Thursday, March 22, 2007

Brussels, With & Without Sprouts

Ok, so I couldn't resist. And actually, they're just called "spruiten," or sprouts, this close to the source. You don't need to specify the Brussels part.

A couple of weekends ago, we had a Saturday free and decided to use it to go to Brussels just to wander around and see what there was to see. It's only 45 minutes by train, no big deal at all.

Having learned from experience, I packed some juice boxes and cereal bars and we headed to the train station with the girls in the Stroller. Once we got to Brussels, we found the Grand Place quickly enough. I hadn't been there since John and I went on a trip together in 2003 when we were still dating. The Grand Place seemed immense then, and I remembered so many shop windows filled with huge speculaas cookies and lots of chocolates. Fourteen years later, it seemed smaller somehow, and I never did see a single giant speculaas in any of the shop windows, on or off the Grand Place. I guess cookies don't pay the rent like they used to.

We sat at an outdoor table of one of the many eateries on the Grand Place that cater to the tourist who throng the area. We were expecting high prices and an ok, not fantastic, lunch but the girls were antsy to sit down somewhere. The place we chose, whose name I've forgotten already, was short-staffed at best, either that or our waiter saw the kids and decided to frustrate us into leaving. I packed the girls back into the stroller and we started looking for another place. We found one on a street of Greek and Turkish sidewalk dining places, and had a very nice lunch of calamari, salads, pita slices, tsatziki sauce, some sausages, that sort of thing. I packed the girls' uneaten pita slices in a napkin in my purse for later.

We walked all over Brussels, a really nice walking city. The signage is great too - every so often there's a map for tourists to orient themselves, and lots of signposts at street corners direct you tot he major landmarks. We walked through the Galeries St. Hubert, the world's first indoor shopping area, and the girls loved looking at the displays in the windows of the chocolatiers and curiosity shops. We saw some Chinese characters on signs down one street and the girls demanded to see Brussels' Chinatown, so we did that, then found our way past an ongoing archeological dig one can view through windows, then back to the Grand Place area.

The girls wanted to run and play. Luckily there's a big huge park (Parc Royal) in Brussels, up behind the art museum and cathedral. It has a wonderful playground in it, with see-saws, swings, spring-rockers, play structures and slides. We parked the stroller and just let them run for a good hour or so until the sun started to dip a bit lower in the sky and it was time to head back to the train station.

That's the nice thing about getting to live here for an extended period of time. We can just say "let's go to Brussels today" and wander around once we get there. We don't have to Accomplish Something.

The following Tuesday, we decided to go back to Brussels to the art museum while the girls were in school. We hopped a train on the way back from dropping them off and were in Brussels just as the museum opened for the day. It's an extensive museum, with both traditional and modern wings, far too much to see in one visit. We chose the old works, specifically the 16th and 17th century exhibit. The collection contains works by Memling, Brueghel, Bosch and others, and an extensive collection of tryptichs and diptychs that were originally painted for use in private family worship. It's funny--the tryptichs so often are a scene of the Annunciation or the Passion in the center, flanked by portraits of a wealthy man and woman on either side, their hands piously folded. "Look at us," they seem to say, "we're rich!...AND we pray regularly."

The other thing that really struck me were the paintings depicting the martyrdom of various female saints. One in particular depicts Mary, her mother, and Mary Magdalene flanked by eight female martyrs who died in the most horrific ways. One ripped out her own eyeballs so she could escape from the experience of being raped to death. One was shot with arrows for refusing a marriage proposal. One had her breast cut off for refusing a marriage proposal but her breast was magically restored through prayer, and so on and so on. Not that St. Bartholomew had it any easier or anything. As someone who grew up in the Lutheran church, where the focus seems far more on God the Loving Father and a plain, symbolic cross, I was surprised at how jarring it was to confront the difference in emphasis, on suffering rather than redemption, on the crucifix rather than the stone rolled away. Was this emphasis in part because life was so much more difficult and uncertain back then? Or have we just decided that we'd rather hear the happy ending?

The exhibits were really fantastic though--certainly plenty of food for thought--and the audio guide was definitely worth the couple of euro surcharge. After two hours of Contemplating Art, it was time for a bite to eat. We decided on the museum cafe, which has been recently refurbished. It's very high-style, as most museum cafes are, and the food lived up to the designers' promise. I had a lovely tomato soup with balletjes, little meatballs, and a glass of wine. John had a sandwich and a Hoegaarden beer. The terrace was open, the weather was nice, and we enjoyed this little lunchtime tete a tete overlooking the courtyards of Brussels.

We hopped on the train and in no time were back in Antwerpen-Centraal. I'll miss having a train station close by that can take us to so many great destinations.

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