A Travellerspoint blog

Jumping In My Car We're Going 100 'Round the Bends

Cars and pedestrians in European cities

Helsinki: We saw enough pedestrians going out of their way to not jaywalk that we wondered how strictly it was enforced. Cars all came to complete stops when they were told they should.

Rome: Stopping for pedestrians is like stopping at stop signs- mostly optional, but you should probably slow down. It was slightly alarming to watch a car slow down just enough to make a left turn, never coming to a complete stop despite the stop sign in front of him. It was very alarming to watch a bus do the same thing. My typical strategy for crossing the street involved looking carefully both ways, starting to walk across, noticing a car, and running the rest of the way.

Domodossola: Like Rome, only with far fewer cars.

Bern: Cars stopped completely for pedestrians. Not just on valid crosswalks either. If you were standing on the sidewalk looking like you wanted to cross the street, the car would come to a complete stop to let you. Pedestrians would usually only cross at marked crosswalks and only cross intersections when the little light said they could.

Aix Les Bains: If you stepped into the street, cars would stop for you. If you stopped at a crosswalk before stepping into the street, cars would speed up so they could pass before you did. It was less “my life is in danger” than Rome, but not as nice as Bern.

Geneva: Cars in Geneva behaved the same way cars in Bern did. Pedestrians did not. Basically, a pedestrian in Geneva can do whatever she wants and cars will stop for her. I didn't test this theory too much, but I did take advantage of it a few times.

Carry le Rouet; Like Aix Les Bains, but politer and quieter. Sometimes cars would stop if you were at a crosswalk waiting. Oh, and in any but the 3 biusiest streets, walking in the middle of the road was a valid strategy because there would be more cars parked on the curb than driving down the street.

Paris: There are two strategies for crossing the street in Paris. The first is to wait for the light to change to “walk” and only cross then. The second is to walk whenever you don't see cars coming. The second was actually a safer strategy, since it meant you wouldn't get run over by a car turning.

An alarming number of stories about crossing the street in Paris need to end with “and I did not get run over. For example:
“Today, there was a walk light, so I was crossing the street, and there was a bus that wanted to make a turn. So it did, but there were too many pedestrians crossing the road to let it through. It barely stopped in time, but I did not get run over.”
“Today, the walk light changed, and pedestrians started crossing, and one car turned right, and another car turned left. So there were two cars and many more pedestrians who were all headed towards the same point at the same time. I did not get run over.”

Final two challenges of crossing the street in Paris: there's no blinking light, just “walk” and “don't walk,” with no “you can start crossing the street now if you run” signal, and the instant the oncoming traffic gets a red light, the walk sign turns green. There's usually a pause while the pedestrians wait to make sure the cars are actually going to stop.

Luxembourg: After a week in Paris, it was really hard for me to tell what Luxembourg rules were like. However, I can confirm that jaywalkers are not always subject to life imprisonment, or even a fine. (At one point I wanted to cross a street. There was a car coming, but it was a fair distance away, so I crossed in front of it. When I reached the other side, I turned around and saw that it was a cop car. Oops.)

Brussels: After all the aimless wandering around Brussels I did, you'd think I'd be able to remember what traffic was like. I remember wandering back and forth between sides of the street a lot and never getting run over, and that's about all.

Amsterdam: Crossing the street was a long and complicated affair involving crossing a bicycle lane, a car lane, a tram line, another car lane, and finally another bicycle lane. Possibly bicycles posed the biggest threat, since, when we checked in, we were warned to stay out of bicycle lanes. After accidentally straying into their lane a few times, I can confirm that the bicycles are vicious. (I did not get run over.)

Posted by Soseki 11:36 Comments (0)

Picture of Amsterdam: Bare Trees Beneath Glass


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When I asked my father what his impression of Amsterdam was, he said it was much nicer than the first time he had been here, when his impression was largely based off someone near where he was staying yelling up the street “Hey, man, want some cocaine?”

I had a much nicer first time in Amsterdam. (I also had a nicer experience than my sister the first time, one and a half at the time, who felt betrayed by her parents when they told her she could eat the very spicy green beans. She liked spicy food much less then than she does now.) Mainly, my impression of Amsterdam is flowers and market stalls. Sometimes the two combine.

Even staying away from the Red Light District, there are glimpses of it. There are souvenir shops that sell magnets labeled “Red Light District.” There are souvenir shops that sell items that would be very comfortable in the Red Light District. There are museums labeled on the map and stores on otherwise normal-looking streets that you wouldn't want to wander into aimlessly. There were probably people who sold drugs that I passed.

But if you ignore those things, Amsterdam is a very pleasant city. There are a lot of museums, none of which I visited, but a few of which I saw lines for. There are plenty of benches and parks, and bridges over canals. There are flowers on most of those bridges and parks. And I passed at least three different markets.

The first market seemed to be an arts and crafts market. There was a lot of jewelry for sale, but also bags, clothing, square pieces of canvas with paintings on it, gift boxes shaped like houses in the Netherlands, stuffed birds, make-your-own wooden-board-and-yarn-crosstitch, mathematical puzzles, statues, dolls, bicycles, and food, among other things. The first time I passed it many people were still setting up (but were very nice about me looking at it anyway.) I went back later when every stall was set up and ready for customers, and spent a lot of time looking around and occasionally buying things.

The second market was for plants. Mainly flowers. The first time I just saw the first stall, and was impressed by all the flower bulbs they had for sale, but figured it made sense in a city with that many flowers in public spaces. Then I realized there were another six or seven stands behind it, all of which sold some variant of plants. Next to the market were permanent stores. At least two of those stores were dedicated exclusively to cheese. It was a very redundant street. Walking down it several times did not help.

The third market was more artistic than the first. It was also much smaller. There were only two stalls that sold jewelry, and the rest all sold paintings.

The parks have also been rather pleasant. One of them (technically, the garden of the Rijks Museum) had two women playing instruments (piano and guitar) and singing. There weren't places to sit close enough to hear them, so I stood for a while and listened.

Later on, I walked by the same general area and noticed a large crowd gathered around. Because they were clapping their hands and not shouting “Fight! Fight! Fight!” (or whatever the dutch equivalent is. It probably has at least three as in it. The Dutch language loves the letter a.) I joined them. I came just in time to catch the fund-raising portion of a performance.(I also heard mention of one of them spinning around, but couldn't see him because there were people in front of me.)
“We don't want your applause. We want your money. It's OK, we'll give you an example.” Held up a five Euro bill. “You give this, we go home happy. You give 10 Euro, we go home very happy. You give 100 Euro, we go home with you.”

The food's been different from what I've been used to eating on this trip. With the exception of my remarkable ability to find sandwiches with ham (a disadvantage, seeing as I don't like ham) I've enjoyed it. For dinner, my family has been going out to Rijstaffel. Just like the British Empire, the Dutch realized that the food on the country they were colonizing was much better than their own, and stole it. So there are plenty of places in Amsterdam that serve Indonesian food. We tried two of them.

My favorite difference between the two: In the first restaurant, the waiter explained “this bowl has coconut powder. If you sprinkle it on food, it helps with the spiciness. “ In the second restaurant, the waitress said “This is powdered coconut. You can sprinkle it on everything.”

From what I can tell, people in Amsterdam are nice and friendly. My experience with them consists mainly of brief encounters in stores, restaurants, and at the hotel. One of the vendors in a marketplace told me about the influence of her mother and grandmother on her jewelry designs when I asked what the price of a ring was. The waitress at the restaurant got into a decent conversation with the Frenchmen sitting near us when she discovered one of them had been to Indonesia. And this is the first hotel I've been in where when I ask if there's a staircase I can use respond “there's a staircase for staff, but we can show it to you if you want.”

I would not have found it on my own, because it's through the kitchen and around two corners. The person who showed me the stairs the first time (I really don't like elevators) followed me to tell me I could take the stairs again on the way down when he thought I'd come down the elevator. (I hadn't.)

Coming down the stairs has the advantage that there are signs pointing to the lobby. Finding the stairs from the kitchen requires relying on memory without looking too lost. I've had three people say hi to me while I've been walking through, and no one's questioned me about what I'm doing in the kitchen. Which is kind of surprising, given I wouldn't think that most hotels would like guests wandering through the kitchen. Like I said, nice and friendly.

Overall, very fond of Amsterdam. Even if the closest I can come to understanding the language is to slowly sound out the words I read in a thick German accent. (I don't know what a thick Dutch accent sounds like.) There are some words that it fails with it rather dramatically, (like the brand Rabobank, when you consider that the “a” is an “ah” sound) but it succeeds more often than I'd expect And the people I've met who have been hardest to understand when they were speaking English have had Mexican or French-part-of-Belgium accents, and everyone speaks very good English, so communication hasn't been difficult.

And I've neither been offered cocaine, nor eaten anything so unexpectedly spicy it made me cry, so I count this as a good first trip to Amsterdam.

Posted by Soseki 00:00 Archived in Netherlands Comments (0)

I Ask Her to Speak French and Then I Need Her to Translate

Overall experiences with French.


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Since French is the only language on this trip that I've had significant prior experience with, I was able to add gently to my French, rather than trying to grab new words and phrases that might be useful all at once.

Most Used French Word that I Did Not Know Before This Trip: Noisettes (Hazelnut.) I picked that one up when we were stillin Bern and I noticed something (probably Nutella or a Nutella-like spread) labeled both “Haselnuss” and “Noisettes.” Since then, it has played a significant role in practically every time I look for desserts.

Most Useful Phrase that I Picked Up on this Trip: “Une Caraffe d'eau.” (A pitcher of water.) This was picked up from experience, not from writing. We began by looking up the word for tap word (eau de robinet) but then realized that whenever we asked for that,t the waitress would say “Une caraffe d'eau? D'accord.” Eventually we started asking for that, and counted ourselves successful when that did not bring us mineral water poured into a pitcher.

Grammar Rule I Did Not Know Before: You can add “ier” to any noun to refer to the person who does things related to that noun. You can add “erie” to any noun to make “the store that sells” that thing. (I'm pretty sure that's not a real rule, but I've seen enough examples of it that I'm inclined to think it is.

Biggest Regret Regret from French 4: So, my last unit of high school French was about world issues. The culmination of a lot of research into different issues was that we needed to give a four-minute talk about “Our vow for changing the world” and how it related to the specific issue we were studying. There were also a fair number of worksheets and conversations with classmates about this.

At some point in Paris, I passed a sign that was titled “Three Days for Changing the World.” It was a sheet of paper that was advertising a discussion about that topic. It had questions for debate/ideas to start thinking.”What strategy for changing the world?” Some ideas to get started: “Family, marriage, Marxist economy...”

So my biggest regret for French 4 was that I didn't think to have my “Vow for changing the world” be “Establish a Marxist economy.” I could have done a lot of different research about poverty levels and the divide between those with money and those without and made a very compelling case for why a Marxist economy would be an improvement. I might have ended with a lower grade in French, but it might have been worth it.

Overall, though, I liked being in French-speaking places. It's a beautiful language, and I was familiar enough with it that I could sometimes get through entire conversations without the person I was talking with going “Ah, maybe English would be better, no?”It was nice to be able to use it in a practical setting, and I was glad I studied it.

Even if I did never use class time to encourage Marxism.

Posted by Soseki 07:19 Comments (0)

I Need to Find the Key to Let Me In

There's more to Brussels than the Magritte museum, just not a lot that I saw.


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After the Magritte museum and lunch, I went to find some more interesting things in Brussels. I'd seen several brochures and gift-shop models of the Atomium, a building that was “The Eiffel Tower of Brussels” (The similarity came in the fact that they had both been built for their city's respective world fair, not anything to do with notereity.) I was considering going to it, but when I asked at the tourist information center, I was given subway directions. The Atomium was about 7 kilometers away. So much for that plan.

Instead, I went to another museum that I'd noticed. It was the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts, and they were doing a special exhibit on painter's letters. The letters were in glass cases and almost exclusively written in cursive, but visitors also got a guidebook for use in the museum which included excerpts of the letters we were looking at. The guidebook was a bit too opinionated for my taste ("he was working on his famous piece...” if it's that famous, how come neither I nor my father have ever even heard of the artist? “this extract clearly shows...” Yeah, I see how you get that, but it's not that obvious) but reading the letters was interesting.

The museum was organized into different sections, with three to five letters for each sections. In order, those were: everyday life, health, money, dealers, exhibition, friendship, admiration of other artists, weather, outside, travel, pieces they had been working on at the time, pieces that had been completed and were on display, series, the interplay between pictures and words, intimate relationships, young interest in art, doubt, Magritte, written to writers, discussing general artistic process, the society they were living in at the time, and Ensor.

Any artist whose letters are featured in a museum has reached a rather considerable degree of success..Us knowing that now doesn't mean the artists did. Probably my favorite letter was written from a close friend to Claude Monet, because it showed a side of Monet that I wasn't expecting to see.

“Your great and fantastic talent is as dear to me as your friendship; […] I love you, for you, and for everything you mean to me, true genius. So your letter caused me true pain. I understand your anxiety and your discouragement, because I don't know any true artist who hasn't felt like this and who hasn't been hard on himself, exceedingly hard on himself.”

There were 109 letters on the ground floor. There were more upstairs. I walked up the stairs, determined there were a lot more, and then my mind went “Nope. I'm not doing any more reading. OK, maybe I'll still read the words. But that doesn't mean I have to understand them!” Realizing that any more time spent in a museum that day would only serve to drive me mad, I left the museum and wentt back to wandering around Brussels.

The waffles kept smelling so good, and I figured it would be a shame to be in Belgium and never have a Belgian Waffle, so I found a restaurant that let me sit down and ordered there. From what I could tell, the only food they served was waffles. They were open for lunch, and served “lunch waffles.” I have no idea what that is. Their lunch special was a lunch waffle, a sweet waffle, and a drink. Personally, I always thought of waffles as breakfast food, but....

I did not order the lunch waffle. I did order a waffle with Belgian chocolate on top.. They did not give me a knife. They did give me a plastic fork with one serrated edge that broke halfway into my waffle. Rather than ask for another one, I ate the rest of it with my fingers, like I'd seen some people in the street doing.

Then more wandering around Brussels on streets I must have been on before but only barely felt familiar. And then it was time for dinner.

On our way to the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts, my father and I had passed a street that was full of restaurants. We'd walked along it in time for a late lunch, so there were people who were out on the street trying to entice customers. Around lunch, this mainly consisted of acting like the people walking the street had walked into the restaurant and were standing waiting to be seated. One person asked us “two for lunch?” and at another restaurant, someone else out chairs. Glancing at the menu of one of the restaurants (if I'd paused long enough to read it I probably would have been seated at a table with bread and a drink before I could explain “no, I already ate,” I noticed one that looked interesting for dinner. /The waiters did try and seat us, but my father said (in French) “No, we'll come back later for dinner.”

When he came back with another woman (my mother) and speaking English, they remembered him. Which made it worth all the people we needed to ignore the first time. (One of them:”Look, I kidnap your wife. Don't you care about her? Don't you want to eat at this restaurant? I'll tell you what. [pointing at my mother] Champagne. [Pointing at me.] Champagne. [Pointing at my father] A nice Belgian beer? No?”)

The restaurant we'd worked our way to did brought out drinks (not champagne and beer, though if we'd eaten at the other restaurant they probably would have.) without asking or charging us. When we asked for tap water, they not only brought out a pitcher (the first restaurant in Brussels to do that) but the pitcher also had ice in it (one of the few restaurants in Europe to do so.)

Dinner was quite good. It was three courses, and there was enough variety there that the three of us all ordered different appetizers and main courses. (The dessert was just “dessert of the day” which happened to be a waffle.) I also finally had a chance to taste the original French fries before the French took them over. They just tasted like French fries. (Side note: I've seen multiple menus that have a British flag on them and included as a side dish “French fries.” If they're going to do that, they should really replace it with an American flag.)

We were in Brussels for one dinner and one lunch before we noticed a street full of restaurants who were competing (strongly, but amicably) for customers. I wonder how much more of Brussels I never noticed.

Posted by Soseki 07:18 Archived in Belgium Comments (0)

When the Smaller Picture's the Same as the Bigger Picture

Rene Magritte Museum


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When the title of this blog is taken from Rene Magritte's “Treachery of Images,” I shouldn't really go to Brussels and avoid Magritte. So yesterday, I went to a chocolate store, with one of the types of chocolates being called Magritte. It was tasty (dark chocolate and pistachio) even if it wasn't as good as Paganini (dark chocolate, mocha, and hazelnut.) There was also nothing particularly Magritte-esque about it. (One of the chocolates was Plejaden, which had mathematical equations written on the top. That either improved or degraded the quality of the chocolate, depending on who you asked. I say “chocolate and hazelnut=tasty.”) So today I figured I should go find things that were genuinely related to Magritte and didn't just share a name with him.

So to the Magritte Museum I went.

The visit began by taking us up onto the third floor, and then setting us free to work our way down. The first thing that I saw was a time-line that gave significant events in the first twenty-ish years of his life. Included on that was a slight description of how we temporarily earned a living drawing ads for different companies. A little bit further into the room was a quote: “I hate my past and that of others... I hate also the decorative arts, the folklore, advertising...”

I'm pretty sure Magritte would have hated the first room of that museum. It was mostly dedicated to his younger works and his past. The quotes scattered around the room just increased that contrast of what Magritte seemed to want and what the museum was going for. The parts of the museum that weren't dedicated exclusively to Magritte were dedicated to surrealism as a whole, with plenty of texts from that. One of them listed as one of the principles “We admire the ancient art, but we leave it in museums. For us, we live” On the wall above that, was a quote from Magritte-”There is not a choice. No art without life.” And museums seem like the epitome of all that is dead and stale.

There were sparkles of the interplay between art and life throughout the museum. Specifically, at least for me, in the photographs of the pictures. There were several of them throughout the museum. At one point, there was a picture of E.L.T. Marsens by “Clairvoyance,” one of Magritte's works. I left it with the impression that Marsens was taking the same pose as the figure in the painting, and it wasn't until I went back and checked that I realized they were standing completely differently. Their faces were just so identical that “Clairvoyance” and Marsens seemed like they should be inhabiting the same world.

Elsewhere, there was a picture of Rene Magritte with his eyes closed. The caption read “Rene Magrittte with closed eyes in front of 'The Secret Player.'” The significance being that “The Secret Player” shows three different figures moving around, all with closed eyes. So in this case, Magritte was trying to take on the same position as the painting, almost becoming an extension of it.

Even though those pictures felt like they blended art and life, they were as old as some of the paintings, and the figures who had appeared in them were dead. Because it was a museum for art, like all of the museum's for non-contemporary art. So I moved on.

The first room was mostly sketches and publicity pictures and very young works of art that looked nothing like Magritte. Around 1927, the first pictures that, if I'd seen without context might have made me ask “are those Magritte?” appeared. For example, “The Female Theief,” or “The Man of the Sea,” both of which depicted figures with their faces covered. It was also a bolder style, more of a contrast of colors... it just felt like Magritte.

From that point on, he mostly kept with that style, or combination of styles that made the paintings seem so recognizable. The one exception was between 1943 and 1948 when he experimented with Impressionism.

How much you liked those pictures was in direct proportion to how much you like Surrealism and how much you like Impressionism. The pictures were still without a doubt surrealist, with absolutely bizarre combinations of objects and colors. But the brushstrokes were light, the transitions of colors were smoother, and the paintings in general were gentler. Personally, I was glad when I got to the 1949 paintings and they were back to being pure Magritte.

My favorite room of the whole museum was at the end of the first level. It began with “Words and Images,” a series of statements and sketches by Magritte about the usage of images and words. They were general principles about how words could stand in for images, images could stand in for words, etc. Amidst them was the statement “All tend to think that there is some relation between an object and the word which represents it.” Curious...

Turn around, and there was one of his paintings exploring this concept. “The Use of Speech.” There was a background of a blue sky and a brick wall. In the foreground was a white shape. The top of it was labeled “canon” (barrel.) The middle of it was labeled “corps de femme” (body of a woman.) And the left of it was labeled “arbre” (tree.) I'm not sure if the words did as good a job of relating the three as images would have, but it was certainly interesting.

Turn around. On the top of the wall, where quotes by Magritte go, is written “Poetry is a pipe.” Beneath that is “The Treachery of Images.”

It's not the first “Treachery of Images.” The text on that one reads “this is not a pipe,” and the text on the painting that I was looking at said “this continues to not be a pipe,” so it was clearly a later work. It might have been better if they'd had the first one there, but even so, the whole combination of Magritte's words and his artwork combined to leave me slightly stunned. Freshman year,, several classes of history were introduced with “The Treachery of Images” and exploring what that meant and what that meant for history. At the time I understood “this is not a pipe. It's a drawing of one. Actually, technically this is a photocopied version of a book that contains a reproduction of a drawing of a pipe. It is not itself a pipe.” That could not compete with seeing the originals of the work that Magritte had done leading him to decide to draw “The Treachery of Images.” The purpose of the room was clearly just to put a single picture in context, and it succeeded.

Magritte loved words, and he loved art, and he loved combining the two in thought-provoking ways. While this occasionally took the form of sketches in a written pamphlet or letter, or a sentence written as a key part of a painting, more often it manifested in his choice of titles.

Some of my favorite combinations:
“The Copper Handcuffs.” The woman who was depicted did not have handcuffs. Or hands. Or arms.
“The Pleasures of Landscape.” The center of the picture was an empty picture frame with the label “Landscape.” To the right is a gun leaning on a wall. There is nothing else.
“The Curse.” The entire painting was of the sky. A light blue sky with fluffy clouds.
“The One-Night Museum.” It was divided into four sections, like a display case. The top-left section had a hand (removed from the rest of the body, but neatly and without blood,) the one to the right of it had a tomato, the bottom-left section had a black blobby shape, and the bottom-right section was covered in a sheet of paper like how I made snowflakes in elementary school. I followed the teachers instructions of folding it, cut small sections out wherever I wanted, and unfolded it to have a shape that may not have been a snowflake, but was at least as unique as one. Wonder what kind of museum that was...
“Forbidden Literature.” There was one word, (possibly a name? I couldn't read it because there was) a giant finger sticking up through the middle, an Automaton (a metal sphere with a line in the middle that had been the focal point of one of Magritte's earlier works, but then reappeared as a minor part of several of his later ones.) hovering above the finger, and to the right, a flight of stairs that ended at a wall.

As much as I liked his titles, I would have liked originality more. And Magritte didn't have that. His titles were unique from anyone else's works, (with the exception of “Almayer's Folly,” a 1951 painting by Magritte showing a floating turret of a castle with roots coming out of the bottom, and also an 1895 Joseph Conrad novel about a poor businessman, an oversizec house, and relations with natives.) just extremely repetitive.

Three were three different works labeled “Memory.” All of them had the white head of a statue with a red blotch covering half of her left eye and some of her face, and all of them had an Automaton The first “Memory” had a curtain and a leaf, and the sea in the background. The second “Memroy” had a rose to the left of the head, which was on a wooden plank with the sea in the background. The third “Memory” had the head located right next to a wooden wall.

At least all three different pictures of “Memory” had elements in common. Some of his other paintings that shared names didn't have that detail.

“The Art of Conversation” had the ground take up most of the painting, and a curtain that didn't go all the way to the ceiling. There were the silhouettes of two people standing in the distance, but the focus ore seemed to be on an eyeball raised on the top of a pedestal.

“The Art of Conversation” was focused on a rock wall. In front of it were the silhouettes of two people, though they were tiny in comparison with the rocks. The rocks in the bottom center read “Dream.”

Even with the repetition of the names, I thoroughly enjoyed looking at Magritte's paintings, especially his later ones. Besides missing the first “Treachery of Images,” the museum didn't have “Time Transfixed” (possibly my favorite Magritte painting, though I'm not quite sure why) and they didn't have the “The Son of Man.” But they did have plenty of other images of men wearing bowler hats (including “Good Faith,” which showed a man wearing a bowler hat with a pipe covering his face. I also like the title on that one.) And they certainly had enough bizarre and surreal pictures without those three.

I enjoyed the museum more than I expected (If I liked art museums, I would have made a point out of going to the Louvre. Or the Musee d'Orsay. Or the Pompidou Center. Or the Palais de Tokyo. Or...) I also spent much longer there then I was expecting. It struck a nice balance of general information about surrealism, biographical information about Rene Magritte, and paintings by Magritte, and I loved the quotes from him in each room.

After a couple of hours of looking at art and pamphlets, I can't begin to summarize either Magritte or surrealism. So I'll leave that to someone who know surrealism very well, and Magritte better than anyone else. “To be surrealist is to banish the spirit of 'already seen' (deja vu) and look for the 'never again seen.'”

Posted by Soseki 15:07 Archived in Belgium Comments (0)

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