OUR TIME HAS COME TO AN END

If you’re up to it, listen to my favorite nostalgic song as you read the blog.

I wish we had a few days to relax in Antwerp, to drink tea, explore the maze of cobblestone streets, and spend time with the friends I have made on this trip. But alas, we must all continue on our ways. I am pleased to say that I have few regrets and I have made amazing memories on this trip. It’s turned out much better than expected though I must say that I have a tendency of keeping my expectations low so that I can be pleasantly surprised and not sadly disappointed.

esmee and carloAnd I am pleased to say that I have been much more than pleasantly surprised. First, a wonderful professor Esm√©e who created a wonderful itinerary and program and is always patiently there for you. And to Toon, an amazing program assistant that I was never expecting – someone extremely knowledgable (and not afraid to share that knowledge!) who has gone out of his way to make sure everyone has a good time. Honestly I feel like “program assistant” really diminishes what Toon has contributed to this program.

This has been one of the best experiences of my life, especially as I had a personal connection to the low countries but have never been. To be able to go to so many places and experience so many things in the land that my family is from is something I am eternally grateful for. And doing this with a group of students from Berkeley is amazing. It was a nice opportunity to meet people that I would never meet actually at Berkeley – we are such an eccentric and diverse group of individuals. I have met intelligent, quiet, engaging, outgoing students and surprisingly we have all come together. We like to joke about each other but there is nobody on this program that I don’t like spending time with. The fact that we can explore such an amazing region with such an enthusiastic group of awesome students (and #1 professor and program assistant) is what makes this program special. Yes in the future I can travel to many different places but it is different going as a simple tourist. Going with a group of diverse peers who are fun to be around and bring different perspective to the table is something that I am incredibly grateful to have been part of. Sometimes a big group of people can be a challenge – we all have different needs and opinions. But it is worth it and the different outlooks and backgrounds make meeting and spending time with the group something fun and new. I also appreciate the student perspective that we had with this “study abroad” because we could still experience all the fun, touristic aspects while learning so much more than any tourist would learn (also I like museums). I contrast this to China where I learned a lot about how current Chinese people live and eat but not much about their history and cultural identity.

Anyway, I’m trying to keep this short and sweet but I’m afraid it will be neither (what else is new?).

I have made some amazing friends that I will keep beyond this program (hopefully ūüėČ which is something I didn’t expect either. You know who you are ūüĎĬ†It’s funny because the first week I thought I wouldn’t like anyone and then I started to become very close to some people – it reminds me of living in the dorms in Berkeley when I eventually became best friends with people I never would thought of hanging out with in the first month.

It’s 1am again so I’m not going to go through the past month and talk about what I loved and didn’t love as much. Let me just say that I enjoyed the vast majority of it and had an amazing time. I really love the Netherlands which came a bit as a surprise because I was initially looking forward to Belgium.

It has been a long three months abroad so I am happy to return home in America but I am sad to leave this home.

For now.

I WILL BE BACK (aka you won’t be able to get rid of me).

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aww so cute

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I just really like this photo. Taken by the lovely Brynne who has a fancy camera (aka iPhone 7). Also go Flanders!!!

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A lively dinner

Our last city of the program! ūüėĘ

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The Belfry (left) and City Hall (right)

Gent, the capital of East Flanders and the second largest city of Belgium. It is historically important, being the largest city in Europe after Paris during the Middle Ages. Because it has been lucky enough to remain relatively unscathed during the two world wars, Gent’s historical heritage has remained intact so that we can appreciate them today.

The city has three main towers – the belfry, the tower of the Cathedral, and the tower of Saint Michael’s Church. We started our tour at the square in between the Cathedral and the belfry (housed on the Cloth House).

We continued across the canals to see Saint Michael’s Church, another beautiful Catholic Church that was built in the early gothic style. The style is “early” gothic due to the softly pointed edges – the arches are almost round but pointed at the tip. This style was also seen at the Church of Our Lady in Bruges. I feel like I have learned a great deal regarding architecture on this trip.

Graslei

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Graslei, the walkway along the canal in Gent’s old city center. The houses are so intricate and beautiful and authentic buildings from the Middle Ages. Our tour guide explained that an easy way to tell the difference between “fake medieval” and real medieval is whether or not the bases of the buildings are made of stone. In real medieval structures, actual stone was used. Later, only brick was employed.

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Gorgeous.

Some more canals and a castle later we ended our tour for lunch.

I may have stayed up late the night before working frantically on blogs so I decided to use the lunch hour to find a scenic spot in Gent and take a siesta – I mean, dutje. I found this place next to the canal quite a ways form the city center. Knus!

Sint-Baafskathedraal – Saint Bavo’s Cathedral

20170726_155553Perhaps this is the time to mention that I notice in Dutch (and even more so in German, I think), something descriptive may become a very long word while in English it becomes multiple words. Like Saint Carlo’s Cathedral becomes essentially one word –¬†Sint-Caroluskathedraal and not de kathedraal van Carlolus. To quote an extreme example that I googled,¬†meervoudigepersoonlijkheidsstoornissen means “multiple personality disorders.” It’s like many words squashed into one. Though I suppose this doesn’t matter. But trivia! Now you know the longest word in Dutch.

Where were we? Oh, yes the Cathedral was very nice (I mean, could it be anything but splendid?). We wandered around a bit and It was extremely impressive. It has been some time since I visited the Cathedral in Antwerp but I believe the one in Gent is larger (though Antwerp’s is taller). Again, I noticed many individual altars surrounding the choir that individuals and guilds commissioned. It is nice to see the unique artwork that each one tries to display.

This is Utrecht cathedral! (according to Toon and the world). I must never forget how the tower looks like again.

And of course we saw the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. I have developed quite the liking for Jan van Eyck during this program as I also really liked his pieces in the Museum in Bruges. I noticed the way he depicted the red cloth on the central figure (potentially Jesus, potentially God the Father, will we ever know?) is similar to how he depicted the garb on Mother Mary in Madonna with Canon van der Paele. Toon also gave us some details on how medieval artists would traditionally depict John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist which was interesting. Medieval art always takes on a sort of unrealistic look from afar but when you look at the individual expressions and gestures one can see the intricate and realistic details Рlike the faces of everyone in the painting.

The Gravensteen

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The castle’s dungeon: gezelleg! *sarcasm*

Another major landmark of the city, the Gravensteen is a castle from the 12th century. Naturally much of the original stone has decayed and fallen to ruin but at least the whole base of the castle is original stone from the Middle Ages.

The castle was the “seat” of the Counts of Flanders until the 14th century when it underwent the classic cycling of functions that so many medieval buildings seem to have gone through – prison, courthouse, hospital, factory etc and then eventually left to decay. At the end of the 19th century, the city of Gent rescued the castle – they bought the property and began to renovate it to the splendid beast it is today.

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Update on the history of Gravensteen – it’s our castle now. We entertain guests during tea at 5pm. Dank je wel.

Dinner with our (new) Family

The last part of the day (albeit 4 hours) was tea hosted by wonderful families who lived in Gent. I was pleasantly surprised that we would be split up in very small groups and have a gezelleg evening.

The vegetarian crew was hosted by a nice lady named Hilde who had invited two other guests – Thomas and Ariane (not 100% on that last one’s spelling though he did admit that many thought his name was that of a woman). They all were very interesting and we soon become enthralled in an animated conversation – our inhibitions came down very quickly (perhaps it was the prosecco and wine that flowed freely?). We discussed essentially everything that one should not discuss over dinner – politics, money, and religion. Thomas was originally an American (from Walnut, Minnesota!) and explained his process of becoming a true Belgian even after being here for some 28 years I believe. He had just received his Belgian nationality and works as a professor in Aalst, having studied at the University of Gent. Ariane is a professor at UCR which we visited in Middelburg (he was quite pleased that we were so familiar with his town and university). And Hilde had also worked as an academic in Gent. So we discussed the scandalous and offensive carnivals that take place in Aalst, the treatment of transgender individuals in Belgium, the state of taxation within the EU (and American citizens), the religious nature of the low countries and how “God has left the Netherlands,” the mysteries of life that can (or can’t?) be explained by science. And we related our personal experiences regarding the matters. And of course we talked a bit about where we are from and what the others have done but that actually proved to be only the first few minutes of our conversation. There was never a dull moment and I was quite sad to see the time had flown by. I would have loved to learn more about our hosts – they were truly fascinating.

Oh also the food was great. Yay vegetarians! I haven’t had tofu since China. We also had a typical Flemish type of soup (a vegetable I can’t remember the name of). And naturally, we ate potatoes (and an interesting type of Flemish green beens). For dessert we had the fruits and the chocolates and a unique pudding dish made in Aalst – a poor-man’s medieval dessert traditionally made from the scraps of cakes and cookies.

We said our goodbyes and finally made our way to our 2nd to last train ride of the trip (I still have to go to Brussels to fly out).

KU Leuven

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Leuven from the Grote Markt! As we learned, almost all of these buildings were destroyed in WWI. 

It’s a wild country from Antwerp to the the college town of Leuven and unfortunately four of the group did not make it.

I was excited to tour Leuven because my family has attended the university. Both my parents went to KU Leuven (my mother from undergraduate to PhD, and my father just for a one year masters). And my cousins went to Leuven for Computer Science.

The EU, again

The second obstacle was finding the room in KU Leuven in which a professor gave us a talk regarding foreign policy in the EU. Perhaps a bit dry for first thing in the morning but the professor was very enthusiastic which was encouraging.

One of the major benefits (or potential benefits) of the EU is that a unified Europe can execute a stronger and more effective influence and relation abroad. Strategies, policy, and negotiations completed with the entirety of Europe are much more significant than a single nation basis. This is why Europe an gave advantageous trade deals – by including all of Europe’s 500 million citizens in the process at once.

The origin behind European Integration into one EU lies in the tested (WWI, WWII) theory that national sovereignty leads to destructive forces. Europe integrated not because they liked each other but because they needed to control each other. By interweaving policy and trade between member countries, going to war with one another would become impossible.

However the member states wanted and still want to keep much of their national sovereignty and identity. This leads to the challenge as member states hinder the EU from becoming more powerful and accomplishing thier goals while at the same time EU citizens expect much from the EU.

Foreign policy is an immediate issue in Europe with the ring of neighboring countries that are sometimes led by instable governments. For example Turkey and the tension in the Middle East and Russia. The influx of immigration is a prime example of a cause that is best tackled by a joint European effort.

Our speaker emphasized the importance of Europe developing ties to countries outside of the West – nameley, China, Russia, and Arabic countries. He spoke of this “knowledge gap” of Europeans regarding these foreign nations. And in fact, very few scholars in Leuven and all of Belgium can read primary documents in Chinese, Russian, or Arabic. Our speaker advocated an “outside-in” approach to EU foreign policy analysis which mainly consists of looking beyond “Westphalia.”

Luncheon

20170725_124209For the budget-minded individual that I try to be, I decided to get a sandwich from Panos for lunch. But we paired it with a nice pot of tea in a nearby tea room which was quite nice. Ultimately I spent more on tea and pastry than I did lunch which is a balance I am quite content with.

City Tour

Yay, tour through the city!

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Town Hall

We started in the Grote Markt where the Church of St. Peter and the Town Hall face. Our tour guide (in a stunning turn of events our tour guide was in fact, NOT Toon), explained that the Town Hall is the oldest part of the city – from the 15th century. Much of Leuven was bombed and destroyed in World War I though it was rebuilt to its medieval grandeur as it was before the war (as Ypres and Middelburg did in WWII). Luckily, the town hall was spared.

Fountain of Lost Knowledge

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Fonske. With St. Peter’s Church in the back.

Fonske, a statue from 1975, depicts a sculpture that many students have taken to be a depiction of a drinking student. However, to me it is clearly a depiction of the classic student condition: cram knowledge into one’s brain for a short period of time, and after the exam all of that knowledge flows out of you.

St. Peter’s Church

20170725_141330Just want to mention the beautiful St. Peter’s Church that seems huge to me but was originally designed to be much larger. Also, it looks interesting as the west facade of the church has many flat rooftops – a clear note that building on the church abruptly stopped. When the church ran out of funds it couldn’t keep building. This is similar to the Cathedral in Antwerp but more pronounced.

Our next stop was the Oude Markt, home of the “Longest bar in the war” because of the continuous line of bars through the square.

Here our tour guide explained to us the Catholic affiliation with KU Leuven. Even though KU Leuven is still technically affiliated with the Catholic Church, it’s connection to religion has diminished over the years especially after the secularization of the 60s and 70s. To reduce the religious connotation present in the name, the original name Katholieke Universiteit Leuven was shortened to KU Leuven.

As we continued, our tour guide also explained to us something of the college system in KU Leuven. Originally, the university did not provide food and housing so wealthy individuals established “Colleges” that students could apply to. These colleges fed and housed the students and provided a community for the students.

Beguinhof

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We continued on our way to the Beguinhof of Leuven. It is the largest Beguinage we have seen on this trip and differs from the others we have seen in that there is not simply one large empty space. There are many open spaces but with houses interspersed in the middle of the Beguinage. The oldest house is from the 15th century and still has remnants of its wooden structure – most of the Beguinage was built in the 15th or 16th century.

I also went to mass in the Beguinage church on Saturday night which was quite beautiful and the more I hear mass in Dutch the more I am able to decipher. The church is the official church for the university’s Catholic community (for those devout Catholics who still go to church).

University Library

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Located on the Ladeuzeplein square, the library is from 1921 built as a gift from Americans to Leuven after the 17th century library was burned down by the Germans in WWI. The fire destroyed a large part of the culture of the medieval city but also the loss of irreplaceable historical books in the library. The act of violence prompted people around the world to come to the rescue of the University. The carillon in the tower originally had 48 bells, representing the member states of the USA at the time. The main bell that rings the hour is called the Liberty Bell of Leuven. Sadly, in May 1940 the Germans again destroyed the almost new University Library and it was reconstructed completely along the original blueprint.

Fun fact! The needle with the beetle that you can see on Ladeuzeplein is made by Jan Fabre, the same sculptor that made the statue in the Cathedral of Antwerp. I was surprised to see Jan Fabre is quite a famous artist in Belgium (we discussed him during our Gent dinner).

We climbed the tower of the the library and enjoyed a lovely view of the University. And, our guide gave us a unique and special carillon concert at the top of the tower! He played Beauty and the Beast and Scientist (by Coldplay) which was amazing. I particularly liked the Scientist and thought that it came out very well with bells.

WWI in Ypres

New week, new day, new challenge. The first challenge of the day was getting on the 8:37 train, which only 16 of the group accomplished. A few hiccups and a trip to France later, we all made it eventually. As Shakespeare would say, “Alls well that (sort of) ends well.”

Ieper

We made it! A nice, two hour journey to the southern border of Belgium. However, due to the geography of the country, Ypres is still part of Flanders. Wallonia is in the southwest part of the country. More on geography: Lille, France (which I visited yesterday!), is four kilometers closer from Antwerp than Ypres.

Anyway, in Ypres we were greeted by the sweet embrace of a rainstorm. But by the time we arrived at the Grote Markt the skies parted to allow sunshine.

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Not cringeworthy at all.

Cheese

First things first – luncheon. While we toured a bit of the city in an effort to find food, we say an interesting ceremony being played out that was commemorating World War I. During our tour, we later learned that this was due to the fact that July 24, 2017 was the 90th anniversary of the erection of the war memorial Menin Gate for the missing fallen soldiers of WWI.

We eventually made our way to a cafe in which I had a classic Flandrien sandwich with some good Gouda cheese (not alliteration).

Chocolate

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Afterwards, we decide to take a stab at the numerous chocolate shops we had passed on our expedition for food. First stop, Leonidas. Now, when you come to Ypres and they say “deal for Americans,” there is really no other option but to buy 25 euros worth of chocolate. Though I must say that it is quite a good deal in comparison to similar-quality chocolate in the states. And, not to dwell on this, but I did acquire quite the selection of truffles, pralines, ganache, fudge, sea shells.

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Next stop: cha. This was actually perfect. We stumbled into a nice “koffie + thee” shop in which we each got a pot of tea which came with a few chocolate samples and a free refill (gasp). It was nice to relax in the city.

In Flanders Fields Museum

The afternoon took quite the turn as we entered the In Flanders Museum regarding World War I.

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The Cloth Hall, destroyed in WW1

During the first world war, Ypres held the strategic position in blocking the German path across Belgium to France from the north. Four major battles ravaged the city of Ypres and left it in ruins after the war. However, the city was rebuilt to its former medieval glory after the war (on money from German reparations). Thus, all the old medieval buildings are essentially “fake” medieval. The “In Flanders Fields Museum is now located in the Cloth Hall – cloth being one of the most important industries of Ypres during the Middle Ages.

This museum was one of the best I think we have visited in Belgium. I like how it mentioned the inconsequentiality of the war through some of the personal testimonies. There was this question after the war of “What was the point?” So many men died an unnecessary death, lying in the trenches. The series of alliances failed as two major alliances broke out into war over a small scuffle in Serbia. While obviously there were deeper underlying tensions leading to the war, the fact remains that the war was without much accomplishment.

20170724_152455The war was initially an excitement for many citizens of Europe. National identity and allegiance to alliances made encouraged many men to initially go enlist in the war. And, most thought that the war would be over by Christmas – something that failed to occur. The museum had a section devoted on this sadness. During the first Christmas, soldiers apparently felt more sentiment to their fellow soldiers on the other side than the comfortable residents back home.

There is a great progression from this excitement to join the cause. The “noble idea” of the soldier in a glorious war still intact at the beginning of the war — an image that would be lost in the wars aftermath and is still today. The senseless killing of millions of soldiers simply from being there, the killing of civilians, the destruction of cities all contributed to the modern image of war.

Tour of Ypres

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Saint Martin’s Cathedral, towering over the Grote Markt

Next we embarked on a scenic / historical tour of the city of Ypres beginning from the Grote Markt. We meandered our way to the Rijselpoort city gate. It is the only gate of the ten Ypres city gates that has been preserved. However, Ypres has one of the best preserved town walls in all of Belgium. Though the wall is from 16th century, not exactly part of the Middle Ages. The sheer amount of brick served the city well though it could not protect the town from the bombs that hailed in 1914. As we saw in the museum, the city was completely decimated – the town hall, the church, the houses, and medieval buildings all reduced to rubble. Despite the tragic losses, the resilient residents chose to return to the city and rebuild it exactly as it was before, preserving the medieval history of the town that we continue to see today. Thus, it can be said then that everything we see is “fake old.”

Snapchat-2127180819Beyond the gate lies a hill holding the Ramparts (Lille Gate) Cemetery, holding soldiers of British nationality. Our tour guide explained that Britain chose not to re-patriot its fallen soldiers. Some interesting notes – first it is a beautiful place to be buried among the flowers and overlooking the water surrounding the city of Ypres. Secondly, every headstone is the same, marking a new tradition in which all lives from the war are considered equal – while the headstones may have unique inscriptions on them, they are all the same shape – colonel, captain, foot soldier it didn’t matter. This new egalitarianism is also reflected in the memorial that we saw later in which each soldier is given a name on the monument if no body was found.

From the city gate we walked along the wall to an underground bunker in which ice was stored throughout the year. Deep inside the cellar, ice could be packed and insulated with straw, preserving it for months on end.

Menin Gate Memorial

20170724_171058We continued to the Menin Gate War Memorial of the Missing soldiers of World War I. They are dedicated tot he British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the Ypres battles but whose graves have never been uncovered. Each soldier gets his name inscribed on the memorial. However, it is a living memorial meaning that if a body is found, it will be placed in the Cemetery we saw and the memorial updated.

20170724_173032We also entered the St. George’s Church in Ypres that the British built after the war to commemorate the over 500,000 British troops who died in the three battles off Ypres.

The end of our tour gave us just enough time to grab some more chocolates and another sandwich to go. Also, I had a whole wheat croissant for the first time. I didn’t even know those existed. I must say it was quite good though nothing beats the price of 2.80‚ā¨ for 5 croissants deal we encountered in our first bakery in Lille.

Turns out that as we arrived to the station our train was in fact delayed due to a “medical emergency,” an apparent code term for suicide on the tracks.

While we accepted the free time as a chance to consume chocolate, thinking back to the event makes me quite sad. Looking into this, Belgium has quite a high rate of suicide – the top 23rd highest rate. In comparison, the Netherlands is at the 98th position.

To end on a slightly less depressing note, we all made it back to Antwerp and the sky looked magnificent.

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The KBC tower – one of the first skyscrapers of Europe.

Boujie in Bruges

We’re back at the canals, with a cameo by my good friends the swans. We began our visit to Bruges with a nice walking tour, led by our professional guide Toon.

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Bruges is a beautiful city, well preserved to maintain its medieval atmosphere. It is the capital of West Flanders and sometimes called “the Venice of the North” due to its ¬†network of beautiful canals. Although by that definition, every city in the Netherlands would be a Venice. Though Bruges differs from the canal cities of the Netherlands due to the fact that the water goes right up to the doors of the houses, like in Venice. Thus, the canals were used as a final transportation route to the doors of the customer.

20170721_112900Another idyllic aspect were the fancy ubers that the city sported. And by Uber, I mean the horse-drawn carriages clomping around the cobblestone streets.

Interesting point – as we walked past the Town Hall we saw a bit of a ceremony for Belgian Independence Day. I heard something along the lines of “Leef Belgie, leef de koning.” I was talking to my friend later the day though and he said that Flemish people almost don’t celebrate the Independence Day at all besides enjoying the day off of work. It celebrates the day that King Leopold I was sworn into the new nation of Belgium. However, many Flemish people did not want to revolt against the Dutch in the first place and Leopold was no friend to the Flemish, breaking his word to allow Dutch to be spoken. Anyway, it is quite the contrast from America where the 4th of July unites all citizens. Here, even a national holiday could incited a political response, or at best, an apathetic one.

Church of Our Lady

20170721_114244We stopped by the Church of Our Lady, or Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, which is the second tallest brick structure in the world. Built in the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries, the Church puts on a constrained Gothic display. The brick provides a warmer, lighter feel than the normal grays and blacks of gothic churches. Decoration is minimal and the pointed arches are almost round, only barely pointed at the tip.

Sint-Salvatorskathedraal

Only one church a day is truly the beginner’s level. Off to Saint Salvator’s Cathedral! It is the oldest church of the city, its building beginning in the 12th century. It was originally built as a church but became a Cathedral in the 19th century when the bishop was instated into the church following Belgian independence from Protestant Dutch.

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Baroque decoration.

Because these magnificent churches take centuries to build, the architectural style changes in the middle of the process. Thus, we see a gothic structure but with a Romanesque addition to the tower after a fire ravaged the Church in the 19th century. There is a clear separation of types of brick when looking at the tower, denoting the 12th century and 19th century portions. The interior of the church is marked with the beautiful baroque style as the interior of the church was renovated in the 17th century. To me, it is quite recognizable by the sharp black and white contrasts to create vivid decoration. This baroque style is also seen at the Saint Carolus Borromeus in Antwerp church from which I recognize it.

And there was an organ player at  the church. Hear him here.

Le Déjeuner

In such an idyllic, medieval city, a few of us (let’s be real, Maggie and Brynne) decided to have a fancy luncheon.

We went to Le Pain Quotidien which simply is called daily bread but in French, naturally, it sounds sophisticated. The establishment was respectable and served drinks with chocolate wedges before our meal as every restaurant should. Merci.

Perhaps now is a good time to clarify that “boujie” is a reference to the bourgeois elitist ideals and materialism. Though, talking of the French-speaking bourgeois of Belgium, let me go on about their oppression of the Flemish (just kidding, simply check out yesterday’s blog!).

Naturally, us bourgeoisie needed to sample and purchase some tea and chocolates for the remainder of our lunch our. Bruges (as every quaint city in Belgium does) is filled with chocolate shops. Each one says the “finest” Belgian chocolate which must be quite the mathematical accomplishment. But in all serious, they all seem delicious though I must say that I have developed a particular loyalty to Leonidas. We stopped by the famous Chocolate Line and saw some of the chocolate making process. I had also visited the Chocolate Line in Antwerp. I like the large chocolate sculptures that the Line produces. However the “production” in the Chocolate Line seems a bit touristic. We picked up some orange chocolate peels and stopped by a souvenir shop in which I selected a couple items. Sometimes there is a time for embracing the tourist lifestyle.

Allow me a digression. In San Francisco there is a place called Dandelion Chocolate which is amazing. It produces chocolate from scratch entirely itself. First, the owners personally travel to regions in Africa / South America and find a good harvest and negotiate for the beans. Then, the raw cacao pods are brought to the SF shop. Inside the shop they make the chocolate from scratch from roasting to packaging. It is amazing. Definite recommend.

Now, where were we? Ah, yes we’re back at the Grote Markt, ready to museum ourselves.

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Groeningemuseum

 

I quite liked the museum. It had a good specialty in Flemish art from the 15th century (Flemish primitives) that we hadn’t been exposed to yet which was nice.

In the 15th century, Bruges was the center of Europe for art. Famous artists such as Jan van Eyck and Petrus Christus worked in Bruges. Their artwork was considered “Flemish primitive,” characterized by an attention to fine detail and realism.

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The Roman God Mars.

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The Legend of Saint Ursula: led the martyrdom of 11,000 virgins in Cologne.

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The detail in Mary’s red shawl is amazing. It truly makes you want to touch it.¬†

After the museum we swiftly made our way to the train station and I caught the 17:22 train to Mechelen just in time. I was off to visit my cousin in Mechelen (and my aunt in nearby Leuven the following day). While I had visited before, it was nice to return and relax a bit with tasty food, good conversation, and a comfortable bed. Lekker!

Dag Bruges.

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Bruxelles

Ah, off to the grand capital of Europe!

Oops, I didn’t mean to get into politics so early in the morning by implying “Europe” is controlled by a capital.

Let’s just say that Brussels is home of the European Parliament. Yay! (And let’s just ignore the fact that the Parliament is forced to shuffle to Stratsbourg each month at tremendous cost). Perhaps I should settle on a non-partisan position: Ah, Brussels, we’re off to the grand capital of Belgium.

But should Belgium even have a capital? After all, it survived for almost 600 days without a federal government and it’s not as if Flanders benefits from the Belgian bureaucracy. Should Flanders and Wallonia become independent nations?

Oh, but which side would get to keep Brussels. Agh, Brussels again – we have come full circle.

To the train

Before we dive any deeper into politics, let’s start with the day. We began in Antwerp after all.

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On route to the train station we passed by the KBC Tower (KBC is a big bank). It was built in 1929-33 and is thus one of the first skyscrapers of Europe. Not as high as the Cathedral though!

Regarding Antwerpen Centraal, it was built in the late 19th century and is considered one of the most beautiful train stations in Europe. To my eyes, it is truly magnificent.

Fun fact, the station served as a location for a flash mob in 2009 where 200 people unsuspectedly started to dance to “DO RE MI.” After watching¬†the youtube video, I decided (perhaps fatefully) to check the comments. ¬†comment antwerp centraal.png

What’s the NVA? It’s the¬†Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie¬†(New Flemish Alliance) party which advocates for the “peaceful and gradual” secession of Flanders from Belgium. Digging deeper it also supports the preservation of the Dutch language within Belgium (which makes sense, more on this later) as well as strengthening ties to the European Union. It is now the largest party in Flanders (and by extension, Belgium).

“The N-VA is a party that attaches a great deal of importance to identity,” the NVA website declares. And, it is also enthusiastic about forming stronger European identity and a more effective, efficient EU. This might make sense because as an independent Flanders would be quite small and the protection of being part of the larger, effective European EU would be beneficial. I find learning about the politics of the countries we are visiting to be quite fascinating.¬†It sounds like a digression but it does relate to the question of European identities and the EU that we have been exploring as a class.

Bruxelles

What’s with the spelling? It is the French spelling of the name because as we walked through the streets of Brussels, French was the dominant language. Frankly, I heard more Spanish and English than I did Dutch.

Flemish vs. French

Related to the conundrum of French everywhere in Brussels, I think about the divide between the French speaking Wallonia and the Flemish-speaking Flanders. I know this is a digression from what we did today, but it ties in well to the francization of Brussels that we were experiencing today as well as the concept of identity we studied in regards to the EU. This history was alluded to in the lecture at Antwerp University, but it was not clearly taught in this course which is perhaps a pity.

As a former part of the Netherlands, Belgium has long been dominated by Dutch speakers. However, the southern part of the country (Wallonia) had many French speakers after the imperialistic conquests of the French (Napoleon).

A level of suppression of the Dutch language (and its speakers) has continued since Belgium garnered independence in 1830. What I learned (cite) is that many of the Belgian separatists were French speakers from Wallonia. Only after help from French forces, was Flanders eventually subdued and became part of the new country of Belgium.

In this new nation, French was declared the official language and all government officials had to speak French. This resulted in a disproportionate representation in the Belgian Parliament in favor of Wallonia (where they spoke French) and hindered the ability of the Flemish to teach Dutch in schools. The upper class and bourgeoisie of Belgium spoke French, a language known for its prestige (historically spoken by the nobility and ruling class) while Dutch was considered a “lesser” language of the poor working class. People suspected of being “Flemish-minded” where in danger of persecution. And, the vast majority of Belgium’s GDP (80%) was invested in Wallonia, perpetuating the poverty in Flanders.

In the 20th century, the world wars increased a sense of Flemish / Walloon identity within Belgium. Continued efforts by the Flemish allowed the region to regain the right to speak Dutch and use it in governmental, educational, and official spheres. In 1962 Belgium at last drew a “language border” to divide the regions of Wallonia and Flanders – making the regions not “bilingual” but each with its own official language (French and Dutch, respectively). And in 1967 when a Dutch version of the Belgian constitution was adopted. As the professor at the University of Antwerp stated, it was a bit strange that the majority of the population (the Flemish) had to fight for their rights as if they were a minority.

Through all this, Brussels became more and more heavily French-speaking. Historically, around the time of the Belgian revolution, Brussels was almost entirely Dutch-speaking. However when Belgium won independence, the new government declared French to be the official language and the media, government, administration, court, education were required to be in French. And as more and more Walloons and immigrants moved to the city (which continues to this day), they chose to learn French instead of Dutch as their language of communication. As Brussels is geographically within Flanders, one can imagine why the NVA works to preserve the Dutch language and prevent French from Brussels spreading throughout neighboring Flanders. However, this brings up the issue again of who would acquire Brussels if the nation divided.

Having heard of the “Flemish Independence” movement, I did not initially give it a serious thought but understanding the history, I realize why some feel that sense of identity to Flanders and not to “Belgium.” In fact, that YouTube comment is the first time I have seen someone identify as a “Belgian.” Again, people seek to identify with a smaller area or group of people that directly impact their culture and heritage. This may also be why it is a challenge for the EU to have different nationalities identify as “European.”

But back to the blog – we’re already at the city gate!

Porte de Hal

20170720_104639On our way through the city from Brussels-Midi, we passed by¬†Porte de Hal, similar to the city gates we have seen in Delft, Leiden and numerous other cities. However, Brussels, being a powerful and politically important city during the Middle Ages, has the most impressive city gate we have seen so far. It is part of the second walls of Brussels erected in the 14th century to surround the fields that supplied the inner city. Thus, the gate is from 1381. It is the only remaining gate of the second walls, as it was used as a prison, customs house, grain storage, (and then a University building… I’m joking).

It started to rain a bit but luckily we aren’t made of sugar so we survived.

20170720_111758We made our way to the first walls of Brussels, the series of fortifications made in the 13th century (a century before the second wall). Remarkably, many more remnants of the first wall remain than the second.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

We walked by the house of Bruegel. He is a famous Flemish painter and I am quite the fan. He lived the latter part of his life in Brussels and died in the home we walked by.

Can’t wait to see this in France!

Manneken Pis

I don’t entirely understand the point of this statue but at this stage, it is so iconic and so historical that I suppose it is simply loved by Brusseliers. The statue is of a naked boy, endlessly peeing a fountain of water.

It was put in place in 1618-19 and a series of thefts and pranks and destructive history has given it quite the image in the city.

 

 

Senne

senneThe Senne was once a river that flowed through Brussels but was removed due to sanitary reasons. However, we got a private peek of a false stretch of the Senne amidst a quiet courtyard in the city.

And as we continued to walk through the streets I would like to point out the cartoons sometimes drawn on the city walls. The famous cartoonist, Hergé, was born and raised in Brussels.

Grote Markt

IMG-20170624-WA0005Extremely impressive and gorgeous. Also the atmosphere was really nice because it had become sunny and Tomorrowland spirit was in the air and EDM music was wafting through the square.

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At last, free for lunch. I went to a place called the “Drug Opera” and I haven’t the faintest idea why it is named so.

Speaking of Opera, we met back at the La Monnaie opera house. According to Toon, it was the starting place of the Belgian Revolution when a banned opera was played inciting a riot and the subsequent Revolution against the Dutch.

EU Parliament

20170720_140849The pinnacle of our day in Brussels and a topic of discussion whenever European politics are considered. I have already written way too much so I won’t go into great depth. But, it was interesting to listen to our speaker about the intricacies of the EU. I thought that he was quite impartial and he would actually go to great lengths to explain the inefficiencies and shortcomings of the EU, specifically the Parliament.

 

 

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Actual parliament interior. With 24 official languages, hundreds of translators are needed in order to facilitate debate and conversation.

It is the job of the Parliament to specify legislation that all EU member states must then abide by. However, any member state can veto a piece of legislation. This is why the Parliament must move to Strasbourg, France every month. When the EU was born, as a sort of compromising gift, France was given the partial seat of government. And even thought the Parliament has voted many times to remain in Brussels permanently, France can veto this initiative every time.

Our speaker also mentioned Brexit briefly and how leaving the EU will actually be worse for the nation most likely. Our speaker interestingly is from Britain himself. The issue is that for the UK to trade and negotiate with the EU, it will have to abide by its regulations yet now the UK simply has no say in what those regulations will be. It’s a murky situation though. For now, the flag still stands… but not for long.

esmee and carlo

Tot morgen!

Flights cancelled. Taking the Red Star Line.

Day 2 in Antwerpen!

We began the day with an interesting lecture on the concept of the European identity. With the advent of the European Union in 1950, the leaders of “Europe” have sought to foster a European identity in addition to citizens’ national identity. In addition, the EU provides a powerful economic union that makes Europe a stronger world power together in trade and negotiation (More on the politics of the EU when we visit the Parliament tomorrow). Currently, there are 28 member states and 24 official EU languages. One of the challenges of creating a unified Europe is the fact that people communicate in different languages – and a loyalty to one’s language is naturally very strong (consider the Flemish who had to fight for the right to speak Dutch). However, the goal of the EU is that people can be “United in Diversity,” unified for peace and prosperity while still preserving one’s personal culture, tradition, and language. An pro-EU advertisement in the Netherlands depicted a Dutch tile piece with images from the Netherlands but also from across Europe, suggesting that one’s identity is not solely linked to the home country.

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As a product of Flemish and Spanish ancestry, I have a connection to both nationalities but also a larger identification as “European.” Thus, I hope that the EU succeeds especially because as an EU citizen I appreciate the option to live almost anywhere in Europe (sans UK). With the EU, free movement of European citizens may give rise to children of mixed European origins and thus they perhaps may develop more of a “European” identity rather than solely to the country of their birth.

Lunch in NYC

groensplaat market.jpgDuring our lunch break, we went to a knockoff New York City – aka the burger place near the Cathedral called “Manhattn’s” [sic]. I must admit that the falafel burger was delicious. We also explored some of the market that was sprawled across the Groenplaats¬†square across from the Cathedral¬†in which a statue of Rubens is erected.

Rubenshuis

20170719_134735Rubens is one of the most famous painters of Flanders, a prolific painter in the early 17th century, producing a multitude of paintings focused on strong colors, movement, and charged scenes from the bible. He lived in Antwerp in which he modeled and expanded a large estate based off of the Italian Renaissance style he encountered in his travels. The Rubens House was an impressive estate even at the time, boasting his home, studio, portico, and courtyard.

Rubens was so interested in the Italian palace architecture that he wrote and illustrated a 1622 book called the Palazzi di Genova, a manual illustrating and describing the palaces in Genova, Italy. He encountered these during his visits to Italy and the book helped spread the popularity of the architectural style across Northern Europe.

20170719_135827.jpgSomething interesting about the walls in some of the rooms in the Rubenshuis is the gold leather – the walls are covered in leather plated in a layer of gold decoration. I also noticed this when I visited Gold Leather – this leather is also prominent in the Plantin-Moretus Museum earlier.

One painting I particularly liked was the painting of the “kunstkammer” or picture gallery of a certain Cornelis van der Geest. In the early seventeenth century, painting the gallery of a wealthy citizen was all the rage. Cornelius was a major art collector in Antwerp as well as a friend of Rubens. The painting depicts Cornelius, Rubens, Van Dyck, and the rulers of the Netherlands. The collection depicted in the painting is well preserved throughout the low countries. One of the works depicted, is a portrait — the original which is placed right next to the painting!

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not finished

This painting was interesting because it is unfinished, giving the viewer a unique view into the artistic process of Rubens. One can see the oil painting sketch and the multiple arms on some of the soldiers.

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Traditional tiles next to the fireplace

Red Star Line

20170719_152536Next stop, the Red Star Museum, based off the Red Star Line that operated in the same building from 1871 to 1935 when droves of Europeans emigrated to the Americas.

The Red Star Line was an ocean passenger line funneling passengers from the Eurasian to American continent. It had main ports in Antwerp, Liverpool and Southampton and in Europe and New York City and Philadelphia in the United States. Antwerp was the largest of these the European ports. Around two million migrants traveled to America on the Red Star Line – a process which we learned was most often long and arduous.

First, passengers would have to take trains from their homes to the port of Antwerp. Upon arrival, employees would put the luggage and clothes in large steam sterilizers for disenfiction. Passengers were forced to strip and shower and their items subjected to pressurized steam. A physical examination (gymnastics) was also required. Extensive sanitary checks in America meant that the citizens were checked in Europe already in order to avoid having to send passengers back (at the cost of the Red Star Line).

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A family making the crossing

Most of the migrants came from Germany and Eastern Europe, according to the museum. A quarter of the two million immigrants were Jews, including notable scholars such as Albert Einstein who regularly used the Red Star Line.

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Sint Carolus church again! The Red Star Line made postcards like these to promote Antwerp.

An interesting fact that the museum touched upon is that the Red Star Line expanded to the tourist market in the 1890s. After the first world war, more and more people were able to pay the crossing and thus the Red Star Line began to develop fancy first class. After the Immigration Act of 1924, the United States government severely restricted migration from Eastern Europe, forcing the Red Star Line to convert part of its fleet to cruise ships for the Caribbean and far East.

Regardless of individual motivation for traveling across the seas, it was fascinating to learn a bit about the stories of those who braved the journey. Some perhaps made a better life for themselves, but many were disappointed and lived a hard life that only later generations would reap the rewards for.

Plenty of advertisement, which was interesting:

 

The Night is Young

To close the day we trekked our way back and beyond the hostel to find a turkish place known by Pablo to be inexpensive. I also stopped by DelHaize on the way to snatch a baguette (I still have that Gouda cheese :D).

I had some stokbrood with fries and vegetables which was extremely filling and only 4 euros. The price range of food in the city can range dramatically.

Back to the hostel I took the opportunity to exercise. And by exercise I mean to get overly committed to a series of intense games of foosball. If you aren’t familiar with the game, it is essentially a game of soccer played on a board. The ball is the size of a ping pong and the players are fixed humans on rotating rods. By spinning and moving your rods, you try to get the ball in the opponents goal. Anyway, it’s actually quite fun playing the game with multiple people on a team which I haven’t done before (admittedly, this is only my second time playing foosball in my life, the first time being in a hotel in Xian, China).

Snapchat-1368529454Afterwards, I checked out Mechelseplein,¬†a square nearby¬†with a few others in which I saw St. George’s Church (did I mention how I am still impressed at the high density of large churches in one city?). But, more importantly, we found some nice bars. It was nice how the atmosphere was relaxed without the wild, busy craziness of the Leidseplein night life next to our hostel in Amsterdam.

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Oh, we also encountered artwork. Look at the juxtaposition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pretty picture to end the day – courtyard of the Rubenshuis.

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Hand Werpen

Rise and shine to Antwerpen. For many, it’s the first day waking up to the sun of Flanders (obviously it’s vastly different than the Dutch sun). First stop, breakfast. While the hostel breakfast suffered from the distinct lack of vegetables, it had some good granola and yoghurt so I can’t complain.

Antwerpen University

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Stadscampus quad

Second stop in the morning – Antwerpen University, one of the major universities of Belgium after Leuven and Ghent.

We entered the university through the¬†stadscampus¬†quad. It was built in the 14th century and it has served many purposes before finally becoming part of the university facilities.¬†It reminds me of the Gravensteen in Leiden that also served many purposes (prison, hospital, school, stable for horses, etc) before finally becoming a University building. Also, other buildings like the Hall of Knights in the Hague, have been used for many purposes over the years (including as a stable for Napoleon’s horses during the French occupation of the low countries). It is amazing how these buildings last through the years, especially as many of its uses are less than ideal.

We were ushered into a classroom in the inner square of the quad and welcomed by the Dean of the College of Humanities. He gave us summary of his university. Yes, yet another university advertisement, but “there is no such thing as a free lunch” as they say. And, no university can compete with the level of advertising that the University of Utrecht imposed, but the Dean did make sure to give us a relatively detailed look at the University’s programs and statistics. He did mention a few times how “young and dynamic” and “superdiverse” the university is. 19% of the University students are from abroad. And regarding the local Belgian population, this can be very diverse in itself. In Antwerpen I have seen throughout the city large populations of Moroccans, Muslims, and Jews. Many citizens of the city don a hijab, something that is much less common for me to see in either Southern California or Berkeley. And I sometimes see pedestrians or bikers go by dressed in stereotypical Jewish garb with a tall cap, long coat, kippah, and long beard. This was quite a sight when I saw them biking – something I truly had never seen before. Of course, many foreign citizens of Antwerp might also keep a lower profile. It is interesting to me though how in California the Jewish residents there embrace the traditional garb much less. I knew many Jews in my class but none would wear any “traditional” jewish garb or a yamakkah.

Another aspect of the university that was interesting to me is the fact that it is so new. Its oldest roots go back to 1852 when an institution was founded by the Jesuits of Antwerp. In the 1970s, the merger of two other educational institutions within Antwerp created “Antwerpen University.” I suppose I have just been wired to the idea that everything in Europe is old, but that’s not always true (one wall of the stadscampus¬†is fake, its from the 20th century gasp!).

After this talk, we had one more speaker on the history of Antwerp in relation to a general history of Belgium. And at last we had a fascinating speech on the welfare system in Belgium and the rest of Europe. While it was very interesting to get the information, sometimes I felt that the whole story of the welfare state was not elaborated upon.

Welfare and University

Going back to university system, during the talk the speaker stated that since almost anyone can go to any university within Belgium, all universities are considered of equal merit. The same can go for hospitals, high schools, etc. At least for universities, this claim of equality fails to mention the rigor at different universities in Belgium. Yes, almost any citizen could attend the University at Leuven, Ghent, Antwerpen but programs at Leuven are definitely considered to be more advanced and rigorous than the same programs in Antwerp.

This train of thought leads me to the differences between Belgian (Europe) and American systems of university. In America, it is quite difficult to be accepted into a top university. Prospective students to University of California or prestigious private institutions, must work very hard for four years in secondary school and in many cases, also achieve great success beyond their grades. However, once accepted and attending the university, the vast majority of students will graduate with a degree (that degree might be different than what is first intended, but the students will most often graduate). Here, I learned from my cousin (who attended Leuven), that anyone can go to the university, but the rigor of the program causes many students to drop out – at astonishing rates that would be unheard of in top universities in America. About half don’t return after year 1 and this trend of half leaving continues each year. On one hand, this is a more democratic system of allowing anyone a chance to succeed in university, regardless of performance in secondary school. On the other hand, the state finances the schooling in Europe, so having students attend for a year or two and then drop out is a tremendous “wasted” expense to the state.

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The welfare talk continued to elaborate on health care (the fact that you can just walk into a hospital and be helped is amazing) and the availability of unemployment benefits, etc.

Now, for the free lunch. I must say the mini-sandwiches were well worth it. And essentially unlimited speculoos with our tea? Divine.

City Tour

20170718_142404.jpgNext, we embarked on a tour of the city of Antwerp – home of the fourth largest port in the world (according to our guide). We began, naturally, with a map of the city from 1500 with which I could practice my latin.

Madonna

On the corner of many streets throughout Antwerp hangs a sculpture of Madonna. These range in style, colors, and impressiveness but each one is a beautiful work of art. Two hundred of these sculptures are left which is quite impressive. The Cathedral of the city is also built in reverence to Mary – the Cathedral of Our Lady. We (regretfully) did not have time to visit the Cathedral with the class but I saw it before on June 26.

Humor me with this digression into the Cathedral (or “Church,” as it was only granted Cathedral status in 1962).

The Cathedral is gorgeous and really illustrates the power and grandeur of the catholic church. It is just so huge it makes one think back to centuries ago when the church would have been bursting with people for Sunday mass. While the size of the congregation today will be much smaller, I hope to attend a mass at the Cathedral once before I must leave. What is interesting about the building of the church is that it took almost 300 years to build. It began with the choir in 1225, then the nave and transepts, and at last the towers were completed in the 16th century under Charles V. It is a slow process due to the physical might of building such a structure before cranes or modern tools but the main hinderance was money – the church would have to continuously wait for funds in order to keep building the next section of the Cathedral. Luckily, in those days, the wealthier members of the population would donate large sums of money to the church (in hopes of getting into heaven and relieving their guilt for being wealthy). And Antwerp was a large, wealthy port back then in the 16th century, the Golden Age of Belgium. Thus, the funds did appear. Though there were other obstacles including a fire and a raze of iconoclasm and French revolutionaries who tried to demolish the building. Inside the Cathedral is beautiful, with large stained glass windows and many lovely paintings by famous artists like Rubens.

20170626_165818There are some lovely paintings like the¬†Assumption of the Virgin¬†and¬†The Raising of the Cross but I am speaking on end. The Cathedral also prominently displays one work of contemporary art which I quite like. It is a gold sculpture of a man balancing a massive cross in his right hand, representing a “quest for balance, for equilibrium” (Flanders Today). When the work premiered, the artist said, “Do we believe in God, or don’t we?” I must say, I quite like the art and I like to think that it represents a (hopefully) dynamic church trying to consider the challenges and questions of the 21st century.

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Moving along the expanse of the church, one finds numerous altars with artwork and decoration related to the whom commissioned that alter. Rich individuals or crafts / guilds could have their own special altar in the church as a form of prestige. Along with burying people under the church floor, this was another way the church could make money. It is interesting because you can see a view of the people of the church back then through the unique altars.

Oh, also this is the National Church of Belgium (whatever that means).

Also not that it’s a competition but the height of the cathedral is 123 meters tall, which is taller than anything in the Netherlands (and narrowly beats the church in Bruges). An interesting fact is that the two towers were originally meant to be the same height but enlarging the second tower would have required a complete remodeling of the church which was impossible after money woes after the fire in 1533. Anyway, the tallest tower was embraced by the city as the belfry and now has a complete carillon with 49 bells.

Whew. Next stop on the tour!

Sint-Carolus Borromeuskerk

20170626_153457Another church ūüėČ On the tour we also walked by the Church of Sint-Carolus Borromeus. I shall mention that my name is Carolus in Latin (which translates to Charles in English, Carlos in Spanish, Carlo in Italian, etc.). By any reasonable explanation, this church from 1615 is named after me.

As Toon was quick to point out, the outside structure of the church is Gothic (naturally), though it has lovely baroque decorations inside which I surmise from the black and white contrasts. (This form of decoration was also very apparent in the Sint-Salvatorskathedraal in Bruges). Rubens was also very involved with serving the church with his art so many of his pieces can be found inside.

Begijnhof

20170718_145415Back on the true tour path, we visited the beguinage of Antwerp. We saw the Begijnhof in Amsterdam and Bruges and I also so a nice one in Leuven and Dendermonde. Speaking of Dendermonde,¬†the wife of the Professor that gave a talk at the University is from Dendermonde and she was quite exuberant that I had a connection to there. It’s a small world in Flanders ūüôā

Anyway, the beguinages were common in almost every major city as as a form of protection and community for pious women during the middle ages.

The beguinage in Antwerp was founded in 1544 but located outside of the city walls which was later abandoned and rebuilt within the city for safety reasons.

And at last we entered a church! The beguinage comes with a catholic church, St. Catharina which had an interesting separation between the beguines and the general public.

Grote Markt

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20170718_161413Gorgeous. One side of the square is dominated by the City Hall built during the Golden Age of Antwerp (16th century) sporting flags from around the world and, naturally, another Madonna.

The square also provided a nice water fountain for cooling off the residents on hot summer days like this. On the top of the fountain is a statue of Brabo throwing a giant hand.

Apparently, the city of Antwerp got its name from the giant that lived by the Scheldt river (the river flowing into Antwerp). Anyone who refused to pay his toll would have their hands severed and thrown into the river. The young hero called Silvius Brabo saved the city however, who cut off the giant’s hand and threw it into the river. Thus, the name Antwerpen comes from the Dutch hand¬†and werpen¬†(to throw) which has evolved to¬†Antwerpen.¬†(Some think the story’s accuracy is dubious.)

MAS

20170718_163729Museum aan de Stroom, the largest museum in Antwerp, nicely situated by the river. But we skipped all of the collections and headed straight for the top, for a view of the city. We could see the ocean coming into the city and the many boats and container ships docked in the port. Looking out onto the land the great Cathedral jutted into the sky.

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As the sky falls

Quick stop by HEMA and fnac to grab some towels and a charger because I left my adapter and towel in Amsterdam (shocker).

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Visited the first DelHaize since being back. And then we went to Désiré de Lille, a restaurant I am familiar with. They have delicious waffles. Of course, if you buy a waffle sometimes you have to go all out with the cream and the ice cream and fruit. Healthy dinner options.

Interesting that the name of the restaurant is D√©sire de Lille as we are planning on going to Lille this weekend (yay France!). But seeing as I already had Lille waffles, I have essentially already been…. (just kidding).

Speaking of France, I stopped by DelHaize again to grab a baguette to eat with some ripe Gouda cheese in the hostel.

At last, goede nacht!

Destination: Belgium

International travel day! We will be braving the treacherous journey from Amsterdam to Antwerp.

Well, it definitely started treacherously as both the wheels on my 23kg suitcase broke so I had to practice my weightlifting and carry it from the hostel to the bus. Perhaps I should go to the gym more often…

The rest of the trip proved to be quite nice as we traveled in an air conditioned, spacious bus. Dank je wel! It also has a fancy intercom system so that while I’m sleeping I suddenly heard Toon’s voice in my ear going on about the delta works that we were crossing (I swear I was learning things, even in my sleep). Speaking of water management, I was told today that during World War 2, the Americans bombed the dykes in the southwest of the Netherlands (including the former island Walcheren) which led to the flooding of Zeeland which succeeded in halting some of the Germans. This was interesting to me because it made me think about the time William of Orange in the late 16th century who allowed the land around Leiden to flood in order to halt the Spanish. I suppose knowing the geography of the country you are fighting in is always useful.

Speaking of Geography, we’re headed to Zeeland, the southwestern province of the Netherlands. Allow me to mention that I’ve actually been before! I went to Cadzand and Sluis – lovely towns near the border of Belgium in which I experienced Dutch beaches (in Cadzand) and windmills (in Sluis) for the first time.

Middelburg

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The Town Hall, newly built after the bombing of the city in 1940.

Before Antwerp we made a 5 hour stop in Middelburg, a historically significant town in the province of Zeeland (ie. the province that makes New Zealand “new”). I am told we bussed through the scenic route down the country though I must admit I was viewing my eyelids for the majority of the time.

Christine, a professor at the University College Roosevelt, met up with our group and took us to UCR. What is UCR? It is a modern undergraduate university, opened in 2004 by Professor Hans Adriaansens who was apparently unhappy with large-scale university education in the Netherlands. Despite some local opposition he was able to establish the university (and thankfully the old town hall was available). UCR is now the sole college in Zeeland, though it is a University College of the University of Utrecht.

Why Roosevelt? Well stay tuned for later in the blog to learn more. The suspense!

To get to the university, we crossed the Grote Markt as the old town hall is there. There was a market going on when we arrived, filled with what our guide so eloquently called “antiques, ie. rubbish.”

We were warmly greeted by a group of 6 students from UCR and taken into the town hall building. The actual town hall of the city has since moved so the building has now been claimed by the university. We went into the Great Hall, a large acoustic beautiful hall. Rightly so, we began with lunch – an apparently, “traditionally Dutch” lunch. The two UCR students at our table were laughing about that, saying they were excited to see what the “Dutch” lunch would be seeing as there are very few traditionally dutch dishes. They confirmed our knowledge that Dutch cuisine relies almost entirely on bread and cheese for lunch and then potatoes and cooked vegetables for dinner.

Our UCR lunch ended up being quite nice and quite Dutch – tomato soup, and sandwiches with four types of Dutch cheese, and the raisin bread. The cheeses were young, mature, and aged and it was nice to actually know what this meant. This past weekend, I went to a small cheese farm by Gouda in which I had the chance to sample a sequence of Dutch cheese starting with very young to older and older until extremely aged cheese (more on that in my previous blog).

Christine explained to us during our lunch in the grand Great Hall, that the town hall building was bombed during World War 2 in 1940, similarly to Rotterdam. I was unaware of this before. However, the town rebuilt the city in the traditional way as it was before so the town hall still looks beautifully old. It’s an interesting contrast to the architectural decision Rotterdam made after the war – in Rotterdam, they decided to completely remodel the city and build modern skyscrapers and some experimental projects. While Rotterdam provides a breath of something new I must say I prefer the traditionally medieval town style of the Netherlands more. I will note that the church in Middelburg actually survived the bombing – as did the church in Rotterdam! I suppose the churches built before the 14th century were quite sturdy.

Meddling in Middelburg

Where to next? A tour by the students. I like that the students were given the reigns because it is nice to hear and see their perspective. From what they said, the university provides a very tight-knit experience as there are only 600 students. They are provided housing for all three years in which the students live together in an apartment. One of the students took us to her place though I must say it was the most disastrous domestic environment I have seen in my life. There was a few months of dishes, bottles, and junk strewn across all available counter and table space. It was also interesting that the walls were littered with random self-made quotes written over the years from the residents of the home (the philosophical value of the quotes varied greatly).

We then cruised back to the Grote Markt and had ice cream. I think the UCR students should get a commission from the Fresco ice cream place we went to for bringing 21 students there¬†ūüėĄ

“English only”

I saw a sign in the apartment of one of the UCR students that reminded students to only speak “English” on campus. I’ve seen the trend of moving to English with Leiden and Utrecht as well. The Dutch universities strive to be large international centers of learning and thus are teaching more and more in the international language of English. And in UCR, a very new university, this was even more apparent. The classes are also taught in English. I suppose for someone like me if I wanted to study abroad this is an amazing arrangement. It allows international students to come study in the Netherlands without having to worry about learning Dutch. It’s good for the financial well being of Dutch universities and provides more opportunities to the Dutch students as well, albeit if they are bilingual (which almost all Dutch are).

At the same time, I kept thinking about what the taalunie (Dutch Language Union) said. As more Dutch universities teach in English, it reduces the functionality of the Dutch language. If it¬†isn’t or can’t be used in all spheres of life and function, that leads to the decline of a language. At the same time, this globalization seems inevitable. As the boundaries between countries become less and less apparent the culture and language of different countries becomes more homogenous. This is not to say that Dutch is out the door but many small languages have already declined. This article from the New York Times explains that half of the world’s 7,000 languages are expected to become extinct this century, with one language disappearing every two weeks. With the influx of foreign media and standardized education, once-isolated populations lose their language to the more popular surrounding languages. And I do think that if this globalization trend continues, more and more people will be learning and communicating in a few global language. While it is nice that the world is more unified so to speak, there is also a loss of uniqueness and identity tied to language and culture.

More weight-lifting

The next stop on our tour of the university was a presentation by Giles Scott-Smith, a professor and researcher at the university.

We discussed the history and legacy of the Roosevelts, the namesake of the university. In the 17th century, Roosevelt descendants emigrated from Zeeland, Netherlands to Manhattan (technically New Amsterdam as we learned!).

UCR is named after the Roosevelts to recognize their contributions to the 20th century – a century that the professor argued could be defined largely through the perspective of the Roosevelts.

And the best part of the lecture was the quiz at the end (which turned out to not be too challenging). I won a large tome called “Four Centuries of Dutch-American Relations” written by the university professors. It is so large and heavy I realized it can be very effective as a weight. I told you I needed to go to the gym more – I take initiative! I also won an umbrella which I’m quite happy about.

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Rib vaulting in the Abbey

Our last stops in Middelburg was the Middelburg Abbey which was built in the 12th century and survived the bombing in WW2. The roofs had distinctive gothic ribbing called a rib vault due to the intersection of multiple barrel vaults. The architecture definitely allowed the abbey to have extremely high halls. I have been looking more into the various types of architecture since Rotterdam.

Twerken to Antwerpen

Back on the bus for the last leg of our bus ride. Next stop: Antwerpen.

Sidenote: I have been encountering this trend of using Belgium as the receiving end of many jokes, mainly from Dutch people I might say. I actually think it’s quite funny. Salty much about losing Belgium in 1830?

Well, I say that after Amsterdam it’s all UPHILL from here. Literally, Amsterdam is at -2 meters sea level while Antwerp is at 10 meters above sea level, and it only goes higher as we traverse Belgium. So there.

WE’RE IN ANTWERPEN! JUST CROSSED THE BORDER

Woo hoo!

Just a few more thoughts before I turn in. We settled into the hostel in Antwerp which is much cleaner, newer, and quieter (it’s like a tomb in here) than the hostel in Amsterdam. Then I found some food in a nearby spaghetti place which was quite delicious though perhaps I shan’t delve into all my food experiences here on the blog. And I’m off to explore the streets of Antwerp and see what sort of life it supports.

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Memento Mori

Off to Rotterdam, a contemporary metropolis in a country of windmills and 17th century canal-side houses.

Upon arrival, we were warmly greeted by two former colleagues of Esmée who were our guides to the city.

First stop – Market Hall.

Market Hall

20170714_103603Market Hall is a turned U-shaped building of offices and apartments, with a market hall underneath.

Some have called the Market Hall the Sistine Chapel of Rotterdam because the large cavernous inside apparently reminds people of a Cathedral and the art on the inside walls mirrors that on the walls of the Sistine Chapel. To me, these proud descriptions of the Market Hall are a bit exaggeration in comparison to one of the greatest works of architecture and art in all of human history.

But yes, the Market Hall was quite impressive and was a lovely venue for a market. It reminded me of the markets in China where people set up stands and try to sell you all kinds of food. However, here in Rotterdam it was significantly more clean (and they provided free samples!).

The architecture of Rotterdam will be a reoccurring theme. During World War 2, Nazi Germany bombed Rotterdam and threatened to bomb further cities, contributing to the quick surrender of the Dutch to Germany. The bombing destroyed a large number of buildings and started a fire destroying more of the city center.

We did happen to see one piece of old architecture – the Grote of Sint Laurenskerk, the only remains of Rotterdam’s medieval city. The church was heavily damaged but survived the bombing and today it looks as good as old.

Trees in the 21st Century

20170714_114245I desperately hope this isn’t what replaces trees in the 21st century, but it is a neat architectural idea that actually works.

After the bombing, so many new buildings needed to be designed. The architects of Rotterdam decided to experiment and create new things.

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One of these projects was the Cube Houses, designed by architect Piet Blom. The houses are seen as trees and the ground filled with tiles shaped like flowers, forming a kind of village within the forest of the city.

I traveled up one of the houses and it was surprisingly nice. There is a good amount of space and the triangular cube shapes actually provide ample light. Especially int he kitchen I noticed the light was coming up into the kitchen rather than down a regular window. Thus, there was no glare of the sun but the area was extremely well lit. The bedroom was cozy and the rooftop patio looked like a nice place to relax (albeit it was warm).

One issue is the high number of stairs needed to get around. I think the house would be perfect for a young couple but for a family or older people the design would be immensely impractical.

Het Witte Huis

witte huis.jpgOn our tour of the city we stopped by the¬†Het Witte Huisi, which is Europe’s first skyscraper in 1893. It is one of the few buildings to survive the bombing of the city in 1940.

In a stunning turn of events, it started to pour. There is a bit of sarcasm there but really the rain in the Netherlands can be so erratic. A hurricane one minute and five minutes later it can be sunny.

We survived the rain, and crossed the harbor. The bridge is such a contrast to the cute idyllic bridges that I have seen across canals in the Netherlands. But it provided interest in itself.

Boat Taxi

Let’s not forget the best part of crossing the bridge – going back where we started on a boat taxi! It actually traveled surprisingly quickly though the walls of the boat blocked the spray of rain and sea.

Museum Square –¬†Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

My ambitious intention was to go through all the museums but the Boijmans proved to be quite fascinating. And by fascinating, I mean awe at the work of Rembrandt and confusion at the work of office lamps.

I very much enjoyed the museum because it had such a variety of pieces. And while some absorbed more of my intention than others, it was still interesting and a nice breath of fresh air to be introduced to things I hadn’t seen yet on the program.

20170714_153904There was a section on surrealism which came a surprise. I was well acquainted with Salvador Dali and Ren√© Magritte but it was nice to see these works in person. I particularly like¬†A Couple with Their Heads Full of Clouds¬†because it captures to my mind an idyllic setting of a couple enjoying dinner by a picturesque beach. But it does this in such a unique and strange way – showing the outline of the couples and their landscape view inside each outline. Oh and apparently the contours are borrowed from the peasants in the painting “The Angelus” by Millet. I looked up the painting by Millet and I could see the resemblance to the outline.

20170714_153939And sometimes the strange works make you think. The “Not to Be Reproduced” by Rene Magritte shows a man from the rear, looking into the mirror, which reflects again the same image of the man viewed from behind. This incongruity makes you search for a deeper meaning in the painting. Sometimes I think the painter doesn’t aim for a specific deeper message but creates strange environments and incongruences in order to force the viewer to think and question and come up with some meaning for themselves.

Then I wandered into a room with lawn chairs and strange devices. I had tried to keep an open mind but at a certain point I will spend more time admiring a Rembrandt other than office chairs and desk lamps and a plastic nose.

20170714_154204Ah I did spot a Mondrian. It’s not that I’m a particular fan but my aunt told me about his work and likes his progression from landscapes to modern art. And then I saw Mondrian motifs throughout all of the Hague so at last I see the real thing. Truly a work like no other. How did he master the straight line? Almost all previous artists worked with curved lines, such as the curve of the face or the structure of Mona Lisa’s lips. This new art of straight lines, one-dimensional boxes, and simple primary colors reveals the truth about your soul. (Perhaps I’m exaggerating a bit about my love for Mondrian’s lines)

Another theory I have for certain modern art is that the goal is to repulse. I saw two Charley Toorop paintings and I was impressed with the sharp expressions on the faces which were so characteristic in each face he painted (even across paintings) yet he still managed to create a unique facial expression in each face. Perhaps his goal was to create something repulsive as a stylistic challenge or a commentary on the person he was depicting. The painting Three Generations from Toorop is almost scary when you look deep into the eyes of the painter wielding a brush at you.

The Impressionism section of the museum I particularly enjoyed. I really love some impressionist paintings for the loose, unfinished style of painting that still captures the something so realistically if you only look at the colors and the overarching image. For example, Van Gogh’s Portrait of¬†Armand Roulin can be considered to be quite ugly. At the same time, however, it captures nuanced expression so well. The face is serious though young and seems to capture the insecurities of the young Armand. Considering more beautiful paintings, De hut van de visser by Claude Monet is a beautiful depiction of a small cottage above the sea. The light bounces each element in the painting and it all comes together for a colorful, sunny seaside day.

Also one of my favorite paintings I saw was Titus at His Desk, also included in the Impressionism collection. The boy has a such a “lost in thought” expression on his face, representing curiosity and innocence. Also the lighting is really well done. When you go close to the painting, all the brush strokes are course and messy but taking a step back the whole image comes to life as if it were real.

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As the museum tour was coming to a close I saw a knocked cloth hanging on the wall with plaque informing me it was art – a piece called Memento Mori which suddenly made the whole situation extremely morbid. I’ll leave it to the Latin readers among us to decipher. Almost all the artists depicted in that museum have been long dead, but there names and memory lives on through a mixture of skill and chance. Yet the masses of each century remain largely forgotten.

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