Rock&Roll

Copenhagen, tak

How different this place must have been in 1864, the year of the terrible Danish defeat against the Prussians. As a result of this war Danish flagthey lost a sizable chunk of their territory and an even bigger chunk of their pride. The pill was so bitter that for the next one hundred years they recoiled back into themselves, and the world heard very little of this proud people, who had been at one point so full of themselves that they had their legend recount how the Danish flag had descended to earth as a gift from the Almighty…

operaWell, the Danes are back! They are proud once more, and they have reasons to be. With global successes in businesses like shipping (Maersk) and livestock industries (Danish Crown), from design and fashion to Film (Lars Von Trier), from gastronomy (Noma) to street food (Danish Rolls and Hot Dogs).

NomaFor this and for so much more, too much to mention, they are back, with a bang!

And now I have to say it: I never liked them much. There, I have said it, it had to come out. But I immediately take these words back and I humbly apologize. Because I know of course that my premonition comes from just a few chance contacts I had in my professional career that I then extrapolated to the rest of the population. In reality, the Danes are exactly like the French, who are very similar to the Americans, who are not unlike the Germans, who are uncannily close to the Chinese and the Zimbabweans. What unites us is so much more than what divides us. It is amazing how similar we think, how much, beneath a thin veneer of cultural divergence we are all exactly alike, the African, the China-man, the Dane and me. We have good and flawed sides. You know, I’m from Belgium, therefore, boy, do I know something about flawed sides.

So, with that out of the way, we’re off to Copenhagen for a three day city-trip. Prove me wrong, you blond boys and girls from the North. Vera tells me that most of you are not even real blondes. You tattooed vikings of the North (Vera tells me that many of these tattoos are fake too. Sigh… at least, show me that it was wrong to tell myself that the only good Dane is a Great Dane.

dragon

Hmm, the Marriott Copenhagen is not the worst of places to start off for this trip. With the clear night sky mirrored in the clear water of the canal and with a gin and tonic in my hand, I listen to Vera’s stories and I happily take the plunge. Good times!

I’m not going to stipulate all the venues and bars and coffee shops we visited ( Better go look for yourselves!) but I will say this:

The people: The Danes we met, pretty much all of them, were a very friendly bunch and very helpful too. It is uncanny how small Danethey all (really all) speak English as if it were their mother tongue. Their self confidence is remarkable, infectious even, but at the same time it may give them an air of arrogance. They may also seem a little uptight at times, but they don’t mean to be. I think that is just because they talk in a very direct way and don’t use many words, Also, many of them are quite tall (Luckily not yet quite like the Dutch, who are simply ridiculously tall), so it is not their fault that they have to look down and that they have to speak up just to be heard.

cheescakeThe food: Wow! The Danes do go for quality. And yes, quality comes at a cost. But even in Copenhagen, if you get off the beaten track, you will find places that offer an excellent deal at an affordable price. We found several such cool spots.

But of course, there also is the other Copenhagen. The one you find when you get suckered into the tourist traps. Or when you believe that the best deal in town is an expensive wobbly chair in Nyhaven. NyhavnOr when your idea of sightseeing is getting squeezed by the masses, stumbling forward, with little more to gawk at than…well, each other! That is when the sounds and sights of beautiful Copenhagen get smothered in nauseating chatter, that’s when smells of sugary waffles and stale spilled beer sicken your senses to the core.

I trust that this is not you, so, move out, take the next street left, or leap to the right, Move away from this hypnotized pack of sheep, and again you will be able to breath, and again you will discover and see that Copenhagen has so much more to offer.

The weather: Like a box of chocolates. Unpredictable, full of surprises. We were in luck as a cold Northerly wind swiped the clouds away and left a deep blue canvas with bright sunshine to paint our day. Under such circumstances and with traffic light because of the holiday weekend, bicycling through town is a joy. bicycleThe broad bicycle lanes, the peaceful canals, the beautiful green parks and lush gardens, the fresh air and the sun in our face…

Fill your lungs, feed your brains, energize your soul.rosenborgen

The streets: Clean, spotless. The traffic, orderly, civilized. And to my surprise, hardly a beggar in sight. But if you look a bit harder, you do see them, also Copenhagen has their untouchables. I don’t know about crime, it seems invisible, but it isn’t. We witnessed two guys steal something from a restaurant (The thieves had disappeared before I could unzip into my Superman suit.) I saw some homeless people stare in a void, I read the pickpocket warning card in the shop, I heard the waiter complain about his stolen mobile.

wharvesConstruction: Endless. There are more wharves here that I have seen in any other city. It seems that they want to expand the city from the current center all the way up to the international airport, near the Bridge to Sweden. They are well on their way of doing just that.

bridge

Conclusion? Three days is hardly enough to understand all,  but it is enough to understand something.

So, here are my new held believes: The Danes are great, they are a fun bunch, they should be proud of themselves and of their capital, which is really wonderful. The Danes, contrary to their endless boasting about it, are not the happiest people in Europe even though they may be among the happier specimen to roam this continent. Carlsberg is definitely NOT the greatest beer in the world, and smorrebrod will not make my top five hit list.

Other than that, I give them a big and sincere thumbs up,for their strive, for their efforts, for their ambition, and for their dry tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. giant pillar

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Roubaix, La Piscine

Like a gem, hidden in a corner of a city, a forgotten corner in a forgotten city, somewhere, a far corner at a border of our collective memory.

Like a gem, after long years of dark solitude, unearthed by accident, happened upon by chance, by a man with a grand plan in search of making a grand statement.

We all live on a map full of crosses. With every cross a treasure. Crosses in invisible ink. But one knows the trick with the match and the lemon juice, one has seen it so many times before.

It can happen sometimes, yes, it does occur; when one takes a wrong exit, or one rummages about, in a pocket or a bag, searching for a lighter or a smoke. It can occur to, instead, find a gem, a ruby no less, as big as a dream.

Who dreams up these things? I wonder who creates the concept, who pushes the idea, to install marble statues, to hang canvasses, to place ceramic artifacts in and all around … I shit you not…a swimming pool!

But here we stand. Well aware by now that there still are gems to be found on these fertile grounds. Did we not uncover architectural beauty in the middle of Lille? Did we not find a worthy subsidiary of the Louvre in a dump called Lens and do we now not stand, mesmerized, in front of a splendid art deco swimming pool in the middle of godforsaken Roubaix, (NOT the French word for Ruby.)

Grown men wearing diapers, that’s what the wall high picture at the entrance shows. That’s what swimpies looked like in those days. No women in the picture, how quaint.

The only way to enter the communal swimming pool is, should it surprise? – through the shower cabins! While stepping in we find ourselves into a brightly illuminated room and we cringe our eyes at the two huge semi circle stained glass windows on either side. Like a hallucination, their water reflection mirrors them back into perfect glimmering full wheels of light. What harmony, what symmetry, what warming charming atmosphere breaths this place as one admires the imposing statues, separated in camps, facing each other, as in a stand off,  from opposite sides of the pool. Chiseled and crafted by hands that toiled away in very different places and ages, here they are, as if it had to be, as if their final destiny had always been, to find rest and eternity in the cool calm beside the pool. (Running and diving are not permitted)

Roubaix, la piscine, is one of these rare and gentile places, where one wants to find a corner and just sit and listen to how the glazed tiles speak to the ceramic vases. Hear how their conversations echo voices from times gone by. Hear them bounce off the gleaming walls and make ripples over the waiting water front.

I thank you, genius masterminds, who transformed a swimming pool into a museum. You have created a micro cosmos  and let it gravitate around the unsuspecting visitor. Once, here, in Roubaix, there was just a pool, where men dressed in swimsuits that looked like pampers and women were nowhere to be found.   065

Fairy tale in Brussels

Wednesday evening. It doesn’t always have to be on a Saturday night.

All around me are people, are trees, is open air, is music.

This little festival translates best as ‘Fairytales in the Park’. No main stream grand titles here. Even someone like Mauro Pavlovski, a very local guitar hero in very local Belgium, seems out of place. (At least, Yolan says so) The artists here sport names like Douglas Dare and –very queer- Perfume Genius. I admit I had never heard of either of them, but they play great music, and more, they paint the park in blue and green and red, and who can be against that?

Blankets of piano and synthesizers brush up and over me and cover us all in twilight. How I envy these guys, who put a heart on their tongue and softly blow it into the microphone. We should have more time to listen to these silences, instead of being cooped up within earshot of all the deafening rubbish that jumps at us from too loud mouths with too loud words, irrelevant and irritating, pushed down our throats until we swallow them whole…

I’m crouching on a dirty carpet rolled out in front of the main stage and I’m crouching against Vera and bathe into the yellow and blue floodlights. I wish I could see the sun set. I haven’t seen enough sunsets, I realize.

And Douglas says that all his songs are sad songs, but somehow they don’t sound sad to me. I actually believe that he doesn’t know what sad is. And why should he?  His songs spoil over the crowd,  like a caress. There’s nothing sad about a warm embrace in my book.

And Vera is hued in blue and it makes her look like an elf. Do I see pointy ears or is that the marihuana talking? No, I’m not smoking, but the air all around me is growing heavy with grass and I’m just passively getting into a gentle high. image

And Perfume Genius whispers in our ears…he loves us too, yeah. And someone shouts. What did he say?  And does it matter? And somewhere a tree man is hugging trees and somewhere someone is feeling far less fine than we are tonight. He should come to the park, and sit down with us for a while, among the elves.

The House of Eliott

We eat out a lot. We are spoiled. We know it and feel privileged.  Not every meal out is a good meal. Nor is every trip worth remembering either.  At this very moment, back from a trip to Cancun, Mexico,  I’m chewing on a lump of overcooked and undersized beef (I presume it is beef, it tastes like leather.) Ten thousand feet up in the sky. Good thing I’m not writing a piece on the United Airlines catering, or they would see their TripAdvisor ratings take a dive. ‘This isn’t food’, I muttered.”But my upbringing urged me on; ‘Don’t waste what’s on your plate’ the little voice in my head berated me, so I swallowed  the meat, but the grey-greenish smudges that represented brocoli and mashed euh something I really couldn’t stomach. Sad trip, negative energy. “Quick, think of something nice”, I commanded myself, a good trip, good food, good company, what, where…”Aah yes, I know”, I sighed with relief, when the images of another trip, to the House of Eliott, shot to mind.What a great name for a restaurant. I remembered that evening in Ghent, a surprise diner for Vera, something I wanted to give to her for her birthday, but that was another month away, and  I couldn’t wait  to see if the accolades Eliott’s House  received on TripAdvisor were justified.IMG_1445

The answer? Simply “Wow”!  It all starts at the door;  you step right in to some kind of  Ali Baba’s wonderland! A child’s fairytale dream, a house bizarre, with dolls and clocks and Pearl thingies and kitschy lamps and  real or fake antique stuff, umbrellas and  tin boxes and statuettes and paintings all sizes and styles massed together into a wonderful and  cosy chaos among which tables seemed to be hopscotch placed and guests all but disappear as they become part of the decoration. The owners are two relaxed gents who amused and bemused us with their gay chatter and their tenure of happy Bambi’s darting through their universe. These guys is what this place is all about. This is their play ground, this is their oxygen, this is their ocean, here they swim.

and I was thinking; “yes, amazing, amusing, fantastic… and all very fine but… can they cook?”IMG_1430
And again, the answer came with a bang; “Damn yes, these dudes know what they’re doing!”

Lobster! That what people come here to eat for. Eliott’s lobsters. They prepare them in a variety of ways, from very classic to very creative. What’s more, whichever way you order them, you’ll get served one, two or three half lobsters  with a lot of attention paid to detail and with several delicious surprises.IMG_1458

And all the way, they make you chill out and they let you bathe in an invisible ephemeral ether floating over a non intruding  background of soft Dixie jazz.

A trip to the house of Eliott is like travelling with Alice for a while, to join her at the mad hatters table for tea and cookies, but Eliott does it with Lobsters.

I don’t have an Alice with me. I have a Vera. And no trip is complete without her around.
And I look at her and inside me I know again that all I’ll ever want is to be with her and to know that she wants that too.

I eat out a lot, and I have been a spoiled kid all my life. But here at Eliott’s table, I see what is really important in life, and lobsters are not included.

I smile and touch her hand, and see her big blue eyes smile right back at me.

And while the Eliott couple serve us coffee, all I want to tell her is that I know that ‘We’ll get there, baby.’

Blue Bar

There are places you want everyone to know about. A great restaurant, a good show, an interesting exhibition. But there are also places you want to keep to yourself.

Risico2cropped               Last night, with Vera and the kids, we went  to our homey brown bar a few streets away from  our house. We ordered the usual, spaghetti’s and a  nice glass of wine for Vera, a Dubble Westmalle for  myself.  The food is good, not grand cuisine, but just good. One doesn’t  come here for a  culinary experience. We are here to relax, alone, with ourselves as company.

This bar is perfect. It is dark enough yet with sufficient spots of light and with candles to  throw off the right amount of shadows too.  Also the noise level is just loud enough, a comfy rustle of syllables with the occasional cling of glasses and clang of laughter. And even the smell is right, especially in wintertime when the stove is sizzling and waves of smoky wood chips play through our nostrils. The owner is my age, so the music is a mix of my favorite classics, with Pink Floyd never far away.

The owner has seen our kids grow up in his pub. He must remember how they used to  climb on the high stools when they were just ten and twelve years old, and I can see his smile as he watches them now at the table, taller than their parents beside them.  I see him smile, and so do I.

I smile and  remember. My memory is like a Dutch Gouda, I have holes where my recollections should be. What day of the week are we? What  happened just the other week?  That is why I started writing this blog, after all, to remember.

risico4croppedBut,  looking at the three persons around me, laughing and chatting away, snickering like little girls, word smiting  jokes in three different languages, giggling and even singing to each other, so loud that I have to ask them to quiet down while I look apologetic to the other guests, who never really seem to mind, I do remember and remind myself that it is good to spend some time, from time to time, with the ones you love, in a Brown bar with Blue music and Amber beer or Burgundy wine, winding down.

risico3cropped Here is a place to breath, a moment to bury the  hatchets and drink the peace. Just outside of the  door, the rats race on. And soon enough we will  join them again. But now, just for an hour or so,  we take refuge, These are the times  to repair the  sails, to map the new course, to agree on the  game plan. Because when we get out, and the gale  rises, we better be ready, lest we drift off in  different directions.

So, drink your rum mateys, it’s all hands on deck again soon, and I want to see you all aboard when we sail that ship in.

‘t Risico
Address: Jeruzalemstraat 53, 8000 Brugge, Belgium
Phone:+32 50 49 11 69

Valencia

Cafe Burlesque.

Red velvet tapestries draped over tacky pastel plastered columns. Crystal chandeliers, maybe ten in number, glistening as ice sculptures against a purple rain background, under one hundred pulsating stars peeking down on us like one hundred piercing eyes. The walls drowned in burgundy reds and smoky violets, heavy with mirrors in  baroque gilded frames and guarded by stucco Romanesque statuettes in soapy whites and shady grey. End on end hang shoddy portraits collected from a flea market’s unsalable leftover corner. Alternatively, they come from the owner’s hand, an artist, I’ve been told. Either way, they fit right in, in this ballroom of immaculate imperfections.
And then,and there, prominent centerpiece on the long marble counter fencing the display of faceted bottles on the shelves, from an amphora grows an extravagant bouquet of semi wilted flowers, the stems over bending , the chalices like open mouths with petals lush as fleshy lips, a grand bouquet, slowly dying yet alive, slowly fading yet splashing colors to all sides. More flowers on the walls and more in black and in yellow specked China in every corner filling space.

They are plastic, I then figure.

And they should be, I start to understand.
Because nothing here is quite what it seems, nothing here quite normal, thank God, from the star studded ceiling to the glossy mosaic floor, everything in “Cafe De Las Horas, thank God, is an invitation to the fantastic, a incantation to a dream.

And Billy Holiday sings as she cries about ‘Her man’, while we weep about our battles lost and celebrate our battles won. And we sip Agua de Valencia and nibble on olives in virgin oil, while our stories sail the seven seas and grow wilder with every new cup down.

And behind the counter, a young handsome twin brother of Prince  prepares us another pitcher while his friend shows him his party gadgets for a much later night tonight. From his bag he flashes shocks of black raven hair and a silver tiara and a belly dancer’s belt and tapered leather strings and little black hat with knitted lace veil.

And new guests step in, by twos and threes and they find their tables in unseen corners, and the lights dim low and free the music and the evening darkness yields to a midnight haze.

And nothing is what it seems in Cafe de las horas, and Ernest Hemingway was never here.

But we were, my dearest, and I will remember.

Image

No lesser God

They call them ‘challenged’ and when confronted, eyes will lower, and  feet will sidestep, voices hush and some get nervous, a slight panic even. It strikes me, in all these years of education, we have never learned how to behave among people who are a little bit different. It is not hard to understand why we react so defensive to everything that is a tad little bit away from the ordinary. Gays, immigrants, homeless buggers, gypsies. Stay out of my castle, go back to where you came from. Go home. And we lock ourselves up in our stone brick castles and we throw away the key and we putter on, unaware of the beauty that lies beyond our selfish, self-content, hypocrite, pitiful, miserable, vain, little lives.

And then my daughter invited me to a play, where half of the cast are a little bit different.

And the two halves begin to play together and she is a nymph dancing on a water lilly and she sings in a mesmerizing low voice, and conjures up a storm that fans out over fields and mountain tops, until it lands in a far and unknown kingdom,  where it shakes the barley and where it wakes, from a deep slumber, Pasqualis, the colossal and tremendously wise King of Dawns.
The King lifts his head, and then his hands, and then his all mighty body. He twists and turns to find the source of this siren’s song. The voice leaps over his groping hands and jumps down his ears into his head, where it dances on for fourteen days and fourteen nights until the King can take no more. He sends out his scouts to find the owner of this enchanting song. Enchanting? Bewitching? What lies beyond, the King does wonder. And when at last the news returns of promised lands where all are equal and none forgotten, where wolves sleep with lambs and the time is now forever, the King decides without a quiver: ‘ to just DO it” and orders his page to saddle a horse. Without goodbye’s to queen or princess, he departs his kingdom and rides his steed out of the valley of Dawns. He crosses the barley and climbs high mountains and enters into the deep dark forest to let his life begin again.

And the plot unfolds and I look at this mighty King and how he dances with my water nymph, in perfect circles,  in perfect balance.  And the rest of the group chimes in and they play and they fight and they growl and they stumble and they huddle and hush and howl. And seamlessly, in perfect unison, two halves become a whole.

Applause. Of course, well deserved. And then  I see some tears, and I understand them well. For even though I am not sure about one God, I am sure however that there can not be two.

Berlin

I’m on a plane to Berlin with a suitcase full of questions. I didn’t pay overweight even though the questions were really heavy.  When I studied veterinary medicine and was treating pets I gauged myself completely irrelevant. I wanted to treat world hunger, not a dog’s flea itch. And then I specialized in livestock parasitology and became a buffalo doctor. And after that I went into the pharma business and brought new medicines to all corners of the planet. Eventually I saw less and less animals of sorts and increasingly more people of sorts. And along the way I solved some of the questions in my bag while adding others to the pile. One specific question posed itself increasingly louder and became increasingly harder to answer.  To stop its nagging and gnawing at me, I decided to travel farther and work harder and meet even more people of sorts. And I met many people who were arguably very important, and then I met many people who were arguably very rich because they had always been arguably so very clever, and then I met arguably happy people. OMG! How arguably  happy these people were and what arguably interesting lives they all had!  Pitiful poor little me! And then I spent sleepless nights and weeks and months trying to be just like them;  I stopped saving the world or anything or whatsoever and focused hard on being very important and having money and happiness and pretending to be oh so clever.

Yet the question lingered.

And here I am sitting on a plane to Berlin. The city where my mother was born on the eve of Crystal night and where my grandfather held her tight,  crouched under the dining table, while bloodthirsty animals of sorts ran havoc in the streets below. And I was thinking how incredibly relevant it was that a grandson would go back there and work and dine and sleep in these very same streets and that a grandson could make his voice be heard in this very same place that had tried so hard to erase us, to deny us, to wipe us from existence.

And two seats away from me  I recognized a young Belgian musician called Stromae, who is famous in my country and well on his way to become famous in the rest of the world too.  And just beside me sat his manager,  Dimitri. They were friendly and easy going fellows and we started talking. So they told me about showbiz and I told them about buffaloes and about pig business and in the end our jobs didn’t seem to be too different.  And we talked about our travels and I had seen more than them but they had been seen more than me. And we talked about our children and I had more than them but they were just starting. And then I thought about Berlin and about my grandfather and I told Dimitri that I was proud of him and proud of  Stromae because they had united Belgians of all races and languages and beliefs. And he thanked me and he brought his hand to his head as if to support an idea that was too heavy for words alone. And suddenly, there it was, leaving his lips and hovering midair between the palm of his hand and his forehead; the question that continued to weigh down my luggage ever since I left school twenty five years ago. Dimitri had almost whispered it, more to himself than to me:” It is all about how to keep the passion!”

And I will continue to travel, searching for relevance and meaning and I will meet people of sorts and new questions will come and some will get solved and most will never. But to know the young and the bright around me sharing this same quest with the same hunger and ambition is just great! It is simply and not at all arguably “Formidable”!

Alors on dance!