In the town, where I was born

 

 

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Front entrance of Villa Hohenhof. The outer construction is stone with slate tiles.

This probably isn’t going to be of much interest to anyone but me, maybe some immediate family and maybe some fans of art deco and/or historical homes. I was born in this building, which is now a museum of art deco architecture, furniture, arts and crafts.

The villa, Hohenhof, was commissioned by Karl Ernst Osthaus, a great German art lover, and built by Belgian architect, Henry van de Velde in 1908.

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The back courtyard and marble fountain

Osthaus lived in the place for a while. Then the early 1920s it enjoyed a short stint as a school. From 1924 to 1930 it was a craft studio and workshop. In 1933 the NSDAP (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, aka nazi party) took over the space to house a Gauführerschule. This was, shall we say, a special political-type school that taught kids how to be good party members. Toward the end of the war it ended up being used as a hospital for wounded soldiers. (I guess the whole political schooling thing wasn’t working out so well by then).

After the war, from 1946 to 1962 Hohenhof became a women’s clinic and somewhere near the end of that period is where I appear!

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The wing that housed the birthing rooms

 

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An infant cradle

When the women’s clinic closed, the place was once again converted to a school – but a more or less regular high school this time. In the late 1970s the school closed and Hohenhof was turned into a museum. It’s only 3 euros to get in.

staircase
There are two of these in the house.

 

 

statue
I love this so much!

 

stained glass windows

 

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This is part of the outdoor walk-around overlooking the back courtyard

 

drawing room
Drawing room or library

 

 

fireplace
Such a gorgeous fireplace

 

 

 

bedroom

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Osthaus Crypt in the back garden

 

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Inside the crypt

 

 

 

 

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Our Daily Bread

 

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If the shelves look at bit empty, it’s because it’s already 10:30. They will be restocked with fresh products before lunch.

 

The ONLY shop open here on Sundays is the bakery.

Are you out food? Alcohol? Cigarettes? Too bad…you’ll have to wait until Monday. Are you sick and need some medication? Too bad, you’ll have to wait until Monday.

But, by golly you WILL have fresh bread products on your table seven days a week.

As I sort of mentioned the other day, Germans are obsessed with bread and other baked goods. If you are gluten-free here, you might as well be Satan.

 

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This is McDonald’s! No wimpy, tasteless sesame seed bun here.

 

This town has a population of 188,000 with at least 100 official bakeries and probably another 100 places where you can buy (or get delivered) fresh, baked goods – like every grocery store, corner store, café and restaurant.

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You are never more than a block from a bakery here (and that is no exaggeration), so it’s not a hardship to get your bread fresh every day or even twice a day.

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And the bread is substantial and varied. It’s made of a variety of grains (and sometimes potatoes) and available in every imaginable shape, size, texture. Here, bread is not just a conveyor for fillings, it is food.

You’ve heard of the paleo diet? Well here, it’s all about the medieval diet — bread and beer. Throw in some meat and that’s 90% of the daily food intake.

Bread and other gluten products are part of every meal. Breakfast is coffee and fresh rolls or bread picked up from the nearest bakery every morning with jam or Nutella or cheese and/or sometimes cold cuts.

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The bread basket also appears at the mid-day meal, though, as the largest meal of the day, there are also a host of other carbs to choose from. And some nice beer to wash it down with.

Then there is the 4:00pm coffee/cake/beer thing.

And then supper (around 7:00 pm) is more bread with perhaps some form of processed meat or a hunk of cheese. And some beer maybe.

Germany is ranked the largest bakery market in the EU and the fifth largest in the world. (with a population of only 83 million).

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As my cousin, Patrick, says “brot ist liebe” (bread is love).

Thank goodness this area rife with l hills and dales so I can get in lots of cardio along with all that love.

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Ich Bin Ein Deutschlander

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YES! This is an actual cigarette machine just sitting there beside the sidewalk for anyone to utilize.

Germany is a strange place to me. I was born here and raised in a German family and have visited many times and still have lots of relatives here. So it’s very familiar but still very foreign.

Where to start? I’m in a fairly small town in the North Rhineland – an industrial area that was pretty much demolished during the war, so it’s mostly post-1945.

Much of my experience here is going to be coloured by my relatives’ perspectives and I’m trying to keep that in mind. They’re all very old school. For instance, they have travelled quite extensively throughout eastern and western Europe, North American, Africa and Asia but have managed to avoid really experiencing any of their cultures. Wherever you go in the world there will be German tourists, guaranteed. And they will be complaining about something. Other countries, apparently, lack Germany’s perfection.

Germans get a lot of vacation days, so they can afford the time to see the world. My cousins get around 70 days per year, depending on how long they’ve worked. (That’s 14 weeks. And they start at a minimum mandatory 5 weeks for every job.)

The other thing that’s interesting is that university is not pushed as fervently as it is in North America. Apprenticeships are still very much the norm here and generally favoured over university. Every job from store clerks to office managers to receptionists to restaurant servers to food court cashiers to hotel maids (along with, of course, computer techs, plumbers, electricians, and everything else you don’t absolutely need a university degree for) undergo a stringent 2-3 year apprenticeship program complete with practical and theoretical training and exams. Success means job security and a good salary and benefits. The German program has been lauded as an excellent model worldwide. And, it makes for some really kick-ass customer service experiences.

Also, everything is incredibly clean around here…not so much in the bigger cities as far as I can remember, but here, people are forever cleaning – houses (inside and out), streets, sidewalks, parks, shops, etc.

They also have the best toilets here. They use about a cup of water and flush everything away in 5 seconds. No idea why that can’t be implemented everywhere. Toilets around the world are a source of endless fascination to me. Seems like such a basic thing that the less efficient could easily learn from the more efficient.

Smoking is still promoted here, with a subtle nod to possible deadly effects. (See tiny print at the bottom of ad for fun smoking lifestyle).

Germans eat incredible amounts of meat – especially pork and animal circuses are still legitimate entertainment.

 

circus
Who doesn’t love a high clown, right? Right?

 

Germans drink their required 8 litres of beer per day. They won’t let a day go by without consuming some pretty significant amounts of bread, potatoes, butter and/or noodles. They are passionate and well informed about football and politics and think Martin Luther was a fun old guy

 

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Pretty much everyone in my family was christened and confirmed and married in this church. Making Luther into a jolly old fun guy could only happen in northern Germany.

 

It’s a bit horrifying for the North American in me, but on the other hand, Germany seems to have their shit together. They’ve made a nothing less than remarkable recovery from the Euro conversion and  incorporating east Berlin into their economy; they’ve taken in a shitload of refugees; have one of the lowest unemployment rates, great social health care and they also  some of the strictest gun laws in the world, with (coincidentally) one of the lowest rates of gun-related deaths in the world — the US has had 16 times as many gun-related deaths as Germany.

(PS: Send help. I haven’t eaten this much bread and cake in ever in my life.)

 

 

Pee & Waffles

 

pis
There are two more guys in there, but they’re short. Also, I wish WordPress had scratch ‘n’ sniff

 

I thought I was done with the whole Brussels-Pis stuff, but turns out that was only a drop in the bucket! My hotel overlooks a lovely city square that is flanked on one end by the beautiful gothic-baroque Sainte-Catherine church.

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On one side of this church is a public urinal where one pees against the church wall (see first photo). I did try to get a photo of it empty, but there was a regular parade of full bladders heading in there – some talking on their phones, some with a beer in hand, one juggling a beer and a sandwich (can’t see how that’s going to go well).

The church is adjacent to the Little Red Booze Truck (My name for it. I believe it’s actually called Dona Flor Cocktail Truck) and the Noordzee outdoor stand-up fish bar, so I guess it’s a perfect evening out with the boys trifecta.

 

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Why don’t we have these at home?

 

I also happened on Manneken Pis again and this time he was naked.

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Then I was told I had to go find his peeing dog, Zanneke Pis. I got the usual convoluted instructions so it took forever to locate that mutt, but I did it. Now I have the entire family.

 

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Note the clever photographic juxtaposition with an actual dog.

 

For those not able to urinate standing up, public toilets are 50 cents and rare. They were 80 cents and almost non-existent in France, but at least they were clean for that price. Here, not so much. In England they were mostly free and plentiful. The worst case of public toilet robbery ever was in Venice, though. I think they had one public toilet in the whole city and charged 2 euros to get in and it was the most disgusting place I’ve ever seen or smelled (and that includes the pong off coming off that church wall as you walk by). I actually sent a sternly worded email to the city of Venice.

So far, Brussels has been the most expensive city I’ve been in on this trip. Housing prices in the downtown core look to be about the same as downtown Toronto, but other stuff is a lot higher. Gas is around 1,43 euros for a litre, which is about $2.10 CAD/$1.70 USD (And for the Americans, there are almost 4 litres in a gallon, so gas is about $6.80 USD per gallon here). So basically double what we pay. And it’s around the same in most of western Europe and the UK.

Food in Brussels is really pricey though. They seem to think that 25 euros (aka $38 CAD) is a good deal for a lunch special – not including drinks. And they won’t give you free water here, you have to buy a 3 euro bottle or buy booze which is about the same. At least in France you always get a large bottle of water automatically with your meal. Here they give tourists some song and dance about how the tap water is not good for drinking, but it’s perfectly fine.

I did laundry the other day and it cost me 14 euros for 2 washers and one dryer. And that didn’t include a member of the royal family coming by to separate the colours beforehand and fluff and fold afterwards.

Anyway, before I head off to Deutschland, I figured I’d better have one of those waffles being flogged everywhere.

 

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Haven’t found any really good coffee either. I guess they have other beverage priorities.

 

It looks good and the strawberries and whipped cream were nice, but the waffle I couldn’t eat. I don’t think I’ve had a waffle since I was 10, so obviously not a big waffle fan. This one was so sweet, I could instantly feel cavities taking hold. It was also kind of gluey. Maybe I didn’t pick the very best Best Waffle in Belgium. Whatever. I tried Belgian Waffles in Belgium and that’s what counts.

I had a lot of Belgian chocolate, too. Neuhaus is my favourite.

I also put in a really valiant effort to find some Brussels Sprouts in Brussels, but apparently nobody eats vegetables of any sort other than potatoes here. Oh well.

 

 

 

 

 

Ahhh, Tintin

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When I was about 9 or so, I got a subscription to Children’s Digest. Does anyone else remember that magazine?

 

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Photo stolen from interwebby

 

I’m not sure how I happened to get this – maybe it was a gift from one of the old ladies I used to befriend or something. I know my parents wouldn’t deliberately have given me reading material.

Anyway, I loved that magazine. It came in pocket book size and was printed on green tinted paper to save our young eyes. Once a month it would come in the mail and it was jam-packed with fascinating things to read including classic stories from people like Kipling and Asimov and Hans Christian Andersen.

My very favourite, though was Tintin.

So it was kind of cool to be where Georges Prosper Remi (aka Herge) created the little guy and all his adventures.

Brussels is Tintin mad, with an Herge museum and La Boutique Tintin downtown and Tintin murals around the city and the Herge home tour and the Dieweg cemetery tour where Herge is buried and the Tintin themed Faubourg Saint Antoine restaurant and a tour of Herge’s Tintin-related inspirations around the city, just to name a few examples.

I didn’t do any of those. I like the stories and everything, but come on….

I’m in F***king Bruges!

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I hope recognize the quote from the movie, In Bruges, and don’t just think I’ve sunk to using gratuitous expletives. As soon as people heard I was going to Belgium they all said “ I hope you’re going to f**cking Bruges! So, of course I had to go. (I succumb easily to peer pressure.)

I opted to do the Ghent/Bruge bus/walking tour. It seemed like a simpler and better option than hiking out to the train station and making my way just to Bruge on my own. Also, I’m finding that when doing guided tours you meet all sorts of interesting people from all over the world.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had conversations in various languages and half-languages with South Africans, Argentians, Columbians, Chileans, Australians, Thai, Czechs, Poles, Pakistanis and Latvians along with the usual Brits, Americans, Canadians and western Europeans. Most of them know some English, so between that and French and German and a lot of hand gestures and expressive facial expressions we’ve all been getting along famously. And all the Americans I’ve met have been really nice and not the least bit trumpy!

So anyway, Ghent and Bruges. I will begin by saying that either Belgium has the most boring history of any country whose history I’ve ever heard anything about or there was something wrong with our tour guide’s script.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lovely country from what I’ve seen of it. I love Brussels – it’s lively and has a really great vibe. It’s extremely diverse and very casual for a European city. If it weren’t for the fact that all the streets have two completely different names, the lovely architecture, the not-so-lovely crumbling  architecture, the crumbling cobblestones, the weird sounding emergency response vehicle sirens, and the lack of condos, it could almost be Toronto. Brussels has a lot of young people and the culture to go along with it, so it also reminds me a bit of Berlin in that respect. And then it has a bit of the French ambience as well. Well worth a visit. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the city so far and look forward to seeing a bit more.

However….it’s been really painful listening to the tour guides trying to make Belgium sound like it has an interesting past. Buildings were built. Some buildings burned down, but were fixed up again. Cities were occupied during the wars but nothing was destroyed and nobody was inconvenienced much . Everybody likes the king and the past king. Spain has been a long-time bff of Belgium. Some artists with names that sound like you’re clearing your throat were born here and some of their work is around. Lots of people have been making chocolate and beer for a long time.

Sorry.

I think Belgium should embrace this lack of historical significance. It would be more fun than trying to pretend there is some. Also, they should embrace that they are really no one’s #1 travel destination. Belgium is a place you visit on your way from or to somewhere else. Like me…and every tourist I’ve met here. Poor old Belgium. I think it would be an awesome PR campaign to promote all this..just sayin’.

I am excited about the whole Tintin thing though. There’s a Tintin Museum I’m going to try and get to. But all that is neither here nor there right now because this post is about Ghent and Bruges.

Okay, did you know that Ghent is vehemently trying to promote vegetarianism? Every Thursday is Donnerdag Veggietag! (aka Veggie Thursday). Vegetarian food is promoted in all civil servants, city council and school cafeterias. A “veggie street map” is also distributed throughout the town to encourage others. The campaign is linked to the recognition of the detrimental environmental effects of meat production rather than preaching about personal health benefits or animals rights – apparently this has more impact here.

Ghent currently has the world’s largest number of vegetarian restaurants per capita, which is awesome. Of course it was Monday, so most of the restaurants were closed.

Also Ghent has a cool castle in the middle of the city.

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Best thing about Bruges was the Madonna sculpted by Michelangelo.

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Don’t worry, I didn’t take this photo

Other than that it was an extremely tourist-oriented place, with lots of shops selling tat and second-rate chocolate, which is sad, but I guess they have to make a buck.

I had a great lunch though at the Marco Polo Noodlebar. Some of us skipped out on the group lunch at the place the tour guide kept trying to foist on us and I’m glad I did. This place was a real find. It was all locals eating there and even they said it was the only place in the old village worth going to.

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The make their own noodles right there in the restaurant. Yum.

 

 

 

Where am I?

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A ton of seafood restaurants here even though it’s quite far from the sea.

No..seriously, who thought two months of travelling would be a good idea? Why didn’t anyone stop me? I wake up all disoriented every morning. Interestingly, I’ve been waking up at 6:20 every morning regardless of time zone or how late I was up the night before – same time I wake up at home.

Oh well. I’m here now and am determined to suck the marrow out of it. So here’s another clue as to where I am.

Grand Place – view from two sides.

One last clue:

pee boy

Ha! Everybody knows the Mannekin Pis. Copenhagen has a mermaid, Brussels has a tiny statue of  boy peeing. He’s normally naked, but they dress him up for special occasions. Not sure why he’s dressed as Santa at the moment. Sometimes they also fill his reservoir with other liquids like beer for the beer festivals or milk for the agricultural events.

What a lot of people don’t know though is that Manneken also has a sister — Janneke Pis.

pee girl

So rude, eh? I wonder what it means when a culture is this obsessed with urination.

And speaking of rude, I went on a walking tour where they did lots of quizzes along the way and some annoying Swiss woman, who totally hogged the prime spot next to the tour guide the whole time, kept shouting out the answers before the rest of us even had a chance to hear the question. But then at one point she all smugly shouted out the WRONG answer and everybody sniggered and then I shouted out the right answer and got a round of applause. And the Swiss woman never said another word. The end.

For those who need to know, I’m staying at a Citadine hotel here. I’ve stayed at them before in other cities and they’re always pretty good. Reasonably priced, nice clean, well-appointed apart-hotel rooms, central to the action. It’s kind of a relief to be in a comparatively big, modern place for a change. Queen bed, fluffy pillows, a real bathroom with tub and room to swing a cat (cat not included), an elevator, a closet, kitchenette, lovely view, no manual required to figure out the plumbing, a door lock that opens with a card rather than some rusty old key that requires a special satchel, chain belt or wagon to lug around all day.

 

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View from the nice big windows in my nice big room.

I know it probably makes me a philistine that I’m not revelling in living in quirky Old World accommodation, but I really sort of did while they were happening. Just now I’m happy that they’re not anymore. Okay?

One final note — next time you’re in Brussels, go eat at this Noordzee place. I happened across it last night and it was so jam packed and hopping that I knew it had to be good. And when I googled it, sure enough, it’s listed as one of THE places to eat like a local in Brussels. It’s fresh, reasonably priced fish and seafood. You order at an outdoor counter and eat at the stand up tables in the square. Wine and beer and other beverages are obtained from the booze truck in the square opposite the Noordzee. The meal of choice seemed to be a bowl of the fish soup, a hunk of bread and a glass of white wine.

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The Little Red Booze Truck – fun for the whole family!