Sunday, January 25, 2009

Diagonal Rain

The days are getting a bit longer now. It was gettting dark a bit before 4 in the afternoon. Now it's about 4:30. Having said that, it's still bitterly cold. I'm sitting in my room, in a contemplative mood, watching the rain create stripes down the window. The wind is blowing a bit, so some streaks angle to the left, while others veer right. While I'm sitting here being maudlin, my flatmates are running around in the mud at their hurling match. Have I mentioned that the Irish are nuts?

In a little over a week, it will be 6 months since I left home. Time flies, I guess...

Before I talk about Norwich, I'm just going to offer a coda to the Belgium trip. We caught a train into Brussels at about 5:30am on Boxing Day. I caught my Eurostar train back to London, only to find myself trapped there. In contrast to the Belgian system, King's Cross station was locked and none of the trains were running. And only some tube lines were running. I expected the trains to be an essential service that would run every day, even Xmas. In the end, I found an open Internet cafe, looked up the buses, legged it to Victoria Station, and got a bus ticket back to Cambridge. In all, it took about 12 hours to get home. It left me less than thrilled with England, and fervently wishing I was back on the continent where the train tickets were cheap and things worked.

That weekend there was a Stargate SG1 marathon on Saturday, followed by a Stargate Atlantis marathon on Sunday. It was hard work doing back-to-back marathons, but I made it through. That Ranulph Feinnes isn't so tough.

I went back to work after the weekend, but there was almost no one around. Of the possibly 100 people who work in my building, there were maybe 6 of us. And my flatmates were away. I went for the better part of a week without talking to anyone.

At the start of January, I went to Norwich for a day. In the Middle Ages, Norwich was a larger city than London. Here are a couple of pics:

Norwich Castle

The castle was quite interesting, but expensive. You had to pay quite a large sum to get in, and then there were extra charges to see the battlements and other areas. It's an old castle (1160 AD), but externally it looks quite modern because the Victorians resurfaced it.

In more recent times it was a prison.

Norwich Cathedral

The Cathedral was also an interesting visit. I really liked the fact that there were volunteers roaming around, who would explain interesting facets of the design to visitors.

Street between trees

Vine Street

This is one of the old streets. I'm going to say that it's called Vine Street, if all of you promise not to go and look up whether I'm correct or not. To me, those last two shots look very similar to the Belgian photos, although if you look at the church on ~Vine Street~, you can see that it is made of quite a dark, harsh stone: flint. Up close, you can see that it breaks very unevenly, leaving rough shapes and sharp edges. It's immediately clear why they used flint in the stone age for arrow heads, knives, etc.

And that's about it for Norwich. Not a particularly mind-blowing day, but good to get out of the house.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A slight pause...

Hi. I know I've gone quiet recently. I'm not abandoning the blog - I'm just taking a break while I get my head around a bereavement.

Back soon.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Belgium: Part 3

My brother and I spent Christmas Eve in Brussels. Tildonk is a little out of the way, so we had to take the train to Leuven, and then another into Brussels.

View over the city

Brussels was... frustrating. There were street signs on the corners pointing towards the various attractions, but we never had much luck. We followed one that pointed down a road to "the Golden Lion", but we never found any golden lions. After failing on that front, we followed another sign towards "the Flower Market". It lead us to a sexual leathergoods shop. We looked amongst the ball gags in the window, but there didn't seem to be any flowers.

Trompe l'oeil facade on a building

Reverse of the building

We had lunch at a restaurant on the Rue des Bouchers. Lonely Planet pretty much calls us mugs for eating there, but we thought it was decent. The waiter gave us a free Belgian beer each for dining there. I faced a bit of a dilemma: I loathe beer - it's revolting, but I'm a New Zealander paying European prices and it was free. I think I can safely say it was the most delicious beer I've ever gagged back.

Shopping arcade

From free beers to three bears

I came to England for several reasons, but one of the main ones was to be able to see more of the world. I'm not very well travelled. But having said that, I'm travelled enough to know a crappy tourist attraction when I see one. Cue the Manekin Pis:

Manekin Pis

To be honest, I don't think it needed the Santa suit. There was no risk of dignity sneaking in anyway. Still, there was a waffle hut a few doors away that sold the best food. If you ever get a chance to see the Manekin Pis, sieze it, then walk straight past the lame statue and order the large waffle with banana, chocolate sauce, and whipped cream. THAT is one of the great sights of the world.

Brussels church

Tower in a Brussels square

La Rotonde, apparently

Brussels street at dusk

Belgium is a country with a wide split between its two main ethnic groups: The Flemish and the Walloons. The Flemish speak a variant of Dutch, and the Walloons speak French. I enjoyed both the languages in Belgium. The Flemish was close enough to German that I could understand the basics, and I held a successful conversation in French (although I had to mime pulling a Christmas cracker, because the people in the shop didn't know them). And if the language was ever a problem, everyone spoke English anyway, with an adorable accent. I think it would be a fun place to live.

Because of the conflict between the groups, everything needs to be labelled in both languages. Take, for instance, the shop we walked past on our evening stroll around Brugge: "Hoorhuis / Spermarie". Don't know what either of those mean - probably a post office or something.

Christmas Day was a good day. Our hosts went all out with the catering:

When I travel to a new country, I tend to judge it with the question: "Would I like to live here?" Our hosts in Belgium seem to have encountered some of the same frustrations that I've encountered in England, but I would have to say "Yes, from what I saw of Belgium, it was really cool". The trip was legen...wait for it....dary.

Okay that's it. Oh, except for this one, the most important:
Tintin! Woot!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Belgium: Part 2

We travelled from Brugge to Brussels, and then to stay with friends of my brother in a town called Tildonk. We stayed there for Christmas. I don't have any pictures of Tildonk, but it was similar to the rural outskirts of Geneva, if any of you know that area.

While staying at Tildonk, we took a day trip to a nearby university town called Leuven. It's a nice place and worth a visit.

Saint Peter's Church, Leuven

The church window from inside

The town hall next to the church is impressive. It's probably hard to see in these pictures, but those are pairs of carved figures standing back-to-back between the windows. The small gables on the roof all had wooden shutters over them. A very striking building.
The late gothic town hall

Late gothic slightly later. When it was lit, it was greater.

The sight that greeted us between the church and the town hall was baffling. There was a long stretch of hanging metal bars, and people would dress up in a bell costume and walk the length, striking the bars. It didn't exactly create a beautiful melody. It was reminiscent of running a lawnmower over a gravel path.

Running of the Bells (I)

Running of the Bells (II)

If you were to summarise the trip to Leuven, it would probably be with the phrase "What the hell?" Beside the bells, we stumbled into some sort of pagan druid dance display. There were also a bunch of old people beating drums, but somehow I only ended up with a picture of the nubile young woodsprites at the front. I've read enough fantasy novels to know that elves don't age, so those old people were just fooling themselves anyway.

Fashion accessories from the House of Bjork

We went to a Pizza Hut around the corner for lunch. As part of my ongoing attempt to get to the core of foreign cultures, I ordered the only exotic looking drink - called a Fristi. The waitress laughed at me because apparently only children drink Fristi, but I'm a cultural anthropologist, so she can get stuffed.

It's strawberry milk, in case you were wondering.

Not bad, actually

We returned to the square outside the Pizza Hut later in the day. They had lit a large mirrorball which looked very pretty in the dusk.

Leuven: A pretty town.

Posts on Brussels and the long-anticipated Norwich trip soon.