Wednesday,  26 September 2007

We got in the car for a long drive to Belgium this morning, after stocking up on some breakfast for the car and getting school ready and easy to access. We stopped for gas on the way out of town, and pulled up to a pump with four types of gas. We needed to put diesel in our rental car, but none of them were labeled “Diesel”. One was labeled “Diester” which was close but Clay wanted to make sure, so he tried asking a man at the pump next to him. The man only spoke French, but he understood the question after Clay showed him the diesel label on his car key. He pointed to the “Diester” pump and jabbing a thumb at his open mouth and made a loud gargling sound, followed by a hearty laugh. The he pointed at a pump labeled “Gasole” and raised both hands above his chest. Apparently, Clay looked confused, because he did it again, also with a hearty laugh. Clay got the impression that either one would be ok, but had no idea which he preferred or why, so he just joined in with a hearty laugh of his own. He went with “Diester” because it had lot of the same letters as the word, diesel. It got us to Brugge, so I guess he chose well.

As we got started I handed out breakfast, a super-crunchy baguette, some cheese, apples, and of course a little chocolate chip roll. The French bread was ultra-flaky, each time I tore a piece off, or someone took a bite, light-weight bits of bread poofed into the air and settled in every crack and crevice in the car. I developed a method that helped a little, I rolled down the window and tore off pieces outside, shaking the bread while everyone in the car yelled because the pressure was all messed up with just one window open and I tried to hold on tight to the bread as we whipped down the road at 130 km per hour.

Along the way, we made a short stop in a very tiny town called Andoulle-Belgasse that I read about in our Michelin guide book. It made the map because of a giant, 1200 year old oak tree that was hollowed out by a monk 1000 years ago. He made a tiny chapel downstairs, and a little room upstairs where he lived. After we drove around this very tiny little town, we finally found the tree and took a look, winding up the wooden staircase around the outside, admiring the carvings, smooth interior walls, and general craftsmanship of this eccentric monk. Alayna remarked as we got back in the car that we have more room in our car than he did in his tree home.

Nobody was very excited about doing school in the car, but it was finally complete and the kids were allowed to play their DS’s until we got close to the town of Brugge. We drove through rain, light and heavy, the entire five hours of our drive, but the roads were good and it wasn’t a problem. The drive to our hotel, once we passed under a thick stone archway, was a little hairy. Lots of bikes, skinny roads, one way, and a computer that was just a step behind as she tried to direct us through the labyrinth. We are getting used to being able to get close, but not quite there, so we pulled over, consulted the map, and found our way to the house we’re renting with my parents for the next five days.

We ate a late dinner at a Chinese food restaurant that was quiet and fairly empty, soft piano and oboe music in the background. I forgot to tell everyone Clay’s most recent plan. When we get back to Texas, he’s purchasing a soprano saxophone and after a little practice we’ll be coming back to Europe with my oboe and his sax and paying for the trip by playing in subway stations for tips.

The kids really liked that Chinese food, I read somewhere that if you want food that tastes pretty Amercian-ized, get Chinese food wherever you are, unless of course you’re in China. Then it won’t taste anything like what we have in America. After dinner we took a stroll through the town square, all lit up, found the grocery store that was closed, and made our way home again. We love the place we’re staying in, it’s one of three tall buildings in a row, housing different sorts of accommodations, off a skinny cobblestone street. There’s lots of space, Alayna gets her own room and there’s a kitchen, and in the kitchen is a tiny washing machine that’s also a dryer. The kids were overjoyed to find a DVD player, and a large library of DVD’s in the reception area with ENGLISH SPEAKING videos!

In Bayeux the kids tried out a Tin Tin video we bought back in Oslo, Norway. They were promised by the man who sold them the video that it was English speaking, and we hadn’t found a DVD player until Bayeux to try it out. When Clay got it fired up, we realized it only offered Norwegian, Danish, Swedish and Finnish. Alayna gave up in disgust and read a book in her room, while the boys asked which was closest to English, and watched the thing raptly in Danish. I don’t think they understood a word, but it was TV for goodness sake, the first thing they’ve watched since we’ve left England. They’ve got Harry Potter all lined up for a morning viewing, and we’ve warned them they may not start it until everyone is up, and no waking anyone up before 8.

Everyone is eagerly awaiting the arrival of my parents tomorrow afternoon, I talked to my mom and told her to give us a call once they got into Brugge. They might need a little help navigating, and now that we’ve had a chance to live and learn a little, we can guide them on home.

 

Thursday, 27 September 2007

We woke up to a sunny day, ate breakfast and watched the much anticipated Harry Potter, then headed out to rent some bikes. They were a little rickety, but were good enough for a quick ride to Damme (a quaint little town four miles down the road) and back. The ride through Brugge was not as smooth as our time in Paris. Without a guide and the strength of twenty other bikers to help us overtake lanes, we found ourselves riding close to the side while cars and trucks and faster bikers roared past.

Things were better once we got out of town and found the bike path along the canal, and Clay figured out how to tighten Benji’s tandem. Benji kept leaning from one side to the other and Clay was having a hard time keeping upright. Only it wasn’t a bike path, cars were actually allowed on this narrow road, both ways, but they didn’t come often and there were farm fields and tall trees lining our path as we pedaled along.

In Damme we found a pretty little dirt path (thanks Rick Steves), that led into the town center along a little creek. It felt like when I was a kid and went exploring in the woods, only when I was a kid I didn’t pop out in a little Belgian town and stop in a café for coffee and ice cream. After our respite we hopped on our bikes and headed back to Brugge. The chain on Nate’s bike fell off several times, he stepped in dog poo, and the brake on my front tire didn’t work right, but the wind was to our backs and the canals and trees were beautiful no matter what we were riding.

When we got back into town we got two containers of famous Belgian fries in the main square, one with a heaping blob of mayonnaise and onions (our favorite), another with a mix of mayo and ketchup on them. Each person got a tiny fork (the size of a shrimp fork) which we used to spear the delectable things. I read that what makes the Belgian fries so special is that they double fry them. I’m sure those eight miles of biking counteracted any negative side effects of this double frying.

We made a quick trip to the grocery store before my parents were due to arrive, we wanted to get supplies to make dinner that night. It turned into a longer trip since they didn’t take credit cards and Clay hiked all around town trying to find a cash machine that would take his card. We took three heavy bags home with us, not including the pack of paper towels and Kleenex that we held individually (they didn’t fit in the bags and we had to pay for each bag we used). My parents called once they were in the city, hopelessly lost and circling in a roundabout. Clay headed out with a map and his cell phone to find them and lead them back, while we opened up a window and kept a close vigil on the street below.

Thirty minutes later they arrived, a little breathless after experiencing the skinny streets of Brugge. After hugs and stories, we cooked up some stir fry and gathered around the table for dinner. It is good to be with family again, and we look forward to the things we’ll experience together the next few days.

 

Friday, 28 September 2007

We woke to a rain pattering against the windows. We took it easy in the morning, playing Parcheesi and chess on the little magnetic board we brought (it’s a great thing, it has eight different games you can play, and so far we’ve managed to hang onto all those itty bitty magnetic pieces). We also had a friendly little game of jacks, in which Clay grew determined to make it to “ten-sies”. He’s still working on it, much to everyone’s delight as he lunges for errant balls and wails over bad jack tosses. My mom made it to ten-sies first, she is a woman with many hidden talents. My dad passed on jacks and attempted to build tiny houses out of mini-Lincoln logs with Benji.

After our soggy but peaceful morning we donned our rain coats and went on a walking tour of the city. It turned out we didn’t need our rain jackets, we didn’t see a drop while we were out. We did see chocolate shop after chocolate shop. Apparently Brugge is known for its chocolate, and we found we couldn’t walk past them all without sampling just a bit. We got a box full of about fifteen different kinds from a grouchy face in the street (how can you be grouchy selling chocolate? She rushed us as we tried to choose between thirty different kinds, hemming and ha’ing and hurry upping, we won’t go back there again), then passed it around as we settled on a park bench. I found an especially drippy caramel and deposited a large swath of it on Clay’s ankle and the cuff of his pants, but to my credit I cleaned it off.

We climbed the 366 steps to the top of the bell tower (my parents decided to pass on this little adventure) for a view of the city, and a view of the innards of the bell mechanism that looked like a giant version of the inside of a music box. Every 15 minutes the bells chime with different songs, and at certain times during the week a man plays the carillon, using his fists and feet to ring a tune out across the city. We can open our window and get a great view (and great earful) of the bell tower from our house, so we hope to catch a concert before we leave.

We walked along narrow cobbled roads, across picturesque bridges spanning canals where swans and ducks swam, and hopped into a church where we admired a Michelangelo sculpture of Mary and toddler Jesus. It’s said this was the only sculpture of Michelangelo to leave Italy during his lifetime, a testament to the wealth that once existed here. He carved this one while taking breaks working on David, and it was truly beautiful. The fold of Mary’s dress, her delicate fingers, Jesus’ chubby knees, the expression on their faces, even behind glass and from a distance of ten feet, it was impressive. The church also had a sculpture carved from a single piece of wood, a trunk from a tree. Inside was a nativity scene, and while roughly hewn it was simple and pretty.

One area we visited is inhabited by nuns. Their homes all face into a peaceful courtyard, with trees and grass and tour groups huddled around their guides. There were signs everywhere that said “silence please” and “shhhhh”. I thought it would be so strange, as we walked past windows with lace curtains (lace is everywhere, Brugge is known for lace as well), to live in a place where people are told to shush. Where tour groups come to goggle and a strained silence is procured from children who would love to run on that green grass but are forbidden. Were they praying behind those curtains? Hiding? It must have been very peaceful at night when we’re gone and they have it to themselves again.

On the way back to the town center we bought new shoes for the boys. Nate’s sole had somehow become unattached between the stomping and curb jumping and crazy life he gives his shoes.  The sole could be folded all the way back to the arch of his foot. Benji’s shoe was well on its way, the rubber on the toe was loose. We got them both the same kind, Geox, and the boys found the commercials that played in the store for Geox very entertaining. Too bad they don’t show in the states, they were pretty funny.

We found a restaurant that was open at six and were given large white bowls which a woman filled with fries from her giant silver pot and ladle. Then we were given the “real meal”, chicken in a sauce that went just right with fries. We marveled at a waiter who could suck down a cigarette in thirty seconds, hiding out on a patio, his back to the glass. There was no smoking allowed in the restaurant, we really haven’t seen much smoking in the town at all, except off steamy couples lolling on the streets. There seem to be a lot of amorous couples around, whispering in ears and smooching on the streets. Must be all that chocolate and warm waffles and fries . . .

 

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Saturday was another rainy morning, everyone settled in for some games and mom and I headed to the grocery store for some lunch and dinner supplies. We feasted on pizzas and pasta for lunch, then headed out for an exciting day of art and lace. It’s actually more exciting than it sounds. You never know what you might see in an art museum (in this one Clay and I scouted out a room before the kids came in, so we could avoid the picture of the man being skinned alive, and the Hieronymus Bosch painting where naked people are being ingested during the end times).

We found a great picture of John the Baptist preaching, surrounded by people in all sorts of different dress, from Chinese to African, and even scripture on the wall. I liked one called “Life’s Sunset” with two old people holding hands, their faces etched with sorrow and just plain age. Another was a modern version of the Last Supper where Jesus and all the apostles were in a very small room, the walls closing in around them (symbolizing the fact that Jesus cannot escape his fate), their hands were enormous and their eyes bulged, but something about it was intriguing. Maybe just because it was painted in such a different way.

Now who would think watching little old ladies making lace could be exciting? But I tell you, these women had hundreds of bobbins wrapped around an intricate pattern of pins and they were tossing and rolling them around their wooden boards and creating bits of lace so fast, while we tried to figure out how in the world it worked. There were two or three women in the room, and they never looked up or seemed to notice us, they were totally engrossed in their task, preserving a tradition that could easily die out. Even the boys wanted a piece of lace after watching how cool it was to make. I think they would have liked to try to toss around those bobbins a bit.

We finished off the day with another home cooked meal. Patty melts with grilled onions and two kinds of melted cheese, topped off with some Ben and Jerry’s. It seems I spend a lot of time talking about what we eat in these emails, but we’ve realized on a trip like this, a lot of time is taken up figuring out how we’ll eat. Where? When? Sometimes we make do with gas station sandwiches, some days we get to make patty melts. Those are great days.

 

Sunday, 30 September 2007

After another late morning hanging out at the house, including a school session and a little Harry Potter 2 watching (got to pack in those English speaking videos while we have the chance!), we headed out for our last full day in Brugge. We started with a horse and carriage ride through the old town. Our driver was interesting, as he filled us in on all sorts of tidbits he rolled his “r’s”, even when he wasn’t saying an “r” sound. He claimed he was from Brugge, but was the only person we met who pronounced it “Brrrrrrrugge”. He explained how Napoleon charged a window tax when he was in power, and many people just bricked their windows up to avoid the tax. They remain bricked up today. He pointed out gargoyles above windows that were meant to ward off evil spirits, and we admired how some of the homes use different colors of glass for each pane, pinks and greens and blues.

After clip-clopping around town we got some tea and snacks at a restaurant. While we were eating I noticed a spider in Clay’s hair, didn’t think much of it and brushed it off. As we were leaving Mom found a spider on the collar of her jacket, Dad got one on his face, and then Mom had another inside her jacket. I found one crawling on my arm. I think that restaurant was infested with spiders and they decided to hitch a ride on us. We continued pulling little spiders off ourselves as we made our way to the folk museum, feeling creepy crawley and longing for a shower.

At the folk museum we learned how Belgians once made shoes, hats, clothes, butter, barrels, and more. We saw a little baby walker made of wood, just like the plastic versions they make today. We also noticed how they made baby high chairs with slats of wood going across were the legs hang, to keep a baby from kicking. We figured with wooden shoes a kick would hurt quite a bit! The museum had a small courtyard, and the kids loved running to the wall and back while Clay timed them. Clay and I even gave it a try, tearing up the turf to beat the kid’s times.

Tomorrow we travel to Edam, Netherlands, a tiny town of cheese and canals. Clay and I spent an hour drawing up the perfect route, marking all over our road atlas, then scrapping it when deciding to made a detour to Maduradon, a miniature Holland kind of like Legoland but not made out of legos. We were tired and decided to let the computer lead our way in the morning. I may sleep a little uneasily, I have issues with that lady on Clay’s computer.

We loved Brugge. We loved where we stayed, loved the down time with the kids and my parents, loved the chocolate and waffles and fries. It was a small town, and the only thing we didn’t see a lot of was green space. The kids pretty much stayed to the sidewalks, releasing their energy on our bike ride the first day, in the town square, the courtyard of the folk museum, or back at the house (lots of stairs). We put a ban on couch jumping first thing. We are glad to have our homeschooling behind us for a few days (we try to school every three days or so), Alayna plans to ride with my parents in the morning and I plan to do a little journal catch-up between navigation. Forward ho!