Saturday, April 28, 2012

Coming Out Circa 1974 - Then, Now and Inbetween

I graduated from high school in 1975. Several of my teachers, primarily in the Social Science department, were veterans of the protest movement of the 1960's. One relayed her experiences  at the 1968 Grant Park demonstrations during that years Democratic Convention. She could also tell us, down to what she was wearing that day, of Kennedy's assasination and her emotions at the time. They had been "shit disturbers" in their youth. They were still "shit disturbers" during my high school years, but now they were "shit disturbers" with professions, property, decent incomes and a secure retirement. They were determined that, if it were possible, their students would not be afflicted with suburban isolation and myopia. They were determined not only to teach facts, but to guide and illuminate.

We were taught civics by participation in a mock government. We drafted laws and formed strategies to get them passed. We were made to understand the difference between socialism, communism and capitalism and the positive and negative impacts of each system through lectures followed by group discussions. They were determined to teach us to think, something sadly lacking in today's more structured "to the test" style of education.

The towns that the school's student body hailed from epitomized suburban sprawl. Initially built to hold 1500 students the rapid growth of the area had swelled the population to 3000. At this time, despite the overcrowding, the education received there was of a very high quality. The wealthier families would send their children to the public schools as there was very little difference between public and private schools in the education received. Also, the only private schools at that time were parochial.

At the lower end of the economic scale were the kids like me. We were, not poor, just solid middle class. My family lived in a ranch style tract home built in the late 1950s. The garage to our home was on the left. The floor plan to the house next door was flipped over so that the garage sat on the right. Next door to that home the garage again sat on the left. This continued throughout the subdivision making each home virtually indistinquishable from the next. The area was marketed as Treehaven. So named due to the two trees, planted in precisely the same two spots, in each front yard. There were no sidewalks making walking anywhere somewhat problematic.

The homes of the wealthier students, located in a neighboring suburb, were more varied in appearance, although still primarily mass produced. Many had, however, custom finishes in their interiors. Some had, this being California, in ground swimming pools. One exceptionally wealthy student's home sported not only a pool but also a tennis court. Their fathers were doctors, lawyers or high level executives in corporate offices in San Francisco.

At one point, the socially conscious teachers decided to expose us to alternative lifestyles. This was accomplished through the use of guest speakers. These included members of communes, members of religious orders and even the president of the prostitutes union, COYOTE, which is an acronym for something but I can't remember what. I, years later, discovered that a friend of mine as also a friend of hers. had, in fact, had lunch with her to break in her American Express card, when her fame and fortune, due to speaking and writing about her experiences as president, had afforded her the opportunity to obtain one.

These speakers were to initially include members of the gay community. The school administration, at the last minute, refused permission for the gay speakers to come on campus. Apparently, it was more appropriate for prostitutes to speak to students than gay people. At this time, in some quarters, it was felt that one could be "recruited" into homosexuality. A group of us were eventually able to speak with them by bringing them in quietly during lunch period one afternoon.

During this period, San Francisco was occasionally referred to as "The Gay Mecca", due to it's tolerant and permissive atmosphere. Several teachers, although, none of them openly, were gay. These included my Drama teacher, who later, after graduation, became a friend and mentor, also a  couple of the English and Art teachers. There was one extremely handsome and muscular history teacher, fond of the gay uniform of the day of jeans and polo shirts, which showed off his large chest and biceps. I once saw him being dropped off at school by an equally handsome and muscular man in an equally handsome sports car. It was not until sometime later I realized that it must have been his partner. He and I argued frequently due to his conservative world view, except, it would, seem when it came to his sexuality.

One of the "shit disturbing" teachers had finally decided that he had had enough. One day, tape recorder running, he came out to his class. He said, "The administration refused to let gay speakers on campus. I am here to tell you that for the past 10 years you have been taught by a gay man. "

The reaction was amazing to watch. The teacher had consulted a lawyer and knew he could not be touched. Still, the gay teachers ran from this admission keeping it, and the teacher at arms length.

During this period I was singled out, admittedly due in part to my unique and colorful sense of personal style, to bear the brunt of the anti gay feelings going on in the school as well as the community. I heard the term fag often. Rocks were once thrown at me from across a street as this slur was being shouted. Another time, a hot drink was thrown at me as I was walking across campus as this slur was used. These attacks came up for discussion in a class I was in. Several people said things such as "Well I know this person and...". After being referred to several times as "this person" , I finally stated "O.K. everyone, we all know we are talking about me." What I find bothersome to this day is that the school administration never took any sort of action about the harassment.

One day the teacher that had come out stopped me in the hallway. He suggested that I think about my orientation. I was upset and angry. I was straight! I was not gay!

It was then I began to think and question. As I stated, these teachers were determined to illuminate. This man opened a door I had kept locked and pushed me through it. I will always be grateful to him. On the other side of the door the lights were on.

Unless you experience this revelation first hand you cannot imagine what it is like. Feelings I had for years, suppressed or rationalized as something, anything else suddenly made sense. I felt free and unburdened from the weight of my own denial.

I moved, at 19, as soon as I was economically able, to North Oakland and later to San Francisco where I could live my life as an out gay man without fear of reprisal.

Several months ago, while sharing the laundry room with a young straight man who lives in our building with his wife, he referred to my partner, completely naturally, as my husband. It dawned on me then how far we have come from my high school days. However, when I hear of teens taking their own lives due to the bullying they receive over their sexuality, I realize how far we still have to go.


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What Are You Wearing?

I was recently laid off and so have been doing the job search thing. During an interview for a position with a well known luxury watch retailer the interviewer mentioned that their product started at $3,000 on the low end and $380,000 on the high end. I kept my composure and got through the remainder of the interview even though thoughts began bouncing about inside my head colliding together like billiard balls.

$380,000 for a watch! Does it come with a person that walks beside you to tell you what time it is? What does it look like? If I were to lay out that kind of money for a watch I'm not sure I would want it to be so elegant, restrained and tasteful that it would disappear on my arm! If I'm spending that much on a watch it needs to elicit comments such as "What a lovely timepiece" or, said quietly, whispered behind a hand "Did you see that garish thing? I can't believe she's wearing that!"

Which brings me to the wedding of Prince Charles to Camilla, who will one day, along with Marie Antoinette, take her place among the great royal whores in history. To begin with, why would Charles have an affair with the horse faced Camilla when he had the lovely, elegant Diana in the royal bed at home in the palace. But I digress.

According to English protocol, all women attending the wedding were required to wear hats. In true blueblood fashion, they spent a great deal of time, effort and expense to "one up" each other regarding their headgear. As the guests arrived at the Abbey, recall this was televised the world over, it became a parade of the most ridiculous array of ladies chapeaus that history has ever seen.
Some of the hats looked as if they were straining the neck muscles of those wearing them. Others seemed to defy the laws of gravity. While still others appeared to have sprung from the imagination of Dr. Seuss.

Finally, we were treated to a close up of the gentleman, himself a queen though not of royal blood, responsible for the design of many of the hats on display. As the camera closed in on him the look on his face seemed to say, "Oh my god. That was a joke! I can't believe she's actually wore that!"

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Two More Glitches Before We Get Home

We rise before the sun and enjoy the rich breakfast buffet provided by the hotel. We get the first shuttle to the airport to catch our morning flight.

Arriving the two hours early suggested for international travel, we learn our flight is delayed two hours. Glitch number one. Finally it is time for us to board. As we go through a second security check a steak knife, which we have been using for cheese and rolls during the trip , is discovered in my partner's carry on. Glitch number two. I had noticed when packing the suitcases in Paris that it was missing but assumed he had put it somewhere in the luggage and in my diminished physical capacity due to my illness I had overlooked it. How it got though the first security check is still a mystery, not to mention a little disturbing. The knife was the last one remaining from a set that had been a wedding gift to his parents and so had some sentimental value. I was carrying a piece of luggage with various odds and ends, most of it was taken up by my jacket which I would not need until we touched down in Chicago. We packed it in that and checked it at the gate. We then boarded the plane without further problems.

After the seven hour flight and another hour and a half on Chicago's public transit we walked in our door filled with many rich memories of the places we saw and the experiences we had which we will carry with us for the rest of our lives. It is trips like this one that make me feel especially lucky.

Paris - A Final Thought

We realized that our short time in Paris allowed us to only scratch the surface of that beautiful, history filled city. We have often discussed a return visit, obtaining museum passes to more fully experience it's artistic treasures. If we return we hope there are no strikes and the Metro is up and running so we can also more fully enjoy it's extraordinary streetscapes. We also hope that I'm not sick!

Our Return to Amsterdam-An Exercise in Chaos

We return to the hotel planning to grab a cab and catch our train to Amsterdam. The young man at the desk tries to call several different cab services, all in vain. The masses of people in town for the rugby games, plus a still partially crippled public transit system due to the strike, have made cabs extremely scarce. I am still somewhat fatigued from my illness so he suggests that, while I wait in the lobby with the luggage, my partner go to the main street a half block away and attempt to flag one down. After a wait of several minutes he is successful and he and the taxi arrive at the door of the hotel.

As I wait I chat with the pleasant, not unattractive, but decidedly hetero, young man. He tells me that France is "fini". He recites a litany of problems, the strike, the loss of the rugby game and the breaking news that morning that the President of France is divorcing his wife to marry his mistress.

The streets to the train station are choked with taxis, cars, bikes and pedestrians. The scene outside the station itself is akin to an unruly mob. Hordes of people crowd the sidewalk. Rugby balls are being thrown about in a seemingly random fashion. A good quarter of the people appear to be intoxicated. I mention to my partner that perhaps we should auction off our cab to the highest bidder. As we exit the cab several members of the mob on the sidewalk attempt to enter it. The driver explains to them in French that this is the drop off zone and he is not allowed to pick up passengers here. So much for my auction idea.

Inside the station the scene is not much better. Trains out of the country are packed to capacity, still feeling the disruption of the strike. Our train leaves late, so we arrive late in Brussels, where we are to change trains for our final leg to Amsterdam. We race through the station, luggage in tow. My partner asks if I know where we are going. Panting, I reply, "I think so" and continue, almost by instinct, to the correct platform.

We make our connection with just minutes to spare and manage to snare two of the last remaining seats. Many passengers are forced to stand. A group of women in jahibs crowd in the aisle beside us. As we near Amsterdam groups of young kids, dressed for a Saturday night of clubbing, board the train. Their various bright shades of hair and clothing add more color to an already colorful stew of humanity. We arrive in Amsterdam, catch the shuttle to our hotel, get to our room and flop into bed, completely wrung out from the day.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Paris - The Luxembourg Gardens and a Medieval Marvel

Leaving me in bed my partner goes out to get us something to eat. When he returns he describes the scene outside. As I mentioned, the French team is playing in the opening game of the World Rugby Finals being held in Paris that night. The sidewalks are packed. Anyplace that has a t.v. has an overflow crowd standing outside. People are walking through the streets carrying champange. He is able to secure sandwiches and a sweet pudding treat in lieu of cake and bring it back to the room. We watch the large, muscular Rugby players, in their sleeveless jerseys, their massive, powerful legs straining the seams of their extremely short shorts, play a game neither of us even remotely understand. Before I fall into a long, deep sleep France loses.

The night's rest has a healing effect and I awake the next morning feeling almost normal. We pack our luggage into the tiny elevator and stow it into an equally tiny baggage room off of the lobby. Many of the outrageously expensive apartments in Paris real estate ads are described as "cozy". During our time here we come to realize that this is code for miniscule.

We head towards the Luxembourg Gardens. Along the way we discover that a complex of ruined arches on a nearby corner, which had intrigued me since our arrival, are the remains of centuries old Roman Baths. We also see three drunken revelers, still out from the night before, hanging from a lamppost singing their hearts out. Perhaps they were rooting for the opposing team. We come upon the Museum of Medieval Art, housed in the finest example of non religious medieval architecture still extant in the city. We do not have time to visit the Museum but enjoy the buildings courtyard. A well stands in the center. Rainspouts fashioned as fantastic fantasy beasts hang from the eaves. A comical face  peers over a dormer window of an upper floor, hands grasping the dormers roof. A display of busts can be seen through the windows of the first floor. A clock consisting of wrought iron hands and numbers keeps time on one wall.

We exit the courtyard and continue our trek to the gardens. Along the way we make one more stop. A small shop displaying low priced trendyish clothes in it's window beckons us in. It consists of  two, again tiny, floors. We leave somewhat poorer, two shopping bags in tow. The bulky black sweater I purchase is made in Bangladesh, but I bought it in Paris so it still counts as being from there. No, really, it does.

Reaching the gardens we find them awash in brilliant fall colors. It is Saturday and parents are out with their children. We watch as a group of the children are starting a short ride around the park on ponies. One stubborn animal decides it doesn't want to go with the others no matter how the handlers coax it, a small boy astride it the whole while. Later, in a fountain know for this, a boy sets a miniature boat asail.

Exiting the garden we lunch at a restaurant across the street. The beautiful weather seems to have brought the entire population of the city outdoors. Our waiter has a unique sense of style. Masses of silver jewelry glints in the sun. A chain attached to the wallet in his back pocket hangs to a point below his knees before it ascends to where it is attached to his belt which sports an  enormous buckle. The restaurant and it's locale seem elegant and slightly upscale. Then I visit the restroom. What I find is a hole in the ornate mosaic floor. Some traditions appear difficult to let go of. I decide to wait.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Louvre, The Arch de Triumph, The Flu - Happy Birthday to Me

It is the morning of my 50th birthday. I awake still not feeling my best. Tried, watery eyes, raw throat, but I go to the bathroom to pull myself together and try to make the best of things. After my shower I come out to find that my partner had swiftly festooned the room with crepe paper streamers exclaiming Happy Birthday. He then presents me with my gifts, a small stuffed dog that barks when you press his sides and the receipts to seats at a Chicago performance of La Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo taking place the following January. He decided, wisely, not to bring the actual tickets on the trip. Descending in the tiny elevator my partner rhetorically asks why they have installed such a high wattage lightbulb in it. I dryly suggest that when it is not being used to transport guests between floors it lives a second life as a tanning booth.

During breakfast at a local bakery I spot a woman who is unmistakably American. Over coiffed, over polished when she speaks to her daughter her accent removes all doubt as to her nationality. The women we encountered in Paris are nicely dressed but practical. The streets are a sea of attractive, well cared for "wash and wear' hair. The women carry an air of having more pressing concerns than spending time with a curling iron.

Arriving at the Louvre we find a line, beginning at the glass pyramid entrance and snaking through the courtyard. Due to the previous days strike the world famous museum's opening is delayed. Once the doors open the line moves quickly and we are soon inside surrounded by some of the world's greatest art treasures.

The Mona Lisa is sanctioned off to keep people a certain distance from it. It is surrounded by loud Japanese tourists snapping pictures of it. This does serve to remove some of the romance of viewing this glorious work. The Winged Victory and Venus de Milo are more accessible and their locales less crowded. The Apollo Gallery, with it's painted and gilded panels covering the walls and ceiling almost overshadows the jewels on display. Due to the lingering effects of the strike the Flemish galleries are closed. As we had spent a good deal of time in Amsterdam just days earlier coming into contact with some of the finest of this genre this was only a minor disappointment. Instead, we took in the Napoleon Apartments, which, although overwhelmingly opulent, looked as if they could use a good feather dusting. Going up a short flight of stairs we saw an area half hidden by folding work screens where ancient statuary was being crated prior to being shipped on loan to other institutions, or perhaps shipped back to their usual homes after a special exhibition at the Louvre.

After lunch at the museum diner and shopping at the museum store,we purchased a charming but quite heavy Christmas ornament. A cherub head with wings sprouting from her back rendered in plaster, we exited the museum.

Continuing to feel the effects of my flu, I rallied my internal resources and we headed to that portion of the Metro that was back in operation to make our way to the Arch de Triumph. This was our first of two encounters with extremely nasty French transit workers. Trying to ask a quite innocent question she immediately started screaming at me, gesticulating wildly, because I was not able to ask the question in French, I think. Attempting to ask another question of a different transit worker a short time later she also began screaming at us. Feeling quite ill by this time I had a complete melt down on the sidewalk across the street from the Arch. We both came to realize that things were still such a mess from the strike that we would have to head to the train station to ensure we had tickets back to Amsterdam the next day to catch our return flight.

The Metro ride to the station was like nothing I had ever experienced before. As only a portion of the system was operating the train was packed well above capacity. At each station people were standing shoulder to shoulder literally 5 deep waiting to board the reduced number of trains that were running. The scene at the train station was only slightly less chaotic. It took over an hour and a half for us to purchase two of the dwindling number of tickets out of the city the next afternoon. Matters were made worse due to the opening games of the World Rugby finals being played in Paris that evening with the French team in the game. The only thing that made the situation tolerable, ill as I was, was the firm, rounded, taut buttocks encased in well fitting track pants possessed by the young man standing ahead of us in line.

At this point I was almost staggering, completely spent by my illness. Upon reaching the room I knew the birthday dinner we had planned would not be happening and I would be spending the evening of my 50th birthday lying sick in a tiny Paris hotel room overlooking an airshaft watching the opening game of the World Rugby finals on French t.v.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Paris on Foot

Our hotel was on the left bank. One block from St Germain, three blocks from Notre Dame, which was our first stop. A cathedral of great antiquity, close to 1000 years old, it's interior is, for me, dominated by it's massive stained glass window. One of the most vivid memories I have of my first trip abroad when I was 15, I discover that  35 years later it had not lost it's ability to dazzle me. Leaving the great cathedral, we passed under the gargoyles perched upon it and marveled at it's flying buttresses and admired the stylized saints carved on it's walls.

As no buses or subway trains were running we crossed the broad plaza in front of the building and headed up the Seine to the Eiffel Tower. It was yet another warm, beautiful fall afternoon with bright sunshine emanating from brilliant blue skies.

I had been experiencing minor throat irritation for a couple of days. At this point the rawness in my throat had become much more severe and was accompanied by watery eyes. Thinking it was a reaction to the pollen stirred up by all the falling leaves in the places we had visited, I suggested we walk along the right bank as it seemed to have fewer trees.

From Notre Dame to the Eiffel Tower is a hike. Along the way one passes the Louvre, Place de la Concorde and De Orsay museum among other notable sights of the city. We also stopped at several of the famed booksellers along the river purchasing an antique book featuring a beautiful red and black embossed cover. It joins a collection (yeah, another one) of vintage and antique books in our home.

By the time we reach the tower fatigue has set in. Thinking that if I just eat something I will be fine I push myself through the Eiffel photo ops, there is a particularly great spot for this on a terrace across the street from the tower, and then retire to a nearby cafe.

Our waiter is young, tall, thin and possesses one of the largest grins I have ever seen. He greets us and after he asks how we are my partner replies "Fine, and you?". With a flourish he answers "Magnifique! Wonderful!" We order omelettes, not unusual for lunch in France, also a fairly economical choice and I dig in hoping the protein will replenish my reserves and get me back to feeling something approaching normal.

The food helps, some, and we decide top return to our hotel by way of St. Germain. We take our time window shopping the high end boutiques that line the avenue. Along a side street we spot an old church. I quickly consult my guidebook, always at the ready when I travel, and discover it is the oldest church in Paris. We decide to pay it a visit. Inside it is a madcap mix of styles. Thousand year old columns hold up an equally ancient ceiling. The columns are decorated with faded paint which appears to date from the time of the churches initial construction. On the walls, by contrast, are murals in rich, vivid colors, depicting biblical scenes which were added hundreds of years later, yet are themselves hundreds of years old. This eclectic mix makes the church feel less forbidding and formidable that Notre Dame. It is welcoming and comfortable. My partner professes to like it better than it's more famous cousin.

Still fatigued, we return to our hotel and standing front to front, holding in our breath, manage to squeeze into the tiny elevator. We press the button for our floor before entering the lift as, once inside, there is no room to raise your arms to do so., We lay down for a quick rest prior to taking in Paris at night.

The lights of Paris are not as romantic as those in Florence. They do not match the theatricality of those in Brussels or the nighttime skyline and streets of my home city of Chicago. Although individual buildings are beautifully lit, they are too far apart from one another to create a dramatic whole. To my eye the twinkling lights encasing the Eiffel Tower and he rotating spot atop it's pinnacle seemed almost garish. At home, visible from our rear windows, is a Gothic church tower located several blocks away from our building. At night a bank of lights illuminate it letting it's limestone beauty stand on it's own. It is lovely and dignified. Sometimes less is truly more.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Paris - City of Lights and Strikes

We awaken and turn on the BBC. Their lead story? Tape of an empty Paris Metro station and the nationwide strike taking place that day. The strike was in support of French transit workers. They were upset that they would no longer be able to retire at 50. As my 50th birthday was 24 hours away and  I saw many long years of labor ahead of me I was somewhat unsympathetic to their cause.

We eat breakfast and, as advised, get to the train station early. The adorable young man from 2 days earlier is once again manning the information kiosk. Displaying our tickets we explain we are headed to Paris and want to make sure that all is well with our train. He looks at our tickets, then fixes his adorable eyes on us and says in adorably French accented English, "Oh, it is not a good day for that." He goes on to say the only real problem would be if we planned to return from Paris that day. We reply that, as we have a reservation for 2 nights in Paris that is not likely. He then directs us to the track our train will be departing from. As we left we did not employ the Belgian custom of kissing him on both cheeks, although the thought did cross our minds.

We were traveling on Eurorail passes. However, Brussels to Paris is a high speed train. This required us to make a reservation on the train and purchase an upgrade. The only thing available when we made the arrangements for this leg of the trip when we were in Amsterdam was first class. It did not cost that much more that 2nd class plus there were no other alternatives. Feeling very chic and worldly, we strode, heads held high, to the first class section of the train.

On the platform a group of official looking men were standing, heads together, deep in discussion. We produced our tickets and went aboard. As we settled ourselves in the plush seats one of the men who had been on the platform came through the train muttering to himself, "At least they found someone to conduct the train." This set our minds at ease.

We had been warned that half hour delays could be expected. Almost immediately the train began to move. I consulted my watch and realized that we were not on the train we had reservations for but on the train prior to that one. It had been delayed a half hour. We would not be arriving a half hour later in Paris, as we had been expecting, we would be arriving a half hour earlier. For the next hour and twenty minutes the charming Belgian crew waited on us hand and foot as we were virtually the only passengers in first class. We moved, at 120 miles an hour, through a rolling green landscape towards Paris.

Considering that all French public workers were on strike, the scene at the Paris train station when we arrived was remarkably orderly. Standing in line we were in a cab inside of 20 minutes. We had reservations at a small hotel carved out of a former Prince's home on Rue Monsieur de la Prince, or Street of the Princes. Familiar with the location the English speaking driver started off through the streets of the city. Crossing a bridge my partner caught his first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. He began to bounce around in the back seat of the cab like a little kid yelling "There it is, there it is!"

We were shortly dropped off on a narrow street lined with beautiful yet elegantly restrained facades. Entering the tiny lobby of our hotel the desk attendant checked us in and informed us that the hotel possessed "The world's smallest lift." I have been in phone booths that were larger. Stacking our luggage in it I ran up to the second floor, where our room was located, to retrieve it, then sent it back down to retrieve my partner. Our room was on the same diminutive scale as the lift. Speaking to other people since we have learned that many hotel rooms in Paris are "modest" size wise. A generous, by comparison, window opened onto an air shaft. Street view rooms were outrageously expensive. By the skillful positioning of our luggage we were able to create a space we could maneuver in, as long as we didn't intend to maneuver excessively.

Returning downstairs and exiting the hotel we started off to explore Paris.

Neon Neon Everywhere, Our Last Night in Brussels

We were resolved to dine in the neon wonderland we had spied the previous day. We hopped on the shuttle and were dropped off minutes later. We are accustomed to dining early, at least by European standards and so saved several euros by getting, not on purpose, just by chance, the "early bird special" on our three course price fixe meal. The neon signs above created a kaleidoscope of colors above the street.

I had grilled escargot, which was crispy, not chewy as escargot can be. Midway through our meal a waiter from our restaurant crossed the narrow street and greeted a waiter at another restaurant, kissing him on both cheeks. It is a custom I found old world and rather charming. I don't think it will ever catch on in the States however., I have trouble visualizing an American frat boy in a sloppy vintage tee yelling "dude" or "bro" prior to laying one on his friend.

After dinner we strolled down the street. Different hued tables and chairs in addition to the bright neon delineated the different restaurants. Coupled with the stands of seafood and vegetables displayed outside some of the eateries the street level colors competed with the signs above. A giant neon scallop shell graced a corner building, the shells gentle curves matching the curve of the buildings facade. The street was a spectacle of color and light. Like Las Vegas might be if LasVegas was restrained and elegant.

On this night the shuttle did appear as scheduled. While waiting we noticed a building some distance down the street we had not noticed before. Covered with what appeared to be LED lights it gradually changed from one color to another. It was a beautiful final sight. We returned to the hotel and went to bed to prepare ourselves for Paris the next day.

Unlike Amsterdam, Brussels does beckon me back. It is a place of great beauty, depth, history and hospitality which richly deserves a return trip.

Monday, April 16, 2012

And Now...A Side of Bruges

After waking and breakfasting on the generous fare provided by the hotel we walk the half block to the station to catch our train to Bruges. I was told by several people prior to the trip to see this medevil city now before the charm is sucked out of it completely. We stop at the information kiosk to find out which track the train will depart from. We do this for two reasons, we need to know which track the train departs from, although we could have figured that our for ourselves if we had to, but also because the young man in the information kiosk is fucking adorable. On the train we sit opposite an elderly couple. She appears to us to wish her retired husband was dead, the husband appears to wish to be. To worsen matters she appears to have forgotten to put her teeth in that day. This seems odd as she did make certain her earrings and necklace matched. This couple is nowhere near as adorable as the young man in the kiosk.

The day is damp with occasional light showers. The first non perfect weather of the trip so far. After a 45 minute trip we get off the train. The first thing we notice are the scores of bicycles chained to the rack at the station. This mode of transport seems to be as popular here as it is in Amsterdam. we assume people bike to the station and then catch the train to jobs in Brussels.

A park stands between the station and the town. Bruges is famous for the canals which traverese the city. Our first stop is a pastry and chocolate shop. At this point the Belgian cusine is becoming addictive.

While there we ask for directions to the church housing the Michaelangelo sculpture of Mary and the Baby Jesus. We enter the church. Recorded choir music provides a wonderful backdrop to this small masterpiece. It is one of the few Michaelangelos housed outside of Italy. Mary is seated, Jesus is realized as a toddler at Mary's knee. It is a stunning work in spite of it's small size. Originally meant for a church in Italy it was purchased by a wealthy merchant shortly after it's completion and brought back to Bruges. Mary almost seems to breathe. You feel as if the beautifully draped folds of her dress would flutter in a breeze. Accompanied by the serene music the experience of seeing this exquiste piece almost brings me to tears.

Once back outside we make our way to the main square. Banners hang from the buildings as if to herald knights returning from a far off campain. Although the buildings appear venerable I have since been told that they have been largely reconstructed. The clouds and showers have not yet abaded giving a reflective sheen to the stone pavement of the square. We purchase lunch from a sidewalk cart, the only lackluster food we encounter in Belgium. The cart vendor refers us to the "Church of the Holy Blood" which contains a vial of the blood of Jesus (yeah right). We got to the church but discover that is is closed that day. We instead wander back along the canals into the residential portions of the city, an area seldom visited by tourists.

When traveling we enjoy seeking out the interesting by visiting the ordinary. The places where people who live in these world reknown cities make their homes and live their daily lives. When home I sometimes suggest, to those tourists who seem more adventuresome, visits to some of  Chicago's hidden gems. For instance, the Tiffany domes at the cultural center and the State Street Macy's (nee Marshall Fields) store. Or the Lincoln Park Zoo, with it's lush, beautiful setting and free admission. But my love for Chicago makes me digress.

We pick up a Christmas ornament of Belgian lace. When hanging on our tree the lights shine through illuminating the flowers in it's center. Having fulfilled my desire to see Bruges, we meander through the park back to the train station. The clouds have begun to break and the brilliant blue skies we have become accustomed to on this trip begin to reveal themselves once again.

We return to Brussels. My partner insists that we verify at the information kiosk that the station we are returning to is also the one we will depeat from the next day for Paris. I point out the station name on the tickets but he is adamant and unwavering so to keep him quiet I comply. Upon inquiring the agent replies "Yes, this is the station but we cannot guarantee". Sensing our bewilderment at this reply, as this is the remarkably efficent European train system, he goes on to explain that there is a strike of all French railway workers planned for the next day. I ask if this will affect the Paris Metro as that is how we planned to get from the station to our hotel He says his understanding is that the Metro will not be affected and the trains From Brussels are staffed by Belgian crews so our train to Paris should also not be affected. He does advise is to arrive early just in case. This information in hand, we return to our hotel.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Mussels in Brussels

Upon returning to our hotel we're informed that there is a problem and there are no doubles available. We will have to take a quad at the same price. We retrieve our luggage and take the elevator up to our floor. My partner as he unlocks the door and peers into the room says "Well, it's the smallest room we've ever had". He swings open the door to reveal an expansive u shaped space with a low to the floor double bed in each side of the u. Out the window, in the distance a grand building with multiple green domes stands amid a jumble of smaller structures. Far off are what appear to be a collection of highrises.

The hotel runs a shuttle at night to the Grand Platz. Ready for dinner, my partner has his mind set on mussels due to a number of recommendations prior to our departure for the trip, we head downstairs. The desk clerk asks what time we would like the shuttle to pick us up from the Platz for our return to the hotel. We climb into the shuttle with another couple also heading to dinner and ride the short distance to the historic center.

We are let off across the street from the somewhat ruined facade of the Stock Exchange. Several limbs are missing from the figures in the frieze above the portico. The building has a feeling of fallen grandeur, like an old gentleman or dowager that has known better times.

By contrast, the Grand Platz is one of the most beautifully illuminated spaces I have ever seen. Spotlights are trained to pick out and highlight much of the rich architectural detail of the Guild halls and civic buildings.

We find a seafood restaurant, with outdoor tables, on a pleasant plaza, with trees and a fountain in it's center just outside the Grand Platz. Businessman stride by in suits and ties, Muslim women in long skirts and jahibs wander past, a woman going through the tables begging is quickly shooed away by an irate waiter. He seems to be familiar with her, as if this is a regular haunt of hers.

The mussels we order are excellent, dripping with butter, a slight salty tinge making them taste as if they are fresh from the sea. Quite probably they are. They are served with fries. It seems everything in Belgium except the waffles, truffles and breakfast is served with fries.

Finishing dinner, with some time left before we have arranged to be picked up by the shuttle, we walk back through the Platz. We take a small passage passing by the Church of St Nicholas, the oldest church in Brussels and find ourselves on a tiny narrow street with three rainbow flags flying at close intervals signaling the presence of a trio of gay bars. We choose one at random and enter the dimly lit space. The walls, with booths along them, are covered with photos and newspaper clippings, many revolving around the World's Fair held here in the 1950's. In many places an atmosphere like this would have been created by a designer. Here it feels as if it has been developed slowly. Put together gradually over an extended span of time. After ordering drinks and retiring to one of the booths an employee comes over to us welcoming us and asking us where we are from, where we are going and generally chatting us up about our trip. The people of Belgium have a well earned reputation for being gracious and friendly. During all of our encounters so far we are witness to these charms.

We return to the corner where we are to be picked up by the shuttle. While waiting my partner pulls a cuticle pusher out of his bag, grabs my hand and begins to go to work on my nails, much to the amusement of passersby. Following a wait of several minutes after the appointed time the van was to pick us up, it does not arrive. By a serendipitous stroke of luck it finally does appear, not to pick us up but to drop other guests off. We flag him down and after convincing him we are truly guests of the hotel, he takes us back claiming he was never informed of the pick up. All ends well however as we get into bed with dreams of the next days trip to Bruges in our heads.

Brussels - Places, Platzes and Pissers

The Grand Platz is considered by many to be the most beautiful public space in Europe. In the 17th century a French king positioned his cannons on a nearby hillside and, using the tall spire of the town hall, even at that point in history several hundred years old, as a target, bombarded the original plaza. In great irony the spire survived, the rest was reduced to rubble. The local guilds rebuilt the square resulting in the breathtaking group of facades visible today. On one side of the Platz stands the imposing rebuilt town hall, it's ancient spire remaining intact to this day. It is not difficult to understand this space's UNESCO world heritage status.

Along the way to the Platz we stop for our second taste treat. Belgian waffles served at a sidewalk stand. The vendor takes our picture as we take our first bite. We return on the way back to the hotel for seconds.

We head down a small side street off the Platz to view the famous Mannikin Pis. We pause to touch the inside of the mouth of a sculpture of a bronze dog for luck. My partner cannot resist and attempts to stick his entire head in the beast's mouth.

We come upon the diminutive fountain. A young boy standing high on a wall urinates, for centuries now, into a small bowl beneath him. Much loved by the city's population, we read that at certain times of the year he is adorned with different costumes appropriate to the season. This day he stands in all his naked glory. The street around him is being worked on. The tourists are forced to share the street with heavy construction machinery.

Shops abound in this area selling all manner of souvenirs relating to the fountain. Pens, bottle stoppers and magnets share space with the countries trademark lace. We choose a letter opener, to join yet another collection of ours, and two small lace butterflies that grace a ornament laden garland which hangs in our living room window during the holidays.

This day, like the others on this trip, is sunbright and warm. We're informed later, by a local, that this is one of only a few sunny days the city has seen since spring. We visit the ancient, beautiful, spare cathedral. We take a break, resting on a bench on the edge of a park overlooking the old portion of the city which surrounds the  Platz and it's towering spire, visible rising above the venerable buildings. Across the street, atop a hill, sits a fantastic structure of glass and lacy cast iron. Another example of the city's Nouveau heritage.

We descend the hill searching for a late 19th century shopping arcade mentioned in the guidebooks. We ask a local chocolatier for directions to it's location. He replies "You mean that?" and points across the street at a colonnaded facade emblazoned with the name of the building. Much embarrassed we go inside. It is long and narrow with a barrel vaulted ceiling of leaded glass. Upscale shops line it's sides. It is divided in the middle by a small street. Caryatids recline above the doorways of the two halves. Outside, along the stone street which divides the arcade, are restaurants with outdoor tables and chairs. Each restaurant has a neon sign hanging over the street. We resolve to eat at one of them the following evening. If for no other reason that to experience this neon lit spectacle at night.

Friday, April 13, 2012

We"ll Take Brussels, With a Side of Bruges

Adhering to our agenda we were up and out before dawn to catch the first streetcar of the day to the train station. we boarded our train and were on our way to Brussels, our next destination. Along the way we passed through Rotterdam. Flattened during World War II it was rebuilt as a planned, completely modern city. We also traveled through Delft and Antwerp, both places on my "to get to someday " list.

Arriving in Brussels we discovered we did not have change for the Metro ride to our hotel. This was solved with a purchase of truffles, our first experience with Belgian cuisine. Along with Mexico and everywhere I ate in New Orleans, the food in Belgium was some of the most consistently excellent I have ever had. The truffles were just the first of several taste treats we were to experience during our all too brief stay there.

When we got to our Metro stop and went up to street level we were delighted to discover that our hotel was only 1/2 block from the station. We would be using that station during our day trip to Bruges as well as the next leg of this trip to Paris. The neighborhood was heavily Muslim, reminiscent of the are of Chicago in which we live. We immediately felt at home. The hotel was spare and modern but clean and well priced with a generous breakfast selection included.

As in Amsterdam, we had arrived extremely early so once again left our luggage with the hotel and set out on foot to the Grand Platz, on everyone's list of "must sees" in Brussels. We walked through tiny winding streets enjoying this city's sublime blending of new and old. Birthplace of he early 20th century's Art Nouveau movement, it also includes ruins from Rome's occupation of portions of Europe during the first 500 years of the first millennium., The ruins can be found under the city's Cathedral, on the city's outskirts and just a few blocks from the Grand Platz on a small, unassuming street underground, visible through a protective glass skylight.

Our first glimpse of the city's Art Nouveau heritage is the mosaic tile front of one building featuring the faces of four women realized in that romantic style, their curled tresses unfurling in an imagined wind.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Amsterdam - A Final Look

Although we enjoyed our time in Amsterdam, it, like my former hometown of San Francisco, suffers from a malady I call the "hipper than thou syndrome". Both are relatively small cities. Both are somewhat provincial due, perhaps to their small size. They wear their reputations of tolerance on their sleeve. Everyone strains so hard to be tolerant, hip and up to the minute that they are blind to the amount of money and energy it takes to reside there,. They seem almost self conscious and so try a little too hard, instead of  being satisfied with their innate charm and accepting what they are. Unlike San Francisco, Amsterdam does have two world class museums and hundreds of years of history. The respect shown for the ages old architecture is evidenced by all of the graffiti we saw being confined to the metal shutters which protect the windows of the shops and restaurants. It is unique, it is beautiful, however, it, unlike other places I have visited, does not create in me a yearning to return.

Two Museums in One Day and a Cartwheel

The next morning dawn broke on a day that promised to be as beautiful as the previous two. The leaves in the trees along the canals, having taken on their yellow hue of fall, glittered like gold as the morning sun filtered through them. The ones already fallen littered the sidewalk and streets. Others floated languidly in the sunlight dappled water.

As had become our custom over the last two mornings we stopped in the bakery for pastries for breakfast; bread, cheese and cold cuts for our afternoon sandwiches and an eye opening espresso. My partner, who does not share my fondness for coffee, had become fond of the occasional cappuccino during our trip to Italy and reasoned "How different could espresso be?" I watched with some amusement when, after his first sip he poured packet after packet of sugar into the thick black brew before grimacing and slugging it back like a shot of tequila. Fortified and caffeinated, we began to make our way to the Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum.

The Rijksmuseum, a stately Edwardian structure, was under renovation at the time. Highlights of it's collection were being temporarily housed in the only wing of the large building which remained open. I had never truly realized how extensive the Dutch influence was around the world at one time. The bits and pieces of Dutch history rolling about in my head began to congeal into a more coherent, linear narrative during this museum visit. This was further enhanced by a cruise I took which plied the seas of the Dutch West Indies a couple of years later. The galleries showcased, along with the history of the Dutch influence, a variety of items. From the mundane, such as strap on ice skating blades, to magnificent, elaborate Blue Delft pottery pieces.

I tend to tarry during museum visits. Over the years my partner and I have developed a pattern which works well for us. He goes through the galleries at a much quicker pace than I. After he is done, he finds a bench and sits waiting for me to finish. When I am sated I pick him up and we move on to the next gallery. He says that he enjoys watching people react to the art as much as he enjoys the art itself. On this visit we encountered a room full of Rembrandts. I informed him that he should get comfortable as this gallery was bound to take me awhile to get through.

I was entranced. I marveled at his mastery of light and shadow., In one work he layers gold paint on the brocaded sleeve of one of the characters so that it reflects the light just as the real fabric would. The scenes are balanced yet not symmetrical. His works are like snapshots, capturing a brief, flickering moment of life, movement and time. After experiencing great art such as this I feel as if a part of my soul has been restored to me after being wounded by the stress and toil that sometimes accompanies my everyday existence.

I picked up my partner and we continued on. The last work exhibited in Rembrandt's massive "Nightwatch". It is almost overwhelming. It lacks the inherent balance of his other work as at one time it was cut down to fit a particular wall. Also during it's long history, it was darkened and dulled by various methods of preservation. Much of the darkness caused by these honest, yet misguided efforts has been stripped away revealing that a painting long believed to be set at night, hence the name it is best known by, is actually a daytime scene.

We left the museum and had our picnic lunch of bread and cheese on a bench along side the lawn which separates the two museums. An enormous sculpture spelling out "Amsterdam" sits in the center of the lawn. My partner has done cartwheels in various spots over the years. He decided this location in front of the sculpture was prime. Handing me the camera he did several, after each one reviewing the shot I took until he was satisfied that the moment had been properly preserved for prosperity. We then continued on to the Van Gogh Museum.

The Art Institute of Chicago has a sizable number of Van Gogh's in it's permanent collection. When you add to this the other museums and special exhibitions that I have been to I have been fortunate enough to view many of his most famous and important works. What appealed to me most about this museum was the more off beat pieces of the collection. For example his extremely early paintings and particularly a room filled with his works on paper. Some are fully realized scenes, others are pages form his sketchbooks where a flower might shares space with a drawing of a hand. It's stated that these pieces are not displayed often due to their very fragile nature. I suspect that they rotate the collection on a regular basis storing the ones not on view to rest from their exposure to light and humidity. At Chicago's Art Institute, by example, tapestries are displayed for only a short period of time before being returned to storage. For the centuries old fabrics a year is needed in storage for each month the piece is on display.

An unexpected treat was in store for us in the basement level of the museum. The space is given over to various temporary exhibitions. On view during our visit was an exhibition focusing on Barcelona. Among photos of the city's architecture and examples

We wandered the city the remainder of that day. We discovered, by chance, the cities most upscale shopping strip lined with high end designer stores, strolled through a lush, leafy park and returned to the Flower Market area for last minute shopping. We found the perfect plate, to add to the collection which graces our kitchen walls of antique finds and pieces we have picked up on our travels. Then turned in early so we could catch the first streetcar in the morning to take us to the station for our train to Brussels.

Amsterdam - The Red Light District or It Doesn't Get Any Better Than This

We took advantage of our canal view the night after that beautiful afternoon by having a picnic on the bed in our room. After "dinner in bed" we headed out for the "Red Light District", an area unique to Amsterdam. As we walked we passed a canal side luxury hotel housed in a baroque building beautifully spotlit.

We found ourselves in one of the gay areas of the city. We do not know if those bars, whose character and clientele were chiefly of the leather variety, are always this busy on a Sunday evening, or if the wonderful weather of the day had exacerbated the crowd, but they were packed. The crowd was, in general, more tricked out than their American counterparts. The bars were a sea of uniforms, chaps and studded armbands and harnesses. We passed one, much tamer than the others, filled with older, obviously wealthy men. My partner remarked that they checked your W2 form at this watering hole before you were allowed to enter.

We then came to Amsterdam's Red Light District. Scantily clad women posed behind long windows attempting to entice passersby. I had heard of it, and upon seeing it, it met my expectations. As I was remarking on this to my partner, a man, carrying above him in one had two pizza boxes, came down the street in the opposite direction with an older, touristy looking couple in tow. Gesturing to various points on the street he was telling the couple, in a strong New York accent, "Here we got several places. This one over here, this is chicks with dicks, over here we got sick pussy....". The couple seemed enthralled. I remarked that our tour of the district had just exceeded my expectations.

My expectations were further exceeded when we encountered, upon rounding a corner, a woman, flag aloft, leading a bus tour of people towards the streets lined with loose women behind glass. It took several minutes before we could subdue our laughter and return to our sojourn back to the hotel.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Amsterdam - A Bike Ride in the Countryside

We awake the next morning in our spartan room. The Dutch seem exceedingly practical. Even the opulent home we had visited the previous day had an air of practicality about it. We did pay a premium for a room with a canal view but other than that form definitely follows function in terms of our surroundings. We shower, dress and leave the room to visit a small bake shop up the street for breakfast and my morning coffee.

One of the first things you notice about Amsterdam are the bicycles. There are hordes of them. It is the favored and most practical way to get around the city. These are not bicycles designed to show off your wealth or level of athleticism but solid, no nonsense affairs, generally black, well suited to the rattles and jolts associated with riding on stone and brick streets. Some are outfitted with baskets, others with seats set over the back wheels so that a second person can ride side saddle . On the previous evening we had seen a young couple out for the evening. He, in a vintage style suit and tie pedaling while she rode over the back wheel in a cocktail dress, hose and heels. The two wheeled vehicles greatly outnumber cars. In fact, cars are rarely encountered and have difficulty navigating the narrow bike choked streets.

We have made arrangements with the hotel to rent bikes for the day. They have two that are available to their guests. The morning has once again dawned bright and sunny. Although slightly cool, in the air one can feel the promise of autumn warmth later in the day. In long shorts, shirts with sleeves that can be rolled up as the day warms and caps, no one wears bike helmets, we head off.

As I've mentioned, the farther you travel from the center of the city the more modern it becomes. It is Sunday and we pass a couple bicycling to church. He's in his suit and tie on one bike, she follows on another in her suit, hose and low heeled shoes, her matching handbag swinging as it dangles from the handlebars. A group of white haired women are sculling on the Amstel, the river that runs through the city.

We soon find ourselves in an area of ultramodern apartment houses and office towers. To the side of the road a sign appears. The word Amsterdam is in the middle of a red circle with a slash through it, marking the city limits.

The scene immediately turns pastoral, as if development was halted at the border of the city. Sheep and goats graze in fields. There are occasional small homes, and, suddenly, a structure synonymous with The Netherlands, a windmill. The air is calm and a bird is perched on one of the windmill's still blades. It appears to have been converted into a residence, however that does not stop us from snapping photos and taking a few moments to admire this Dutch icon.

It is becoming warmer so we roll up our shirtsleeves and push on. A short distance further we reach a small town. We pedal down it's main street, all the businesses locked up tight it being Sunday, then ride past it's church where the service is just getting out. We find our way to the side of the river opposite the one we rode out on and begin our return trip.

The main reason for riding back on the other side of the river, other than the change in scenery, is to see a second windmill. Located between the town and Amsterdam it is reputed to have been a favorite of Rembrandt's. It is our second day of bright blue skies and warm temperatures. We reach the windmill just as a bus full of loud Asian tourists are finishing up their visit. Their departure allows us to experience this moment in the serenity we desire.

So that there is no mistaking that this is "Rembrandt's Windmill" a sculpture of the master painter rests on the green lawn that surrounds it. Rembrandt has long been one of my favorite artists and I thrill at the thought that hundreds of years ago he stood at this spot admiring the sight I was privileged to witness now.

Returning to the bikes we head back towards the city. We stop in the plaza next to the "Anne Frank House". Three large pink triangles have been worked into the plaza's design as a memorial to the homosexuals caught up in the horrors of he Holocaust along with gypsies, jews and political dissidents. We pass a houseboat with what our "gaydar" tells us are two gay men on it's deck, talking to friends on a bridge above. The door to the boat is open exposing it's lush, plant filled interior. A smaller boat, in the shape of a wooden shoe, bobs nearby tied to a railing along the river.

We visit the "Dam", the cities old central square and one of the most venerable parts of Amsterdam. On this bright, sunny day it is given over to a carnival and is filled with rides as well as throngs of people. The crowds are so thick we are forced to walk the bikes through them. We have lunch at an outside table of a sandwich shop. We ride further, lock the bikes to the railing of one of the numerous low bridges crossing a canal and stroll past the smoky interiors of Amsterdam's infamous "coffee shops".

There were still a few hours left to that sunny, beautiful Sunday afternoon. My partner likes to refer to times with weather this perfect as "Chamber of Commerce Days". People are out in droves. Sidewalk tables at bars and restaurants are packed. We see a bar a block away where people are lined up hip to hip on the sills of the second floors open windows. We find a canal side bench on a block of 17th century houses and while away time watching the boat traffic float by. It seemed as if everyone who owned any type of watercraft had it out on the canals that glorious fall day.

As the afternoon shadows lengthen and evening begins to fall we make our way back to the hotel.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Amsterdam, Our Adventure Begins

Amsterdam's famous canals are laid out in three semicircles with secondary canals connecting them. By the innermost ring stands the oldest portion of the city. As you move outward you travel through history. When you get to the beautiful park where the Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum are located the age of your surroundings have transitioned from 16th century to Edwardian. Further out ultra modern apartment and office buildings hold court.

Our first stop is the Flower Market. We meander through the area savoring the colors and scents of the area. We stop in a small coffee shop for cappuccinos, it is still quite early on this Saturday morning, and a pastry. We wander into a store and are beguiled by a small blue and white ceramic Christmas ornament in the shape of a train engine. It is our first purchase of the trip. The other ornaments we see in the shop show up several more times throughout the city during the duration of our stay. The train engine we see only once. It has been a tiny treasure on our tree every Christmas since.

We cross a canal and continue to Amsterdam's flea market. While sifting though trash and treasures my partner falls in love with a papillion romping among it's owners wares. It's large, wing like ears move up and down as it poses for the photos my enamored partner takes. A tapestry catches our eye. It is in the style of a miniature prayer rug. It will join the sizable number of other tapestries we've collected which cover the tables and chests in our home. Vintage postcards are purchased to join my collection of those which I house in antique photo albums. We tear ourselves away before we run completely amok and head back to the center of town.

Along the way we see the Wax and Torture museums, both of which we take a pass on. My partner poses for a photo, his feet inside of oversized wooden shoes on the sidewalk outside of a shop which features more standard sized ones hanging on a wall.

The day has turned sunny, bright and beautiful. We do visit the Loon Museum, a large canal house built by an owner of the Dutch East Indies Company. Unlike many house museums, with their velvet stanchions across the doorways, you are allowed to enter the richly appointed rooms. Informative signs point out the unique features of the elegant residence. In one bedroom a false door is painted on the wall matching the real door to give the room symmetry.

Downstairs you pass the kitchen and enter the back garden of the home. This gives you an opportunity to see the Amsterdam that is hidden from view behind the wall like facades of the canal houses which line the waterways. A caretakers cottage in the rear of the property has faux windows, complete with curtains, painted on it's second floor mimicking the faux doors in the upstairs room of the main house.

This is a wealthy block of the city. The garden is lush and tranquil, a quite retreat from the noise of the stone street and watercraft traffic in front. A gazebo in the yard of the house next door, spied across the garden wall, suggest the elegant trappings of the other houses in the area.

Back inside is an exhibit on the history of chairs. Chairs of different types and periods are lined up on platforms in the halls. There is an exhaustive amount of information about the construction and history of each. By the end of our visit to the museum I learn more than I ever cared to about this common item of furniture.

As we begin the walk back to our hotel a special, unexpected treat awaits us. A race of small, oar powered boats is taking place in the canals this afternoon. A mere block from our hotel these boats make a 90 degree turn from one canal into another under one of the numerous small, low bridges of the city. We shout ourselves hoarse, along with the local population, cheering them on as boat after boat passes by in the canal beneath us. Occasionally, the boat crews misjudge the turn forcing them to push against the bridge walls with their oars to right their course. The oars are also used to prevent collisions as the boats jockey for position.

That evening the hotel clerk suggests we visit an area nearby known for it's nightlife. It is Saturday night and people are out in force. On our way to our destination we encounter one poor fellow, across the canal from us, repeatedly vomiting. His drug disoriented friends stand patiently by waiting for him to finish. Reaching our destination we find a bright neon lit area where the crowd is half our age, if not younger. Many look as high as the poor lad vomiting by the canal. All are decidedly heterosexual. We snap a photo to capture the neon and opt for a pizza and drink at a gay bar where the lights in the coffered ceiling gently transition from one color to another. There are several gay bars in this area. Nearby is a plaza where a 3 dimensional recreation of Rembrandt's "Nightwatch" stands guard. It is not terribly late but we have been up since early morning so stroll back to the hotel and bed.


Amsterdam, Brussels, Bruge and Paris, Starting With Amsterdam

For my partner's 50th birthday we went to Italy. For mine, not satisfied with one single country, we toured 3. Our initial plans were to arrive and depart form Brussels. However, each time we searched the Internet for flights the price went up and up and up until it reached unaffordable status. Finally, in desperation, we looked at fares to Amsterdam. Not only did they cost several hundred dollars less, the flights were nonstop. Even though KLM planes are well kept and immaculately clean, riding in the center section of a jumbo jet with your knees and elbows making near constant contact with the people on either side of you is an experience that cannot end soon enough. Flying across half of the U.S. and the whole of the Atlantic takes 7 hours; each way.

We arrive in Amsterdam at the absurd hour of 7a.m. and make our way, via train and taxi to our hotel, a large, venerable canal house. Since our room would not be available for several hours we leave our luggage with the hotel and step out into the early morning streets.

Degrees of Separation - Suzanne Pleshette Times 3 Among Others

In my younger days I was determined to at least attempt to make my living in the theatre. For several reasons that never panned out. In those same years I, always being a pragmatic sort, knew that I would need a profession to fall back on if my artistic aspirations didn't work out as I hoped. Thus, I attended beauty school and was eventually licensed as a cosmetologist. While in school I had a teacher who, for a time, worked in a salon in Beverly Hills so elegant that it included a pool in a backyard area. Besides the wealthy housewives, their husband's mistresses and professional women who frequented the salon; one of my teachers customers was the president of Revlon; it had two celebrity clients, Fanny Brice and Suzanne Pleshette. Suzanne Pleshette times 1, not to mention the legendary Fanny Brice.

My former boss, for a time, sold fine jewelry, also in Beverly Hills. I was jealous of him only once, when he mentioned that he had once sold pearls to Audrey Hepburn. He made it worse by mentioning that he fastened them around the actress's extraordinary neck. 1 degree from Audrey Hepburn, but I digress. During a conversation he once accused me of being a snob, saying the cause was my fancy Chicago address. I corrected him and relayed that we actually lived two blocks from the building they used for the exterior of Bob Newhart's apartment building in his 1970's sitcom. The sitcom costarred Ms Pleshette. Suzanne Pleshette times 2. Not to mention Bob Newhart. He replied that he used to wait on her in the Beverly Hills store. Pleshette times 3.

As an aside, when I asked what she was like, he hesitated for a moment before answering "Demanding".

Monday, April 2, 2012

Phoenix - A Final Thought

This was my 4th trip to Phoenix. My gracious hosts and dear friends have always made this winter getaway a pleasure for me. On past trips I have been treated to the opera and symphony, have toured the historic district and enjoyed dinners and parties with their friends. On a previous trip I hiked to the top of Squaw Peak. Since Squaw is now considered racially insensitive I refer to it as Indigenous American Woman Peak.

I always enjoy all of our various activities while there, not to mention, as a Chicagoan, the warm temperatures. But the time I get to spend with these two kind and treasured friends is the best treat of all.

Thank you to you both.

A Trip to a Musical Museum

A short distance from my host's home is an institution opened within the last couple of years. It is a museum housing a collection of musical instruments called, appropriately, The Musical Museum.

As you enter, you are provided with headsets like those used in any other museum exhibition where a spoken guide would enhance the experience. Instruments from around the world, separated by country, including several places that I was only vaguely aware of, are displayed around video screens. As you approach each display you hear, through the headphones, the music being played in the videos on the screen., The video segments are short and vary widely. In one countries segment you might view musical performances from an ornate concert hall, a small restaurant or club and then villagers playing together in a farmyard. A segment from one of the former Soviet republics features a group of adults, in what appears to be a room in  a modest home, playing various instruments while a very young girl sings in her native tongue. Her youth and innocence bring unique depth and beauty to the song even though I could not understand the words. In another a collection of drums of varying sizes are attached to the inside of an elaborately carved circle of gilded wood grillwork. A musician, standing in the middle of the circle, plays the drums hanging therein.

The instruments range from crude affairs of raw wood and string, some are created using discarded tin cans, to exquisitely painted and inlaid European pieces centuries old. There are also electronic musical inventions on display including an early Moog synthesizer.

Fancifully carved animals with notched backs transform the simple musical concept of a scraper into high art. I was overwhelmed by the variety and types of instruments I saw and the sounds they produced.

Music making is a trait shared by all mankind. Judging from the ingenuity and craftsmanship required to produce these objects, even under the most harsh circumstances, it seems almost as necessary to our existence as water, food or air.

I was awestruck by the physical beauty of the objects, from the crudely carved animal face on the neck of a primitive stringed instrument to the elaborate and rich inlaid wood design of another. The artistry involved in the creation of each piece matching the artistry of the musician that plays it.

On the first floor are other exhibits focusing more on musical artists than musical instruments. An ample exhibit on Elvis (no last name necessary) features videos of him performing, album covers, two of his famous, wildly decorated verging on tacky jumpsuits and, on loan, his army jacket from his days in the military. Another exhibit on The Police features, aside from videos of them performing, a stage outfit worn by the tiny, judging from the outfits diminutive size, Andy Summers. Gold records from various artists are displayed, as are several Grammy awards, which are much larger then I thought.

There is a glass walled lab where visitors are able to watch workers involved in the conservation of the pieces in the museums collection. Past a beautiful, skylit map of the world inlaid on the floor, the continents created using various colored stones, is a gallery devoted to pieces that can be touched and experienced hands on by visitors. This allows children to play and adults go play like children. My host seemed to greatly enjoy his turn at banging the gong (sounds like a euphemism, doesn't it) hanging there.

In the museum store I purchased 3 Cd's by Putamayo productions. 2 for myself and 1 as a birthday gift for my just turned 8 year old niece. They are a favorite musical discovery of mine. They compile music from around the world and issue it on theme based, i.e. Cuban music, Brazilian Music, South African music, collections. Their web site, is well worth a visit. 1 minute previews of each song on the various Cd's can be sampled prior to purchasing. A smaller portion of their collection is available in an MP3 format. No I am not paid by them, I just like them a whole, whole lot!

If you find yourself in Phoenix on a day with hostile or uncooperative weather this is a wonderful place to spend a couple of hours of it.