Monday, August 24, 2009

Trip Report Part Four: Brussels

I loved Brussels instantly. If you're skeptical of my ability to love a place I don't really know, then know that I felt immediately at ease there--relaxed and strangely unalienated in a way that's difficult to feel in unfamiliar places. Bruxelles (yes, I'm going to spell it differently every other time I write it) was very familiar in many ways--it's a cosmopolitan, international, multicultural political city with a reputation for being cool but not as cool as it's close neighbors Paris and Amsterdam. I don't want to overstate the ways in which it's similar to DC, but the similarities are there.

When Mark and I arrived at Bruxelles-Midi, it was nice to actually get out and leave the station instead of waiting in it, as we had already done twice, to catch a train somewhere else. It's not a huge city (a little over one million people live there), but it's incredibly diverse. Aside from the French and Dutch speaking Belgians, there are people from all over Europe as well as north Africa, Turkey, Asia, and elsewhere. There are some estimates that about half of the people who live in Brussels are not from Belgium, and a substantial number of people who live in Bruxelles speak neither French nor Dutch as a first language. All over Bruxelles, people speak to each other in second, third or fourth languages, and it's difficult to make accurate assumptions about where people are from. I love this.

We experienced a slightly higher than normal level of disorientation when we left the station, and it wasn't clear whether we needed to catch the metro, tram or premetro to get up to our hotel in Ste-Catherine. My first encounter with a stranger in Bruxelles was indicative of all the others: I asked a woman, in French, which metro, tram or premetro we should get on, and which direction we should go. She was incredibly polite and patient and didn't switch into English or ask where I was from. Instead, she showed me on the map where we had to go, and pointed me toward the premetro station (which was, counter-intuitively, underground).

Ste. Catherine (shown above) was easy to get to, and, as it turns out, a hip place to stay--not that I knew that when I booked our hotel. I just chose that location because I didn't want to stay in one of the overpriced and touristy places on the Grand Place. The neighborhood had a nice combination of both homey and fancy bars and restaurants, as well as several Asian food markets.

In fact, the presence of Asian food markets made Ste. Catherine (and Brussels in general) seem very different from Paris, for example. In Paris, you should speak French, and if you would like to eat food that is not French, you should order it in a French way. Paris does have plenty of culturally mixed neighborhoods--but they are exactly that--specific neighborhoods, like Belleville. Aside from kabob shops, ethnic restaurants and markets in Paris don't seem to exist much outside of those specific neighborhoods. I love French food, and could gladly live on crepes, cheese and charchuterie until I died from a heart attack. Still, I felt it was significant to see such cultural variety in food in a neighborhood without any special multicultural distinction.

We met Philip Meersman and Rozalina Petrova (both shown in the very first picture) in front of the church on Ste. Catherine and walked towards Place St-Géry. Philip was one of the people who performed after Mark and I read in Ghent. I hesitate to characterize Philip's work--I wouldn't call him a sound poet, because that seems too narrow a term for the kind of diverse work he makes. While he clearly is interested in the relationship between sound, image, language and meaning (the poem he performed in Ghent was in six languages) he also works in theater and plastic arts. It's a bit cheesy of me, but I'm going to quote Mark's description of the performance, since I think it is both accurate and insightful:
Philip Meersman also performed a poem that was not technically a sound poem but that solidified my impression about the relation between sound poetry and cultural context. His poem was in six different languages, not all of which were known to any single person in the room except for him, with the result that at least some portion of his poem was only a sound poem for every member of the audience. It wasn’t meant as a display of language virtuosity, though it certainly was also that, but as a very pointed exploration of what it means to be able to understand other people or not.
Even after just a few hours in Brussels, it was easy for me to see why a writer would want to work with a variety of languages. Here's a brief quote from one of Philip's poems, "La paradoja del paradero del comienzo (Una localización española)," to give you more of an idea of some of the stuff he does:

Preguntas y problemas:
Dónde está el coche
Dónde está mí
Dónde está me
Dónde está yo?
teoría atómica
teoría cuántica
teoría de la relatividad
teoría del caos

Dónde está la profesora

Dónde está la consejera
Dónde está el examen
This poem (you can read the rest of it here) makes me want to return to a project I stared ages ago working with some of the text in Practical Chinese Reader Volumes One and Two.

The weather was wonderful, and Philip and Rozalina are both great conversationalists, so after scoring an outdoor table at a bar across from Les Halles St-Géry, we easily passed several hours talking (and drinking--in my case, a pleasantly sour geuze). Afterward, I had a notebook full of recommendations for everything from where we should eat to which chocolate shop was the best. For posterity, here is a picture of the Halles St-Géry, the point from which all distances in Belgium are measured:

Eventually, Philip and Rozalina had to head home to prepare for work as well as the huge Ghent Festival. We parted ways, and Mark and I went off to eat some very delicious Thai food. The two women sitting at the table next to us could have easily been State Department bureaucrats. They were EU bureaucrats, of course; I felt right at home. Later we wandered back towards Ste. Catherine to a local bar off the square. I don't remember the name, but the few folks in there seemed overly suprised that any tourists would be there at all. Two men sitting next to us struck up a conversation, which me more or less managed in French, Spanish and English--a pretty typical encounter in Brussels.

The next morning I went out to the original flagship location of Le Pain Quotidien, just around the corner from our hotel, for coffee and a croissant. After that, Mark and I walked over to the Grand Palace (immediately above) and farther along to the Royal Quartier and the new Musée René Magritte at the Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique. I have an unfortunate mental block with Surrealist painters--I love how Magritte plays with the difficulty of reconciling words, images and objects, but did he have to paint so many nude women? The history of art is the history of painting nude women, I suppose, and I like Magritte enough to be frustrated with him. Still, the new museum houses the largest collection of his work that exists, including a few films. In fact, if I'd had the luxury and time to go back, I would have especially liked to spend more time with the films.

After the museum, we attempted to eat some sandwiches in the lovely Parc de Bruxelles and only barely managed. It rained, but we found shelter under some trees. Here's Mark post-lunch:

After lunch, we went back in to see the main collection of the Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts. The collections were strangely organized and difficult to navigate. For me, the highlight of this visit was Hieronymus Bosch's Temptation of St. Anthony.

On our way back to the hotel, we walked past La Fleur en Papier Doré, the bar where René Magritte and later members of the COBRA movement hung out. We didn't have a drink there, though; it was kind of expensive. After a rest, a shower, and a quick run on my part to Elisabeth Chocolatier for chocolate and cookies, we went back out to La Mort Subite for a pre-dinner beer. The geuze was the best I had the entire trip. Why isn't geuze more readily available here in the US? Sigh.

After La Mort Subite, we wandered (we did a lot of wandering in Brussels) back over to the area around the Grand Palace to sit in another bar and, yes, drink another beer--they had Delirium Tremens on tap! Later, we ate dinner outside at a different but equally tasty Thai restaurant back in Ste. Catherine. It poured rather fantastically right after we finished our meal, so we took shelter at Bizon Blues--a bar that was styled like an American place even though they seemed to play mostly British rock. We enjoyed some jenever and then a Rochefort 10. The Rochefort 10 was good, but I think the 8 is still my favorite; it's just as flavorful, and less boozy.

We ended our evening at the Monk, and I really don't remember what I drank there--that's the kind of effect that a Rochefort 10 has! Still, I loved how the bartender moved in and out of different languages without even flinching. The Monk was cool, but not too cool:

Mark and I spent less time in Brussels than anywhere else on our trip, but, as I've already said, I really enjoyed my time there. Having spent much of my life as an expat, it was so comforting to be in a city where everyone spoke a different language and where, for the most part, that was ok. I could live in Brussels, and I mean that in a practical way as well as an oh-I-wish-I-wish kind of way. The weather there sucks, but I live in a place known for its great weather, and truly, if weather is the first thing that people mention about a place, you know that means that the rest of it is maybe not worth mentioning.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

O Say Can You See: DEADLINE EXTENDED to August 20!

Dear Readers--

You have perhaps seen the announcement for this forum that I'm co-curating for with Becca Klaver for Delirious Hem. I wanted to let you all know that the deadline has been extended, so send us all some fabulous work. Details are below!

Nonverbal Reviews and Adaptations of Women's Poetry

***Deadline extended to August 20!***

Mina Loy, Surreal Scene, n.d. Collage on painted background, 12 5/8 x 9 1/2 in.
Courtesy of the Jean Farley Levy Estate © Estate of Mina Loy.

What book, chapbook, performance, or poem by a woman poet published/presented in the last year or two has left you speechless? How might that speechlessness manifest itself visually, sonically, or through another nonverbal medium?

Please create a response to this piece; your response can act like a review, adaptation, homage, investigation, companion piece, Frankenstein, child, or any mash-up of the aforementioned. In August, all responses submitted will be featured as part of a forum here on Delirious Hem.


Are all words banned?
Although the projects should not be text-based, words are not banned.

I want to create a response to a poem published in 2007. Is this too early?
Nope. We mean "published in the last year or two" loosely.

Can I create a response to a book written by:
a) a man?
b) a biological male who identifies as a woman?
c) a drag queen?
a) No. b) Yes. c) Yes, if they self-identify as a woman.

Can non-Pussipo members participate?
Yes. If you'd like to forward this call, feel free.

Can men participate?

What file formats can you accept?
For videos, Blogger can accept AVI, MPEG, QuickTime, Real, and Windows Media, 100 MB maximum size. For images, jpg, gif, bmp and png images, 8 MB maximum size.

Responses might include videos, songs, performances, photographs, or photographs of visual pieces, but are not limited to these, so please query if you're not sure if Blogger can support your format.

Questions, submissions, stating your interest: Please contact K. Lorraine Graham (klorraine[at]gmail[dot]com) and Becca Klaver (beccavista[at]yahoo[dot]com).

Due date for submissions: August 20, 2009.

Please feel free to forward this call!

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Trip Report Part Three: Amsterdam

I'm going to resist blogging about fashion, teaching ESL again, health care, the f-ed up state of California, Flarf, and disjunction and instead focus on the third part of my trip with Mark: Amsterdam. When we were still in the planning stages of the trip, Tom Orange said (over the phone) "well, are you going to Amsterdam?" We blinked, a little stupidly perhaps, and started planning to go to Amsterdam. And I'm so glad we did. While I loved Paris, I felt quite at home in Amsterdam among the bicycles, cheese shops, drugs, prostitution, pragmatism, canals, fries, art, boutiques selling fashionable bicycle-friendly clothing and the fabulous socialist health care system.

On the 13th, we took a very easy train from Ghent to Amsterdam, through Brussels. In theory, it's quicker to go through Antwerp, but in reality it rarely is--Helen said that the train connections in Antwerp don't always work very well, and the communication between Belgian and Dutch trains is often, well, off.

After a disorienting exit on the south side of the train station in Amsterdam, we found our way to our apartment in the Jordaan district, which was close enough to the city center to walk but far enough away so that it was a bit calmer and there were fewer 20-some British youths smoking up. All of Amsterdam is ridiculously beautiful, Jordaan in particular--it's full of canals, bars, cafes, vintage clothing stores, boutiques, and cheese shops (more on those later). We walked around the neighborhood, bought a few things to keep in our apartment refrigerator (beer, milk, cereal & bananas). That evening, we headed down to De Pijp to meet with Cralan Kelder.

Cralan was one of the editors of Versal, the print publication of wordsinhere, a writer’s collective based in Amsterdam. Cralan grew up in Amsterdam, if I remember correctly, went to school in the states, and then returned to Amsterdam. It was interesting to talk with him about the different writing and arts communities there. He pointed us towards Boekie Woekie, an artist-run bookstore of artist books and visual poetry. It was closed every time we went by, but it seemed very cool.

Although Cralan, his partner and his children were all getting reading to fly to the US the next day, he still made time to hang out with Mark and I. The three of us and his daughter went in search of some Ethiopian food, but unfortunately the restaurant was closed. Never mind. Instead, we wandered through the Sarphatipark to a falafal place not far from the Albert Cuypmarkt. It's too bad that I don't have a decent picture of Cralan, or of the falafals or the french fries we had, which were easily the best we ate on the entire trip. But I do have a picture of the park:

The sun was out even later in Amsterdam than in either Paris or Ghent, so we still had plenty of light in the sky when we had to eventually leave Cralan to his packing. We headed back to our neighborhood and found a bar in which to spend the rest of our evening hours. I love travel because it brings be in contact with ideas, things and people that are unfamiliar to me, but I also love the way time slows down in a new place. While we sat at that bar on our first evening in Amsterdam, it felt a bit like we'd always been sitting in a bar on a pleasant summer evening in Amsterdam. It was a pleasant feeling.

The next morning we walked down to the Van Gogh museum--Cralan had lent us his annual passes, so we didn't have to wait in the long line to get in. The museum has an impressive collection of Van Gogh, obviously, but also a collection of other 19th-century art--mostly by Van Gogh's friends and contemporaries. I'm always disturbed by the story of Van Gogh's life--and thinking about it makes me thankful that I am both physically and mentally well--but I was happy to see several pieces I'd never seen, including "Wheatfield with Crows."

After the museum, we walked back up into the Jordaan district, and stopped at De Kaaskamer Van Amsterdam, a cheese shop that specializes in local Dutch varieties--I wanted to buy something of everything, but instead I limited myself to several different types of farmhouse Goudas--one old (Rypenaer V.S.O.P.), one young (Le Vieux Gris) and then an organic medium-soft gouda-like cheese called Boeren that the cheese guy suggested. How happy am I in this picture?

We eventually made our way to a small bar called De Zotte that stocked a variety of Belgian beers (no, we weren't sick of Belgian beer. In fact, we are still not sick of Belgian beer). The bar was quiet, and a good place to spend a rainy late afternoon.

We ate a very basic and healthy dinner of sandwiches at a sort of loungey place by a canal. More memorable was the very tasty cold jenever we had at a very cozy brown cafe later that evening.

The rain stopped rather late in the evening, so our last stop was at a lively outdoor cafe back in Jordaan. I was done with alcoholic at that point, so I got some fresh mint tea--something that people all over Amsterdam seem to drink at any time of day.

The next morning (the 15th of July), we headed to Cafe De Balie to meet Megan Garr and Sarah Ream, both writers, and editors of Versal magazine, which I mentioned above. Versal seems to do a good job of being a forum for many of the translocal European literary communities as well as other writers and writing communities outside of Europe that have a complex relationship to being local or, er, not local--there are commonalities that exist which aren't necessarily the same as a totalizing kind of globalization. Megan's editorial in issue 7 of Versal has some interesting thoughts about translocality and is worth getting a hold of.

In my post on Brussels, I'll talk more about how relatively calm and at home I feel in communities and places where there's a kind of localism that isn't completely based on geography, culture or even language. For now, here's a picture of Megan, Sarah and Mark enjoying mint tea and translocal conversation:

Eventually, Megan and Sarah had to head on their way, and Mark and I wandered down the road to Cafe De Jaren for some lunch and to meet Jaap Blonk, Rozalie Hirs, Samuel Vriezen, and Frank Keizer. Mark blogged in some detail about the sound, music and poetry work that all of these writers do. I began thinking more about some of my own attempts to work with sound and music in recent performances--some more interesting than others, obviously--and again came to the conclusion that I would like to work with some of the languages I know other than English. But how? Well, we'll see. I'm looking forward to playing with some of these ideas when I start at UCSD in the fall.

After lunch, Rozalie had to head off, but Samuel, Jaap, and Frank took us over to Poëzie Perdu (above), a bookstore and performance space that hosts writers, musicians and other artists throughout the year. There's a fairly extensive archive of podcasts from previous events on the website. Here's a picture of Frank and Samuel showing us around the bookstore, which left me wishing that I could read Dutch, and also eager to start some translation projects from languages that I actually can read:

That afternoon, we wandered back to our apartment via the red-light district, which was noticeably full of British people and actually quite tame. In the evening, we headed back to the edge of that same district for dinner, where I ordered a "goat cheese burger" that ended up being made entirely of cheese, instead of just a burger with goat cheese on top of it. Next to us at the restaurant was a table of about six or seven standardly handsome young men who kept up a running commentary of all the women who walked by. They were offensive, but I liked how the moved between Dutch and a very American style English. After dinner we went into another brown cafe for some jenevers. You can see the old bottles of genever in the window of this picture:

As I've already said, I'm glad that we went to Amsterdam, and I'm glad that we managed to connect with so many writers and artists there--not an easy thing to do during the summer when many people are on vacation and out of town. Since this post has taken me forever to write, I'm now going to try and end it quickly (and gradually correct typos later): I loved being in Amsterdam, was really excited by the poets and musicians I met and could easily see living there.

In the next few days I'll post something about Brussels!