Month: January 2009

Frankfurt, Germany: Mr. Schneider, I Presume

Steffen was at a wedding that Sunday afternoon, so I left my backpack at the train station and walked into the city. Frankfurt isn’t really known for being a tourist town. It lacks the monuments of Berlin or the culture and history of Munich, but it did seem like a decent place to live. Its the largest center of finance in mainland Europe, but its downtown was fairly modest and easily walked. Of course, I spent most of my time looking for a hat.

I was going to meet Steffen that evening back at the train station, but before I went back I took a trip to the river and then over the bridge to the Sachsenhausen, the trendy neighbourhood of Frankfurt.

Sachsenhausen, just like Kreuzberg in Berlin and Brunswick in Melbourne, is full of gourmet bakeries, cafes and high-end clothing stores. I read in LP that there is an old pub in Sachsenhausen that serves up a Frankfurt delicacy: Apfelwein. As much as I love regional delicious baked goods, I love regional alcohol specialties.

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Amsterdam, The Netherlands: [Sigh] … Just Let Me Know When You’re Talking About Me

By the time Sophie’s dad came to pick us up the morning after her birthday party, I was even more grateful that I decided against going to the Hague. I don’t remember when the train was, but there was no way I would’ve made it. We took our time getting ready and eating breakfast.

Sophie’s dad was dressed in an olive corduroy sportscoat with a green tanktop underneath. He wore corduroy pants and a black scarf tied loosely around his neck. Combined with the thick, dark-rimmed glasses and the styled silver/grey hair, he looked pretty artistic and trendy, very different from what I expected. However, unsurprisingly, he was about 6-foot-8, which one would expect of the father of a 6-foot-2 girl.

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Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Happy Birthday Sophie

When I arrived in Amsterdam for the second time (and yes, there will be a third), I spent the day doing things that I didn’t get to do during my last visit, but were very important to me: I looked for a hat.

My Green Beanie was lying in the grubby, unappreciative hands of some lost-and-found shopper and my head was suffering the consequences. For those of you who have hair, you really can’t understand a bald man’s need for head covering. It’s constantly on my mind (pun intended). And I typically have a few hats on-hand for various temperatures and weather conditions. Frankly, I want to return to those days when a man didn’t go anywhere without a nice looking hat. Like one that matched the suit you were expected to wear. Not so far back that we all had to sport thick, waxed and curled mustaches (though something tells me my father would enjoy that), but maybe in that Mad Men era where everyone looks as good as Don Draper, cigarettes don’t kill you and alcohol was called “creativity juice”.

There was a small suggestion in my mind that I should visit the Anne Frank museum, but that was soon replaced with memories of the 8 or 9 other Holocaust-related sites I had seen on the trip so far. I mean, most of them are places I feel every single person in the world be required to visit, but come on, I’m on vacation here, quit bumming me out.

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Brussels, Belgium: Day Trip to Ghent

Brussels was boring. There wasn’t a whole lot to do other than watch the statue pee and it wasn’t very pretty, so I decided to do a day trip to Ghent, a small medieval town about an hour northwest. Brugge is a similar and more popular town, but notoriously touristy and overcrowded. Ghent was supposed to be the Brugge of years ago.

It seemed, however, I had used up my one day of good weather in Brussels. The day started out very cloudy, foggy and wet. I took the morning train to Ghent and ended up on the other side of town from the central, medieval bit, about 2 kilometers away. Fortunately, there was a very popular museum of modern art along the way, which was one of the main reasons I came to Ghent.

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Brussels, Belgium: Little Men, Some Blue, Some Peeing

The free breakfast at the Centre Vincent Van Gogh Hostel was strange, but generous … very particularly generous. Like prisoners at mealtime, we moved slowly in line towards the trays of food, under a sign that specified that each guest was allowed exactly 5 pieces of break, one bowl of cereal, etc.

Lonely Planet didn’t have much good to say about museums in the city, so I decided to just walk around and get a feel for area. The Palace looked like any old government building so I didn’t feel obligated to investigate any further. I headed towards Manneken Pis, a famous Brussels landmark. The name is Dutch for “Little Pee Man” and well … that kinda says it all:

It seems that the little guy has a range of costumes in which “Friends of Manneken Pis” — a non-profit association — dress him during special occasions and celebrations. Sometimes, they hook up his “plumbing” to a keg and use the stream to fill cups of beer. Heineken Pis anyone?

Nothing peaks the appetite like watching a small statue pee in front of a group of Japanese tourists, so I went looking for food. Fortunately, there was a Belgian waffle stand right next door. The city is littered with such stalls which sling everything from the traditional 4 x 5-inch pastry with icing sugar to decadent toppings of fresh fruit, chocolate and whipped cream. I went for the standard fare and from the first bite I was blown away. There I stood, stopped dead in my tracks by a fresh, crispy, sweet (but not too sweet) and almost creamy creation; I felt blindsided.

When I was younger and considerably fatter, I used to indulge in frozen waffles, topped with an ice cream sundae. I called it a late-night snack. When I became healthy, I settled for whole-grain varieties accompanied by nothing more than fresh fruit, honey and maybe some peanut butter (try it, it’s awesome). I remember long ago having a large Belgian waffle when my family went to my cousin Papu’s graduation from Dartmouth. Nothing prepared me for the overwhelming deliciousness. Hate to ruin the rest of the post, but that was one of the highlights.

From there I went to a museum, and yes, I know that I said there was nothing good in Brussels, but this was one of those museums that you don’t see very often. In the river of Modern Art, National History and National Gallery museums that you get swept up in when traveling Europe, you have to look out for those unique ones that still make it all interesting. This was the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinee, or the Beligan Comic Strip Center.

Did you know that the Smurfs were created by Belgian comic artist Peyo? Did you know they were originall called Les Schtroumpfs?Well I didn’t. And I only found out when I walked into the historic building almost exactly 50 years after the comic first appeared in print. The museum was having a special exhibit in honor of the anniversary and had an extensive history along with antique prints, videos and photographs of the artist and his creations. The world of the Smurfs is actually quite fascinating, especially when you consider how widely appealing and known they are, by both adults and children. Unfortunately, other than the short presentation on Herge and Tintin the rest of the museum was completely in French, and being very out of practice, I found myself breezing through the other displays. As a bonus, on the way out I grabbed a couple packets of Smurf cookies. They were smurfin’ smurf.

After lunch at a very friendly and wifi-equipped sandwich shop, I was at a loss of what to do next. So, as usual, I decided to start drinking. LP recommended trying a particular kind of beer in Belgium called a lambic. One bar/restaurant in the city was famous for their very own lambic beer, so I soon found myself sitting inside a very empty and dull A La Becasse. They had a lounge upstairs, but it wasn’t open, and I wondered if it got any more lively at night. The bartender was friendly enough, but the brew he poured was disappointing, considering the hype it had been given in my guidebook. Lambics taste like flat, bitter, apple/cherry cider.

From there I went to another famous watering hole called Mort Subite (literally, “Sudden Death”). The name comes from a tradition back in the day when businessmen would play a game during lunch called ‘421’ in the bar. Before heading back to work, they played one last round, and the loser was dubbed mort subite. The bar/brasserie is still run by the same family and serves a wide range of Belgian beers alongside their own ones. The atmosphere was friendly and lively and the decor retained the same 1920’s vibe.

On my way back to the hostel I started searching for this parking garage that supposedly gave you a beautiful view of the city. I had been on a nice “Europen Cities At Night” photo roll and I was excited to add Brussels to the list. As much as I searched, however, I couldn’t figure out which empty-looking building it was. But I found something equally intriguing:

I’m not sure why an ordinary walkway underneath train tracks would be lighted like this, but after coming from the drab and dark streets it was impressive.

Around the train station were more windows containing prostitutes. I was surprised to see them in Brussels since I thought it was an Amsterdam specialty. And just like in Amsterdam, they were surprisingly attractive.

At the Gare du Nord, I bought a bus ticket back to Amsterdam to see Sophie. The way I saw it, I’d feel awful if I came all the way and missed her, since one of the points of the trip was to see my friends from Australia and New Zealand. Plus, I wasn’t supposed to go to Frankfurt to see Steffen until Sunday, and Brussels just didn’t have enough to keep me entertained until the weekend.