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([personal profile] arcanamundi Apr. 16th, 2009 12:11 am)
This is my first entry in awhile. It’s long. There are lots of pictures. You might want to get a cup of tea.

Two Sundays ago in Saint Omer: I got an hour of extra sleep and then got up to write and post my last LJ entry. I took a cab to the station and the train to Lille, then train to Kortrijk, the train to Bruges, another cab to the hotel.

My cab driver looked like a WIZZARD! I was just tickled pink by his whole look. I could not let him get away without taking a picture, and here it is:

Lille was Lille as usual – chock full of roving bands of police accompanied by soldiers carrying semi-automatic machine guns (these showed up first in the wake of the 1996 bombings, and were called “vigipirates“ and evidently never went away).  The boys with machine guns alarmed my parents when they came to Lille for a visit, and I had regular unnerving encounters with them because I was social with a group of Moroccan students and went out with them sometimes in the evening – being Arabic or North African is pretty much the condition for being stopped. I was never stopped when I was with anyone else. I’m prett y sure they didn’t really think the group of 20 year old Moroccan girls plus one white chick were dangerous, but it’s a known scientific fact that it’s more fun to frisk a girl in a miniskirt and halter top and to “ask” her to fork over her address and phone number afterward at near- gunpoint than it is to bother, say, a 56 year old white plumber on his way home from the pub. It was very tiresome. Girls in the halter tops and miniskirts are not exactly smuggling bombs under their fucking hijabs, and frisking them for weapons is just an excuse to cop a degrading, demeaning feel.

The vigipirates showed up in the wake of the attempted Lille bombing by GIA terrorists in 1996. The GIA tried to blow up the G7, which was meeting at Grand Palais, which also happened to be *right next to the police station* (less than an awesome place to put the bomb, GIA dumbasses!). All of which was across from my apartment building. So this involved a bomb that would have taken out several city blocks –and was planted in a car parked right across the street from my window. I was at home when the whole thing went down and though I heard the boom, it wasn’t much (the police exploded it in a containment thingy) and I was writing a final paper. I imagine I thought it was a transformer or a car accident and just couldn’t be bothered to get up and rubberneck at something so simple. Ha on me! My mother back in Kansas called me, which was how I found out. I, sitting 50 meters away, was totally oblivious to the whole thing. This is the power of CNN! Anyway, PBS did a Frontline on the GIA and you can read about the Lille bombing in the transcript if you’re curious.

But, as has happened before (so many times, from the Middle Ages to the Now),  justifiable reaction quickly turned spooky and fascist and witchhunty. It was not an awesome time to live in Lille, but it was an interesting time to live in Lille. And the beat rolls on.

Julie tells me that the reason for this kind of intense police presence in Lille and Dunkerque is that they are the illegal immigration gateways to England. This train line is their Rio crossing. But seriously: machine guns? WTF. Regular guns should ought to do just fine. Tasers even. Who you planning to mow down in a hail of automatic machine gunfire?

I also got this shot of the chip stand that I used to go to with my friends.

And the Chinese restaurant with the sake glasses that had pictures of naked chicks in the bottom.

And this person, who had a daffodil with a broken stem to her side.

And of the demonic baby sculptures that I thought should come to life and rampage across Lille like little godzillas if there was even the tiniest ounce of justice with awesomesauce in the world.

The hotel in Bruges was almost disappointingly normal. Tripadvisor had promised me Smurf dolls on the stairs and mannequin parts as décor and all kinds of eccentricity, but evidently the crazy people who used to run it sold it to Floris, which is a chain that would really like to be luxy but lands on Bucket instead of Bouquet, to reference the awesome show Keeping Up Appearances.

The sun was setting as I got in to Bruges. No restaurants in the immediate vicinity of the hotel and I was too tired to go for a walk in the dark. I got lost in Bruges in the dark once before. Not an experience I was overanxious to repeat. So I ate an entire bag of pickle chips and candy that I bought at the train station – one piece of each kind – for dinner (man, I’m going to die of scurvy and rickets and/or explosive gut evacuation one of these days, I eat like a feral nine year old when left to my own devices) and resolved to dutifully consume nothing but fruits and vegetables and lean proteins on Monday, and went to bed riding the sugar crash into sleep.

The purple cone turns out to be a particular favorite kind of candy in Bruges and is filled with a cassis (blackcurrant) jelly. SO yummy!

On Monday I woke up early to try to find some internet somewhere. Fail, fail, fail. Was awfully worried because I was waiting on replies from the Cambridge B&B, the Bruges and Brussels archives, the IU insurance office, etc., and my parents were leaving for the Mayo clinic. I was cranky when I couldn’t find a hot spot open anywhere. The hotel manager let me use the reception computer for a little bit to check and reply to email, and I sent out a bunch of emails to people asking them to reply by phone or fax or email to the hotel, but that didn’t seem to work fabulously, because the hotel started taking cryptic phone messages like “Manuscripts are OK.” and “You may arrive.” with no surrounding context. I treated my anxiety with lots of chocolate and English-language telly.

I walked all over town on Monday – mostly because I didn’t have a map yet as I’d arrived on a Sunday, and I wasn’t in any particular hurry to get one. It was a luxuriously slow week compared to the crazy competitive speed rail-riding I just did through northern France.  I thought I was walking to the center of town, but eventually I hit a highway and that seemed like a pretty good clue. I’d walked to the northern border of the city. Oops! I turned around and walked back in, and spent a few hours pleasantly lost. I would spend a LOT of time lost, and less pleasantly, over the course of the week. This town undoes me, I swear – I don’t know what it is about Bruges that disorients me so badly, but I find it easier to get lost here than anywhere else. I think it has something to do with how the roads curve so gently that you’re hardly ever aware that you’ve rotated 90 degrees until you find yourself back where you started. .  

I climbed the Belfort on Monday, too. 368 stairs, yo. At the time it didn’t seem like much. I once counted all the stairs I climbed in a typical day in Paris and it was more than that. But that was over the course of a whole day, see, and… This was all in one go. I was red of face and sweaty and ready for a crash cart at the top, but so were all of the little twentysomething duckies in their all-spandex streetwear that shows rather than tells. I don’t think anyone was real on top of just how much 368 stairs were. We were all moaning and wailing “Are we there yet? ARE WE THERE YET?” to the people coming down and every time they replied “You’re about halfway up!” It was like Zeno’s paradox as a real! life! experience! Ugh.

The view was OK, but I can understand why the godfather of all Bruges guides refuses to take anyone up there. He says that every with every step you take in the Belfort stairwells you tread on the soul of Bruges. This is because you get to the top, look around, and go “That’s IT?” which is not a reaction he feels anyone should ever have about Bruges. It really is pretty small. Surprisingly small.

The streets are like heartworms – you’re so astonished that much linear stuff can fit in such a small space, but in the end…

I had lunch at a Chinese restaurant. I love Chinese food in France, where the sauces are always lighter than in the states, not all starched up to thick. So I ate some vegetables (and noodle) and fruit (does lychee wine count?).

I bought some books. Buying books when you’re travelling for the next eight weeks out of a wee carryon  is, I swear, a form of mental illness. But without the internet, I had to buy a guidebook. Or at least wanted to. The other book was highly recommended, but... Mneh.

I also found the most adorable summer frock for one of the girls in a cute secondhand shop run by the sweetest Flemish woman –  it was the fabric that got me, which is very soft combed white cotton with a print of teeny tiny tomatos and pretty little peas and zucchini flowers, over an airy layer of cotton voile – it will be so cool and airy and super comfy. I don’t know which niece it will fit by the time it gets to Kansas, but one or the other will get to wear it, anyway!  

Tuesday there was still no internet. I hauled my laptop around all day hoping for a hotspot. Plenty of cafes had signs and stickers in the windows saying they had wireless, but those were cruel and misleading lies that generated foot traffic and bitter disappointment.  I was starting to stress at the 48 hour mark. Was my friend Liz coming? Was Julie coming? Did I have housing in Cambridge? What about my upcoming manuscript appointments? I had planned to do a lot of stuff in the hotel evenings, and I felt thwarted. I’d been traveling for exactly 8 weeks, and my nerves were just way too frayed for the bullshit games the desk was playing – genre of “It’s not our magical internet box! The pixies never die! Your mystical internet recepticon must be posssessed by a grue!” Seriously, the understanding of technology they evinced in these discussions was somewhere between “pygmy from undiscovered Pacific Rim island” and “your Great-Aunt Mathilda, who just ran away from the Amish.”   The router was down and not responding to pings. No DNS, no love! Restart the fucker! Turn it off, take the jack out, wait 30 seconds, plug it all back in, then turn it on again. It will probably work fine. But that would involve TOUCHING the magical internet box, which would ANGER THE DATA PIXIES and this they must not do! So they called tech support, and made an appointment for April 30. Thanks!

I went to a venerable chips stand in Bruges to have hot fries for lunch. It took forever to get through the line and to get the little paper dish loaded with fries and the sauces – about an hour. The chips are made fresh in small batches and go straight from the fryer to your plate– they were amazing.  Hot, crisp, salty exterior and a steamy, mealy interior – the potatos are parcooked before frying so their texture is perfect. You have to eat them pretty quickly, while they’re crisp and hot – by the time they cool they’re not the same chip you started with at all. I asked for mine with ketchup (which, after watching a bunch of orders going out with mayonnaise, I upgraded to two sauces at the last minute by asking nicely and offering another 50 cents so I could try both – the mayonnaise just looked so delicious and Euro mayo has so much eggy richness, and is usually a pale and creamy yellow). I perched on one of the windowsills in front of the Belfort with a bunch of other frites-eaters and relished every bite. I first read about this particular frites stand in an article in the Brussels Airlines magazine (honestly, airline magazines often have really wonderful travel writing) on my way from Venice to Belgium which gave me a terrific craving to try these out, and there’s nothing like sweet satisfaction!  

Later in the afternoon I stopped in a tea room for a cherry tart and a pot of Earl Grey, both of which were very good. The cherries in the tart were particularly delicious – very firm and fresh and sweetly tart, bound with a bit of rennet or agar and/or maybe some tapioca flour, not soupy or chewy or goopy with starch like lots of cherry pie filling. The tart crust had a very nice fork, and there was a surprise bump of chocoIate – about a spoonful – under the cherries.

I walked for another couple of hours.

I bought myself a box of chocolates at Chocolaterie de Burg. Some of them were good, but they weren't amazing. I didn't eat all of them. I left them in the hotel room when I left for the convent. Hopefully the maids won't have suspicious minds and they weren't wasted.

On my way home I picked up a few groceries (water, chocolate milk, chocolate yogurt, Wasa bread crackers, onion and herb cheese, a jar of pearl onions in brine, a couple of oeufs a la Russe for dinner) and the strangest crisps I’ve had yet – chicken pasanda. These Lays Sensations crisps have the texture of shrimp chips and are made with potato and chickpea flour, and taste of chicken, curry, coriander, garlic, and loads of cumin. Verdict: GROSS.

According to my pedometer, I walked between 5-8 miles a day in Bruges. Whatever good that might have done me was pretty compromised by the beer, fries, and chocolate for which Belgium is renowned.

Wednesday: Rainy, rainy, rainy! I ducked into a M&S and tried on raincoats. The green corduroy coat I arrived with was much too big on me now – the weirdest part of this is that the sleeves were too long. I’m sure they didn’t always come all the way to the end of my palms. I felt like I should have an oversized bowler hat to go with the coat to complete the playing-dress-up effect. I bought a bright blue jacket and a pretty silvery-black raincoat to replace it (I love the feminine steampunky raincoats that are the status quo here this season – lots of floaty silky waterproof nylon with gathered waists and pockets and Bene Gesserit-ish hoods - not lifted, they look like cowl portrait collars that frame the neck and collarbone, and they  lift into pretty riding hoods). My enjoyment of the blue jacket was compromised when my friend Julie (who showed up this weekend) told me it looked exactly like a French sanitation worker’s jacket (same blue, same boxy cut) but I think I will get past it. Or embrace it. Not sure yet.

I miss cooking. A lot. I normally love to watch cooking shows but right now they make me so homesick for my humble little kitchen and homecooked food that I can’t watch more than 30 minutes without starting to feel the cut of strange curved blade of longing for what is far away. I have been enjoying the British cookery shows they broadcast here in Belgium – I am resolved that the first thing I cook when I get to Cambridge (where I took a self-catering single at the farm B&B that Kerryn was at) will be a dish I saw today –rumbledethumps! And I’ve been having a terrible craving for fried turnip cakes, the kind you get at dim sum? And unless I can find a place that has them, I’m going to have to make some. And a simple chicken breast with lemon pepper and butter and steamed vegetables. I just miss my own cooking.

I went to four museums Wednesday. Which is really two or three too many. I managed to take pictures in one of them (the Gruuthuuse museum) before being told cameras weren’t allowed by an incredibly rude security woman, so I have a few neat things to share. The Flemish primitive portraits from the Groenigemuseum and Janshospital were… Flemish. I like a lot of Flemish portraiture, but really only the ones that are whimsical, like Gerrit van Honthorst’s work. And the ones I saw today were fairly linear. No whimsy or satire or sabotage.  Mrmph.

My favorite things I saw were this painted alabaster head of John the Baptist on a plate, which was amusingly displayed with a couple of antique silver spoons that had the apostle on their stems.  All you need is some cornflakes and milk and you’re all set for the most disturbing breakfast of your entire life.

I also reaaaally liked this seventeenth-century bobbinet lace benediction veil, which depicts Saint Catherine with the wheel, sword, and palm; St. Ursula with her bow and quiver; Saint Barbara with the tower and the palm. So beautiful.

This ornamental silver piece would make a really kill hood ornament for the popemobile.

Pocket sundial and compass in red velvet case – lovely!

I liked the motto written on this pianoforte: wisdom has no enemy except for ignorance.

As I walked back toward the library I was lured by the paradisical smell of cookies coming fresh out of the oven in a bakery that specialized in them. YOINK! 

The cookies here are bite size, and I bought myself a little bag of orange chocolate chip ( candied orange peel and dark chocolate chips) cookies, a chewy meringue with a dot of apricot jam in the middle, a rose shortbread, a little florentine – every once in awhile over the course of my day I pulled out a little cookie and had a thrill.

I went into a lace shop and looked at lace.

I took pictures of some of the lace patterns.

Still walking, I encountered this display of chocolate T&A with a sign that says “an amusing gift for your father or [male] friend” – people must have different relationships with their fathers in Belgium because seriously, I would not give my dad some chocolate boobs with nipples on them. Especially not the life-size pair. WHAT IS THAT ALL ABOUT. Belgian weirdos!

They were setting up the carnival rides and so on in the Markt– which means carnies! I love carnies!  They’re like pirates! Or gypsies. They’re rowdy and free and talk salty and could give a shit, seriously, not even a tiny one, about what anyone thinks. I was taking pictures of the ride trucks when one actually leapt out at me off the bed of one of them, announced that he was the proper subject of all photographs, and commenced posing! Yusssssss! WORK IT! I yelled, giggling. YOU’RE GORGEOUS! It was totally hilarious. He was awesome.

On Thursday I finally got around to checking out my manuscript.

I went back to the venerable green friterie for lunch, then came back and saw some more manuscripts, and took a lot of pictures of a manuscript totally unrelated to my research - a heavily illuminated copy of the Didascalicon. You should go to Flickr and look at them. I specialized in close-ups of the bawdiest and cutest ones! Such as:

MEDIEVAL MONKEYS!  Slingshotting a bird!

And my personal most-baffling and total favoritest:

WHAT THE HELL GOES ON HERE. Seriously. I am pretty sure that's a little old lady menacing that cat with a spinning distaff and spindle. And the cat running away after Bobbitizing someone.

And speaking of bawdy, check out the hilarity of this situation in the library, which would never happen in Manhattan, Kansas. Ever:

I think it was the first time the docent had seen someone working with a manuscript because she was a) kind of freaked out about it and b) staring at me. Me personally. Not the book. It’s funny, but I don’t recall ever feeling like I was being stared at before by a docent – normally they’re watching the book and my hands, not staring at my face. For three hours. Like most people, I can feel when I’m being stared at and it’s not so comfortable. Stare at my hands. Stare at the book. Do what you gotta do – it’s your job. But quit staring AT ME so intently that I feel like a cupcake and that you are that cupcake staring-at dog from the internets. Every time I look up she’s staring back at me with this depressed intensity, just like Stains and the cupcakes.

I arrived at the convent on Friday morning, and at lunchtime discovered that the other people in the convent for Easter were a cast of extraordinary characters. Marie-Therese, a Parisian woman who has been visiting the convent for 30 years and knows where everything is and what needs doing and when; Martine, an elegant (and I mean very elegant – exemplifying the ideal of bon chic, bon genre) and terrifyingly amusing Liegoise – people kept telling me she was pince-sans-rire – which means a “straight man” sort of comic, someone who says funny things without breaking a smile.  For me, as a non-native speaker, this was particularly terrifying because I was never really sure when she was making a joke and when she was being serious about something. For example, whether she was really serious in her prediction that I would end by marrying Frederick, an assertion that she made to Marie-Therese while Frederick and I were talking on the other side of the table; he heard it and I did not. When he recounted this to me later while we were on a walkabout (I invited him to come with me to the lacemakers school), saying that I shouldn’t take their teasing too seriously, I snorted and laughed and said of course not, haha! And then I realized that might be insulting to Frederick, who is really very nice, I quickly amended this by lightly adding that if he should wish to make an offer of marriage I would naturally be delighted to hear it.  

Now, as to Frederick – which is pronounced Frederique, but spelled all Britishy - I honestly don’t know how or where to begin. He is a seriously old-school gentleman’s gentleman kind of fellow,  and I found it droll and charming and genuinely nice and a bit precious, all at the same time. He makes little bows to nuns, If a woman is sitting to his left at table, he will serve her as the dishes are passed. I was usually to his left. One day I was so busy speaking with Sandrine to my right (She is English, about 65, a Canoness of Augustine, and some-time Arctic trekker) that I did not notice that Frederick  was attempting to dish up my peas while I was talking animatedly – evidently I kept nearly knocking over the spoon with the peas in it with my elbow as I gestured and talked (I talk with my hands, as the y say), which evidently was quite funny to watch but I didn’t notice until I wondered why Martine and Marie-Therese looked like they were about to explode. Then I looked to my right and saw poor Frederick desperately attempting to manoever a serving spoon full of peas into a safe landing on my plate.  I apologized. “I would move heaven for you!” he replied gallantly, looking up at me with his big, earnest, somewhat buggy blue eyes. “The peas therefore are no problem.”


In addition to giant buggy blue eyes, Frederick has the most Gallic features I think I’ve ever seen. I was utterly fascinated by how much he resembled the sorts of faces one sees in paintings of French aristocratic men in wigs and ruffs. I wanted to put a powdered wig on him just for completion’s sake. His button-down shirt and chinos didn’t seem quite right. I could not get enough of watching his face, just because it was so fascinating to see the face of a painting in motion, talking and doing things. You wouldn’t necessarily say this is a handsome man – you would say this is a man who looks like the fellows in French portraiture of the 18th century, which is a very different proposition. Of course I found out soon by piecemeal that he is in fact this sort of Parisian who has the ancient aristocratic lineage and prestigious prep school background and university at Cambridge etc. He went upstairs to change for evening service and supper and came back down in a pressed suit, a crisply starched shirt, a silk Hermes cravat and pocket square, etc. etc. – but looking as comfy as a man who has changed into his pajamas at bedtime. It was novel.

At the first lunch I found out that Frederick is a professional photographer – he mostly shoots portraits. French Vogue was his first employer, if you can imagine.   He was at the beguinage because he has been working on a series of studies of the nuns at the convent for the last 15 years, and it is finished, and it is being published by a house in Bruges, and he was here to review proofs and etc. Of course I was beyond happy to find myself seated next to a professional photographer who specializes in portraits – people are my favorite thing to shoot.

I invited him to go with me to the lacemaking demonstration at the Jeruzalem church, which was my post-lunch destination. He agreed and went upstairs to get his camera. What would he come down with? I was looking forward to seeing his gear and how he worked with it. He came back down the staircase moments later holding nothing but an ancient SLR. No case, no gear, no tripod, just the camera, gripped lightly in one hand. I gasped. “YOU SHOOT FILM!” I blurted out, shocked. He nodded and said in tones of grim disavowal: “I will never use digital.” I was still agog. “It’s like meeting someone who rides everywhere on a HORSE,” I said, still awed. Frederick seemed pleased with this analogy. I think that Frederick knows that he is a noble anachronism, but tries not to let it go to his head.

We had a nice walk. He showed me the house he’d like to buy in Bruges, which was on the way to the church. At the demonstration, he offered me a good position for some shots of a laceworker (he had to choose whether to bring indoor or outdoor film and couldn’t shoot inside) and I took some pictures. We walked back to the house and Marie-Therese and Martine asked us what we’d been off doing in tones that suggested this probably involved mollocking in the sukebind, but we ignored it. Those two ladies were awfully keen on the salacious speculations for a couple of conventual devotees.  

I think the only thing that has really inhibited me from developing a massive crush on Frederick is that by my estimation, he’s about 5 feet tall. He is a tiny, tiny man. As I was recounting all this and describing him in detail to Julie, who arrived on Monday but missed meeting Frederick and Marie-Therese by a fraction, she did some mental calculations and said to me that she thought it likely that if he was so tiny and so classically French-faced, that he was probably somethingsomething. I did not recognize this word, somethingsomething, in French. There is another term for it, less polite, she said. Always unbecomingly eager to learn the less polite terms for things, I demanded to know what it was. “Le fin du race,” she mumbled. By which I understood her to mean “The end of the line/age, the race of the Great Whites, etc.” and began to suspect that somethingsomething was the French word for “inbred blueblood.” Eeeee.

Easter weekend at the convent: to be continued tomorrow!

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