE belgium -- every time i go there (i've been 4 times so far) i come back even more impressed. belgium has the coziness and quaintness of the netherlands, but with the laissez-fare attitude of the french. and the chocolate is way better.

i have been to brugge (also spelled "bruges") twice now, and once i went to ghent (also spelled "gent"), but this was my first time to brussels. adam has been bugging me forever to get to brussels, but i had never heard anything about it so i wasn't very keen on going. i can't say it's a place i've ever wanted to see (unlike rome or lhasa or san francisco), but now that i've seen it i'm REALLY glad! it's a very beautiful city, filled with amazing architecture, a few pretty parks, and of course incredible beer. i was really struck by the amount of money that brussels had, too. it seemed like every street and every building of that city was well-maintained (one morning i saw FIVE street sweepers of various designs and functions outside my hotel window at the same time, all working on the same street together).

we started out our trip by going first to amsterdam, where we attended church that day. it was a moving service, which focused on the national remembrance day holiday. people would share passages and stories about world war II, and how it affected them or someone they know. someone talked about how her grandfather still stockpiles enormous amounts of food, because during the war there was nothing to eat (i've heard stories of people actually eating tulip bulbs here because they were so hungry). another person talked about how the house she lived in in haarlem had a hiding place in it, big enough for 2 or 3 people to stand in. someone read poetry written by children. it was all very moving, and i'm glad that we had a chance to go. i had not been to my church out here since i think november, so it was good to be back.

we spent the night at valerie's house again, and this time around gracie did a much better job. she actually slept through the night and slept far more peacefully than she did last time. so we all got a good night of sleep, which allowed us to take one of the first trains of the day to brussels -- it was a short trip, only about 3 hours, so we arrived before we were able to check in to our hotel room. the hotel had a nice lobby in the basement, which was quieter and cooler than the main lobby on the ground floor, so the three of us went down there to allow gracie some quiet time from all the excitement of the day that she had already experienced. and after about 45 minutes of relaxing, nursing, and cleaning up, we were out again to see the sights!

our hotel was located right in the heart of brussels, a stone's throw away from the grand place (pronounce it all frenchy-like), where all the prettiest and most historic buildings could be found. it was the perfect location because not only was it so close to all the action, but it was really only a 5-minute walk from the train station. but the best part of all was our room: it had these floor-to-ceiling windows which opened up all the way and allowed us to practically sit outside, from inside our room! there was no screen on the window (as is typical of most places in europe), and there was a railing that went just above the height of my hips, to keep us from falling out. it was really great -- because with a baby we are basically in for the night by 7:00 pm, but by having this room in the center of the city, with windows that pretty much turned our space into a balcony, we were able to enjoy downtown brussels in the comfort of our jammies while we kept a watchful eye on our daughter. we picked up some dinner both nights (a calzone and fries the first night, and greek food the second night) which we ate in our room, and had a couple of cold belgian beers which we enjoyed with a few pieces of chocolate. it was the perfect room for a couple with a small child, i think. we had a lot of fun there.

the first day we pretty much just walked around and took a lot of pictures. we also found our way to the mannekin pis, that famous fountain of the little boy peeing. you know the one. according to wikipedia, there are a few legends surrounding the origin of this fountain:

There are several legends behind this statue, but the most famous is the one about Duke Godfrey III of Leuven. In 1142, the troops of this two-year-old lord were battling against the troops of the Berthouts, the lords of Grimbergen, in Ransbeke (now Neder-over-Heembeek). The troops put the infant lord in a basket and hung it in a tree, to encourage them. From there, he urinated on the troops of the Berthouts, who eventually lost the battle.

Another legend goes like this: In the
14th century, Brussels was under siege by a foreign power. The city had held their ground for quite some time. The attackers had thought of a plan to place explosive charges at the city walls. A little boy named Juliaanske from Brussels happened to be spying on them as they were preparing. He urinated on the burning fuse and thus saved the city.

There was already a similar statue made of stone in the middle of the
15th century, perhaps as early as 1388. The statue was stolen several times. In 1619 it was replaced by a bronze statue, created by Franco-Flemish Baroque sculptor Jerome Duquesnoy, father of the more famous Fran├žois.

we also discovered a cool part of our neighborhood which actually really reminded us of venice. it contained these very narrow streets which were jam-packed with restaurants on both sides. the eateries offered mainly seafood, italian, and belgian fare, and the waiters would stand out on the street and politely tell you what their specials were that evening as you walked past. many of them would try to strike up a conversation with you, in the hopes of making friends with you, so that you would feel guilty if you walked away from your friend who was inviting you inside for a bite to eat. one particular waiter spotted adam's obama t-shirt and asked him why he wasn't voting for hillary. ("my mom tells me who to vote for," he jokingly replied, since rae is about as hard-core for obama as anyone i've met.) interestingly, there seem to be way more people out here who are excited about obama than about hillary. i don't know if it's because we generally talk to younger people, or if there's something about obama that really appeals to the expatriate community. but these europeans, at least the ones i've come in contact with, all really want obama!

the second day, our only full day in the city, adam had his conference to attend. so gracie and i got all packed up and went on a walkabout, to see more of this pretty place. we went first to a park near the belgian palace and parliament buildings, and i was prepared to sit next to a fountain and have a little picnic with my little girl. but the park we went to was quite dull, and really worn, and there really wasn't much to do. the fountains were small and boring, and the grass was patchy and there were lots of cigarette butts everywhere, so it just didn't feel very cozy. not at all what i was looking for. there was, however, a fun police-sponsored festival there, with lots of booths set up for children to play games and have contests, and there was a little police band on a stage which played marching band tunes. we did stop and listen to the band for a while, but after we sat down to rest for just a moment we took off again. i think if she was older she would have liked playing with the little belgian children who were there with their school groups, but for a 3-month old this obviously isn't possible.

i got out my map again and saw that there was a botanical garden about 20 or 30 minutes away by foot, so i packed us up again and headed out. poor gracie was so tired and refused to lay in her stroller so i lugged her all the way there in the sling. boy, i was tired when i got there! this kid is getting heavier by the day! we did finally find the botanical gardens, but the entrance i took to get us into the park was not handicap-accessible due to a bunch of construction, so i wasn't able to get the stroller down into the park without assistance. finally i asked a group of teenage boys if someone could help me, and a nice young man jumped at the chance and helped me carry the buggy down the stairs. thank you, nice young man!

anyway, we sat by a fountain for a good long while, and she nursed and napped in the shade, and we blew bubbles and watched the koi and ducks and clouds all float by. it was worth the stress to get there because it really was a beautiful little green space in the middle of such a large cityscape.

on our last day there, adam presented his paper at the conference, which meant that he had to leave early that morning to get there in time to set up. so gracie and i took it easy in the room that morning, sitting in front of the window and nursing while we watched a juggler on a unicycle and listened to some accordion players in the square beneath us. after we lazed about for a bit, we went out to do some souvenir shopping (we brought home a half-dozen different beers from a cool place called "the beer temple" or something like that) and met up with adam, who was already finished for the day. we got a couple of ice cream cones and sat in the grand place again, and watched all the young backpackers taking naps in the middle of the sunny square.

on the way home, there was some confusion about the trains coming into and out of amersfoort (one of the cities we had to transfer in). our train was delayed by about a half an hour as it was pulling into utrecht (about half an hour from amersfoor), and we were told to get on a different train, and then that train was so crowded that i barely got a seat and adam barely fit between the cars with our big suitcase and stroller, and then that train was late taking off, and then we had to transfer again in amersfoort, and again i barely got a seat, and it was hot and stuffy and crowded and confusing... and gracie was TOTALLY CHILL the whole time! seriously amazing. she would just play and nurse and then when she pooped i asked the man next to me if he wouldn't mind please standing up so i could change her on his seat, which he kindly did. she didn't care at all that we were stuck on a hot train with too many people. as long as she got to eat and sleep and play, she was fine. it sure made travelling a lot easier and way less stressful to know that she was taken care of and was in a good mood! all in all, we were only delayed by about 90 minutes, and considering that we were still home before her bedtime we felt it was a successful journey despite the chaos! what a good traveller she is!


teresa said...

wait wait wait.
so, dude was all like "yeah sure i'll let you smear around your baby's poo on my seat!" ?????
those euro-peeps ARE chill! i am very impressed.

Heidi (Graczyk) Damm said...

Again - bringing back many fond memories of another trip to Europe! Thanks for the reminder of the little boy who pees (manachin pees, is it?) - my cousin & i got such a kick out of that!!! It was dressed up like a soccer player at that time....did you know they dress him up for various "holidays"? It just cracks me up! Again, thanks for the great photos & memories!!

Anonymous said...

looks like you guys have been busy!! what a little world traveller gracie is already :) what's new? any chance of an update soon?