Sunday, February 24, 2008

Critical Observation: Grand Place

I’ve been in observation mode for a week. This weekend my housemates were out of town so I’ve been on my own. Friday we found a perfect pub that was literally a hole in the wall. You walked though this long dark ally/hallway before you entered this little room. There was a band warming up in the small area outside the entrance. When they started playing the people were dancing and shaking in an odd but blissful fashion. It was nice to relax with a few friends at the end of this week. Plus the little room with yellow paint chipped walls just made me happy. The owner traveled though out the room making sure all his patrons were contented. The room was close, warm and comfortable. I sipped yet another kind of beer and just relaxed.

I guilty slept in on Saturday and lounged around the house. Moments when I have the house to myself are precious. I finally found some energy and took a long shower. When everyone is in the house we take short boat showers to make sure there is enough hot water. When I’m in the islands I am the queen of getting clean on 2 minutes of water. Casamar’s bathroom is always at a cool 80 degrees. However, the cold tiles of the 1600s merchant home do not provide the same sauna affect. So after lounging and regrouping I wondered around the city with a fresh pen and ready mind. I found a ledge in Grand Place to sit on and I just watched, and wondered what this square looked like 10, 50, or 100s of years ago.

Journal thoughts....

A stone face full of history. The imprint of a thousand shoes to cobblestone lies in front of me. Good day fair friends of humanity who dare walk across history. Breath in the essence, wonder and forget, or let the sight make some small imprint. The square becomes one more moment to package and save for another day.

Cringe at the fa├žade of meaning. Dare to look deeper. The angles of this square tell stories unknown and unique to the intricate thoughts of artisans who built triumph. These stones are alive with the wealth of the Congo and the triumph of King Leopold. A country daring to play a game even when the odds are stacked. An outward realm of shallow greatness, the walls dare to tell only what the commission wanted you to feel – power. Maybe I watch with a critical pretentious eye. I should be like the wide-eyed tourist who simply needs to walk in and feel the first strike of this monument to greatness. Dare not challenge it’s beauty. Only snap some photos to make proof that you’ve felt this greatness and keep moving.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Statues, Freud, Satruday thoughts.....

We just read Freud’s First Lecture in my free will class. His London statue analogy has been in my thoughts all week. Monuments simply fall into the background because there are so many. Only tourists stop to notice. If locals took the time to cry or observe these testimonies to history it would seem strange. I take pictures of them for the ecstatic, not the history. Our need to commemorate and memorialize is astounding. Live in the present while keeping symbolic anchors to the past. Here is a short excerpt from my notes as I sat next to the pictured statue garden and monument. (click to enlarge)

Man made beauty. Commit these figures to memory. Proud men of the past immortalized in bronze and marble. The fountain beneath them runs like an eternal liquid life form. Gold plated these conquers stand victoriously as if surviving their domain. Who built this testimony? What artist dared take a commission to celebrate false triumph? Did it pain him to chisel this likeness? At night did he laugh or cringe at a world that lets history live through art? I need no story or history to read this statue. Mask falsity with pride and a towering form.

(Study)abroad can limit adventuring

I spent that last week at my desk trying to catch up on schoolwork after last weekend in Amsterdam. I’m on my way to being caught up, but I keep getting so distracted. It’s hard to sit here and be motivated to study when there is so much to see and explore. I am usually on top of my time management, but I have zero will power when so many adventures are possible here.

I had a pretty good weekend in Brussels going out and playing tourist. Saturday I took the day for myself and wondered around all the National monuments and the fine arts museum. The sun is spoiling us. I found a funny little garden and plopped down with an apple and my notebook. I have the best time simply watching people in this foreign atmosphere. Sometimes I am shameless as I describe them, but it’s just a lesson in observation. Today I went to the market and picked up a few fun things for my wardrobe and stomach. I was so much more comfortable going back the second time. Simply walking through the massive market looking at food and truly random merchandise just puts me in a good place.

Smiles peace and love,
Amanda Mar

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Amsterdam (lessons learned)

I learned so many crucial travel lessons this weekend in Amsterdam. I was lucky that none of them were hard lessons. I had no horror hostel or mugging encounters. However, through out the weekend I kept noting all the little mistakes I was making.

1. Always follow your instinct. So many times I felt myself second guessing where to go or when to turn. In most cases my instincts were right. I need to learn how to communicate what I’m thinking quickly and clearly to my travel partner. Also, I need to make decisions and stick to them.
2. Be an advocate for your needs; even if it means being selfish. Do everything possible to make yourself comfortable. If you are cold, hungry, or awkward you are not having a good (or the best) time. Create the perfect scenario for yourself. If you walk into a bar, restaurant, or coffee shop that isn’t right just walk out. There are hundreds more to choose from, so don’t feel obligated. Be an advocate for what you want.
3. Ask for help. Look at maps. Plan your day, but leave room to be spontaneous.
4. Make friends and be friendly. Choose a hostel that has a highly social environment.
5. Take an hour or two to take care of yourself. Take a shower, nap, and snack. Have some alone time and set a rendezvous point. You’ll both be in a better mood when you met back up. Plus you’ll be ready for round two.
6. Don’t worry about the money you are spending. Stick to a budget, but don’t fret about it. If you busy worrying about money you can't enjoy your purchases.
7. Traveling in groups bigger then 4 is incredibly frustrating, especially when there is no clear plan. Know your limits and know your travel partners well. Suggest splitting up in pairs and rendezvous later.
8. Take time to simply absorb the place you’re at. People watch, familiarize yourself with the city. Snap some mental photos. Traveling is creating memory. Live in the moment so you can enjoy it later.
9. Take advantage of the infrastructure created for tourists. Maps, info booths, and tourist centers are everywhere. Part of their economy is based on your euros, utilize the system that is there to help you.

These are just a few of my little lessons. I’m so glad I was able to go on this trip. Amsterdam is a difficult city to navigate, and after going I have a lot more confidence. I learned so many more little lessons in addition to these. I also feel more comfortable in Brussels, in comparison it is slow and tame. I still have my guard up on the streets here, but my heart is much more at ease. Hopefully I’ll go back to Amsterdam in May, possibly with my family. After becoming accustom to the city I know my next trip will be even better then the first.

Amsterdam (jumbled thoughts)

I spent the weekend in Amsterdam. I have so much to say I’m going to break it up into a couple of posts. But here we go……..

I got off the bus and maneuvered my way to the Metro and Central Station. I was in a little shock when I walked out of the station doors. Everywhere I turned there were buses, bikes, and people. Luckily, we had really good directions to our hostel and only walked for about 10 minutes before finding it. I was a little in aww as I dropped my stuff in a locker and looked at Ryan- lets go. We spent the first two hours wondering around the city. We crossed the canal in front of our hostel and wondered through the old center. The narrow streets twist and turn. My mind was in overload as I took in the characters, stumbling tourists, head shops, pornography, coffee shops, bars, bicycles, and endless fast food.

Day and night the streets are constantly buzzing with activity. There are so many people but somehow they all flow together. Nothing seems out of the ordinary, because everything in the center is bizarre. My mind was in a really good place to take in the streets. I just went with the flow of people and tried to observe everything. Even as bicycles and scooters were navigating past me in the crowded cobblestone I took things as they came. As I walked my mind kept trying to remember details. I need to find words to described just a sliver of the stories encompassed on each block.

There are no neat and tidy boxes in Amsterdam. St. Louis is a city of boxes. A box for public housing, a box for business, a box for students, a box for the poor, a county box for the wealthy. Amsterdam is fluid. Like the canals that run through it, the city lets everyone coexist and stream together. As I walked through the infamous red light district I found myself amongst white haired women, police, Japanese tourists, and hard drug dealers. Everyone exists and amongst the surface chaos there is an odd cohesiveness.

As a women I became hyper aware of the groups of men wondering around. Everywhere there were groups of 4 to 7 young and old men. Maybe if you take Amsterdam as a pure city of vice it is appropriate to come with a group of your best mates. So many times over the weekend I thought about my good friends in the states, I wished some how you could all be transported there with me. I even over heard a conversation between two British men making a pack to leave what ever happens this night in Amsterdam. Humans can be creatures of vice and liberation; Amsterdam is a mecca.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Carnival De Binche

Last Tuesday I spent the day in Binche for their carnival. It was a long day of dancing, cheering, drinking, dogging oranges and crowding in the streets. The Binche festival has been going on for centuries and the tradition simply feels perfect when you are standing along the streets watching the precision of costumes. The day is centered on a parade of costumed men throwing blood oranges, but leading up to the parade bands of them march around in wooded clogs. Only men of noble bloodlines march and throw blood oranges into the awaiting crowd. Also carnival is a day of celebration before lent so the bands of marchers only drink champaign all day long. I peeked into a stone private meeting quarters at 10 in the morning to watch all of them toast to life.

My day was filled with waiting in the streets to catch flying oranges and celebrating with the hoards of people. All the shops and stores along the parade route put chicken wire screens over their windows to protect themselves against flying navels. Everyone is drinking and dancing. All the bars and discotecks along the parade route were packed. We danced like mad to American pop, odd Dutch traditional music (sounded like drinking songs), and techno. The festival brings tourists and locals together in an entire day of partying. I had such a good time being with my new friends and just feeling the atmosphere of this place. Everyone was so happy and some wore bazaar costumes. Some of it looked like New Orleans Mardi Gras, but this fat Tuesday was so far from American. The oranges cannot compare to those cheesy plastic beads. At one point I got hit in the head with one. Sometimes they fly really fast! My friend Matt got beamed right in the eye with one (you can’t help at laugh at the absurdity of getting slammed in the eye with an orange that dripped red juice all down his face).

So many things in Europe make me feel like American culture is surface and contrived. The people of Binche hold true to the dress and tradition of this day. Those wooden shoes must feel like daggers pricking your feet, but they march and march and march. It was beautiful to be included in this day of celebration; a carnival that is one of hundreds past and hundreds to come.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Yonder in the Belgian woods??

Saturday was beautiful and I decided to take a solo excursion into the woods on the outskirts of town. It's a quick 25 min transit ride and once you enter the park you are completely transported out of the city. I just brought my ipod and a notebook and went on a hike, danced around to Yonder Mountain String Band when no one was watching, and wrote for about an hour on a downed tree. It was beautiful and exactly what i needed. I love living in Brussels, but sometimes the city can get to you. The beggers, winos, graphite, and endless blocks of cobblestone can put you into urban overload. I'm so glad Kathleen suggested the woods for me. I know I'll be back many times to adventure there in the next few months.

The following video is intended to make you smile and laugh at me. All of you love my quarky dancing so much!

or click here

Dinner Parties

I went to one dinner party and hosted another this week. Eating well and sipping wine with friends is definitely a beautiful part of European culture. The first party was at Ryans host families home. The dinner was cook yourself. They had two hotplate like things that sat on the table and you cooked a wide assortment of meats on the hotplate. Underneath the plate was a warmer where you got to melt French cheese and bacon to put on your baked potato. SO GOOD. Plus I tried horse meat for the first time, it tastes like an excellent cut of stake. We had great conversation and I hope all of us can get together again.

On Firday we hosted a dinner party at our flat. It was nice to open our home to new friends. We had munchies and omelets.

Me Playing hostess and picking out sweet music.
The dinner party gang
Stephanie and Garret My Brussels Family Me, Kathleen, Pryia, and Lauren

Bruges (again)

I can't stop thinking about how beautiful Bruges was. Another group of abroad kinds went this weekend and all of us are romanced by the city. It might be worth spending a night there because I feel like when lit up the canals and architecture could be even more magical. Elena, a friend from Tufts who is studying abroad with me took this picture of me and Janell on the canal. Check out my face, I was so happy during our little boat trip. Here are some more pictures from this magical city including pics from inside The Church of Our Lady and the statue of Mary by Michelangelo.