Bruges (Brugges, Brugge)

Bruges is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s old with so much new. We found the town pronounced and spelled several different ways. Bruges, like rouge with a B in front is how most tourists pronounced the quaint Belgian city, but the locals called it Brugggghhh, like starting to say blue in french, but then moving the G sound to the back of the throat and kind of squeezing the finish. I never got it right.

One of my friends at the San Francisco Writers Studio told me about Bruges. “It’s ok if you like medieval towns,” she’d said. “What with cobble stone streets, canals, quaint cafes, and boutique clothing stores,” and we did like all of that.

The trip from Amsterdam to Bruges was relaxing, if a bit underwhelming, until we got off the train in Antwerp. I remember being stunned to a stand still looking up at the massive train station clock. It had been decorated to fill the entire end of the station. It didn’t seem real. We both took photos hoping to capture the elegance of the structure. We probably have 15 images, none show the full grandeur. But our commuter train to Bruges was late so we got to sit in the station, sip coffee, and watch people coming and going in the afternoon glow. We’ve since watched Hugo, to visit that feeling again. There’s something about a train station.

antwerp clock

antwerp coffee

The train to Bruges moved along at a snail’s pace, past Ghent and several other small towns. Medieval architecture sprung from the skyline, like pillars of inspiration.

In Bruges we found the bus to our AirBnB and sat for the 10 minute ride to our new hood. It was a quiet little street, with several homes sporting sculpted gardens. Our place came with two bikes that we rode into town for groceries and dinner. We rode home in the dark, feeling alive and quite free.

bruges garden

In Bruges, we walked down narrow streets, and from time to time could see the spires of one of several church steeples. We managed a stop at each.

entering bruges

 

There’s something about these old churches. Structures that are built over centuries, over generations. Who had the original concept? How did it change as time changed, as wars were fought, as sons died, as children became adults, and they too died.

Someone suggested that we see the Colin Ferrell movie In Bruges. I’d tried it some years back and didn’t make it very far. I found Ferrell’s constant negativity hard to swallow, but in the movie’s defense, the photography is stunning. There are shots from the water, from towers. It’s really a great overview of the city. And there’s a seriously twisted relationship between Ferrell and the guy who played Mad-Eye Moody in Harry Potter movies.

What I didn’t see was the well-developed retail scene. As we approached the city our first day we saw shoppers carrying bags from the well-known shops you might see in San Francisco, Milan, or Rome. There were great little cafes, cobble-stone streets plazas, bicycles nestled in ivy. Reflections in the water,and church towers framed by a maddening sky.

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church and sky Bruges

We had a snack at the Pigeon House. Great little stop for local color. They honor the pigeons who race from as far away as Spain, all the way back to Belgium. The bird is stamped into chocolate medallions.

pigeon house

Speaking of which, Belgian waffles. We only had one, but what a treat. We sat in the back of a little cafe, watched what a nearby table was eating and ordered what they had, one waffle with creme fresh and dark chocolate. The waffle was large but light. We filled a corner with cream and another with chocolate. We took our time. We shared. Donna took her spoon, and with the delicacy of a fine surgeon poured a teaspoon full of chocolate and ate it in one bite.

I gotta say that the town held me from the first steps. Narrow streets, cool old doors, and canals.

bruges red door

bruges square

One afternoon we were drawn to a bridge by a sound that I couldn’t place. It was musical, like a steel drum, but nuanced with a humming sound. We came across this troubadour playing a Hang Pan and blowing into a diggerydo. He provided a sound that seemed both primitive and contemporary all at once. Since our return we hear Hangman on our streaming stations just about every day.

 

I could go on and on about Bruges, but our next stop is Paris. So you gotta move on.

Remembering Amsterdam

We took Norwegian Air out of Copenhagen and landed in Amsterdam a bit late in the day. The train station was a bustling hub of diverse humanity. People looked to come from every corner of the globe. Outside central station it was crowded, rushed, and dirty. By the time we got to our AirBnB, via a 15 minute bus ride, we were sure we’d made a poor decision on where to stay…until we met our host and saw our apartment. Until we woke in the morning to find a green parrot perched in an Elm outside our bedroom window. Until we found the local grocery store had fresh organic produce, eggs with bright yellow yolks, and found the Danish nut and seed bread we’d eaten in Copenhagen. We continued to eat our mostly raw breakfast. I was loving it.

amsterdam breakfast

The buses ran prompt and got us around town quite easily. But the streets are the places we found most charming. Strolling hand in hand along quiet canals, as bikes cruised around corners, horse-drawn carriages clopped along the cobblestones, and musicians played music here and there.

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Donna loves the bikes.

And of course the Coffeeshops, not to be confused with Cafes. Both are plentiful in Amsterdam.We talked with the proprietor of one of Amsterdam’s oldest coffeeshops, The Bulldog, about cannabis edibles and discovered that it’s against the law to make anything with cannabis. Even the lollipops and Spacecake are made with some kind of cannabis oil, with little to no psychoactive properties. He said that once upon a time, Amsterdam was the world leader in progressive medicine, but now they are trailing the likes of California, Colorado, and other US Cities.

bulldog

We hooked up with a friend of a friend, Lorand, who lives in the hip neighborhood of Kinnerbuurt. They have a farmers market that runs the length of a pretty long street, and is open every day of the year. Fresh everything. Lorand guided us through enormous food courts inside a refurbished tram repair center. It’s called Foodhallen. It’s spacious rooms, varied aromas, music, and people made it an interesting place to get a bite and feel the vibe. We also discovered a fantastic cafe where I tried fried goat cheese. I thought it was fish. Our cafe host even got in the action.

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L-R, Lorand, our host, Tom, Donna

We spent hours touring the Nine streets area where we found cafes, retail stores, canals and reflections, plus the ever-presence of bikes, locked and being ridden.

We walked many streets more than once, and it didn’t seem to matter. There was always something to see, taste, smell. We tried to go to the red light district, but each time we tried, the way there was crowded, and the energy was more than we wanted to handle, so we’d mosey on over to the nine streets area and relax into the non-stop shops and cafes.

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Near Ann Frank house while touring the canals on our last day.

The only activity we planned in advance was Ann Frank’s house, and if I had one word of advice for that tour, see the movie first. We streamed it on Netflix and it gave such a great sense of the cramped quarters, the difficulty of being quiet, and how personality conflicts are amplified by war and confinement. The place is tiny, the stairs narrow, and with wooden floors, it’s practically impossible to keep quiet.

Our second day in Amsterdam we wandered into a souvenir shop to purchase refrigerator magnets and gaze over all the shiny objects.

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What a fun store. I thought it must be hard on a shop owner trying to sell high volumes of tiny items to make ends meet. While doing our transaction we asked if he could point us to the Van Gough museum. He asked if we had tickets, and said that it’s quite helpful to purchase in advance, and it’s great to go late in the afternoon to avoid the crowds. He said he could sell us tickets which turned out to be such a great move.

My lack of art history knowledge caught up with me the next day. We took the tram to the museum area when I got the feeling that Amsterdam was bigger than I’d thought. Much bigger. It’s almost twice the area of San Francisco, and larger than all the cities we visited, Copenhagen, Brugge, and Paris.

We walked by the Rijksmuseum and sat in the sun at an outdoor food court with coffee and a nibble. When it was our designated museum entry time we walked a hundred meters or so to the Van Gogh museum. We’d asked about its location a couple of times and were corrected on our pronunciation each time. It’s not Van-Go, it’s Dutch, Van-gawk, but you have to slur the second syllable through the back of your mouth. An acquired skill I think.

We picked up our audio tour gear, and agreed on when and where we’d meet, since we have vastly different attention spans for museum tours. I started the exhibit and was greeted by a large, say 8×12 foot painting of peasants in the field, some mostly sitting, eating, sharpening blades. I’d seen it in art appreciation class in junior college. I moved on to a series of self portraits and learned that he taught himself many techniques by painting himself, as he did not have money for models. I searched for that image when drafting this blog post but never found it. I did find dozens and dozens of peasant paintings, little studies of faces, feet, and folks at work. He was a prolific painter, who took great pleasure in painting the simple life. When I got to the timeline display of his life, I was shocked to tears when I discovered he’d taken his own life.

We spent a bit of time in the tulip museum, in the Nine Streets area, where Donna learned that many of the varieties of tulips they sell won’t do well in our climate, so we waited for home to buy our bulbs. They went in the soil this past weekend. We’ll wait for Amsterdam in our spring garden.

Outside the tulip museum we discussed a book we’d read. Donna confused All the Light We Cannot See, with bits from The Goldfinch. I’ve had a fear that I might lose my wife to dementia. In that moment, I thought it was happening. I started to cry. Donna took me onto the bridge where I tried to talk about it. She reassured me that she is not losing her mind.

memory bridge

I’d love to spend more time in Amsterdam. Such a vibrant city with more to see than can be done in four days. When we returned home I told Donna I wanted to visit Ikea and get a little hit of Scandinavia. We came home with a few odds and ends to keep our trip alive along with a mounted and framed black and white photo of the same image that got me interested in Amsterdam a few years ago. I’d seen it at an executive office on Sutter Street in San Francisco. It was one of several framed images, all done in black and white, of various cities around the world. Each had one element of color. We brought it home from Ikea. It’s lovely next to our fireplace.

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Window to Amsterdam in our living room.

Until we return, we have a photo, we buy aged Gouda cheese, and we recount stories real and imagined.

 

 

Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Brugge, Paris

My wife and I get a lot of mileage out of our vacations. From pre-trip planning to the embrace of each city as we’d get to explore them, and then basking in the memories through photos and story telling after we’re home and back to business.

This year, as part of our pre-trip planning, we dove into WordPress Reader posts every morning, before going to work. We continued looking at Reader posts during the trip. We discovered things like the giant wooden sculptures outside Copenhagen, or how best to get to Chatres to visit their famous cathedral.

We booked all our rentals through AirBnB and enjoyed getting acquainted with each city through their photos, maps, descriptions, and tenant critiques. The units got smaller as we headed south. The Paris apartment was very small but what it lacked in size made up for in efficiency, proximity to services and the metro.

I’d say the world is a better place than it was 10 years ago though there is strife, in our own back yard. But we found plenty of heart, plenty of light. Now Anaïs Nin might disagree, since she did not like this image displayed in the Irving Penn exhibit in the Grand Palais, but I found the photo engaging, personal, and it was my favorite.

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Anaïs Nin

But how on earth did we get to Irving Penn? We stumbled upon him in Paris, the same way we found ourselves in Chartres, laughed with Chinese tourists in Amsterdam, and got a museum recommendation from an Iranian in Copenhagen. Our guides were out there and we kept running into them.

Even in Paris, where it’s big and fast, guides would materialize with a regularity that we started to expect. Paris was the only destination where we saw signs of terrorism. Not terrorists, per se, but the vestiges of anti-terror. Police patrol in groups of four, machine guns at the ready and no-nonsense looks.

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The Eiffel Tower was completely fenced off. If you didn’t have a ticket and cleared security, you didn’t get in. At train stations, large parks, and Notre Dame we saw baret-clad police patrolling the grounds. In Chartres and other prime terrorist targets there were large stone slabs around the perimeter to prevent cars and trucks from getting too close.

I just love train stations like Amsterdam, Antwerp, Montparnasse and Gare de Lyon. The symmetry and size of the old stations is worth a coffee and a few photos. The vanishing lines, the repetition of simple themes to adorn large structures that house the likes of all electric trains that can travel 170 k/h. They leave the station, rolling smooth, gaining speed as the city shrinks from view, and accelerating to love-on-a-fast-train speed through the countryside.

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Antwerp Train Station

I wasn’t prepared for Copenhagen, but I say that in a good way. I’d done research to find attractions like Tivolie Gardens, Nyhavn, and Paper Island for food choices galore. We walked through Nyhavn and it was a vibrating place with boats and outdoor cafes.

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Nyhavn

We never got to Tivolie Gardens, and Paper Island was so packed that we just kept walking.

The day after we arrived we decided to let our senses guide us and what guides they were. We found photo ops everywhere, a metro system that connected us with lots of exploration, and a city that has made bike riding an art form. There may be more bikes in Amsterdam, but there are more bikes on the road in Copenhagen, and the bicyclists move along as a well-oiled machine.

I had issues with Musee D’Orsay. People with smart phones and cameras were getting selfies in front of Monet, Renoir, and Manet. But it’s still a feast for the senses with all those impressionist paintings in one place. I had an awakening there a few years back, when I started to cry and couldn’t stop. It started as I approached the Renior painting of Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette.

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Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette

I started to get emotional, like the work meant more than paint on canvas or a name on the painting. I’d seen it in books during college, and never thought I’d see it in person. When I walked around the corner there was an enormous painting of a woman on the hill with a white flowing dress and parasol. It overwhelmed me, in a way that I could not then, and can’t quite now, explain. I’ve recounted the story of seeing this painting many times. When I entered the room this year, I found the painting smaller than I’d remembered and there were two, like it had been a study of the same woman in the same dress on the same hill and then I thought that there’s probably more to the story. BUT, this year, after looking over paintings, I was shocked to find that they were not Renoir paintings, but Monet. MONET.

Monet painting
Woman with a Parasol, facing left

We spent three weeks on this trip. A good amount of time to be gone without breaking the bank, or overdoing my capacity to play from late morning until ten or eleven at night. We walked between three and seven miles a day. We’d keep my injured  knee happy with a stop for a coffee or a perusal in a charming shop; there were plenty of both.

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Pidgeon House, Brugge

In the countries we visited, Denmark, The Netherlands, Belgium, and France we felt a sense of unity; like we belonged to each in our own way. In each country I was mistaken for a local. And it was fun to fit in. But as with all our vacations, it came to a close, and we came home to jet lag, stacks of email, and colds. Tune in as I traverse those steps again, with photo and motion pictures. Let me make my vacation last a bit longer and perhaps give you a short one in your office or home.

 

Peace. Love. Out.

Mountain Moment

The green glows like electricity.  It’s everywhere in the forest. It’s on the ground, stuck on twigs like christmas decoration. I get lost by moving it. The electriciy goes dim, the sky turns blue, my wrist begins to throb.


A beast lives deep in the valley, out of sight, lonely, blue, true to its nature.  Heaven and earth cannot move it into the light until it decides for itself. Footsteps crunch bark, boasting its strength as the day heat dims. While the town goes to close, the beast’s wide eyes glow bright red, so fierce they could start a fire.

The wind pulls tufts of moss from the tall pine, with the broken branch that healed itself, then started growing down until it fused with a granite slab and made a seat large enogh for a family of four.

Over the mountains the clouds drift east until I stop to ponder their movement. Then they stand still, quiet like fog.

 

 

 

Twas the Eighth Day of Christmas

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Twas the eighth day of Christmas my true love gave to me, the most splendid early morning light on this, our Winter Solstice.

We drove down the coast for breakfast, our usual on Wednesdays, before my lovely baby-sits our little grand daughter.  Driving south on Hwy 1, 7:30 a.m. light spilled over the hills to set Pedro Point aglow, reminiscent of the haunting light of a solar eclipse.

Later I received a text from my friend Sue, with this photo of little V at the Christmas tree.  It speaks for itself.

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May you find time to bask in early morning light.

 

 

Twas the Sixth Day of Christmas

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Twas the Sixth Day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a stunning sunrise and a low hanging crystal.  The low part of the wreath is almost out of sight from from my six foot height.  But I crouched down low to get the shot, and was slow to get back up, what with the morning chill, and it’s crystal clear outside.

It’s clear that I am a lucky man.  We’ve gone out with friends, the past few days.  Have taken walks, and gotten our heart beats hopping, heating up the gym, or in my lovely’s case, biking and hiking up our hills.

We saw the SMUIN Christmas dance performance last night at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.  These are, to me, extreme athletes, with balance and poise.  It’s a magical experience to watch them move to music and each other.

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I am grateful for my life.  I am grateful to be alive.  Peace be with you.

Twas the Fifth Day of Christmas

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Twas the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a star fish and chocolate chip pumpkin bread.  The star is so small, yet a wonderful reminder of awe and delight.  I go to bed each night under stars in the sky, near star fish in the ocean, and a special star sitting in the wreath at my front door.

We had dinner with a dear friend last night, in the Marina district of San Francisco.  We parked the car next to the Palace of Fine Arts where I recorded the Nutcracker earlier this month for Westlake School of the Performing Arts.  It adds up to serious holiday spirit.

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Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco
I’ve always wanted my sweetie to sit down with me to watch a random movie on any weekend morning.  It’s hard for her, given her proclivity to get things done, not waste time, but she turned on a dime.  But last night our friend told us about John Oliver’s last show, that we managed to miss. Before going to bed last night I watched the last show on my phone.  A call to action, if ever there was one, for those of us who still cannot believe that Mr. Trump is our president elect. We watched it together, this morning, while the pumpkin bread backed.

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May the little star above light your way today.