Thursday, July 14, 2011

...and we're back.

It got me to thinking about something that I think about fairly regularly and I've surely discussed with a few of you (as if there's more than "a few" of you reading this) before. This whole obsession of living your life through Facebook is not good. Facebook is meant to be something that complements regular life and is nothing more than a mild distraction with interesting content because you (presumably) know the people generating all the new material. It's just something we "do", but for some, it has veered dangerously close to being who we "are".

Some of what has brought me to this conclusion is nothing more than the same annoying things you see when you look at Facebook (and if you don't have a Facebook, that's fine, so long as you're not someone that spends more time talking about not being on Facebook than those on it spend talking about it). The epic problem comes from people using their ability/right/power to post inane garbage on Facebook to do exactly that. But there's another kind of Facebook garbage that is a little more rare and perplexing than the simply utterly useless garbage. It's the garbage that actually makes you think to yourself, "why are they posting this and what response are they going for?"

These people put way too much of themselves into their Facebook-ing. They divulge relationship details, they bear their heart, they express despair...they filter nothing. There are surely people that see this as a good thing since such strong emotions are best not left bottled up and if Facebook is an outlet for that, so be it. Thing is, there's all of us on the receiving end of this stuff and it's a bit irresponsible of the sender of such messages to just throw it all out there when obviously not all the people we're friends with on Facebook are the kind of friends we want to have this kind of interaction with. For example, I am likely to approach a conversation a little differently if I'm talking to a close current friend that knows me on a day-to-day basis than I would if I'm talking to my middle school social studies teacher.

It's just such a big burden you're putting on the people reading your drama, when many of those people are just on Facebook for casual entertainment purposes. Is that how you want your serious life issues viewed? As someone's distraction from a slow day at work or cure for insomnia? Not that everyone would see it that way. Some people might really see your problems as a cry for help, but oh wait, we haven't spoken to each other in 10 years and live in different states. Or better yet, we've actually never met and we ended up as Facebook friends because you mistook me for someone else with the same name. It's a good thing I now know the sordid details or your life, or at least the sordid details of what you spend your time doing or thinking.

Some of you might be thinking at this point, "dude, you just need to de-friend all these strange overly-emotional types you're talking about." Oh, but that perfectly illustrates my next point. I have been on Facebook for almost 7 years. I have a modest, but perfectly respectable, 600+ friends on there. And I have never once de-friended someone. Why? Because when you start de-friending people, you have crossed that line into taking Facebook way too seriously. Perhaps there are exceptions to this, such as de-friending an ex-significant other as a form of catharsis, but in general the rule applies. If you consciously consider the process of "cleaning out" your Facebook friends list as some sort of statement, you've got much bigger issues to worry about. Why? If someone has access to these deep recesses of your personal being, you're sharing too much on the internet. This should be the first sign you're over-doing it and missing the purpose. At the very least, you just need to set your privacy settings accordingly. I can't tell you what privacy settings to set because I've never checked my own. Why? Because I share nothing on Facebook that there is anyone I wouldn't want to see it. Do I necessarily want complete strangers seeing my profile information? No, but would I be worried if one did? No, again.

This may sound as though I'm ranting in response to someone de-friending me on Facebook. Not the case. Occasionally I'll stumble upon the realization that someone has de-friended me, which is usually the result of me suddenly noticing that there's less inane babbling on my newsfeed than I'm used to. When this happens, my first thought is, "Why did this happen?". After about 0.47 milliseconds of that thought, a sense of relief and contentment settles over me. Why? Because right then I know there are people that obsess over Facebook far more than me and that I'm actually among the Facebook users that have the least riding on it. I cannot even imagine sitting down and making a dedicated effort to prune my friends list. This hardly means that I'm good friends (or even know) everyone on my friends list, but it does mean I simply don't care enough to bother. I would honestly rather spend the time staring at a blank wall (or writing a rambling blog entry) that I might otherwise use going through the mental process of making cuts.

Is there a agreed upon method for that sort of thing? Is there an algorithm that computes if someone is worthy of being your Facebook friend based on how long you've known each other, how often you see each other or whether you were even friends in the first place? This is especially vexing when it was the other person that be-friended you in the first place. It's like they really were just using you for their own satisfaction or self-assurance for a time, then they dropped you from their life, or at least their life as it appears on a computer screen with a log-in name and password. Then again, these are the people that invest far too much in Facebook in the first place.

So, ladies and gentlemen of Facebook, pour your hearts out and feel free to de-friend away, even de-friend me if you wish. Just know that while I may have over 600 friends in the virtual world, I will eventually find out and that sly grin that comes over my face (after 0.47 seconds) will be the look of me realizing that I have just destroyed you.
One of the big stories this (or was it last?) week has been the launch of Google Plus (or is it Google+?). Yes, I just managed to put four different punctuation marks in a row. I should probably just stop here (shut up, nobody is making you read this), but I won't.

So yeah, this Google Plus thing. I don't really know what it is or what it does. I've heard it's sort of like Google's version of Facebook, but will somehow be better, but I can't seem to recall exactly how or why. This is something I could have researched before these fingers started dancing, but so could you. That is, you could research it using Google (note, not Facebook). Anyway, I can't tell you what it does or doesn't do and how that compares to what Facebook does or doesn't do. I have used Facebook since about August 2004, when grad school began. I don't really remember much else since the beginning of grad school, but Facebook has helped make it a lot less uncomfortable when someone says "remember when such-and-such happened in (a year since 2004)?" Thanks to Facebook's seemingly endless ability to keep my messages, photos, statuses and pokes (do people still do this? you know, on Facebook, that is), I don't have to worry about it. And it is for that reason that I don't really care what Google Plus does or doesn't do. If it's good (and thus warrants the "+"), I'm sure it's something I'll use. Otherwise, I'll let tried and true Facebook keep doing its thing.

That's sorta the point of this entry I guess. At this point, Facebook has become so good at what it does, it has ceased to really warrant much concern from me one way or the other. It is very true that the reason it does this so well is because it's not really following in the footsteps of anything else that came before it. Granted, there was MySpace (most recently) and Friendster (a little older), but nothing has ever "done Facebook" as well as Facebook. That's part of the reason why Facebook is probably a more common word for most people than the words "face" or "book" are combined.

Back to G+ (I'm going to call it that for now, or at least until everyone starts mistaking it for a Gatorade product), I have seen people begging on their Facebook statuses for an invite to this new-found competitor. That's like walking in Domino's just to ask for Pizza Hut's phone number. Don't these people realize that the reason why they resort to Facebook to seek out very specific information is because Facebook is just about the best way to do exactly that?

Well, I got a G+ invite. I didn't ask for one, but a good friend just so happened to send me one, because that's what friends do. I eagerly got myself going (I don't actually remember how you "get it going", but I did whatever you do when you're new to G+) and started adding people to my circles. That was fun for a few minutes, then I realized this was essentially just like Facebook, so I went looking for something different it can do. After about 30 seconds, I instinctively started reading Facebook. That's just how it works.

Now I see that Spotify's music service is finally reaching the US and guess what? People are already on Facebook asking for a Spotify invitation. I have no idea if it'll be the next music-related flame out like iTunes' "Ping" or if it'll be a hit. And G+ (not a Gatorade product, by the way) might be a serious contender for peoples' time that should be spent doing something else. It all remains to be seen, but it's such an odd thing that we are now so enamored with these various forms of social networking that we beg each other for the privilege to use something we never knew we were missing in the first place, especially considering we never really had a problem with the incumbent either.

All this thought about the importance of social networking online got me to thinking...

Monday, July 11, 2011

Having spent a few hours over the past several days watching the documentaries The Lottery and Waiting for "Superman", I am clearly more capable of making an entry about America's education system than I was before. Problem is, like with so many of today's "big" issues, there is no clear-cut answer. There are facts, however. Granted, facts can sometimes be misleading, skewed or simply irrelevant, but it sure beats hearsay or conjecture.

It might be argued by some that American schools are worse now than they were 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, but is it fact? We sure hear about how bad (mostly public) schools (in mostly impoverished areas) are. This is probably a fair statement. However, these schools were never necessarily great. The problem comes when you consider that there aren't as many decent options for the people coming out of these schools, regardless of whether or not they have a diploma in hand. The formerly "fall-back" jobs provided by the agricultural and manufacturing industries simply aren't there in the same quantity as before. They've either changed continents, or at least countries, or disappeared altogether. This has left many recipients of a poor school system more likely to end up confined to another damaged system, the prison system. If you look at the bright side, though, it means more gainful employment opportunities for those interested in being a prison guard.

Meanwhile, as those "fall-back" jobs have gone elsewhere, the people that took them are living in countries that now have better academic performance than the US on many levels. The leftovers of this "transaction" has been more poorly educated (if educated at all) people who do not even have a "fall-back" job to fall back on. These days the expectation of students is to gain an education that will demand a job and, more likely than ever, a well-paying job. As a result, the gap has widened to wider than ever before. Since you actually have to compete for a "good" job in the US these days, you are more inclined to get a higher degree (or equivalent), thus making you even more likely gainfully employed than those that went down the "fall-back" path.

So, the fact is, American schools are not really getting any worse relative to American schools of the past. The status quo has been very well maintained domestically. When compared to the educations being given and received globally, though, the US looks terrible. Everyone else has gotten better and did not really bother to make the US level of education the goal, but merely a milestone on the way to better. If the US truly wants to be a free market leader of the world, we must look beyond our broad borders for our competition, motivation and justification.

The two fine documentaries named way back in the first paragraph see charter schools as an idea to solve the problems. Although the evidence presented is quite convincing, even if these schools are not a fix-all, their mere existence brings to light much more. The argument here isn't the same as private versus public schools. That is an apples and oranges comparison. While the two ultimately strive to do the same basic thing, the approach, priorities, philosophy and often outcome differ greatly. With charter schools, the issue isn't whether classes are taught by nuns, or if school uniforms are required, or if sports are relevant, or who can afford the tuition. These charter schools are essentially "free" (in the same way other public schools are, which is to say they aren't really free) and are located in the school district which they serve. They also have been shown to often (but not absolutely always) out-perform their local "zoned" counterparts by a huge margin. Oh, but their teachers and administration are not part of teachers' unions. Oops.

What the involved union figureheads fail to realize is that this is not about them. Granted, teachers are (for the most part) underpaid and under-appreciated. That does not, however, make their pay scale or work schedule the focus. The matter at hand is the quality of the education of kids at their mercy. The plain truth is, nobody wants to make life harder for teachers. Nobody wants to tell a willing teacher they can't do their job. It's just a matter of keeping priorities straight and letting a little simple logic enter the equation. It stands to reason if the teachers have nothing to worry about in regard to their job being tied to their performance (like the vast majority of jobs that people actually have to apply for and be hired for), it's easy to see why so many will put their own interests first and do so in a staggeringly reprehensible fashion. Of course, not all teachers will do this, but the ones that will are probably the same ones that got into teaching because of the system in place and it probably wouldn't be a stretch to say they had a teacher or two with the same mindset while they were getting their own education. Right back to the status quo we go.

This union issue is pretty depressing, but not because unions in general are inherently good or bad. Bad teachers can't be fired and the option to avoid the bad teachers can't be exercised by many. As the documentaries state, the system is clearly broken, but that's not to say it's broken everywhere. I had the fortune of attending fine schools throughout my education, including public schools from the first day of middle school to the last day of graduate school. I also had a mother that placed a high priority of academic pursuits, just like many of the parents in the films and parents over the past several decades.

As long as there have been schools, there have been good students and bad students, good teachers and bad teachers, good ideas and bad ideas. It is time to take the good and replace the bad, even if the bad was once good. In other words, it's not just the system that's broken, but those at the helm as well. That is to say, it's not just about what others (be it domestically or abroad) are doing right or better, it's what we're doing wrong or worse.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Getting old isn't anything new. Everyone does it and, technically speaking, we all do it at the same time, at the same rate. The differences exist in how each person handles this unavoidable fact. Well, there is one way to avoid it, but we won't go down that path. We've just assigned so much value to how long we've been alive and conveniently have units of measure to help us out with the messy details. Seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, millennia.

Age really is just a number, but so is your blood pressure, and your salary and your grade in pre-algebra all those months/years/decades ago. Numbers matter. Numbers represent so many different things that represent so much of our lives. Phone numbers, street numbers, social security numbers. Age matters as well. Age dictates when you can drive, vote, drink, smoke, gamble, rent a car, retire.

Ok, now that that is all out of the way, the analysis. Hitting a "milestone" age is always a big deal as you gradually get older. When you're 10, you can't wait to be 16, when you're 16, it's 18. When you're 18, it's 21. When you're 21, your perspective starts to change a bit (unless you've always dreamed of the aforementioned ability to rent a car). Those subsequent years just sort of blur together and are largely indistinguishable. Somewhere in there you might earn a degree, fall in love, take a trip or something else equally significant, but those things are not directly linked to your age.

As the years pass, life becomes less about reaching a certain age so you can do something (like drive, drink, vote) and more about doing things before you reach a certain age (like graduate, get married, have kids, buy a house, make a million dollars). Somehow miraculously, the same 365 days that seemed to never elapse as a kid, can't go slow enough as an adult. People start hearing "clocks ticking" and making marriage pacts with childhood friends. Older relatives' eyebrows start raising and stress starts growing. Every deficiency becomes a priority and every goal becomes that much more past due.

So, upon reaching 30, is there a list of accomplishments that should be marked off? If so, what are they? Are they the same for everyone? Does it really matter? Why do you care what someone else's list looks like? It seems like people have decided the only way to feel better about their own age is to compare themselves with other people at that age, be it past or present. A 30-year old might compare themselves to another 30-year old and see who "wins", or maybe to a 40-year old and see if they're "ahead of the pace", or even to a 20-year old just to make sure they've put enough distance between themselves and the next generation.

Why bother? Every age has advantages and disadvantages. The flip-side of feeling "old" is that at least you've lived to feel old in the first place. If you were still "young", you wouldn't necessarily have that guaranteed. You've survived, you've risen to face a lot of days and lived to tell the tale. Even if your tale won't sell many books, magazines of movie tickets, it's still an accomplishment in itself.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

This Trip, Part IX: 29 March 2011

When your home time zone is 6 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time and you’re awake at 5:30am GMT, you know it’ll be a long day. More so, a long day that begins with the usual fretting about getting everything packed and getting to the airport on time. Thankfully all of those worries diminished as the morning progressed and hurdles were cleared. Once I made it to Terminal 4, Gate 14 at Heathrow, I began to notice something odd. There were a few middle-aged men dressed like the band Anvil, complete with long stringy hair, lots of chains, earrings and almost exclusively black clothing. I noticed it, but didn’t really think about it too much until I noticed several more.

Upon boarding, I had to ask the guy behind me the obvious question in the most obvious way possible: "This may seem like an obvious questions, but are you guys in a band?". Of course I knew they were in a band, but it seemed a bit brusque to simply lead off with "What band are you in?". At this point, I was sure this was actually multiple bands, possibly on tour together. Nope, turns out this epic assemblage of rockers was none other than the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, along with their crew and tag-alongs. Most of these tag-alongs came in the form of young girls that could just have easily been their daughters, but there was no hope for such normalcy.

The prospect of a long flight with about 50 grown men on tour was a bit worrisome, especially since they were spread throughout the plane, including directly behind me. I had an exit row seat for this long flight and one of the young groupies was my neighbor, but she made her intent known very quickly that she would be relocating in order to (paraphrasing) "sit next to someone she could fall asleep on". I guess I should consider myself lucky for that little twist of fate and declaration. As it turns out, there were a good many empty seats on the plane and nobody ended up being my neighbor for the flight. Sitting in the exit row without a neighbor actually provides enough space to be comfortable for an 8-plus hour flight.

The most troubling part of the flight was the extremely cold air seeping in the door, next to my feet. I thought it was a little troubling that this air was seeping in at 30,000 feet since the cabin is supposedly pressurized. I finally wedged the little pillow and blanket at my seat in the crack of the door, which helped somewhat. Upon arrival in Detroit, we were very delayed exiting the plane because we didn't have a gate or something. The friendly steward guy was standing next to me, so I mentioned the freezing air coming in during the flight. He just laughed and said that kind of plane (767-400) was prone to do that because there wasn't a perfect seal. I smiled because we were already on the ground.

It was a very bright and sunny day in Detroit, but apparently only about 40 degrees outside. Of course, you'd never know that from the warm confines of DTW, which never fails to impress me as a really nice airport. The weather out of Detroit was also very nice looking, but the invisible wind over Toledo made for a little bit of teeth gnashing aboard the little CRJ200. Nothing against Toledo, per se, but it certainly does not make for a fond remembrance of a place when your stomach is in your throat whilst flying over.
This Trip, Part VIII: 28 March 2011

The last day someplace is bittersweet because you might not be quite ready for home yet, but you also know you have to get back to pick up where you left off. In a place like London, there is always something else to do, so you feel inclined to keep squeezing as much in as possible, but the fact that there’s more to do is sorta exciting because it means you have good reason to return again. How many times do you want to go someplace and do exactly what you’ve done before? It’s nice to repeat some of your favorites, but at least for me, there has to be some new places and new experiences on each trip. Otherwise, it starts to feel like work and you might as well be at home if you’re going to yield to a routine.

This trip was successful in the fact that I visited new places in great frequency and actually never found myself in places like Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus at all. This is probably a good thing considering the protests that bordered on riots on Saturday night. I was actually cruising underneath Trafalgar on the Tube when all that was going on. On the heels of the Belgian excursion, I was exhausted and apparently missed it all. Pictures of me in the midst of a clash between protesters and police involving tear gas, beatings, smashed windows and spray paint would have been great for Facebook. That’s what Facebook pictures need more of: danger.

Safe to say, my stroll through Kensington, Hyde Park and Knightsbridge had very little danger. Some of the rental bike riders were a little cagey, though. Then there were the exuberant young men running out the back door of a building that I only then realized was the Afghanistan embassy. A little while later a pass-by of the Libyan embassy was even more tense, as armed police officers lined the sidewalk in front of the building and protesters with very intimidating flags were across the street. The embassy, on the other hand, was flying the usual solid green flag of Libya. Nothing wrong with keeping it simple.

By pure chance I saw the Twitter tweet from Okkervil River’s Will Sheff that he would be playing solo at St. Pancras Old Church in London on Monday night. At first blush, this seemed like a can’t miss opportunity. Any debate regarding when to leave London ended when this came up. After buying tickets, I later found out it sold out very quickly and apparently less than 100 tickets were available in the first place. The church is actually a church and not some heroin den that might have been a church in a previous life or simply given a church-like name for effect. No, the previous life of this church, which was built in Victorian times, was as a church, as there has been some form of a church at the site since 361 AD.

The show was great, even though doors were at 7:30pm and Will Sheff went on at 9pm. No opener, no nothing, except the conversations of those around me. Will (can I call him Will?) played several new songs throughout the set, but also hit high spots from throughout Okkervil River’s catalog, including a particularly strong rendition of “A Stone” a capella. Patrick, the Okkervil River bassist, joined Will for several songs, but Will finished solo in grand fashion. The climax of the night was Will coming back for an encore only to walk directly to the back of the room, dislocate a couple of audience members from their seats and sit down at an old upright piano that had been hiding in the corner up to that point. The audience shifted to the back of the room and many people stood in chairs as he went through “For Real”, which was greatly appreciated. The show ended with “Happy Hearts”, with the crowd standing right at the stage, without much regard for the rows of tiny wooden chairs set up. There were some sound problems throughout the night and Will can be a bit of a diva at times, but the strength of the set list, the songs themselves and the setting made it an amazing show regardless.
This Trip, Part VII: 27 March 2011

Although it may come as a shock to some people that have traveled with me before, it is nice to have relaxation time while on vacation. I truly believe in the benefits of seeing and experiencing as much as possible, but it is also nice to see and experience things that aren’t necessarily in a guidebook. A trip to the playground at Walham Green and the White Horse on Parsons Green are a perfectly fine way to spend a day in London, even if it never requires riding a bus or the Tube. Even a failed trip to the butcher shop was a welcome diversion from the seemingly constant schedule of busy trains and streets.

That said, thanks to the weather, which was excellent by London-in-March standards, both the playground and White Horse were quite busy. Sitting at a playground can be an odd experience if you’re not a parent and/or not used to sitting at a playground. The kids run around and interact in potentially strange ways, and there are parents mixed in at random intervals. Some of the parents are interacting with one another, while some play with the kids. Others still, stand back and observe. As we discussed while being the sort to sit back and observe, you have to be careful to interact with a kid at some point that is friendly in return to you. This way the other parents don’t get the idea that you’re a pervert that likes to just lurk around the playground and watch the kids. Then there’s the issue of fair play. At what point is your child bothering another child, or are they just playing? How do you know the other child’s “style of play”, much less their parent’s? The benefit of playing the role of “friend of the parents” is that none of it really matters, so long as the kids play, burn some energy and go home satisfied.

The adults can play at the White Horse while the kids play on the patio or the park across the street, which is nice and fair. The place had a slightly American feel to it, but it may have just been because it allowed outdoor seating in slightly American weather. Apparently there are a fair number of Americans living in Fulham, but they didn’t seem to be around us. Mostly under- and/or overdressed Londoners and probably some French. Not a particular reason, though, just guessing. Regardless, the White Horse just seemed to make a simple-minded American feel fairly normal, except maybe for the lady behind the bar that seemed deadest on questioning every request made of her, as if people often come in there just to make completely errant requests that they have no basis for. That sentence ended in a preposition. I do no care. Ok, so yeah, the White Horse on Parsons Green, write that one down.

A trip to an authentic neighborhood butcher would have been a unique treat that would probably somehow trump a walk down the aisle at Whole Foods or Kroger. There is something to be said for that sort of place that provides a specific service, but it also a “part of the community”. I use the quotations because “part of the community” seems to be one of those phrases that have become cliché or just filler. Well, either way, I don’t consider the nice guy at Whole Foods’ seafood counter to be “part of the community”, but I guess he is if the old school butcher gets to be. This particular butcher (and the next one) is only 6/7 part of the community, as they are not open on Sunday.

One place that is open on Sunday and shows no ill effects of it is The Hand in Flower. I had dinner on my 29th birthday here and I had a return engagement this time around. It was good before and perhaps better now. A dining experience is always interesting when a 3 year-old is involved. Not interesting because kids and their behavior are unpredictable, but interesting because there is a potentially precise formula to managing small children in public (or private, for that matter) places. I suppose you just have to figure out what your child’s trigger is for discipline and not be afraid to go back to it time after time. Obviously, for some kids, telling them that security cameras monitor their behavior is reason enough to behave. It especially helps when that child is accustomed to traveling and being in public places that are commonly monitored by cameras. Then, of course, there is the epic trump card of the 21st century, the iPhone/iPod and headphones. The ability to transport that child to another universe without leaving the table is matchless, especially if you tell them people are watching them through security cameras and they’ll be in trouble if they make a sound.
This Trip, Part VI: 26 March 2011

A complimentary breakfast that would normally cost 30 euros is usually something too good to pass up. Unfortunately, such an expensive breakfast, regardless of the quality, would take too long and the return trip to London was already booked and non-flexible. So it was. I returned to the streets of Brussels to find many fewer partiers and carousers as the night before, but quite a few of their leave-behinds on the sidewalks, along with tourists.

A vital piece of the day’s potential success came in the form of Bookoo, a one-day pass for the Brussels Metro. I guess that’s meant to be pronounced beaucoup. Given the honor system set-up of many of the stations I passed through, there must be beaucoup free riders. I missed a fare box or two, but thankfully did not end up in Belgian custody. The use of the Metro probably wasn’t even completely necessary, as much of the parts of Brussels you’d want to see during a one-day visit are within reasonable walking distance. Riding a city’s public transportation is, however, a great opportunity to learn more about the city itself and the people that inhabit it. A few quick pieces of information that are apparent about Brussels based on their Metro: not a lot of English being spoken by choice, a nice mix of old and new, and busy, but not too crowded.

By most accounts, Brussels is a place that prides itself on not taking itself too seriously, as evident by its most celebrated landmark being a 2-foot tall statue of a little boy peeing. Not quite the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben, but just as easy to inspire souvenirs. This little guy, whose name is Mannekin Pis (no, really), can be found virtually anywhere in the old part of Brussels that attracts the most tourists. There are many stories regarding his origins and what he “symbolizes”, but it probably doesn’t really matter at this point. People, although I’m not sure who these people are, have taken to dressing the little guy up in costumes. On the day of my visit, he was wearing a little dress/Cossack/cloak-type thing. However, his “thing”, as always, was still doing its thing, much to the delight of the moderate crowd assembled.

The nice thing about Mannekin Pis is that he is located on a seemingly regular street corner in a tightly-packed part of town, not far off the Grand Place. Although he is protected from his admirers to some extent, the public can get within about five feet and he is not locked in a glass case. At the same intersection are a couple of local establishments that have used their location to their advantage, including a neon sign depiction of the statue’s famed activity. Despite this description, the area still maintains historic appeal.

Apparently much of Brussels was torn down and rebuilt in the early 20th century, in an effort to be a “modern capital city”, rather than a “historical capital city” or just an “appropriate capital city”. Much of the newer development includes huge parks, museums and, more recently, headquarters of the European Commission. These aren’t exactly bad things, but it is a relief that a decent amount of the historic parts remain mostly in tact, along with the newer parts. Everything in moderation.
An example of the old and the new coming together is on display at the Musee Magritte Museum, which is a part of Brussels quite immense Museum of Fine Arts. Rene Magritte was Belgian and great, with this museum being probably the best collection of his work anywhere in one place. A museum dedicated to the work of one artist is fairly rare since either the artist isn’t relevant enough to warrant it, or their art has been bought and sold so much that it is spread across many collections, museums and continents. Regardless, the opportunity to see so much work by one great artist in one great place was well worth the 8 euros. Actually the view of Brussels from the hillside museum’s windows was worth that much.

So yeah, Belgium seems to be best known for three things (other than peeing statues): chocolate, waffles and beer. Not exactly a path to enlightenment or a healthy life. The local businesses don’t seem particularly concerned with this, as the opportunities to partake in any of the three come about once every five steps. Apparently diamonds are also a huge industry in Belgium, particularly Antwerp, but that wasn’t as evident in my surroundings. Everyone must have been broke and in a coma from their chocolate, waffles and beer.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

This Trip, Part V: 25 March 2011

It began with one of those weird occurrences, that seem to happen most often when using public transportation in large cities, where you inadvertently find yourself following someone. There was the District Line to Earl's Court, then the transfer, then the Piccadilly train to St. Pancras, then the extremely long transfer to the Eurostar terminal. Opposite sides of a very large city, yet still remaining in the immediate vicinity of the exact same strangers all along. Do they realize what I realize? Are they concerned? Regardless, all of us made it to the Eurostar check-in and then trains would take us to various places, various countries.

And so it was, I boarded the train in London around 7:20am, along with all the others that weren't nearly as overdressed and/or giggly as those waiting for the trains for Paris. The Brussels crowd were a more subdued bunch, a little older and definitely less likely to be wearing sunglasses in a train station barely an hour after the sun had made its initial appearance for the day. Perhaps this string of relatively sunny days has Londoners excited about the concept of actually wearing their purchase whenever possible, given the possibility that a beam of light might actually shoot through a ceiling or window at any time.

The Eurostar was not exactly luxurious, but it was nice enough. Certainly nice enough considering it links three countries, goes underneath a somewhat major body of water, and does so at up to 186 mph. The beauty of internet research became apparent when I noticed my coach/car/whatever, number 5, was roughly half-full, despite being one of only two 2nd class cars with electrical outlets at every seat. This is customary in 1st class, but you have to figure this out for 2nd class. The seats alternate between the UK and Mainland outlet voltages, but thankfully I had a multi-function adapter anyway. Everything felt pretty great once I realized the seat next to me and in front of me were empty. The guy across the aisle was already asleep before the train moved, so it promised to be a nice trip. Then came this guy, talking in a very "entitled" voice to the train employee. It seems they weren't happy with their seats, possibly because the seats faced the opposite direction the train was moving. Mind you, when booking a ticket, this information is readily available to you. However, for whatever reason, this availability must not have applied here. The man, his wife and elderly mother ended up moving to the seats immediately in front of me on both sides of the aisle. Until I could subtly acquire my headphones from my bag (so as to not appear too obvious that my immediate response to their incessant babbling was to do anything I could to drown out their incessant babbling), I listened to some of the most inane and unnecessary chatter perhaps ever uttered, especially since they were unwelcome guests in our peaceful little slice of the universe known as car 5.

Brussels came quite quick, roughly 2 hours, but not too quick to enjoy a nice mix of Wolf Parade and Fruit Ninja on the iPhone. Oh yes, there was also that whole going-under-the-English-Channel-in-a-train thing. That was a unique experience, but only because of what it meant, not necessarily the actual physical experience. That part was basically nothing more than looking out a window into completely blackness for 20 minutes. Not unlike arriving in Brussels and realizing that most people probably speak English, but it isn't exactly advertised. All of the train station signs were in French and Dutch, which is somewhat discernible when you've had two years of French classes in school as recently as 1997, like me. As it turned out, once I stopped looking for the train going to Bruges, but instead for the train going through Bruges, I was set. The train to Oostente would deliver me to Bruges in roughly an hour, with a quick stop in Ghent.

So, just to get it out of the way, I was in fact In Bruges and yes, I did make a point of watching the movie again before this trip. Furthermore, yes, the town is just a nice and charming in that historical way as the movie makes it seem. A few things were slightly different, though. It wasn't snowing. In fact, it was quite mild, probably in the low 60s. Also, there's not really convenient way to jump from the top of the Belfort, as demonstrated by Brendan Gleeson in the movie. However, one thing is for sure, Colin Farrell's character was not unjust in expressing concern for the obese man attempting to climb to the Belfort's top. It is quite a draining experience, despite being less than 400 steps to the top. It gets quite tight and low in some spots too. Doing this in relatively warm weather with a backpack full of important items was quite a workout and produced quite a workout's amount of sweat and gasping for breath. Thankfully, there was lots of natural air conditioning and some very nice views at the top. Looking down on Bruges was sorta like looking down on a little fairy tale place, complete with cathedrals, canals, terracotta roofs and many tourists. Surprisingly (or not, maybe?), despite the movie tie-in and all the tourists, I did not see even a single reference to In Bruges whilst in Bruges.

Lunch was at Cambrinus and it was quite excellent. I can honestly say I'd never had Flemish Carbonades made with Gulden Draak and served with applesauce. I would definitely eat it again, though. I'll have to be on the lookout for that anywhere I am that serves traditional Belgian cuisine other than waffles. It would be nice to have this meal outside the presence of 8-10 extremely loud American fratboy-types that just so happened to be having a bachelor party in Bruges at the same time I was visiting. You go all the way to Bruges and end up in a place with loud Americans and a soundtrack consisting of American classics like Frank Sinatra and...Michael Bolton. Do Europeans actually love Americans that much, or maybe they just like to remind us that we gave the world Michael Bolton and it is our burden to listen to him forever.

The day in Bruges was spent trekking all over this small town, including a first-hand viewing of Michelangelo's Madonna and Childs sculpture, first-hand touching of a sacred relic supposedly containing the blood of Christ and, of course, climbing to the top of the bell tower, which I have only since found out leans about a meter off-center. The historical center of Bruges is so compact that it almost only needed an afternoon to see completely, but a chance conversation with an Englishman at t'Brugs Beertje ended up lasting well into the evening. It was nice to have one of those chance encounter experiences, especially in such a foreign place. It wouldn't have been as nice if it caused me to miss the train back to Brussels, where my points-earned hotel room awaited.

The quick train ride back to Bruxelles Nord deposited me only about 5 minutes from the hotel. It was almost midnight when I got checked in, but I was starving so I walked around a bit. Of course, I ended up on a very busy street in a very busy part of town, yet the best food option I could find was McDonalds. I had an NY Crispy even though I felt like a complete buffoon ordering it by that name. I quickly realized that most of the people around me, including the very many people in the very busy McDonalds, were annoying in the same way as drunken college students might be in the US at midnight on a Friday night. I walked around while I ate the NY Crispy, but never really got away from the noise and crowded streets.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

This Trip, Part III: 23 March 2011

To sum it up, passing through immigration/customs at Heathrow is something I've done twice in the past 11 months and something that I would easily rank among my least favorite things to do. As you may know, there are three basic categories of travelers that pass through this particular area. There are those holding a passport from a EU country and those holding a passport from any other country on Earth, along with those from either category lucky enough to be "invited" to the Fast Track lane. Of course, I have since found out that to receive the Fast Track "invitation", you have to have been sitting First Class on your incoming flight. Don't get me started on that, oh wait, nevermind.

It's just uncomfortable standing in this dreary room with a really odd purple-backlit drop ceiling while herding through like cattle, not knowing who might have decided to pick up your bags after they went around the carousel for the 87th time. Then there's the whole experience of watching the EU folks and the Fast Lane folks breeze through their lines in a matter of a very few minutes, while you are still busy trying to figure out exactly how many times the line doubles-back on itself in front of you. With no other international flights coming in that terminal right then, the EU and Fast Track areas become completely empty, which is apparently the cue for most border agents to go on break at once and the remaining ones to get much more surly.

When it comes down to it, this all-encompassing line of "others" is made up of two major groups: the paranoid Americans/Australians/Canadians and the carefree Middle Easterners/Asians that make them paranoid. Then again, spending about an hour and a half packed so close to so many people, some of whom don't take personal hygiene very seriously, might be enough to make anyone paranoid. This is especially true since there's the "penalty box" along side the "others" line, that always seems to have at least one confused and/or disgruntled looking person in it. Strangely, this person also always seems to have some unique identifying trait, namely a turban, thick beard, sari, or what was a new one for me in this instance, hair curls that are most commonly associated with Orthodox Judaism.

So, after about 90 minutes of standing, leaning, squirming, yawning, staring and eye-rolling, the wait was over. Thankfully, my bag was still on the carousel when I arrived to retrieve it and I made my way to to the train. Of course I immediately went to the Heathrow Express entrance instead of the Underground/Tube entrance, just as I did last year when I was in the same position. Thankfully, memory kicked in and I made it onto the right train in the right place.

There's really only one thing that sticks out about the ride on the Piccadilly Line from Heathrow to Earl's Court and the District Line from Earl's Court to Fulham Broadway: those girls. Wow. There were 4 of them, all in their early-mid 20s, wearing various combinations of wife-beater tanktops, baggy jeans, cargo pants, boxer shorts, thick belts, large belt buckles and sunglasses. In addition, they all were drinking bottles of Budweiser and Corona (remember, this is London at 2pm on a Tuesday) and reeked of cigarette smoke and earlier beers. These scents might have been worse if the apparent "leader" of this posse didn't pull a can of deodorant out of her beer-toting purse and "freshen up" right there in the middle of the train car. I guess I haven't mentioned that these girls were literally sitting directly next to me and across from me. I had been riding in that spot since I boarded and had a good place to keep my suitcase next to me, so switching seats wasn't really an option, as the train had filled up by this point. The parts of conversation that weren't completely unintelligible due to that "nasty" kind of British accent, consisted mostly of heavy profanity and/or tales of lesbianism. What it all boiled down to was an opportunity to spend about 30 minutes in a confined space with what amounted to a 4-headed female version of Kid Rock.

After getting settled in at my wonderful friends' place, albeit 3 and a half hours after landing at LHR, the only thing I had energy for was a shower and a walk. The walk's destination was Craven Cottage, home of the English Premier League's Fulham Football Club. It's not a big stadium, but it was something to see and served a good destination requiring about 30 minutes of walking in each direction. Craven Cottage turned out to be about as expected, including its immediate proximity to the Thames. A nice surprise was sunset over the Thames at Putney Bridge and the adjoining Bishop's Park, which includes Fulham Palace and the very old Fulham All Saints Church. However, once it was dark, finding a quick way out of Bishop's Park from where I was was quite a challenge and one that ultimately ended up with the jumping of a fence. It felt strangely appropriate and made for a good end of the day's adventures.