To the Hotel Admiral

Arriving at night at a Western airport is quite a standardized affair. There’s the man in orange vest assigning taxis to the scarce queuing travelers. There’s the taxi duly speeding to a notorious business hotel. Though standardization does have its limits: the taxi-man guessed my language wrong (and somehow a hearty ”Gruss Gott” does not make one feel particularly welcome in non-German speaking country).

And then there’s the landscape one gets to admire through the taxi-window : desolate highways and uniform glass buildings with on top the neon-signs of all the global brands of the world (ah how reassuring, they have Nokia here too, and Samsung!, and Philips!).

One is dropped off in front of a hotel, makes one’s way to the reception. Where one is greeted by smiling hotel staff – their professional friendliness in my case mixed with a hint of cautiousness and surprise. Well it’s true, I don’t particularly dress the business part. And whenever I do try to act like a self-important business-person, something horribly exposes me as a fraud: either the lack of credit card as such (which happened on my first business trip) or the sheer lack of decorum (once when I smugly drew my credit-card in a restaurant, my companion giggled “oh, is that your bus-pass?” upon seeing the neat blue plastic card holder).

In the hotel-room a flickering screen announces “Welcome Mrs XXX” . One takes a shower and then, finally, the day’s duties fulfilled, one can let slacken discipline. Lying stretched out on the bed, escaping from worldly worries and oneself in a hesitating, groping, and ultimately redeeming Bruckner-symphony (blessed be portable CD-players, yes, mine is a Philips :))

In the morning one pulls the curtains and is surprised to look out over a harbor – rippling water, a luminous grey sky tinged with an orange glow. And oh yes, what a nicely renovated room, with those wooden beams, and hey is that a true ship’s chest.

Clearly, here’s a hotel that does play its part, as stated on their website
“ With its exposed beams and thick walls, Admiral Hotel’s listed warehouse building from 1787 creates a unique setting for exquisite cuisine, a lounge designed in international style and rooms with a true atmosphere of timeless quality.”

Breakfast in the restaurant at first does not feel very timeless, what with all those keen early-rising businessmen taking in calories and caffeine to fight their business-battles. But hey, isn’t that a little canon there in the corner? A replica or real one? How cute. Would I be allowed to pat it on its back? This little canon surely is there to remind us of the “barrage of British naval attacks” the hotel’s brochure mentioned when describing the site’s momentous history.

Over breakfast I browse though the TS Eliot book I smuggled in. And chance upon an essay on Tradition in the arts. How moving, poetry’s outstanding modernist pleading for “the historical sense”, involving “a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence”. So yes, now I begin to understand how the postmodernist attitude differs utterly from the early 20th century modernist sensibility. Modernists like Eliot and Proust were radical innovators, but intimately familiar with the traditions whose passing they mourn .

Whereas postmodernism merely plays with the fragments of the past – frivolously quoting without empathy, and certainly without mourning.
Postmodernism is a renovated hotel “decorated in international style” , with a few rustic beams here, a canon in a corner there.

Airports Anonymous

It hardly matters which airport it was – airports do not contain the essence of a city as stations used to do (*). At the most airport-names evoke a particular level of stress and complexity on the international airports scale. Airport experiences are interchangeable and strangely separated from the memories of the voyage they enclose.

That chaos in the Florence airport 10 years ago has nothing to do with the memory of a near deserted, dimly lit Uffizi by night. The 6 hours wait in a Frankfurt airport is now a hazy memory of killing time and smoking cigarettes outside eternally opening & closing glass doors, but which trip was that again?

This time the 4 hours wait due to a delay was spent wandering about the many covered corridors and spaces in this European airport. All those people walking by, all those languages, but despite their variety of origins they all seem to look & act the same, pulling their hand-luggage on wheels with one hand, holding their mobile in the other. The stream of loudspeaker announcements spewing out international destinations and names in polite airport- English, it could be anywhere.

At airports people uniformly seem to fend off boredom by eating, drinking, shopping and shopping (they're not even allowed to smoke anymore). Brightly lit shops with international brands. Brightly lit eating areas offering an international range of fast foods ( granted, with the occasional local flavor or attempt at sophistication).

Most airports have given up all aesthetic pretense and are just content to be blatantly transient structures. They are the nowhere places par excellence, lacking individual style and identity. But as such they are emblematic for the driving forces of the present age: Business, Pleasure, Shopping.

And it is no doubt symptomatic of my own temporal out-of-step- ness that I still get slightly depressed by the harsh truths airports thus flaunt:

1) Shopping is our ultimate need, vindicated by our innermost hunting and gathering instincts.
2) We clearly prefer to spend endless waiting hours in gaudy shopping halls instead of withdrawing in a quiet, pleasantly decorated room (to read Proust, for instance).
3) The main legacy of western civilization to the world is frantic consumerism (and not Proust, for instance).

A naïve lament, I know. But once upon time higher hopes were cherished for the human race. They say that such luminaries as Bertrand Russell and Hannah Arendt really thought that thanks to our higher economic productivity, people would wisely spend one half of their day working and then dedicate the other half to the contemplative life. Well, it didn’t quite turn out like that…

(*) Proust – Noms de pays : le pays : “l’opération mystérieuse qui s’accomplissait dans ces lieux spéciaux, les gares, lesquels ne font pas partie pour ainsi dire de la ville mais contiennent l’essence de sa personnalité de même que sur un écriteau signalétique elles portent son nom »

And now for a real city ....

After the bucolic & ecclesiastical delights of Salisbury and the neo-classical nobilities of Bath – it was about time to get a dose of real city grittiness. But without, of course, letting slacken my keen interest in traces and traditions of the past.

No really, I’m endlessly fascinated by the different layers of life a city has on offer. Not only in terms of the available range in contemporary life-styles but also in terms of the past modes of thinking and living that have shaped a city.

And Bristol surely is a fascinating case in point. Now I only spent a day there, so I can merely relate the most fleeting of impressions, which are set in a framework consisting of a few haphazardly collected commonplaces about Bristol and a personal penchant for cities marked by the 19th Century.
So, armed with these prejudices, I boarded the train from Bath to Bristol. Upon alighting there I was met by the invigorating hustle & bustle of a busy station on Saturday (clearly to be distinguished from the commotion on a Workday! Oh yes, even without calendar one could sense the typical mood of a “station-on-Saturday”, just by the sheer expectant joyousness thrilling in the crowds).

A guide book had already alerted me to the fact that the Old Station nearby had been designed by the flamboyant 19C engineer Brunel and overall I knew that Bristol had triumphantly come upon prosperous times again, after struggling with the inevitable decline of a port city that acquired its riches with 18C trade (including the ignominious slave trade) and 19C industry.

And you just have to leave the station and walk for a mile to see it all with your own eyes – the pompousness of a station that resembles a medieval castle, part of the original station now housing a British empire and Commonwealth museum hosting an exhibit “empire and us” with huge photos outside of smiling contemporary people those who might have second thoughts about said empire (ie a skeptical looking black man, an innocently smiling white girl and other non-whites and/or non-males).

Walking on there’s a desolate feel for 5 minutes or so – the comprehensive urbanistic program has not yet managed to domesticate this piece of no-man’s land: a fenced off burnt-out gas station, weeds growing in cracks in the concrete, deserted warehouses not yet converted into something trendy or entertaining, hideous 70s buildings and road works which force pedestrians out onto the road with cars speeding by. But this impression or urban desolateness doesn’t last long – one soon is met by friendly tourist signs pointing out the sites and giving directions. Pavement & road & sidewalks become trim & neat, all houses seem recently renovated.

And then there’s already the Queen’s Square – a stately and charmingly green square, with signs to alert the innocent pedestrian to its momentous history. Just before getting to the real heart of the city there are the quays – old docks duly reconverted into a leisure paradise – with walking- & cycling-paths and terraces and a tourist office and bars bars bars.
Now of course I welcome this kind of positive urban development, resurrecting docks and buildings fallen into disuse – there’s just a sense of wonder, musing about how all the toil & sweat & suffering of the Industrial Revolution has permitted us to now drink frivolous cocktails and go on pleasure trips in former industrial areas.

Well, I didn’t drink a cocktail, and just ate a proletarian sandwich and drank a sensible cup of tea to fortify myself for the steep uphill climb through a busy shopping street towards the City Museum and Art Galleries . On my way there I was charmed by this typically English cathedral, in grey-brown stone so well-matched with the leafy square in front of it. (autumn really suits English cities! ). And of course I gaped at a posh hotel, so sturdy and solid and with, richly decorated lamps (obligingly lit) behind the bay-windows.

And so many young people around here! and this pervasive sense of activity and optimism! yes an engaging city indeed. But my heart only really did a flip flop upon entering the City Museum – ah, truly a quintessential Victorian museum building!

With just the right measure of pompousness and spaciousness and many stairs and galleries and landings from which to look down and up and sideways. And gleaming copper balustrades, and wide staircases and arches and the names of great painters in bas relief on the walls, surrounded by sculpted laurels. And of course a universal museum: going from Dinosaurs to British Mammals over Assyrian and Egyptian artefacts to a fine collection of Old Master paintings. And how cozy this grand building felt: the radiators oozing warmth, the lamps illuminating dusky interiors, kids swarming about (yeah, when there are dinosaurs to be seen!), people come to see an exhibit on the abolition of slavery also wandering off to the galleries with paintings of dead white males. Yes, a heartwarming museum …

Now I did not go to see the British Mammals nor the Egyptian mummies, I just roamed about the art galleries, enchanted by their dusty Victorian feel : the fading velvety wall-coverings (there is a green room, a bordeaux one, a yellow and a blue one), the creaky wooden floor boards, the shining wooden benches …. The air of genteel poverty in these sublime rooms…. And the quality of those paintings, which this museum hardly touts – no postcards, no catalogue – so one just has to confine to memory those rhythmic contour lines of Holbein, that limpid Venetian landscape on the background of a Solario alterpiece, the Jesus descending into limbo from Giovanni Bellini, that lovely domestic scene from Isenbrandt , the Venetian veduta’s … and much much more.…

So I hardly had any time left for the lovely (& again: deliciously yellowy-leafy) Georgian streets, the laid-back and trendy atmosphere in Clifton (a mix of bohemian chic, student life, and gently decayed bourgeois houses) and the awesome Clifton Suspension Bridge : this amazingly elegant bridge, designed by Brunel, spanning a valley whose depths kindle a dizzying vertigo and whose coloring trees make one sigh yet again with sweet autumnal melancholy.

Yes, Bristol has charmed me, with its regained confidence, with its acknowledgment of its history, with its beauties, with its range of sights & sites, with its bustling activity. A real city indeed.

A Medieval Autumn

Salisbury, the medieval cathedral city . How lovely the contrast when you go there from Bath, with its Georgian calm & grandeur, and its whiff of social sophistication. No such pretenses for Salisbury, its very townscape reflects medieval industry & spirituality.

Walking via a winding road from the small station to the centre, there’s the vivid impression of lots of “busy little things” – narrow streets & alleys fanning out, lopsided one story houses, little shops – yes, this is a piously industrious medieval market town. But, finely drawn against the grey sky, there’s the silent slender silhouette of the Cathedral spire to remind us of things more spiritual.

Despite dominating the town, the Salisbury Cathedral is clearly separate from it. You have to pass a Gate to get to the calm of a Close that is located in its own space with a square and a lawn. The houses of the Close are placed at a respectful distance of the cathedral and convey an air of tranquil gentility. Discreet dwellings that do not disturb the autumnal enchantment of the place: a silent sturdy cathedral, mixing its beige-greys with the autumn hues of the adjacent old trees. A soft drizzle envelops everything in an in-temporal haze…..
How it all fits, one muses, standing on the wet lawn, taking it all in: the mellow grey sky, the black dots of a flight of birds, the old trees, the even older cathedral, the silence ….. It could be autumn here always …. .

Not a bad moment to recall these lines: “come autumn, so pensive, in yellow and grey, and soothe me with tidings of nature’s decay” . And in this case also: tidings of human zeal creating works of art whose relative permanence does not only console the faithful .

A noble paragraph to end with, isn’t it? With an ever so slightly hint of romantic exaltation …
So I’d better not go on then describing the lovely walk to Harnham Hill, along a river path, through gardens and with an idyllic view of the cathedral across the meadows. With sheep grazing (or whatever sheep do in meadows) peacefully, a fisherman throwing out his line in the river, swans congregating at a lock . Etc. Etc.
All very bucolic indeed, which is not my natural blogging mode at all!

The “Bath Season”

Stepping out of the train to Bath , the first of my senses to be delighted was Smell. That crisp autumnal air … spiced with a leafy fragrance…. Ah…. How exhilarating pure air can be! With every deep breath I took, I just felt the London stress seep out of me.

Then my Eyes were to be dazzled: those honey-colored houses, bathing in limpid autumn light and set against a background of lavish old trees with changing colors – patches of golden yellow, soft brown and deep red amongst the tender decaying green. Oh, and hazy hills in the distance, and a bridge over a river! And there: stone stairs flanked by sculpted banisters leading to a park, with elegantly traced paths and full of well tended flower beds.

And more was to come – like the calm & harmonious Great Pulteney Street with its beige neo-classical façades, drawing the eye to the imposing porch and columns of the Holburne museum at the end of it .

But since straight lines, as calmly neo-classical as they may be, can still be too harsh on the eyes of an exhausted urbanite – the Bath architects, in all their wisdom , introduced Curves and Crescents in the cityscape. According to the guidebooks, we owe these curves to the eclectic interests of the leading 18th century Bath-architect, John Wood , who was not only formed by neo-classical tradition but also passionate about Celtic and Druid culture – centered on the Moon and magic circles etc).

And what a soothing delight it is, to take in those gentle curves and those subtly varied neo-classical façades. Be it on a square (well a round square) dominated by a giant plane tree (the Circus), or on a curving street (the Royal Crescent) looking out over an undulating lawn …. One wanders about, feasting one’s eyes, futilely brandishing one’s camera to capture the delight of rhythmed space . Yes, this truly is “architecture of happiness” !

And how about the sense of Touch? Oh it is stimulated all right, and tantalizingly so …. There is something so tactile about that soft limestone used in the Bath houses. Now as to Taste: hmm, I will not comment on the English Cuisine, so suffice it to say that it is lovely to drink English Tea in a refurbished Georgian tearoom.
Exhaustiveness now demands I cover all the senses - So there: Hearing, well, actually: the silence! The relative silence of course, in comparison with other, car-infected cities. And the joy to hear the echoing cries of a couple of seagulls (seagulls yes, would they follow the river land-inwards from the sea?)

And the Sixth Sense! Well, if that is the sense of imagination, of Memory & Desire, then Bath’s the place to be. You can imagine Romans taking their Hot Baths or worshipping in their temple (the “Roman Baths" – a fascinating trip into history).
Or, just walking around in town, you can imagine a Jane Austen character strolling about – pensively (if it’s Persuasion’s Anne Elliot who “watched, observed , reflected” – or full of eager delight (if it’s Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland who “was come to be happy, and she felt happy already”). Truth be told: according to Austen scholars, Jane Austen herself, despite enjoying previous visits there, did not like actually living in Bath.

Anyway, you could also flash back to the consummate Dandy and 18th Century social trend-setter Richard “Beau” Nash . Or you could just walk and walk and breathe and look and see and stop brooding and just picture yourself as a happy person enjoying the “Bath season”.

The Nineteenth Century, Belgian pride and an Art Robbery

Ok, I confess: I’ve a weakness for cities that flourished in the 19th century and have since withered away. At some point they have disconnected from the economical upward march and so have been less exposed to the onslaught of the perpetually new. Bearing visibly the imprint of past times, they are a destination of choice for those who cherish traces of lost traditions. But, mind you, those cities themselves do not necessarily appreciate this melancholic attention, they’d rather be lauded for their present day successes.

Take Verviers for instance, a city located between Liège and the Ardennes, 1.5 hour away from Brussels by train. The city knew its heyday in the 19th Century, when the introduction of new industrial techniques propelled its Wool industry to international prominence. But from the 1950s onwards global industrial competition provoked the inexorable decline of Verviers’s industries. And it’s only in the nineties that economic activity has slowly regained ground in the services sector. But even now unemployment in the Verviers districts remains above 15%.

Visiting an Industrial Revolution city is of course best done by rail – if only to be impressed by the grandeur & beauty of its station. Oh yes, once upon a time engineers wanted to emulate cathedrals when building stations, once upon a time engineers still had an aesthetic sensibility…. The Verviers station, built in the twenties, is a case in point. Its monumental grandeur is imposing, the texture of its materials is heart-warming. Ah, how charming are those dully gleaming tiles, how tantalizingly tactile the porous-ness of those bricks. And the sheer strength & elegance of iron! The warmth of that glowing wood …. Hmmm, & then that soupcon of art deco grace in the station hall …

Upon leaving the station, one is at once conquered by Verviers’ particular charm: its mix of bourgeois sturdiness and Spa-frivolousness (the eponymous Ardennes-town, Spa, is only 30 minutes away!) . There’s a certain Spa architecture that recalls sophisticated pleasures of times past as well as simpler & fonder childhood memories ( well at least for all those who as a kid modestly went on vacation in the Belgian Ardennes, as I did).

Ah, and everywhere the remains of that Belle Epoque architecture. Buildings whose pompousness is redeemed by the playfulness of their decorations, the sensual roundness of their forms. Buildings full of reminiscences of a bourgeois culture with hints of bohemian artfulness. And the slight touch of neglect and decline of course atones for any associations with rapacious capitalism.

And then, oh really one does fall in love on the spot! : a little park next to the railway tunnel. Smelling very much like autumn, with its wet leaves and its damp earth. And with of course endearingly irrelevant statues celebrating the worthy burghers of the past.
And for those with a weak spot for Belgium and the symbols of its unity: in the park there’s a puny little tree, well fenced off, and with a sign that tells us it has been planted there in 1994 by “the Verviers section of the dynastic movement at the occasion of the 1st anniversary of the passing away of his majesty King Baudouin I” – especially poignant in these troubled times , with Belgium’s sheer existence threatened by separatism (Flemish versus Walloon)….

And yes, The Economist got it all wrong when writing that Belgians are completely indifferent to the demise of their State, witness the silent statement of more and more Belgian flags adorning the houses of a people not usually prone to flag-waving. But then, The Economist has been wrong before (predicting further oil price declines when it was at 10$ a barrel, supporting the Iraq war, ….).
And well, The Economist just shares this peculiar British blindness for all things Belgian. In blatant ignorance of the origins of Charlemagne, Charles Martel, the emperor Charles V, the Flemish Primitives (with for example Rogier de la Pasture/Rogier van der Weyden ), the Franco-Flemish Polyphonists (eg with Josquin des Prez, Orlando Lassus, …), Rubens, Van Dyck (Sir Anthony taught the British how to paint) they gleefully repeat these territories have hardly ever spawn anything noteworthy . (ok ok they did mention the saxophone, Tintin and surrealism - but not mentioning Justine Henin, the global nr 1 in women's tennis, is clearly proof of their bad faith!).

Anyway, perhaps it’s due to a certain imperial British-ness, this incapacity to grasp the attraction of the Belgian concept: a specimen of 19th century nation building, hosting within its borders a rich and varied history which continually spills over into other countries’ histories (is it the Netherlands ? Is it Burgundy? Is it the Holy Roman Empire? Is it the seat of the Spanish empire?). Utterly lacking chauvinism, without delusions of grandeur (except once, with Leopold II … ), but bustling with diversity and inner contradictions – the Belgian nationality is a truly ironical nationality. So yes, I sincerely hope the currently competing streaks of Flemish nationalism and Walloon stubbornness will not rob me of my cherished non-nationality!

But I digress - back to Verviers, with its terraces on a leafy square, its fountains, surrounded by hills, sparkling in soft autumnal light. Yes, enough to entertain that pleasing illusion of a civilized savoir-vivre, Belle Epoque style. But having lunch in a run-down tavern that oozes grandeur déchue, overhearing conversations, watching people’s style and gait in the suspiciously crowded streets during a weekday, one senses the struggle with unemployment and poverty. . . This is no longer a bourgeois town, nor an elegant Spa….

But it does have a delightful municipal museum (musée des beaux arts) in an old hospice. Nothing dusty or ramshackle about this provincial museum, its collection of European paintings and sculptures (and of internationally ceramics, but I am not a ceramics person at all) is carefully & lovingly presented. Oh what joy to stand face to face with a Pietro Lorenzetti , one of those Madonna’s with angels and fathers of the church against a gilded background. Or fall under the spell of the bluest of night blues on a Patinir landscape. Be touched by the fleeting flair of a child’s head painted by Joshua Reynolds. Find comfort in the maternal gaze of a sturdy, seated wooden Madonna …

The tale of the two guards of this endearing little museum was all the more pathetic. They had received me with all égards, quite impressed by a visitor all the way from Brussels …. When asking me to leave my bag at the desk, they explained how they had been robbed twice. One of the guards, following me in all my steps, told with trembling voice how the robbery had taken place, during just 2 minutes of his being on another floor …. Ah, the world is unjust, robbing this sweet little museum of one of its treasures and this dear man of his night rest…

A slice of Paris life: listening to a leaf falling down.

Forget the crowds in the Musée Orsay and get your impressions elsewhere, hassle-free.

Imagine Paris on a brilliant autumn day …… and picture yourself sitting in a quiet garden, sipping your tea while a whiff of Chopin drifts by. This is possible, also for the communs des mortels, in the Musée de la Vie romantique (“Museum of Romantic Life”).

To go there, I advise you (by way of contrast & to augment your subsequent pleasure) to get out at the Pigalle metro-stop. Take in the traffic-noise, savor the shabby looks of all the sex-shops & cabarets congregated there (& gaudy neon lights do look particularly pathetic in crisp autumn light). Cast a pitiful look at the bleary-eyed tourists having their petit déjeuner amidst the exhaust-fumes, and head then down the Rue de Pigalle.

Following the signs to the museum, you’ll soon end up in the Rue Chaplet, where you will see a big old tree sheltering an alley. Going through the cobble-stoned passageway you’ll then find yourself in the quiet of a courtyard, looking at a charming little house with green blinds and awnings. It’s the house of a French romantic painter (Ary Scheffer) who received fellow romantic artists there such as the composer Chopin, the painter Delacroix, the writer (and his neighbor) George Sand.

Ah, George Sand – such an icon of artistry, romanticism and feminism alike. George_Sand. ....A woman strolling about Paris in men’s clothes, writing a host of novels, having affairs with Chopin, Liszt .... So it’s only fitting that this house, now turned into a museum of the Romantic Life, dedicates most of its rooms to souvenirs, portraits and furniture having belonged to her.

And don’t anybody now dare to imagine a stuffy boring old-fashioned museum! Even those who’ve never heard of George Sand will not fail to fall under the spell of this lovely little house. It is a spell of romantic make-believe – light softly filtering through the blinds, creaking wooden floors, pastiche époque decorations on the wall …. . The eye is seduced by flickering candle light (the candles are electric, but they do flicker! and I swear there’s a true candle smell hanging about …) and mysterious reflections in gilded mirrors. The heart is stirred by cascading piano-notes – Chopin nocturnes & berceuses playing on the background.….

This enchanted place also offers a garden – a “Salon de The” with iron tables & wooden chairs, where you can sit and meditate & imagine George Sand opening the blinds while Chopin plays the piano ….

Now maybe you think that one enchanted garden is not enough to redeem stressed out & noisy Paris city life. Well, there’s yet another isle of calm to discover - this one situated in the busiest district on the left bank.

The Rue de Furstenberg is right off the devilishly hectic Boulevard Saint Germain. Behind a little church you’ll find a street and a little square dominated by a tree – and with an almost magical atmosphere of quiet . At nr 6 is a small Delacroix-museum, housed in his former atelier. The house is renovated, the collection competently curated (though not that many noteworthy pieces are on display) – in all its neatness it somewhat lacks the playful charm of the Vie Romantique Museum. But it has a garden,...…. with big trees, and walled in by other houses – all blocking out urban noises. A delicious place to go and sit on a bench, look at the clear blue sky and listen to a leaf falling down….

Tips on other isles of calm in Paris are of course very welcome – we could then compile “un guide parisien du calme (et du luxe et de la volupté) ”

The North Star

Sorry, no nightly sky gazing in this post. Just some early morning gazing from a bus stop, at a shabby sandwich bar on the other side of the road.

A foggy early morning, waiting for the bus, lost in thoughts, staring at the neon lit interior of a sandwich bar. How warmly it lights up in the grey drizzle, that harsh neon light. How soothing & familiar, this pantomime of people ordering breakfast, of a waitress swiftly operating the coffee machine. Two traffic wardens in orange vests are sipping their coffee at the counter, leaving the nearby crossing at the mercy of the rush hour.

The fading painted sign above the bar’s window reads “L’Etoile du Nord”/ “The North Star”. Whoever called this bar like that? Did he or she foresee that its glow might indeed one grey morning fortify a weary bus traveler?


Wellll, it didn’t look too good – woke at 4 AM, lay there turning & brooding till 7.30. Got up grumpily, armed for the day with nothing but a headache& a giant grudge against the world, its people, and myself.

Over a cup of tea I then miserably read a few pages of a revoltingly ugly post-modern text on art history – no, I don’t want my love of art history deconstructed! Art history is not just a plot of the ruling classes to fabricate a glorious past … it is about diving for beauty and meaning in the past. But granted, even this laboriously post-modern text yielded some nuggets of wisdom, such as, “the past framed as an object of historical desire”. I like that, “historical desire”!. And what about the “semantic carrying capacity” of art objects - endearing really, art objects as containers with a certain carrying capacity for meaning.

But still, not yet the kind of dazzling insights that would make my day. That was reserved for a fellow Flickr- member. Not only she faved & commented kindly upon some of my photos there, but also she was the first to not assign me straight away to the female-gender-box.

Let me explain: I had been delighted that Flickr allowed for not identifying one’s gender (or even opting for the delightful category “other”). And those remotely self-portraying photos I had posted, had been carefully selected for their gender-ambiguity. I had wanted my Flickr-persona to consist of nothing but fleeting, un-gendered shadows and reflections. But up till today the ambiguity seemed to exist in my mind only … fellow-Flickrites unfailingly referring to me as “sis”, “lady” etc….

Until Hurray! Hurray! , this morning’s reply that read “thank you good Sir”. Well, we ain’t there yet of course, because my aim after all was to be un- identifiable as either man or woman. But even so, this “Sir” after the “Sis” is just the kind of confusion I like!

A Rainy Day

A rainy autumn day can be so full of promises of urban delights. So, while sipping my tea and peering out in the grey damp morning, I just knew this was going to be a perfect day to go to Antwerp – a city still carrying a whiff of the Northern port romance so suited to lone rambles through the rain.

– Surely y’all now fondly remember that iconic street-photo of a lonely sailor ambling through rainy Brest (“Il pleuvait sur Brest ce jour-là), huddled in his sailor-coat, a wet cigarette dangling from his lips. In my early twenties (on a train tour of European port-cities) I actually went to Brest, looking in vain, alas, for port-romance in a very unromantic city – but I did redeem my stay there by sending a sailor-postcard to a love-sick gay friend back home. –

But well, back to the present day rain and over to riding a bus, packed with people & umbrellas. Hmmm the romance of a bus on a rainy day! J With its clouded windows through which one glimpses trails of shimmering lights. And with its cozy silence – people do seem to be less unpleasantly boisterous when it rains, folded as they are into their coats, absorbed in their head-phone music, already bracing themselves to step out again in a gust of rain.

So I admit, to me this dark and dripping world feels quite sheltering, benign even in its glimmering hazy-ness, so different from the inquisitive glare of a brighter day. What could be more soothing than the permanence of that swooshy rainy noise that envelops everything? And what more elegant than the spectacle of people moving gingerly through the streets, avoiding puddles & umbrella clashes …

I’d set out for an Antwerp gallery tour, and this one brave gallery had not joined its peers in the gentrified Southern part of town, but had settled closer to the Northern districts, near to the former port (the actual port is now so hugely industrial that it has moved out of the roaming circle of a pedestrian Antwerp visitor).

It had been some 20 years since I last wandered through this neighborhood (am again referring to my twenties’ infatuation with the romance of urban decay) and I was surprised to see how little it had changed. Yes, some streets had been overhauled, some squares spruced up – but there was still that peculiar atmosphere of oddly provincial cosmopolitanism: cafés catering to locals and seamen, bric à brac stores hovering between old-fashioned grocery stores and discount import-export stores. Not at all the aggressive & anonymous atmosphere of for example run down station districts full of temporary shops and thrills. Rather a typically Antwerp, folksy local flavor - from the lopsided two story houses over the Flemish shop signs to the Antwerp dialect spoken by un-hurried passers-by.

Wandering about, I managed to get lost for a while, ending up in a no man’s land of criss-crossing highways, car dealer showrooms, bland-faced buildings. A desolate landscape under a threatening sky, cars noisily speeding by. And on came a strange elation, almost akin to the sensations triggered by the spectacle of a thunderous fiery sea. I felt happy too, in these stark surroundings, unburdened by expectations.

Then I drifted back to town, shivering in the grey drizzle, hands in coat pockets, just like the lonely men prowling these streets. Um, rather many lonely men prowling these streets … Well, either they were heading for the red-lights district or else just innocently taking a stroll from the nearby seamen’s house (7.5 EUR for lunch and 22 EUR for a room, prices “on presentation of a valid seamen’s book).

Oh I did get to take my gallery tour too! And it was lovely to discover the latest work of Bert De Beul: small black watercolor images arranged in pairs. He paints the presence of objects and rooms and buildings when we are not there, their contrasts and shadows. And he paints them with such a caring attention …. charging their banality and emptiness with meaning, or longing, or remembrance?
I loved peering at those intensely silent images, arranged slightly askew in their frame. If comparisons have to be made: something like a cross between Hopper (but in B&W) and Xavier Mellery (early 20th century Belgian artist who drew and painted l’âme des choses).

And then I finally ended up in the trendy South-district, did some galleries there too. And had to flee from one: with its gaudy red carpet, its loud Astor Piazzola music, a gallery keeper who stuck out the price list at once, and feeling closed in by paintings of archetypical seductive women in pastel colors or reddish hues.
I took refuge in a trendy café, that is actually more welcoming to unhip people than its trendiness would suggest. With its old-time wooden furniture, the floor tiles, the lamps it has retained a relaxed atmosphere. And the sound-mix is just right for a reader ensconced in his or her book : a blend of music and chatting voices and the general clank & clamor from dishes and cutlery.

And then the rainy day ended with some splashes of late-evening sun, grazing rooftops, dazzling windows and almost drowning out the city’s neon lights.

Introducing Frivolous Fragments

By way of introduction, a brief explanation about my Blog’s title which was chosen for many good reasons, the main ones being:

  • No one can resist a good alliteration, especially on the Very Frivolous Fr
  • Frivolous: a perfect qualifier for any blog of mine; because I am indeed overly serious and so have to camouflage my ponderousness!
  • Fragments: because I lack the brainpower for anything else but fragments & because it reminds me of a favourite line from a poem: 'these fragments I have shored against my ruins' and because it sounds so very post-modern ( so another good camouflage for my true pre-modern persona)

Alas, my delight in having found such a suitable blog title abated somewhat when a Google-check revealed there’s already a 1927 film with that title. So let me just state here that I have nothing to do with that film.

Now would any of the 1927 film stakeholders object to having a Blog namesake, please step forward! And I will then revert to my fallback Blog- title: “Frivolous Refractions”.

“Refractions” is definitely a more ponderous term, but it does convey nicely how I see my Blogging vocation: have fragments of the world (material & cultural) refracted through my (frail but frankly never frivolous) mind into words & pictures. And as something of a visual arts amateur I of course dote on the visual/optical origin of the word “Refraction”.