Manneken-Pis wore a costume! And we also went to Ghent

28 Aug

The other day I was talking to our porter about our trip to Belgium.

“Is it a good place for couples to visit?” he asked.

I told him it was if you like wandering around, exploring historic sites and eating delicious food (which we do), but I’m not sure what he meant. What makes a place good for couples? Plenty of nightclubs? Places to canoodle? Whatever the opposite of family-friendly is? I was puzzled.

So the jury is still out on whether Belgium is good for couples, but it’s definitely good for foodies, beeries and arties (I’m pretty sure I just made those last two words up).

We made Brussels our home base and then took day trips to Ghent and Bruges. We had planned to hit Antwerp too, but Stephen came down with a nasty cold so we decided to take it easy the last day. Plus, there’s probably a limit on how many medieval fairy-tale like towns one can take over the course of 4 days.

Though Brussels makes a good base, it’s two best sights — Manneken-Pis and the Grand Place — can be seen in the span of 10 minutes (20 if you walk slowly and take a lot of photos). Rick Steves says there are two types of people — those who adore Manneken-Pis and those who abhor him. I’ll let you guess which of us is the former. Here’s a hint: I read online that Manneken-Pis wears a costume a couple times a month, and was dying to see one. The first day we were in Brussels I looked up the schedule and saw he’d be dressed the next day, so I made Stephen walk out of our way before our train to Ghent just to see the little squirt dressed like “one of the Buumdroegers.”

manneken pis costume

I still have no idea what a Buumdroeger is (one who “carries the tree during the Meyboom plantation?”), but I had to see Manneken-Pis dressed like one.

manneken pis outfitSuccess! (Though in hindsight, I should have waited for the tall dude to move and gotten a clear shot. I was too excited.)

Then it was on to Ghent. Ghent is the only Belgian city on our itinerary that I didn’t previously visit with my parents two years ago, so I was excited for something new. I had read that it was one of the most beautiful and authentic cities in the world, so expectations were a little high.

ghent belgium

I would say it’s definitely beautiful and authentic in an Amsterdam-meets-Bruges way with slightly less tourists and more free toilets — which is the best, because my two complaints about Bruges are that there are too many tourists and a lack of free toilets. It seems no matter where I travel, I always end up on a quest for a quality toilet, whether that means a free one or a non-squatter.

Besides the free loos, the most well-known sight in Ghent is probably the Ghent altarpiece (the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) at St. Bavo Cathedral. When I was in high school I did a project on Jan van Eyck and the Ghent Altarpiece. It’s funny, when you’re 14 years old in Kentucky writing about a 15th-century work of art in Belgium, it all seems so far away and other-worldly — high school Renee never imagined she’d ever find herself on a day trip in Ghent, face to face with the world’s most stolen artwork. And yet there I was. Photos were not allowed, so here’s a picture from Google:

ghent altarpiece
Of course a photo doesn’t do it justice. I’m told I have to watch the movie The Monuments Men now since the Ghent altarpiece is in it.

After lunch (mmm… Flemish beef beer stew and fries) we went to see the other side of Ghent’s art scene: Werregarenstraat, or Graffiti Street. According to Rick Steves (I told you, he’s my homeboy), they made graffiti illegal in Ghent except for on this one street so street artists would have an outlet. When I heard “graffiti street” I imagined crude images (remember the Lisbon wiener?) or gang tags, but what we saw was some serious art (and one crude Muppets image). It’s a shame these can be painted over at any time.

ghent graffiti street

ghent graffiti censored

ghent graffiti good

ghent graffiti monkey

ghent muppets

Our last stop in Ghent was Gravensteen castle.

ghent castle

It was built in 1180 and renovated in the 19th century. We did a lot of climbing and walking around looking at the art exhibit and torture devices inside. We also got some nice views.

ghent castle view

ghent view

At one point we were walking along a walkway with no guard or railing and at least a 10-foot drop. I should have taken a photo. My first thought was “Stay to the side and don’t fall.” My second thought was “This would never fly in lawsuit-crazy America.”

In short, Ghent definitely has a lot to offer for couples who enjoy charming architecture, castles, artwork (both old and new), and of course, free loos.

Saving the world one Tide stick at a time

26 Aug

the mentalistsThe days I get day seats to a matinee are some of my favorite days. I get my ticket, work for a couple hours, get sushi takeaway and eat in the park, then enjoy the show. Today started out well. I’ve been dying to see Stephen Merchant in The Mentalists. It was supposed to run until the end of September, but it’s closing at the end of August instead, so today was the last Wednesday matinee. It did not get great reviews and there were reports that people were still able to get day seats at noon, so I didn’t go super early to queue. I got there 10 minutes before the box office opened, just enough time to eat the overnight oats I packed for breakfast. Things were going well. I got my front row seat, then headed to the museum cafe to get some work done. I ordered some tea, cranked out some work, and the productive, positive day went on.

And then I went outside. It was London on-and-off-again drizzling all morning, and I was prepared for that. I wore my rain boots and brought an umbrella. Not even thinking and because it’s what I always do, I ordered my sushi lunch to go. I walked to the park I usually eat in and it was empty. This was because the skies had finally opened up and it started to pour. Every single bench was exposed and soaked. So I ended up eating my lunch while standing under the shelter of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. It was not my usual magical day seat lunch. Things were starting to go down hill.

My second mistake was basing my schedule on the usual 2pm or 2:30pm matinee start time when today’s show was at 3pm. I finished my lunch around 1:20pm, so I had time to kill. I decided to go to the National Gallery to look around and use their free WiFi. The rain was really coming down and I had to maneuver through hoards of tourists who acted like they’d never used an umbrella or seen rain before, which instantly put me in a bad mood. I came upon the National Gallery from the back and hurried up the ramp, only noticing once I got inside that I was at the National Portrait Gallery, which is next door. But at that point I was too wet to care — they had toilets and free WiFi too. As I stepped inside I was stopped for a bag inspection. They do this at many museums, and usually they just take a cursory why-even-bother glance. I’m assuming it’s just to make sure you don’t have any weapons. It’s a museum after all, not an airport or government building. I opened my backpack, showing the woman my laptop, water bottle, wallet… and Tide stick.

tide pen“What’s this?” she asked. I told her it was like detergent that removed stains. I thought maybe she’d say “Cool, I wish they sold this in the UK!” and let me on my merry way.

“You can’t have this,” she said. And suddenly I was having Heathrow “You brought too many liquids” flashbacks. Just as I was about to ask for a clear zip-top bag and insist that it was under 100 ml, she explained that she would hold it for me to pick up when I left.

“It can destroy the paintings,” she clarified.

You heard that right: my Tide pen could wreak havoc on priceless art, most of which is either behind glass, behind a rope, or under the watchful eye of plenty of employees.

I could hear Adam Carolla’s voice in my head shouting at the woman: “You’re a hero!” the way he does to power-high TSA workers enforcing trivial rules. I know her job is unbelievably boring (she doesn’t even get to “sit and look at the paintings” like Mr. Bean’s character did) and she was just doing her job, but the whole thing was just so, so stupid. For one, you know what else I had in my bag? An entire jar of peanut butter I had just bought at Whole Foods. I bet that could destroy the paintings more than my Tide stick. She didn’t even look at the bottom of my bag, where I easily could have had Sharpies or a lighter, both of which would do way more damage than laundry detergent. Did she think the stick was pure bleach? Even if it was, did she really think my intention was to rub it on the paintings a la Mr. Bean?

mr bean painting
Maybe she was just taking extra precautions because of what that 12-year-old Taiwanese kid accidentally did to that painting recently.

Still, the rain had already put me in a bad mood and I was feeling really beat down. I almost said “Forget it, I’m just here to use your toilet anyway, I’ll go put the Tide stick on the bottom of my bag and use a different entrance, or go to the National Gallery like I initially intended,” but of course I didn’t. I let her confiscate my Tide pen and then had to meander around the museum for a half hour so it didn’t seem like I was just in it for the free toilet.

Thank goodness The Mentalists was hilarious and the sun was shining when it was over, but I guess if the worst thing that happens in your day is it rains, you have to eat sushi standing up and a power-tripping guard temporarily takes your stain stick away, your life is still pretty good.

Facts about Lisbon and Portugal

20 Aug

Quick, tell me what you know about Portugal! Here’s my list pre-Lisbon visit:

1. They speak Portuguese there.
2. It’s on the coast of the Iberian Peninsula next to Spain.
3. Christopher Columbus and a bunch of other explorers were from Portugal. Although I just Googled him and apparently Columbus was Italian. I’m a bad American.
4. Cristiano Ronaldo the famous footballer [soccer player] is from Portugal.
5. Nando’s! (Cheeky Nando’s!) Although I just Googled Nando’s and apparently it was founded in South Africa and peri-peri sauce is from Mozambique. Why is it Portugal themed then?!
6. Lisbon is the capital.

That’s basically the knowledge I had of Portugal before we went there. And now I’m happy to report I can add a few facts to my list.

7. Lisbon is super hilly.

As far as I know, Lisbon has great public transportation, but we didn’t use it, because I needed to get Fitbit steps (and also I suppose exploring a city on foot helps you truly see it). We walked from Avenida da Liberdade to Miradouro Sao Pedro de Alcantara to get a nice view of the city. Google Maps said it was a short walk.

lisbon weinerWhat Google Maps did not say was that it was up a very steep hill. (Although I guess I should have inferred a viewpoint would have to be high up…) Most people waited and took the trolley up and down, but most people don’t have Fitbits that track flights of stairs climbed (and hills count as stairs). So we walked up and down.

lisbon trolleyI don’t know if you can spot it in the first photo I posted, but São Jorge Castle is up on a hill in the center of Lisbon. We walked there next (after stopping for ice cream, of course).

lisbon castle

This post is going to be very photo-heavy, so click to read on.

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Eating everything and walking everywhere, or Aug. holiday ’15

13 Aug

You know how some parents make their kids smoke an entire pack of cigarettes to make them never want to smoke again? I think I did that to myself this past week with food. For nine days I basically ate nothing but carbs and sugar, from Portuguese custard tarts to Belgian waffles, chocolates and fries. Nothing was off limits, and now all I’m craving is roast vegetables. I never want to eat another waffle or praline again (…or at least not for a few months).

Our Portuguese and Belgian holiday was a success in every way that a holiday can be — for nine days I completely forgot about work, running and healthy eating, everything that consumes my daily life in London. It was a refreshing reprieve, but now that I’m back I’m realizing how important those three things in my life are. I did manage to run once while in Brussels at the hotel gym. The treadmill was in Dutch and all I could think of was Dr. Evil:

dr evil dreaky deaky dutch
Fun fact: Dr. Evil is supposedly from Bruges, Belgium where they speak — wait for it — Dutch.

thats the jokeFor most people, a dream holiday is lying on a beach. I am not a beach person. I would much rather lie in bed at a nice hotel with the comforts of free WiFi and AC. I did a lot of that this holiday, plus walking and exploring (and eating — have I mentioned the eating yet?). I think this was my first real walking holiday where I didn’t end each day feeling exhausted — in fact, some days I continued to walk in tiny circles around the hotel room to get even more Fitbit steps. I remember back in college my roommate and I went to Vegas for spring break. We tried to walk the entirety of the Strip, but crapped out halfway. We took “we’re crapped out” selfies (before they were called selfies) while sitting on a bench in the Fashion Show Mall. At the end of our trip my feet were so sore from walking that I literally crawled to the bathroom on my knees on our last night (my roommate has photographic proof). I was a hot mess hobbling around at the airport the next day — not because I was drunk or hungover like everyone else, but because I could not handle walking 2 to 3 miles a day in sneakers. Now I sometimes walk 2 miles around my flat in my slippers just after breakfast. One of these days I need to return to Vegas just to prove I can walk from Mandalay Bay to Circus Circus. My Fitbit walking may not have helped me lose weight (see above about waffles and chocolates), but it’s definitely helped my overall fitness.

More posts about Portugal and Belgium (with photos) to come!

What do watermelons and guidebooks have in common?

30 Jul

Friends, I think something might be wrong with me. Today I walked to Oxford Street to go shopping (24,000 Fitbit steps and counting today!), as is tradition before I go on holiday. There’s just something about wearing new clothes in a new place. I was gone for five hours (5!) and I came home with a pair of off-brand Chucks (shoes), some socks, and a watermelon. (And a finger that is still somewhat numb from lugging said watermelon over a mile in a cheap Tesco bag). I went into so many stores. I tried on so many things. And yet nothing seemed worth buying. It either didn’t fit right or I realized I have at least three shirts that are too similar. That, and I think I’m getting too old for many stores. Why must all the shirts be crop tops? Why does everything scream “drunken hot mess at an outdoor music festival”? Why do the jeans have so many holes in them? When I was in high school one of my classmates told me my style of dress was “career mom.” I took it as a complement, though I’m sure she meant it as a diss. I like to think I dress better now than I did back then, but I can’t shake the career mom vibe entirely, despite the fact that I work from home in pajamas most days and have no intention of becoming anything other than a dog mama. In short, I have a closet — closets — full of clothing I barely get to wear that will happily journey with me to Portugal and Belgium next week, along with my new blue cheapo Chucks.

Rick steves ebooksThat’s right, next week we begin our August holiday, which in typical Renee and Stephen fashion is to two countries that are not geographically close and have absolutely nothing to do with each other other than the fact that they’re both places we want to visit. For some reason we procrastinated and struggled to decide on a destination this year (#firstworldproblems, I know). There are so many places to go and see, but it also turns out a lot of the world is hell’s-waiting-room hot and muggy in August, so we had to narrow our choices. I’ve been reading and writing about Lisbon a bit for one of my jobs and we’ve never been to Portugal, and Stephen’s never been to Belgium. I went with my parents to Brussels and Bruges two years ago, but I told him I would happily return to the land of chocolate, waffles, frites and lambic (aka fruit beer that actually tastes like fruit and not beer. Take note, Bud Light Lime!). I’m still working on a tentative itinerary with the help of my homeboy, Rick Steves. Is there anything that screams “American in Europe” more than toting around a Rick Steves book? Maybe wearing an NFL jersey with white socks and trainers, but I tote my Rick Steves with pride. Frommers and Lonely Planet just don’t compare. This time I’ll just be toting my Rick a little more discretely on my iPad, but not because I’m not proud to be an American, but because guide books are freaking heavy (and my finger may never heal from lugging that watermelon).

“You’re lucky you got air conditioning in here like mother nature intended!”

1 Jul

We need an “Eat your food, there are starving children in Africa” equivalent for people who complain about air conditioning being too cold. It is 95 degrees (35C) in London today and most places do not have AC — there is no such thing as air conditioning that it is too cold in this heat!

I guess it’s a sign that things are going pretty well in my life when my biggest worry is the weather. Though “worry” is probably an understatement, because I have obsessed about today for a week. I opened the weather app on my phone multiple times a day, praying that somehow that gleaming “Wednesday: 95” would change. And actually one time it did, but I quickly realized I had swiped to Florence, KY’s weather by accident (which for once is actually better than London’s in the summer). How I was going to handle 95 degrees without air conditioning was all I could think about.

I decided to get a matinee day seat for Death of a Salesman (after I confirmed the theatre had air conditioning, of course). It was already hot at 9 a.m. when I arrived, the first one in the queue. Several others quickly followed, and it seemed like it was going to be a typical, antisocial wait. And then this older guy from California arrived. He immediately started joking around and blabbering in a stereotypical American fashion, but he got absolutely no response. It was almost embarrassing to watch. The first man he tried to engage in conversation was actually talking on his phone, and then he asked the woman behind me if she was an educator. “No.” she said, only briefly looking up from her kindle, and that was that. Thankfully a young Scottish girl arrived and kept him entertained, and I briefly chimed in when he asked if anyone had seen Elephant Man. Just as the box office was about the open, the woman next to me got up and tried to take a photo of the marquee. She stepped backwards onto the street just as a truck was backing up, and came within inches of being hit. Everyone was screaming at her and freaking out, and she just calmly stepped onto the sidewalk like nothing happened. It was bizarre. The book she was reading was in Italian, but she had to understand some English if she was queuing to see a play. The truck driver got out and started shouting, but she ignored him. Never a dull moment in the day seat queue.

I got my front row ticket, but wasn’t sure what to do next. I usually go to the library to work, but I’m pretty sure it’s not air-conditioned, and is filled with enough hobo funk on a cool day. I ended up at a museum cafe, and it was gloriously air-conditioned and quiet. I got a lot of work done and then went to get lunch. Maybe it was my productivity, maybe it was the time spent in the AC, but when I got outside I actually thought, “This isn’t too bad!” I was silly to obsess over the weather so much. I ate lunch in the park and was not a miserable hot sack of crabbiness like I anticipated.

The play was magnificent and the acting was phenomenal. You just can’t beat front row seats (and air conditioning). Crazy California guy actually put on a jacket because he was too cold (for the record: it was most definitely not too cold).

And then I had to go outside again. The humidity and heat hit me like a Florida brick of misery. 95 degrees is butt hot. The sun was blaring, there were school groups and tourists everywhere, and I could feel the hanger brewing (no, not hungry-anger, hot-anger).

angry cartmanI had an important decision to make: how was I going to get home in the heat? Both the Tube and bus would be like a sauna, but I didn’t want to walk 3 miles in the heat. I ended up choosing the Tube since it would be quickest. Even though I work from home with only a fan to keep me cool, I am so glad I do not have to commute in the summer.

To make a long post short (TL;DR): summer is the worst, and air conditioning and day seats are the best.

Bradley Cooper in London and life without the internets

26 Jun

I saw Bradley Cooper the other day! And by “saw” I mean I paid money to watch him perform in “The Elephant Man.” He was absolutely brilliant! If his name wasn’t plastered everywhere, I probably would not have known it was him. That is mostly due to his acting chops, but also because I was seated in the very back row of the very highest balcony. Boy, have I been spoiled by front row day seats. I’m not sure if it was the show itself or my seat, but I just couldn’t get into the play. I kept shifting positions trying to look around the guy in front of me’s giant head, and I kept getting annoyed by the littlest of things, like the girl next to me who kept digging in her bag constantly. I dread the queuing aspect of day seats, but you really can’t beat the immersive experience of being in the front row.

It’s officially summer now, which means it’s starting to get hot in London. Not hot for the average person, but hot for me (though I fear next week it will get properly hot — I’m seeing 90F/32C in the forecast! Dear god let that please change before Wednesday!) So I decided to walk home from the show instead of sit on a hot and stuffy bus or Tube (I also did it for the Fitbit steps, naturally). I finally made it back, ready to finish up the work I put off in favor of seeing Bradley Cooper from a far distance, but my email wasn’t loading. No website was loading. So I attempted the usual fix — unplugging and restarting the router — but it didn’t work. The normally white smiley Internet icon was orange.

I sent Stephen this photo:

south park no internetAnd then I called Sky. After being on hold for ages, I was eventually told there must be an outage and the engineers were working on it, but it could take up to 5 days to fix.

5 days. No internet for 5 days.

Basically the only time I am not using the internet is when I am sleeping or showering. Even when I run or cook I stream music or podcasts. If I’m not working, I’m watching Netflix or surfing Facebook and other sites. I cannot just not have internet. I started planning how I could handle the next 5 days, going to the library or Starbucks to work, and then using my unlimited phone data while at home. I thought we might have to head out Californee way in search of some internet.

south park internet refugee campAfter resetting the router again in vain, I realized I had to relax. I was still on track to get my required work done by Friday, and everything else could wait until the next day. In a weird way, a sense of relief came over me. It was like being on an airplane. I’m almost glad airplanes don’t have [free] WiFi, because then I’d feel obligated to be productive. The only good part about a long flight is having that guilt-free time away from work and distractions. One of the pros of working from home is not having set hours, but it’s also a con in that I’m never really done working for the day. But that day, I was. I wish I could say I used my internet-less time wisely and wrote a story or read an actual book, but in reality I was glued to my phone. Still, my mind wasn’t thinking about all the things I had to write or edit, I could fully enjoy Doug the pug’s Instagram.

And then when I woke up the next day the orange light was back to white. The Internet Fairy (or Sky engineer) had come! No need to head to Starbucks or out Californee way. I never want to live without the internet, but I guess occasionally it’s good to know that I can (…for a night).

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