Friday, December 25, 2015

Trees of Christmas Past


The Travelled Monkey - Trees of Christmas Past
Weaver family Christmas tree

When I was a kid, after the holidays ended and the new year had begun my dad would often take our Christmas tree out in the yard and plant it somewhere near the house. Once in the ground, however, these trees which had occupied a magical place in our home and our hearts were soon forgotten about, lost in a landscape with a thousand other trees. 

It sounds a bit sad, this Christmas amnesia. But maybe that’s when the real magic begins. 

The Travelled Monkey - Trees of Christmas Past
Weaver family Christmas tree

Think about it. Independently of our care and love, the trees continue to grow, taking on new proportions of size and strength, their warped and natural beauty forged by winds of time.

In the house, our Christmas trees contort to our wants and wishes. Outside, they are free to grow wild. Inside, we believe in their promise of good things to come. Outside, our myths have little consequence on what tomorrow might bring.

The Travelled Monkey - Trees of Christmas Past
Weaver family Christmas tree

There’s a Christmas story here.

The fir tree doesn’t lose its needles, symbolizing the enduring, everlasting power of Love. It’s a Love that sustains, takes away, and gives new life – and it’s completely outside our control. But what happens when we bring this Love inside? Suddenly we remember, and even celebrate, something beyond ourselves. We act differently until a short time passes and we inevitably forget to pay attention and stop seeing it for what it is.

And that’s when, like the wind that shapes the trees, the real magic quietly begins its work on us too.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Pic of the week

Christmas lights on the Bruul in Mechelen

Reading list: December 6-11, 2015

Good reads

Here’s a list of articles, stories, news and other scraps of unique things happening in the world that I thought you might also enjoy. Please share any reactions or other interesting links that you’ve come across in the comments section. I’m always curious about what others are curious about!

Once you go black…
Saint Nicolas’s sooty little helper, Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”), continues to cause controvery in Belgium: Flemish Minister Rejects Racism Accusations After Blacking Up

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Con-men, grifters, liars – call them what you want, we can all be duped by a scam. Find out why we were all Born To Be Conned

America: Made in China
There are Chinatowns across America. But did you know there’s an Americatown in China? Jackson Hole, China: A new frontier for the American West, in the Far East

Should I stay or should I go?
America might not seem very welcoming to foreigners right now, but new research suggests that For Immigrants, America Is Still More Welcoming Than Europe

Right at the museum
How one Dutch museum is looking at the language used in its collection to right wrongs from the past. Rijksmuseum Removing Racially Charged Terms From Artworks’ Titles and Descriptions

A labour of amore
If you’ve ever tried to learn another language, you’ll know it’s not easy. This is a beautiful essay about the process of change that anyone that takes on a difficult task and succeeds undergoes. Teach yourself Italian

Speaking of fake Italian, the American pizza chain, Papa John’s, announced this week that it’s planning to open stores in a number of European countries, including in Belgium.

Aren't we lucky? For those not yet acquainted with Papa John’s, here’s a little taste:

(If any of the links on this page don’t work, please let me know and I’ll try and correct it.  - Thanks)

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The roof is on fire!

Pic of the week

Brussels Policewoman & Fireman
In the first picture below, you can see a cloud of black smoke rising into the sky. If you look a bit closer, you can see orange flames on the rooftop of the building in the center of the frame. I took this picture this week from my office, where I was surprised to look out and see that the building where my friend lives had caught fire.

My friend - and old neighbor when I lived two buildings to the left of the one on fire - lives on the first floor. Another friend used to live on the top floor of that building, right under where the fire was. Many a night we all hung out on his balcony, gazing over the rooftops of the city. The second photo below was taken from that balcony, mirroring back the view from my office.

The fire was started accidentally by the roofers who were working up there. Luckily no one was hurt and there was not too much damage, mostly just a lot of water and foam in the corridors to clean up. I went over on my lunch break where I met some the heroes of this story, shown above. 


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Fear and loathing in Belgium

“Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” – Forrest Gump

Here's an assortment of half-thoughts, snap reactions, and other unfortunate consequences following the November 13 Paris attacks.
  • The police sirens started on Saturday, the day after the Paris attacks. We could hear them from our house all weekend, and every day since, wailing in the distance.
  • Texted a friend in Paris who wrote back: “All is ok. Fortunately, kids don’t let us go out at night. Crazy. War is war.”
  • Lots of talk of war.
  • Watched all the major TV news stations – BBC, CNN, Canvas – but only found out about the attack in Beirut through Facebook.
  • Went to work on Monday. There too, sirens all day. 
  • Tuesday, Nov.17: the New York Times called Molenbeek a “working class Brussels neighborhood.” That’s one way to describe it.
  • Hello Belgian army! Guys with machine guns are patrolling Brussels North Station. I wonder what they are thinking about. How do they stay alert all day? Do they get coffee breaks? What if they get an itchy trigger finger? All unanswered questions, but I was glad they were there.
  • “Don’t be a slave to your empathy.” - A muslim commentator on Flemish TV when asked about the refugee situation in Belgium, and whether he thought radical muslims were also entering the country. 
  • In the elevator at work I saw a guy who said he had to go home because his daughter was sick. She wasn’t really sick, he said, but she was scared. She’s 11.
  • More sirens.
  • My dad loves Molenbeek. I used to live 5 minutes walk from there and whenever my dad would come visit he’d always do his grocery shopping in Molenbeek. He especially liked the fruit, dates, nuts, and Turkish delights. “If I lived here,” he told me one time, “I’d do all my shopping in Molenbeek.”
  • What happened in Paris is still very fresh, and there’s a nervous sense that Brussels is next. Still lots of talk of war, which is interesting as I’m now reading the book “What Terrorists Want,” by Louise Richardson, a terrorism expert and Vice-Chancellor at Oxford University, and I’m on the chapter “Why the War On Terror Can Never Be Won.”
  • Taking the train into Brussels everyday. Not as carefree as usual. Maybe it’s just my over-active imagination.
  • The War On Terror Can Never Be Won because: “If victory means making the United States invulnerable to terrorist attack, we are never, ever going to be victorious. Here’s why casting a conflict in terms of a war one cannot win is a big mistake. By dispatching an operative into any Starbucks, subway station, or shopping mall in the country and blowing it up, a terrorist group could demonstrate that the most powerful country in the history of the world has not been able to beat it. This is making it too easy for the terrorists…The ultimate goal of any war must be to deny the adversary what it is that he wants. Terrorists want to be considered at war with us, so to concede this to them is to grant them what they want, instead of doing our utmost to deny them what they want.”
  • J'aime the fact that the French are protesting against fear by going to the cafés.
  • I’m torn about going to war. Iraq was a big mistake. Afghanistan only slightly better. Would it turn out better if it weren’t just America’s war? How can we fight radicalism without creating more of it? I don’t know, but we need to do something.
  • “You get used to terrorism.” – French author Michel Houellebecq
  • Friday, Nov. 20: NYT now referring to Molenbeek as “Jihad Central.” A bit harsh, I thought, but I’m also so glad we didn’t buy that apartment we looked at there. It was a cool space, but the neighborhood
  • Friday night, I went for a few drinks in Brussels after work. Hm, where can we go and not get shot? That’s my over-active imagination talking again, right? Three Duvels later I had forgotten all about any threat. There was an army truck parked in front of Central Station, but you know, whatever.
  • “You get used to terrorism.”
  • Late Friday night, the terror alert dial in Brussels turned from 3 to 4 – the maximum level. An unspecified “immanent and severe” threat was cited. More specifically, one of the Paris attackers was sighted in the area and thought to be wearing explosives.
  • So much for protesting fear. Brussels cafés, shops, restaurants and metros closed all weekend. Better safe than tipsy. Sorry, sorry.
  • #BrusselsLockDown blows up on Twitter. 
  • The lockdown continues into Monday. Schools closed now too. Working from home until further notice.
  • Read another article this week with this eerie line: “The Islamic State has come to be known around the world by names like ISIS and ISIL. But in Raqqa (Syria), residents began calling it Al Tanzeem: The Organization.”
  • Cancelled my trip to London. Cancelled my trip to Paris. 
  • Concert in Brussels cancelled. Now it’s personal!
  • People keep saying, “Be safe.” I know what they mean, but what are we supposed to do?
  • Tuesday: I got an email from the director of the school where I take evening classes for French. It said that there was a bomb scare at the school today. Classes cancelled.
  • Got a text from another friend: “I am working from home at the mo. I am however travelling to London tomorrow to see the kids. It is crazy stuff but I think people are overreacting a bit! We’re giving these idiots exactly what they want…Chaos and & fear…”

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Eye HEART Stockholm

We took our family vacation to Stockholm this summer, and while I knew it would be a beautiful city, I was really surprised how much I liked it. From the trendy cafes of Soldermalm, where we stayed in an ideally located Airbnb apartment, to the tangled alleys of the Old Town, the constant flow of people watching, the food, the nature, the good friends we were visiting, the ubiquitous playgrounds for kids - it all added up to the perfect family city trip.

But one of the things that surprised me most is that Stockholm is exploding with sticker art. There's not a lamp post or street sign in the entire city that doesn't have at least one sticker stuck up on it, each depicting something equally random, each in a different state of decay.

We walked an average of about eight kilometers (five miles) a day, which isn't bad with two small kids. And in this time my eyes were constantly pulled to the sign posts and the mostly meaningless yet anything-but-mundane messages on their stickers. 

You can't read too much into these things (if you can even read them at all), but part of the fun was wondering why someone would go to all the trouble of designing and having this or that sticker made, then making the effort to go out and plaster it all over the town. Was it that important? 

(Back in the day, I certainly thought it was. Check out my one contribution to the sticker art world here)

This one was good:

The ones that caught my eye the most though were the ones looking back at me. I'm sure there were many more out there, but here is a collection of 10 stickers I caught staring:

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Friday, July 10, 2015

Bike-in cinema

Pic of the week

This "bike-in cinema" is one of many art installations seeking to redefine the parking spot that you'll find scattered throughout the streets of Mechelen throughout the summer.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Royal Greenhouses of Laeken

Quirky Belgium

The Royal Greenhouses of Laeken are open to the public for three weeks this year from April 17 to May 8

"It’s good to be the King!" And that’s true for the King of Belgium too whose role nowadays is purely symbolic – although symbolic of what, I’m not sure.

Harmony? Unity? Decadence? 

You could argue that a King or a Queen has no place in a democracy, but that would be to miss the point. Today's Kings and Queens, stripped of any real powers, are like hedges: pieces of decoration put on the side to stand there and look pretty.

And no place better captures the hedge-like harmony, unity, and decadence of the Belgian monarchy than the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken, (Dutch: Koninklijke Serres van LakenFrench: Serres Royales de Laeken), next to the royal family’s residence on the outskirts of Brussels.

Off limits to the public for most of the year, the Royal Greenhouses open their doors for three weeks each spring to we the people. If you’ve not been, I highly recommend a visit. Not only will you see an amazing collection of exotic flowers and plants, but it's worth going just to see the fantastically bulbous metal and glass buildings designed in the 1870s by Alphonse Balat, mentor to the other great Belgian architect of the Art Nouveau era, Victor Horta.

This year you can check out the Royal Greenhouses starting Friday, April 17 until May 8. 

Find out more here.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Piano man

Pic of the week

There are a few pianos in St. Pancras Station, London, that anyone can sit down and play at. This young guy was really good and I was glad to catch a few notes before my train left for Brussels on Thursday.

Monday, March 30, 2015

USA deconstructed

Last weekend my daughter's school had an open house. Everyone was welcome, whether you went to the school or not, and activities were organized around the theme "travel." In different classrooms, parents from various ethnic backgrounds put on workshops related to their country of origin.

The kids could get a henna tattoo from Pakistan, learn a Russian folk dance, practice writing in Arabic, hear a story from Macedonia or Sweden, decorate German and Moroccan cookies, sing a song in Chinese, play a game from Iraq, or make an American flag.

I've met other English-speaking parents at the school, from South Africa and England, but as far as I know I'm the only American parent. So you can guess who ran the American flag workshop.

I showed the kids, most of whom were between 3 and 5 years old, a real American flag and asked them to go crazy and make their own. It was a lot of fun and the results have a Jasper Johns quality that I really love.