Archive for July, 2011


July 28, 2011

Rotterdam, the Hollywood of Holland?


Jackie Chan.


Chaka Khan.


Scott Hamilton, duh.


Julio Iglesias!


All the members of Toto.


Swear to God.



July 24, 2011


The captain just announced: “The North Sea is calm tonight.”

I am writing this on an overnight ferry. I have never taken a boat ride that’s lasted longer than an hour, and I have a mild phobia of drowning.* So this is an adventure.

The ferry is huge. It holds 1200 passengers and 300 highway-size trucks. The first thing I did is explore: On deck 9, there’s a lounge, viewing deck, movie theatre, gift shop, mini-casino, and restaurant, where I got a bowl of fruit. I sat by a porthole, eating my fruit and watching barges slowly pass by.

Then I got a cup of tea and a stroopwafel and ate that too.

Then I went to my cabin, which is outstanding — lined in shiny wood, with its own little bathroom and big round window. I took a shower and climbed into bed. As I started typing, we were inching past the docks, the shore twinkling with lights. Now it’s just a big black moon of a window, nothing to see, nothing but sea.

I know this entry isn’t funny in the slightest, but honestly I’m too entranced to be ironic.

* I can swim and all. But on my list of preferred ways to die, cancer and snakebite come way ahead of drowning.


July 23, 2011

This is Bruges.


You get the idea.


This is Rotterdam.


Rotterdam has a lot of corporate headquarters.


A lot of water.


And a lot of construction.


This is one of the few buildings I saw that survived the Blitz. It’s called the New York Hotel because that’s where people stayed before taking the Holland-America line to New York City. You can’t tell from the photo, but the hotel sits at the very tip of a spit of land surrounded by an industrial waterway. Amazing views. You can still spend the night there, or do what I did, and eat oysters in the just-as-nostalgic-as-it-should-be dining room.


Rotterdam + Bruges (2 entries in 1)

July 23, 2011

My friend Nancy – who lives in Amsterdam, where I had the great pleasure of visiting her – doesn’t care for Rotterdam. She says it reminds her of downtown Atlanta.

Stepping off the train, I could see what she meant.

But I could also see differences: Atlanta doesn’t have trams, bike lanes, and wide sidewalks. Atlanta doesn’t have brave architecture. Most of all, Atlanta doesn’t have the sea.

Rotterdam is surrounded by water, penetrated by water. It is the largest port in Europe and the scale of those oceanliners seeps into the city. It has big skyscrapers, big vistas – and yes, big blocks of ugly. That’s because the city was almost erased during the war. In one night of blitz, 80,000 people lost their homes. 900 died. Rotterdam – which had looked like any venerable old Dutch city – was simply gone.

In its place is this new metropolis, with broad avenues, tall glass buildings, weird new shapes. I liked it. In Rotterdam, you can imagine what Europe might be like if it were built from scratch. Unhinged from its history.

In Bruges, you get the reverse: a peek at what Europe would be like if nothing whatsoever had happened in the last 500 years.

Once upon a time, Bruges was one of the most important cities on the continent: a major shipping and banking center, with a booming textile industry to boot. In 1400, it was just as big as London.

But by the sixteenth century, Bruges had been eclipsed by Amsterdam and Antwerp. Luckily, it was never destroyed – not by fire, or Nazis, or Starbucks. It still looks just as it did when it was built by those rich, long-dead merchants: Stately marketplace, towering belfry.

But it’s not the touristy bits that astonish. It’s the regular old streets. Turn any corner, then any other corner – every building, every house, every curbstone is worth a look.

Believe me: I saw about 27 historic and wonderful blocks as I lugged two suitcases from the train station to my hotel (no cabs in sight). I also: ate at a bad tourist restaurant; got rained upon; overheard a couple having sex while waiting for the hotel elevator; dropped my phone, smashing the screen; and discovered that the good stores aren’t open on Sundays. But none of that mattered. It was all somehow OK, because Bruges is that mindnumbingly pretty.


July 23, 2011

Do you know who Victor Horta is? I didn’t.

Then I wandered into a Horta exhibit at the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts. Turns out, Horta was an architect who made Brussels one of the best places on earth to see art nouveau buildings.

The exhibit was about his masterpiece, an art nouveau mansion that was torn down in the 60s to make way for an apartment building that was – is – every bit as terrible as you’d expect from the kind of developer who would tear down a masterpiece to build an apartment building.*

Seeing the Horta exhibit reminded me that I’d decided to skip the actual Horta Museum. I only had two days in Brussels, couldn’t do everything – but now I was convinced I’d picked wrong.

I bring this up because it’s a theme with me and traveling. There’s never enough time, and I’m always lamenting the thing I didn’t do, or wondering what I should be doing instead of what I am doing, or if the view’s prettier from that bench over there.

And no, if you’re wondering: It’s not a far leap from traveling to life.



* The mansion survives in lego form – literally in pieces in warehouses – and according to the exhibit, there’s now a plan to rebuild it. All the more reason to go back to Brussels.


July 19, 2011

I can’t say I’ve always wanted to visit Brussels.

In fact, I’ve never had an opinion about Brussels. But most people here do: either pro (“like Paris but friendlier!”) or con (“Belgium: what’s the point?”). Meanwhile, I couldn’t even picture the Brussels postcard. I had no Brussels preconceptions, no stereotypes. It was disconcerting.

So I decided to see Brussels for myself.

My first impression was the lack of big city arrogance – New York has buzz, and shows it; London is cool, and knows it; Paris is beautiful, and leans over so you can see her cleavage. But Brussels is just nice. Humble, even.

Which is surprising, because for a small city, there’s a lot to be unhumble about. The main square is eye-popping, built at a time when they clearly believed more is never enough. The buildings are decorated with gold-leaf, stone curlicues, and unnecessary arches. The streets are littered with statues, many of whom pee or vomit water. Belgians also seem inordinately fond of animal statuary, so you’re often in the company of a granite dog or owl.

And that’s just old Brussels; to say nothing of what they started building a century ago.


July 19, 2011

I had dinner with Sara, who used to work with me in California. Her friend Grant was there too, but you can’t see him: he was taking the picture.


I was also kept company by this dog.


And these owls.


Victor Horta did not design this building. Paul Santenoy did. But it’s a good example of art nouveau that reminds me I need a better camera.

Hirsute (a topic so important, I’m giving it an extra 50 words)

July 3, 2011

Like most Americans, I’m shocked when English people display anything less than impeccable taste. After all, England is where good taste comes from. I expect Saville Row tailoring, nice accents, and old wooden things. I expect restraint.

So when I’m confronted by bad English taste (see what Beatrice wore to the wedding; see all the fancy gold fences around Buckingham Palace; do Italians live there?; in fact, see just about anything royal) I assume it’s an aberration. An example of English eccentricity.

So it was with English men and their shirts.

The first time I was introduced to a stomach mole I had no desire to meet (you can see a lot through a gaping shirt button) I thought, Oh, poor man. He ran out of time to do laundry.

But then I noticed that most British men seem to wear buttondowns with nothing underneath. I started asking around and was informed that, indeed, undershirts are considered old-fashioned and stuffy.

Well. Different cultural standards, blah blah blah, but when I get an unasked-for glimpse of body hair, it’s kind of like seeing a woman’s thong poking out. I know it’s an accident, but it still seems like her mother didn’t raise her right.

Plus, without the undershirt as a guide, English men are left to guess how many buttons to leave unbuttoned at the neck. Sometimes they go for a chest-baring three. Which, honestly, is a look not even Italians can pull off.