Friday, December 2, 2011

Never take the advice of those who say "never..." (or "always...)

I hope you get the ironic intent of the title to this blog. My college roommate was the first person who discouraged me from being absolutist in my thinking. I have continued to aspire to a more openminded and less pedantic approach, although it can be hard. For, as my title suggests those who take an absolutist stance about being non-absolutist are also being absolutist.

Confused? Let me back up a bit. I was intrigued to discover that Anthony Bourdain, for the second episode of his new show on the Travel Channel called "the Layover," would be covering my hometown (which is also his hometown), New York City. I am always amused when I hear the advice that people give to those who are going to visit NYC, and sure enough, I found a couple laughable suggestions on this week's episode of the Layover.

Not far into the episode, Bourdain says, "Never make eye contact with anyone on the New York Subway." The reason to do it, he suggests, is not that you will put yourself in danger by doing so, but merely that it is impolite! Well, as a long-time resident of New York who often does make eye contact (and even conversation) with people on the subway, I can tell you that as long as you follow common sense about whether you do or do not, you will be ok.

Bourdain tends to take hardline stances on things about New York, sometimes just to be controversial, sometimes because he is being a bit of a crank. For example, in a recent episode of "No Reservations" he stated that New York has not street food to speak of, because it has been replaced by food trucks. First of all, I'd like to know what his definition of street food is, since when I walk through midtown, all I see is street food, and according to numerous street food ratings, the quality and variety of street food in New York City is greater than it has ever been. But some element of edge or danger or underground is missing from it for Bourdain, so what the rest of us call street food doesn't speak to him or something.

Similarly, on his Layover program this week, he declared that dive bars are disappearing in New York City. Now I suppose that the many quirky colorful (and sometimes strange) places in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side don't qualify as dive bars to him. But traditionally, no one set out to open a dive bar. The status of dive bar is something that got conveyed to certain establishments when they had been around long enough that they would acquire the edgy, lived-in feeling we associate with a dive - something doesn't have that falling apart look right out of the cracker jack box!

So in that sense, yes, dive bars are going the way of the dinosaur, but in another sense, dives are more popular than they've ever been. Take, for example, the Essex Street Ale House, where I have been a few times. It has a lot of things I associate with dives: a drunk who begs for money to buy another beer and only leaves when noone will any longer support his habit (which one gathers, on most nights, to be never), bar tenders and clientele who know each other on a firstname basis, lights too dim to see how dingy the place is and music too loud to allow anyone to exchange any useful conversation without shouting, a bathroom so dirty that rather than try to clean it, the proprietors would be better off letting in a scientist to study what diseases are growing there.

Bourdain's only problem is that he lives in the Upper East Side, a place that has never been a home to dive bars, diners, or any other sort of place that regular folks will frequent.

Of course, when prompted, Bourdain himself doesn't hesitate to bite the heads off of others who make absolutist statements in his presence. For example, when a young guy says to Bourdain that "there is no sushi in New York City," Bourdain doesn't need more than 20 seconds to prove to the fool that New York is in fact one of the greatest cities for sushi outside of Japan. I haven't eaten at some of the best sushi restaurants that Bourdain mentioned, and yet even I could tell you that that guy was completely in the wrong.

It was good to see this young fellow sticking his neck out so that Bourdain (and me in absentia) could chop it off, because this was the sort of person we are used to hearing making absolutist comments - young hipster types who usually have come to New York City for college or grad school, graduate, get a job in which they are overpayed to have no life, and then after reading Time Out magazine and maybe an issue or two of New Yorker, consider themselves to be experts in all things New York and therefore the envy of all those who wish they could live in New York City and get overpayed to have no life. We (those of us from around Bourdain's generation who have lived here long enough that we should know not to make dumb statements about what is or is not), we hear these youngsters put their feet into their retainer-laiden maws all the time, and we chuckle and shake our heads.

I know two such people myself very well, my daughter and her boyfriend. They are constantly talking about how they went to the number one rated this and ate the number one rated that. That ratings may be publicity designed to lure gullible ratings believers into eating at certain eateries never enters their heads. Only time will change the tint of their impressionable idealism from robins egg to tooth decay yellow.

Perhaps I am wrong. My philosophy when it comes to New York City is that I can't hope to see and do everything, but then again I don't really want to see and do everything. Things like the Bodies Exhibit and the Teddy Bear Museum are never going to make it onto my schedule. Maybe people like my daughter and her guy haven't settled for a percentage of New York's glories yet. Maybe they still feel like they CAN see and do it all, and they want to start at the top. Which is cool. I just can't buy into the certainty with which they proclaim to have figured it all out in the time that it took God to create the woodthrush. For those of you keeping score at home, that would be a nanosecond.

Which brings me back to my initial point. I guess hipsters are no more wrong to make blanket statements than I am right to cast aspersions at them just because I don't agree with the conclusions they've come to. I know that it doesn't matter whether I eat the best whatever sold at the number one whomever. Throw a pebble in any direction, and it's going to hit someone who has spent their life perfecting some craft or technique. We are a city of number ones, eating and drinking number ones. But if it makes some people happy to believe that they have discovered the needle in the haystack composed of needles, that's fine with me. Just never declare to me your discovery at the top of your lungs. Because I will always scoff and write you off as the number one doofus in a city also full of those.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Belgium once, Belgium yet to come!

My girlfriend Therese and I are planning our next European trip, to Belgium in September of 2012. One of the cities we are going to visit is Bruges, a place I have visited before. In thinking about what we are going to do, I had to put together a recollection of what I did the last time I was there (Therese has been there before too, but only spent an afternoon there probably 30 years ago). In doing so, I can feel the excitement that I felt then, when I was there, taking in the medieval feel of the town, eating mussles and drinking Belgian ale.

Normally, you would say if you hadn't been to someplace in 5 years, a lot would've changed. Certainly that is true of New York City: when I go somewhere on vacation for two weeks, it always feels different when I return home. But Bruges, when you visit it, feels like nothing has changed in hundreds of years. Nevertheless, there is progress, even there.

For example, a company, Zapfi, has installed inobtrusive antennae, to provide the entire city with free/low-cost wifi. Soon, it will be possible to get on the internet from your laptop computer ANYWHERE in the city. Why, I can't even do that here in New York City. Sounds pretty amazing.

But in general, I don't think Bruges has changed much since I was there the last time. Certainly, the city was very recognizable in the movie "In Bruges" which was filmed a year or two after I last visited. So here is a taste of what I experienced when I was there last.

When I went there in September of 2007, it was for the second half of a two-week vacation which started with a week in Madrid and Toledo, Spain. Madrid was hot - it was 95 degrees fahrenheit the day I arrived there, and got into the 80s pretty much every other day of the week, with plenty of sunshine. Bruges, by contrast, was cool and mostly cloudy, reaching 70 one day but hovering around the high 50s and low 60s for the week, with rain on a couple afternoons.

I stayed in the Hotel Ter Brughe (, a gabled building facing onto one of the canals. My room was on the first floor, also facing the canal. One morning I was serenaded by some swans swimming by. However, the proximity of the canal meant it was a good idea to keep my window closed at night - one night I left the window open and had to do battle with mosquitos for half the night. Probably the best thing about the hotel was the free breakfast every morning in the medieval basement: ample breads and fruits and coldcuts and hard boiled eggs and juice and coffee.

Sticking with food for a moment, most days my lunch was a cheap sandwich from a local patisserie. For less than 3 Euros I would get a fresh baguette with lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, ham, turkey and sliced hardboiled egg. Very filling!

The first night in Bruges, I abandoned the list of restaurants on my itinerary and picked a place that I just happened on in my wanderings, a friendly place on the Eiermarkt whose name I don't know. I saw lots of university students sitting outside on the terrace, so I figured it must be affordable. Sure enough, it did the trick. My spaghetti cardonara was delicious, and the liter sized mug of Leffe Brown ale that I drank with it transported me to heaven.

My other nights, I also had very good culinary experiences, and I must say it was not just the fact that the excellence of the beer overshadowed any shortcomings in the cuisine. Breydel-de Coninck ( had wonderful mussles, and I enjoyed the company of British neighbors who I had run into a day earlier in a Bruges supermarket. Another night I braved the Markt and ate at De Gouden Mermin (, once again eating really scrumptious mussles and frites, once again washed down with a couple different amazing monster-sized glasses of beer. Even at Cambrinus (, more an ale house than a restaurant, I was pleased: the roast chicken was tender, the vegetables full of flavor. And the coconut beer I had for dessert, while too sweet to really take seriously as a beer, nevertheless was a nice way to cap off the meal.

On Sunday, my first full day in Bruges, I followed a walking tour I found on Frommers (I would post the link to this walking tour, but Frommers seems to have removed all walking tours from its website - I guess guided tours are big moneymakers...). Starting from the Markt in the center of Bruges, I followed the tour through some of the busiest most active streets, where the museums and shopping are, ending at the Minnewater park and lake.

The next day, Monday, I knew a lot of the main attractions in Bruges would be closed, so I decided to take a walk to the northeast part of the city to get an up-close look at the windmills and the medieval Kruispoort gate. I walked back towards the center of town from the Kruispoort along Langstraat, stopping at a supermarket to get a snack and drool at the low-priced packages of exotic Belgian beers. The conclusion of the afternoon was a trip to the Basilica of the Holy Blood, a mysterious and gloomy chapel in the southwest corner of the Burg.

Tuesday was my day to see the art museums, the Groeninge Museum and the Memling Museum, sandwiched around a visit to the Onze-Lieve Vrouwekerk. Without a doubt Jan van Eyck's painting "The Madonna with Canon van der Paele" in the Groeninge Museum was a highlight of my entire vacation. I stood there staring at the incredible colors and the meticulous detail in the foldings of the clothing, just in awe. It was also lovely seeing Michelangelo's Maddona and Child sculpture in the Vrouwekerk (the only sculpture by Michelangelo to leave Italy), but with such a crowd of people crushing to see it, it was hard to really enjoy it.

Wednesday was one of the rainy days. I started by trying to do some writing on my laptop out of doors, only to discover that the rain and the overcast sky made it impossible. So I walked to the Konigin Astrid Park in the south of the city. As the rain grew heavier, I ducked into Sint-Magdalenakerk, under renovation and therefore at the time the sight of an intriguing art installation. After spending some time there and leaving some comments on a piece of paper as I was invited to do, I poked my head out to find that the rain had abated, leaving the park wet but explorable.

Thursday being my last full day, I spent it exploring some of the amazing Renaissance and Baroque churches in Bruges. I started with the Sint-Salvatorskathedraal, then walked across town to the Sint-Walburgakerk, and ended up at the Sint-Jakobskerk. The latter was under renovation, but I just happened to walk by when the workmen were taking a break, and so they let me walk inside and take a look at it.

Besides having some great food in the evenings, I also had some minor adventures. The night I ate in the Markt at De Gouden Mermin, as I was walking off my meal, I heard the sound of teeth chattering. Surely, I thought, with the temperature more than 50 fahrenheit, noone could really be shivering. I walked toward the sound and discovered a group of about 7 Mexicans, huddled together to brave the cold. One who spoke English explained to me what they were doing in Bruges. They all worked for UBS's Mexico City office, and the parent office in the Netherlands had put together a football (i.e., soccer) tournament, to which teams from all the company's offices worldwide were invited. These Mexican folks had extended their vacation beyond the weekend football matches, and had taken the train to Bruges, with plans to stay the night and then take the train to Brussels the following day, and then to Paris after that. Unfortunately, none of them had brought warm clothing. They invited me to have my picture taken with them, which I did.

Thursday night was the first of four nights of open-air performances of Mozart's Die Zauberflote given by a professional opera company in the Burg. With the dramatic Stadhuis as a backdrop, they set up a stage and risers for the audience. I decided not to buy a ticket, but then discovered, after my dinner at Cambrinus, that there was a place you could stand in the corner of the square where you could see the stage very well. I joined a small group of interlopers there, and we took turns sitting and standing (there was luckily a public bench there), enjoying the opera immensely.

On Friday, I reluctantly left Bruges, taking the train to Brussels to spend a day there before returning to New York. In Brussels, I stayed in the Hotel Mozart. Due to renovations, I had to take a staircase up to my room that was so narrow I had to drag my suitcase behind me.

Rather than spend the afternoon in Brussels at their Fine Arts museum, I opted instead to explore a series of their churches: the St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral, the church of Notre Dame de la Chapelle and the Eglise Notre Dame du Sablon. I felt like I made the right choice because I enjoyed these three churches.

After a nap, I made my way outside to find a restaurant for dinner, opting for the rue des Bouchers as my destination. Every large city, it seems, has a street filled with restaurants, some good, some aweful, all reasonably priced, with hawkers trying to get prospective diners to choose their place over the others. In New York we call this street (West 46th Street) "Restaurant Row". In Brussels, they call Rue des Bouchers and its neighbor, petit Rue des Bouchers "Ilot Sacre." The restaurant I picked, whose name I never knew, had lovely seafood - I saw a family of locals feast on a spectacular dish of lobster, clams, etc. with rice and bread - but I opted for a typical Belgian dish, rabbit in Belgian sour ale (aka "gueze") sauce, with frites and excellent Belgian ale, of course. A wonderful dinner, and a great way to finish my time in Belgium.

Here are the pictures I took while in Belgium: