I have lived in many places in my brief duration on this blue planet. Something I find really fun is to experience a place I live as if for the first time. By this, I mean that I often see the sights in a place when someone comes to visit. In Arizona, we take people to Sedona and the Grand Canyon. In Massachusetts, we go into Boston to see the swans at Boston Common, try different foods at Faneuil Hall, and walk around the wharf, the old cemetery on Cobb’s hill, and the narrow streets of the North End.
In some of the places where I have lived, I have felt like both a resident and tourist. In time, any place can begin to feel like home. My photos from Mali reveal an existence akin to taking root in a national geographic magazine, but after six months it felt like just another place where I lived. I don’t mean “just” in the negative sense, as if the wonder had been zapped from my everyday life. I mean that my everyday life had become just that, everyday life.
I wouldn’t say that I have felt like I belong in most of the places I lived, but I have felt like a part of the tapestry, albeit a temporary one. Imagine an inexpensive but beautiful scarf. It keeps you warm and fashionable while you are traveling, but it doesn’t hold up very well to the wear and tear of life. For me, once that scarf begins to unravel, it’s time to move on to the next place on the list.
Living on the outer edge of Brussels, I have come to really enjoy excursions into the “big city” when friends and family visit. Now that our adopted husky can stay home alone for more than 10 minutes, I have also begun to go for little wanderings on my own.
I went for such a wandering walk (wandeling in Dutch) this afternoon. The weather has been beautiful, although I can feel the change in season already starting. The summer feels tired with all of that work of sun shining and plants growing. I can feel the beginnings of autumn stirring. While fall is my favorite time of year, I do not feel psychologically prepared to think about the approach of winter. I haven’t felt the warmth of the sun for long enough to be ready to wear a sweater.
I love discovering a place from a new perspective. I have walked around Brussels many times in the nearly three years I have lived here, and each time I manage to find many new perspectives from familiar locales. I also enjoy finding new routes and becoming more comfortable walking around without constantly checking the Google maps app on my phone.
This afternoon, I took bus 17 to tram 8 al the way to its terminus (eindpunt) at Louise, the big fancy pants shopping street, to return a couple of shirts I bought during the July sales.
Side note: while in the United States there are sales on top of sales on top of sales, in Europe there are two big sales events each year, both in months that begin with J. January and July. Years ago, I remember it being only January, and a friend told me that the addition of July was perhaps the result of crashing economies and the desire to encourage people to shop. Trust, people in Europe do not seem to need more encouragement to consume, myself included (guilty as charged).
After I returned the two shirts (and didn’t buy anything else!), I wandered up toward Porte Namur and realized I could turn left and walk down to the main square where many of the art museums are housed.
I took a closer photo of a Blue Tit (bird species not human anatomy) wall mural and walked on.
I saw a scarf with birds on it in one shop window and a 40% off sign next to it. This presented a conundrum. I literally have very little self-control when something is either on sale or free. However, the fact that the tag was placed so that the price was hidden (for the scarf and everything else in the window) plus the placement of the shop just around the corner from posh shop avenue made it think that I had no business walking in because everything would be insanely overpriced and it would be clear that I did not belong.
In this case, not belonging in a shop where a small scarf costs 149euros (I did go finally decide to go in because I like things with birds on them and I like scarves) is actually really ok by me. The shopkeeper was entirely friendly and explained that I could take 60euros off with the 40% discount. I did not tell him that I thought the original price was insane and that the scarf was not even worth the 60euros I could take off. I just told him I really liked it and would think about it and to have a lovely afternoon.
I do really wonder about how and why people spend so much on material things. Don’t get me wrong; I go through phases where I buy several new articles of clothing or jewelry, particularly during sale season. However, I have trouble understanding how a basic backpack by Fjallraven (the brand with the super adorable fox logo) can cost 130 euros (which is even more in $$).
So, it was no for the bird scarf.
I stopped into another tiny shop a few doors because I saw a little toiletry case marked “soldes” (on sale) in the window and the price, which was not extreme or bank account breaking. The toiletry case had penguins on it, and I had been looking for a case and was reminded of one of my favorite songs, which I wrote with a young girl at a workshop I offered when I was working as a park ranger in Lowell, Massachusetts (now many years ago). I call it “The Happy Song,” but to write it I asked the little girl about the things she didn’t like because those seemed to come more readily than the things that made her happy. Everything unfolded from there. My favorite line comes in the build up to the chorus:
What makes me happy?
Penguins make me happy
How they lay on their belly
And they slide into the water
So good. And this case had penguins on it! Penguins make me happy.
The shopkeeper was hilarious. When I asked if I could see the toiletry case, she said no. I was like, oh ok. Then she started laughing and said of course I could see it. As a child, I was the kid who looked up when one of my peers told me, “Gullible is written on the ceiling,” so she got. I told her, “Bien joué” (well-played), and I meant it.
After I paid for the case, she offered me a candy, and I said I didn’t really eat candy but thank you. Wait, she said, I think I have something better. She went to the back and brought back a box of waffles. Definitely better.
I left with my waffle, and then I found a little gold star on the sidewalk.
Let me say first that any time I do something I am proud of I ask my husband if I get a prize. Typically, I will ask, “Do I get a gold star?” to which he will (of course) respond in the affirmative.
Let me also say that I only recently began to question how/why I have this affinity for gold stars, particularly as I come from a long line of Jews and I would not exist if my relatives had not fled Eastern Europe just before the Second World War. Just saying, this epiphany has given me pause and a more than a few moments of metaphorical head scratching.
I wandered down the street until I recognized the museum facades in the distance. From this new route, I was able to get a photo of a mural on the side of a building that I had been admiring for a long time. I was also able to experience the city from a new perspective.
In the sunshine, it is easy to love Brussels. I felt a warmth and heart opening moment as I waited to cross the street and to the museum.
This is my home, my city, even if it is for only a short while, I thought. I felt pride at being a part of a beautiful place.
I loved being able to walk into the museum and be handed a free ticket (remember, I love free things. I could make a Jewish joke here, but I already mentioned the gold star).
The stranger experience was to be told I could not bring my small canvas bag into the museum and that I had to put it in a locker. I learned on free swimming day at our local pool that you need a one or two euro coin in order to use the lockers at any venue. Since it was free pool day, I hadn’t brought any actual real money with me. I wandered around the locker room for about 10 minutes, completely overwhelmed and confused by the entire locker room culture and rules. Then, I gave up and went home.
Even though I understand locker protocol at this point, I still hadn’t brought any coins with me. In the end, it didn’t matter because it was free museum day and August, when Europeans all go on holiday (which they take very seriously here), so all of the lockers were in use anyway. Following the crowd, I brought my bag to the coat check. I took out my wallet, phone, and a small package of tissues, and the man handed me a small plastic bag.
C’est plus efficace, he explained. (It is more efficient).
Mon sac est plus efficace, I responded. (My bag is more efficient).
What can you do? Rules are rules. In general, I am not one for rules. I did get detention for refusing to stand up to do the pledge of allegiance in elementary school, but with more time on the planet I have learned to pick my battles. And I wanted to see the Pieter Bruegel and Léon Spilliaert paintings.
So again, here is a country trying to go green, and I was stuck with another plastic bag that was not even shaped in such a way as to be able to pick up dog poop with it (though I would probably give it a try anyway).
I had decided to go to the Old Masters section of the permanent exhibits. It’s the 450th anniversary of Bruegel, so there is a lot of pomp and circumstance around the city to honor the artist.
On my way, I passed a really cool exhibit in a small room off to the left before the staircase that led to the Old Masters collection. There were small paintings, but it was the bird statues in silver that I gravitated toward. I particularly loved the two pigeons, which had been mounted on the wall.
I can’t say that the majority of the paintings from this era do a whole lot for me. They are super dark in color. The expressions on people’s faces are somber. Take this woman, presenting a man’s head to someone of royal status. She looks fairly dispassionate about it, and the dog at the foot of the royal person just sleeps through the entire affair.
Then there are the endless mother and child portraits. Two in particular were fairly entertaining. The child, who looks just like mom/an old man and who cannot be more than a year old, actively reading along.
Or the child who looks completely exhausted having just somehow pushed out an entire apple while the parents look on with pride and joy at their progeny’s accomplishment.
The scenes can also take on a fairly dark and freaky nature, as with several of the Bruegel. Fish with bodies cut open and creatures crawling out.
When my dad came for a visit in May, we had gone to another of the Bruegel anniversary exhibits and proclaimed that we were very thankful to not have been born during that era of human history.
When I texted my husband about the dark nature of the scenes, he responded, Life was freaky then, too!
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
I was particularly scandalized by the wedding night painting with a man who was, let’s just say, very excited to be dancing with the woman across from him.
What I found most fascinating about the Old Masters section of the museum was the experience of witnessing modern technology juxtaposed beside the ancient. Here were paintings from long ago with museum visitors taking non-stop photos with the full range of iPhone technology.
I found myself distracted and wanting to take photos of the people taking photos rather than intensely studying the paintings. It was too distracting to really spend time with the paintings as a result of the non-stop photographing going on anyway.
I texted my husband that it seemed like every day was museum selfie day, so perhaps there should be a day when phones were confiscated instead. It was strange to see people sitting on benches, surrounded by art and instead focused intently on the tiny, lit screens of their smartphones. (Of course, I took photos of these people as well). I also was not an exception to the rule in terms of taking photos of artwork. I literally could not help myself. I took a photo of everything I really liked, all the while wondering why and if I would ever actually look at the photos at a future time.
I did enjoy the Bruegel room and the surprise Bruegel I found in a few other rooms. I loved that there seemed to always be dogs and birds in each painting. Some of the dogs were free roaming while others were led around in intense chains.
Those will be the ones to rebel and eat their masters, I thought.
There were some very enigmatic statues and busts around the Old Masters exhibit as well. I felt just awful for the poor goat having its ears pulled by the little cheeky angels. I LOVED the seated woman, resting with her violin. From the side, you could even see the violin swirl design on her seat. The statue of the woman bent over carrying a rock was a bit close to home, reminding me of the burden I carry from life with depression, Complex PTSD, and anxiety. I felt a kinship with this small person, destined to forever carry this burden. It is my hope to someday get to the other end of the PTSD tunnel and be more free in my mind and body. Of course, I also felt a connection to the statue of Diana the huntress with her dog.
One statue of a little girl was too haunting to photograph. I was afraid that she might actually follow me home if I took her portrait, so I bowed to her and carried on…quickly. The busts of a man and woman side by side reminded me of a couple who had been married so long they couldn’t bear to even look at one another, no less directly at the photographer.
Rounding a corner, I went into a room with paintings that depicted quite vividly the literal battle among animals for any food they could scrounge. Again, I breathed a sigh of gratitude to be born into a time when I can grab a cliff bar to bring with me in case I need a snack without worrying about being attacked by another organism when I take it out to munch on.
A haphazard glance out into a stairwell revealed the strangest of the modern exposés that were installed in forgotten corners of the same floor. Two yellow eyes looked intensely back at me. I snapped a photo and returned to the fighting animal paintings, which seemed like the “safer” or less dangerous of the two options. I did not want to be caught alone with those eyes in the stairwell.
And did she ever return? No, she never returned…
Ok, so looking at the photo now I see that the eyes are not yellow, but they definitely are yellow in my memory!
My favorite works were found in the Fin du Siecle exhibit in the deep bowels of the museum. I did not find the painting I had been wanting to see because I was tired after an hour and a half and knew I should get back to free the husky, but I loved that there were so many paintings and sculptures by Belgian artists. Rik Wouters is one of my favorites. I discovered him shortly after moving to Belgium when there was a temporary exhibit devoted to his work at this same museum. He lived in the Coin du Balai neighborhood where my husband and I have been living for more than two years now, and he painted the forest where I walk every day with my husky. We can walk around the neighborhood and see the houses with plaques on them, denoting the places he lived with his wife. Sadly, he died tragically young and from a horribly painful cancer of the jaw. His sculptures are among the most poignant I have seen in my travels around the world. I loved one that I loved so much that I scoured the Internet in search of a small replica. I even tried contacting art sites, but I think I may not have explained my intention very well in my rusty French because one person said that if I were trying to buy replicas then he would have to report me for art fraud. That pretty much put an end to my search.
I picked out far too many postcards at the museum gift shop and then, fretted at the crosswalk because the light seemed to be taking forEVER to change to the green walking man, and the hustled to the bus stop.
The blissful peace I had experienced at the Fin du Siècle exhibit, which was far quieter than the Old Masters, was fast replaced by the triggers of public transit. I had seen an aisle seat, but the man in front of me sat there and refused to move over. I wound up in an aisle seat next to a man who kept coughing like he had the plague, and I eventually sat in one of the folding seats reserved for people with strollers, seniors, or individuals with a handicap. An older woman with a crutch sat down next to me and reached for the bar on my left, essentially placing her arm immediately in front o my face. So much for avoiding claustrophobia. I plugged into This American Life, practiced deep breathing, and hoped for the best (which for me is that the ride moves a little more quickly than usual—unlikely—and that I don’t scream at anyone).
There was a bit of a lag between bus 95 and 17, so I walked a ways, which helped create a bit of peace in my anxiety-riddled body and mind. I always feel better when I am moving, and the further from the city and closer to the trees I get, the more at peace as well.
Once home, I breathed a sigh of relief and freed the husky. We went for our own short wandeling around the neighborhood, and I thought about Rik Wouters and his wife, living here years ago.