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Cause Today We Can Be Right Here Where We Wanna Be

General Impression of Brussels

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After Paris and Luxembourg, I felt completely lost in Brussels. Not lost as in “Where am I? How do I get home?” Lost as in “Where am I? What do I do?”

It's the same sort of feeling I had in Geneva. I know there are things to do. There are certainly entire guidebooks dedicated to Brussels. You can't find entire guidebooks dedicated to Carry le Rouet. So I know there are plenty of things to do. I just couldn't find them.

I kept walking like I was going to turn a corner and find everything that I was looking for. I have no idea what I was even looking for. I passed plenty of shops, including enough shoe stores to almost make me wish I hadn't bought a pair in Paris just so I would have something else to do right now. Lots of restaurants. Lots of places selling waffles, or chocolate, or beer, or fountains. Good Belgian stores.

I did find one elephant. It was decorated to look like chocolate. It was also a gigantic advertisement for a store, and not part of a campaign to save Asian elephants. I think it might have even been a different species of elephant.

But no matter how often I set out and looped around and circled back and found places I'd been and found the hotel and found places I hadn't yet explored, I still couldn't find any of places I'd been already.

I was close. This is the sixth French-speaking town I've been in this trip (seven with Avignon) and I'm pretty sure I've already seen the names of the streets and plazas. I keep passing chain stores, some European, some that exist in America, that I've seen in other cities. It feels like Brussels is so close to being some place I've already visited.

But that's not really what I want. As much as I liked spending a week in Paris, I like the pressure that one or two days gives me to find out as much about a city as I can in a short period of time. So that's what I was really wandering around trying to find. Brussels. And I don't think I found it. I just found another European city.

I found people who responded in English when I tried to speak to them in French. I found several very pleasant, open plazas. At 5:58 I found a post office that closed at 6:00. I found restaurants and bars and cafes. And it still didn't feel like Brussels.

It's very nice. I have to admire a city that has that many chocolate stores (even if I have not yet found a yarn store.) And there was an outside market-y thing, and people playing music at street corners, and the temperature was pleasant.

I heard tremendous amounts of English, which was disappointing. But that's compensated for by signs, which are usually only in two languages.

Every time I see the elegant phrase in French followed by a single, long German word, I remember the spiel my history teacher used to give about German vs. French. “Say anything in French, and it sounds wonderful. What's French for 'I love you?'”
Someone in the class: “Je t'aime.”
Teacher: “Exactly! Someone says that to you at the prom, you go 'Oh! Me too!' What's German for 'I love you?'”
Someone else in the class: “Ich libe Dich.”
Teacher: “Someone says that to you at prom, you're like 'Ew, get away from me.'”
So at every single sign I thought of how prettier a language French was. The fact that I understood the signs in French better than the ones in German might have helped with that.

By following the signs, I could technically find the heart of the city. It didn't feel like I had, though.

Posted by Soseki 07:11 Archived in Belgium Comments (0)

With the Stars in the Darkness

Elephant Hunting in Luxembourg

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One of the first things I noticed about Luxembourg was the elephant statues. There was one right as we got out of the train station, and then there was another one as we started our walk into town. The one outside the train station was covered in LED lightstrips and the one on the way into town was painted with shamrocks. Experience has taught me that when there are two statues of the same animal, separated by a decent distance and decorated in two unique styles, they're usually part of a larger collection. Experience did not mislead me this time.

The elephants were part of the Elephant Parade “the largest open air art exhibition in preservation of the Asian elephant worldwide.” (I can't imagine they have much competition in terms of other open-air art exhibitions in preservation of Asian elephants...) I learned this at the first plaque that I read, right next to an elephant named “Ein Herz Fur Elefanten” which was made out of metal circles, hollow, and had a big heart-shaped gap in both sides.

From that point on, I did the exact opposite of what the organizers of the Elephant Parade wanted. I went looking for elephants, and every time I saw one, I shot it (with a camera.)

Initially, I was wandering aimlessly around Luxembourg hoping that I'd find an elephant. I had much better luck than I would in most cities. (The Elephant Parade was also a an art exhibition in both Luxembourg and Trier, so I would have probably had decent luck there.) However, it was pretty aimless wandering. (“I can go right, left, or straight.” Peer down each direction. “I don't see any elephants. Which way is most likely to have an elephant? Hmm...”) They tended to be in more park-y areas, but sometimes the “park” would just be a small grassy square with an elephant in the middle. It was kind of hard to tell which roads would lead to the right kind of small grassy area.

I paused several times to appreciate the views of the city (it was a bit like Bern, in that from certain places at street level, you could look way down and see buildings. It was slightly more fairy-tale than Bern in that there was a castle, or at least the decently-preserved ruins of one- occasionally in view.) and passing but mostly, they could not compete with the elephants.

Right before dinner, I went to the Elephant Parade store and bought a map of Luxembour that had elephants marked on it. Besides making them much easier to look for, elephants, it gave me a better sense of what progress I was making. There wee 54 elephants in Luxembourg. I saw 47 of them, and took pictures of 46. (Remember how Luxembourg has multiple levels, so you can be at the top and getting really pretty views of the bottom? Sometimes those views include elephants.)

Some of the elephants were rather simple- one of them was painted completely pink except for the eyes (white and black), the toenails (white) and a silver bracelet of hearts around the leg. There was another one that was mostly black with silvery letters saying facts about how the Asian elephants were endangered. That one was a bit too obvious for my taste, given the other 53 elephants that were scattered around the city with plaques asking for help saving them.

Most of the elephants were far more complicated. There was one that had a map of Luxembourg on it. (More of an artistic hand-drawn map than a street map, and I would not have wanted to try and navigate around using it [“Now we take a right at his ear... I mean Rue de la Boucherie”] but it was still pretty neat.)

Some highlights:

Prinzofant: an elephant decorated like Le Petit Prince. I did not recognize that's what it was until I saw the sign, which was slightly depressing. I blame it on the fact that the figure riding on the top had red hair. Still, the elephant itself was painted a lot like the wall that I'd slept next to most nights last year. You'd think I'd be able to recognize it without a label...

Elevolutiona: an elephant that showed the evolution of elephants. There were different drawings of different kinds of elephants with their name and the general time period they were around for. Some of them looked a lot like modern elephants, some of them looked like wooly mammoths, some of them looked more like platypuses... it was interesting.

Wish and Blow: it was painted several shades ranging from pale yellow to dark green, and was covered in what was supposed to be dandelions but doubled as pigeon deterrents. It must have been effective, because not only did I not see any pigeons on that elephant, I didn't see them on any of the other elephants either!

Rachinee: She was one of the few elephants with a different pose. She was half sitting down, half croucing. She was painted black and covered in jewel-lloking things. She was also adorable, I think because her eyes were bigger than the others. Either that or her head was. I've heard both proposed as standards for cuteness.

Naturing Contrasting Civilization: This was one of the few elephants used both sides effectively. Most of the elephants had the second side just be a mirror of the first. This one had one side represent nature (forests, rivers, etc.) and other other side represent civilization (skyscrapers.) I approved of it because it also matched my definition of both.

Stardust: She was possibly the prettiest elephant I saw. Her head was light to medium blue, and the rest of her was dark blue to dark-dark-blue-indistinguishable-from-black and covered with stars and galaxies.

People: As my father and I were walking, we saw two American girls who looked to be between the drinking age in Luxembourg (14) and the age of the US (21.) One of them called across the street “excuse me! Do you speak English?” When we said “yes,” she went running across the street. Her friend crossed a little later when the car had passed.
“Do you know where this street is?” the first girl asked.
“Uh... isn't that the street we're on?”
“Oh. We were told that if we followed this street, we'd find bars. Is that right?”
“I'm not sure about that.”
“If you follow this street up, there are several bars up there.”
The two girls exchanged a look. “He said we weren't supposed to go up into the city...” the second girl said.
“We'll just follow this street,” the first girl chirped. “We'll probably find bars.”
And off they went. A little while later, we saw them with a much larger group of people, so presumably they succeeded. Though I have to wonder what they were like after a couple drinks, if sober them couldn't tell what street they were on or that the two people with American accents might not have any better knowledge of Luxembourg than they did...

Overall, it was a very pleasant way to spend a day in Luxembourg. It might have far less historical plaques than Paris (I saw two or three total. Only one of them was for an author [Jean Racine, poet and biographer of Louix XIV, who was at th same time as that king in Luxembourg between th 21 and 26 of May 1687.) If it hadn't been for the elephants, I probably would have been underwhelmed and bored by Luxembourg. As was, there were a half-dozen things I really wanted to see in Luxembourg that I didn't have time for.

Posted by Soseki 09:43 Archived in Luxembourg Comments (0)

It's Not About Shoes Even If They're Sweet

Shoe shopping in Paris

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At about Carry le Rouet it became obvious that the amount of walking I was doing was taking its toll on both my shoes and my feet. Part of the problem with my feet might have been related to the shoes I was wearing. (Sandals. The tennis shoes were fine, but when it's hot, I like being able to wear sandals and not tennis shoes.)

So in Avignon, my father and I stepped into a shoe store. (We might have stopped at more if we hadn't found out that they were in th middle of a major theater festival.) I had my father make a rough guess of what shoe size I was in Europe, tried on a pair of shoes, determined he was right, but the shoes weren't that comfortable, and left.

Most of the way into the week in Paris, my shoes were in much worse shape than my feet. The pair of sandals that I was wearing had a single thick strap that went over the feet. Half of one side of that strap broke. I could still walk in them, but it was pretty obvious that if I tried for too long, the rest of that side would break, and I would not be able to use that shoe anymore. So I needed a new pair of sandals.

Finding a pair of sandals in Paris? Should be easy, right?

There are some things I'm very good at buying, like books and yarn. There are other things I'm much worse at buying, like shoes.

The first couple of stores I passed when they were open I looked at the window, determined “yup! They sell shoes!” and walked on. After that I realized I was never going to buy a new pair of shoes if I didn't go into th store.

I went into three stores, determined they sold a lot of shoes, and left without trying any of them on. I was the only person in the fourth store, and the salesperson said high to me and asked if I needed anything. I said no, but when I stared at a shoe for long enough, he asked what size I was and brought over a box. I tried them on (they weren't very comfortable) then took them off and left.

I poked my head into a few more stores without buying anything. Then I remembered how much I hated the idea spending my last full day in Paris looking for shoes and stopped even walking into shoe stores, unless they looked really promising.

One shoe store looked really promising. I went in, and found a pair that looked extremely promising. When one of the employees came over to ask if I was l needed anything, I translated “do you have these shoes in a 40?” literally and hope that got across the meaning without making me look like I had no idea how French worked. (I spent French class learning vocabulary for things like “how to save the world” not “how to buy shoes.”) The employee talked into her headset, and explained to me that there was someone in back looking for them. (The store itself had no boxes, only single shoes on display. I wonder how big th back must have been.) After a bit more back-and-forth between the employee helping me and the employee with all the boxes, I was told that they didn't have those shoes. I thanked her and left.

So much for the idea of getting shoes in Paris.

When I was packing later that evening, I did not pack my sandals. I also did not wear them. I threw them out, and really hoped I'd find another pair of sandals in Luxembourg because I liked having a pair of sandals, but the pair I had been wearing wasn't worth the space it would take to pack, or the risk that they'd break as I was wearing them.

And then, on the way to the train station, with my family and carrying my suitcase, we notice a promising shoe store. So we go in. And, after a little browsing around, manage to find a pair of shoes that actually look comfortable. (Finding shoes in Paris is very easy. Finding comfortable ones is much harder.) After a little talking with the clerk, he finds a box with shoes that are close to my size, and I try them out. (This store has plenty of boxes in sight. However, the boxes have no correlation to the shoes that are on top of them, at least not that I could tell. I have no idea how the clerk knew where to look for th right box.) I try them on, and they both fit and are comfortable. So I buy them.

Now let's see if I can get through a week without killing another pair of sandals...

Posted by Soseki 09:41 Archived in France Comments (0)

You Took it All In You May Never be Back Again

I sure hope I'll be back...

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So, after a week in Paris, some final impressions:

Paris is different from what I imagined. Partially because when I imagined it, I imagined it around the time that the writers I love were living there, and the world has changed a lot since the early twentieth century.

I think I was surprised to see Paris in color, because I always imagine it in black and white. I know that even in the 1920s the people who were actually living there saw the city in color, but even so. I'd always kind of imagined Paris aged differently than the rest of the world.

It didn't. Or, if it did, it's not obvious from seeing the city today. Cars are a vital part of life there, and they're busy driving quickly down the roads, except for rush hour, where they're very busy stopping and starting along the roads.

I can't talk much about the metro, because the only time I took it was when we first arrived in Paris after a decent day of travel and with all our luggage. That tempered my view of it, though tickets did seem much simpler in Paris than in some other cities I've been in. (One ticket was good from when you entered the metro to when you re0emerged onto the lights of the above-ground city, and you didn't need to calculate exact fare for the route you were taking before you bought the ticket. If you wanted to spend an entire day taking trains and staying in subway stations, you could.)

Large sections of the city are gorgeous. Lots of buildings, parks, statues, plazas, etc. are beautiful. But it is still a city. There are homeless and beggars on streets. There are people sitting on benches muttering or talking to themselves without seeming to be aware of anything that's going on around them. There are salesmen and petitioners who's knowledge of English has a huge gap- the word “No.” There are people who pretend they've just seen a gold ring on the ground and try to... (probably sell it to you, possibly take your wallet. Possibly both.) Oh, and there are pigeons. Everywhere.

And with all that, it's still a beautiful city, filed with art and history and literature. And for all that, I love it.

I never up the Eiffel Tower. I never went into the any of the museums. (I did see a few statues inside the Louvre.) I never saw the Mona Lisa or the Gates of Hell. I saw the pyramids of the Louvre a lot, and the Arc de Triomphe and Notre Dame de Paris once. But for the most part, I didn't search out what most people came to Paris to see.

As I was walking though th outside of the Louvre one day, I heard a kid ask his mother “is it bigger than all of the museums in Brisbane put together?” At a guess, I would say yes, because I can't think of any museums in Brisbane. But there's so much more to art in Paris than the Louvre, and there's so much more to Paris than the art.

I could have comfortably spent much longer in Paris. And at some point I probably would have seen a museum, and then a bit later seen another one. And at some point I would have climbed some of the monuments that let people climb them. And at some point I would have stalked other authors to where they'd been years before.

But for right now, I'm glad I saw what I saw. It's far from being everything in Paris- one week would never be enough time for that. It's far from being everything most people think of when they think of Paris. Other people have their own things that they see there. It's partly what I thought of when I thought of Paris, but more importantly, it's what I'll think of when I think of Paris in the future. I have memories that I could never find inside a guidebook. They're not all picturesque, but that's part of what makes the city real.

Posted by Soseki 07:04 Archived in France Comments (0)

Then I Think About Being Done with no Resume

Last full day in Paris

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Today was the day that “I'll do it tomorrow” stopped being a valid statement. Technically, there's still time tomorrow, but there wouldn't be enough time for all of the things that I really did want to do, but hadn't quite gotten around to yet. So today, I finally did them.

There was a yarn store that I passed when I'd been in Paris for only a couple of hours. Today, I decided to go back when it was open. The skein of yarn that I found reminded me of Paris a bit after sunset- fairly blue, kind of dark, and with a lot of sparkles. While I browsed, I half-listened to the employee diagnosing problems with yarn/knitting. I wasn't able to follow that much of it, but I also wasn't paying that much attention. Now I know how non-knitters feel when I start complaining about a project...

My general approach to exploring cities involves treating everything as a mini-quest. I set a goal destination, I figure out how I'll get there, and then I set off, keeping an eye out for anything interesting on the way. But even if I find something that fulfills the motivation behind my destination (say I'm looking for a grocery store, and see another one on the way) I can't stop there. I need to keep going to my destination.

That happened today with postcards. There are dozens of places that sell postcards throughout the city. The closest of them is just around a corner from the apartment where we're staying. But somehow, I got the idea that I wanted to buy postcards near the Seine. It's a postcard. What matters is what's printed on it, not where it was bought. But it would be so picturesque to be strolling along the Seine, and then to stop and write a short “letter...”

So I walked to the Seine and ignored every other stand that sold postcards I passed on the way. I chose which ones I wanted, then looked around. It was an outdoor stand, and while there were plenty of people nearby, I couldn't tell who the stand belonged to. So I held them in my hand and looked at other items. No one came over to help me. I looked around, lingering my gaze on someone who might possibly own the stand. No one came over to help me. I walked slowly past some of the other stands which may or may not have belonged to the same person, then back. No one came over to help me. I continued to pace around in small circles until finally someone came over and I could pay for them.

It would have been so much easier to buy them in an actual store.

I'd passed nearly as many crepe stands as I'd passed postcard stands since being in Paris. Today it occurred to me that after all this time in France, I still hadn't gotten a crepe. So I stopped at one, ordered a honey crepe, and watched as it was made.

The batter had already been mixed, and the cook poured some of it onto the stove in front of him. Then he took a smaller version of a rolling pin and spread out the batter. He spent a fair amount of time carefully going around the edges, loosening them, and checking the bottom, which allowed him to flip the crepe without breaking it. (I'd thought I'd heard that “real” French crepes are only cooked on one side. I'd either thought or heard wrong.) Then he spread honey over a quarter of the cerepe, folded it in half, folded it in half again (the honeyed portion was now completely covered by three non-honeyed layers) and finally folded it in half again and put it in a bag, telling me “honey was a very good choice.” I'm not sure why I'd chosen it instead of something chocolate-based, but both I and the crepe-maker were right- it was delicious.

The last thing I wanted to do while I was still in Paris was something I hadn't realized I wanted until it happened. I wanted to give someone accurate directions.

The initial thrill of “they thing I have an idea what I'm doing! That's so cute!” that had been present in Geneva was gone by this point. I was tired of people asking me for help and me just staring at them blankly. (I'm not actually tired of staring at people blankly. I've had a lot of practice with people who want to talk to me in English and sell me tacky souvenirs.) I wanted to be able to help them for a change.

I had three people ask me for help today. The first time, I said “it's that way” without having really heard where she wanted to go, just thinking that sounded vaguely familiar. There's a 25% chance that I was right, and a much lower chance that I'll ever see her again.

The second person (technically people, because they were a family) to ask did so with a map. I stared at the map for a while until I realized I had no idea how to help them and apologized.

The third person asked for the name of the street I had just come from. She seemed skeptical (“That small one”) but I assured her it curved and continued on. It didn't even matter that she'd asked all her questions in English- I'd been able to help her.

I can't normally help people with directions. Even when I can get back myself, I can't normally help other people. So the fact that I'd been able to help someone find her way around Paris meant a lo to me. I've been building up my mental map of the city as I've explored, adding streets as I notice or take them. And the fact that someone was looking for something on my mental map meant that I'd done something right.

After half a day's exploration, I could navigate my way from the Louvre to our apartment. Which meant I could never get hopelessly lost, because if I ever thought I was, I could ask “which direction is the Seine?” (and either follow signs or ask someone else there “which direction is the Louvre?”) and get back.

Being able to help someone else is a lot more sophisticated than that. It's not a level that I normally reach with cities. It felt nice, like I had an OK familiarity with Paris.

I really hope that first woman didn't get too lost...

Posted by Soseki 15:46 Archived in France Comments (0)

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