Flanders Montage

This short film begins with a scene near the border where the bike route goes through a lovely National Park. There is a frog croaking on the audio track. I heard many frogs croaking and some of them sounded nice. This one was clever though, since he would only croak when there were other loud sounds a fade out when it was quiet. It made hir hard to record, but probably also more difficult for predators to find. The next two bits are the red light district in Antwerp. Everybody knows that prostitution is legal in The Netherlands, but it seems like most Americans are unaware that it’s legal in several other countries too, including law-heavy Belgium. Then comes audio from a carilon concert in Mechelen. The carilon there is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the very large number of bells. They were put to good use doing renditions of sappy pop songs. Can you name the tunes from the short fragments? Post your guesses in the comments. Finally, the last bit is pitch black and much longer than the rest.
I posted earlier about the horror movie campsite. I described the slugs everywhere, the mossy, moldy abandoned caravas, the very strange owner wanting to know if Xena was a good gaurd dog and the screams of animal life all night long.
Let me assure you that lying in a tent in the total blackness, it sounded much, much louder than it does on this recording. Maybe the spookiness doesn’t come across in this segment, but the audio is the best quality of the whole trip.
I’m disproportionately proud of these little videos. Feel free to remix them under an attribution-only liscence.


I got the stiches out of my chin yesterday, which have helped make it feel less irritated. While getting them snipped out, I inquired about my lingering jaw pain (hurts a lot to chew) and swollenness. The doctor who stiched me said it should all go away within a “couple of days” but she must have meant “weeks” and the nurse practitioner advised me to be patient. At least my lip is de-swollen enough that I can generally be understood while speaking. Well, almost as much as usual.

The nurse also said I was incredibly lucky, after I described what happened to her. I could have been much more badly hurt. It’s funny how people say “lucky.” Like, I’m lucky not to have hurt my brain, but I think real luck would have involved somehow landing on my feet or not crashing at all. And I’m lucky my dog’s not dead, but… no, that was just luck. Jeesus gods.
I went to the pet store yesterday to buy dog-washing soap and saw all the pet toys and went a little crazy. I mean, she could have been killed, so maybe I should get her a bunch of chew toys and treats and stuff, right? I started explaining this to the cashieer of the store and told my story and I got to the part where the cop said it was my fault and his expression began to change. It was clear he thought I was making the whole thing up. Have you ever had a day so shitty that when you tried to tell people about it, they thought you were lying?
Ok, so maybe I shouldn’t repeat it to strangers (the tourist office woman in Brussels seems a bit non-plussed, as did the woman who sold me the box of liguor-filled bonbons), but man, some things you just have to get out. And if nobody you know is around, well, this is why it sucks to work retail.
I don’t really have anything else to say. I’ve been trying to come up with clever gear reviews (“camelback – ache”), but I’m not so motivated. I guess I’m going on with the bike tripping thing though, since I just purchased all the maps I’ll need to get to Copenhagen from the same store in which I got my maps to Brussels. The guy asked how it went. At least he believed me. He swore Denmark would be better.
There’s a reason that Douglas Adams transcribed that the word “belgium” has the most filthy curse word in the gallery. That’s all I’m saying.

I’m home, thank god

So after fleeing the scary campsite and biking for several kilometers, we finally found food and coffee and water that didn’t taste scary and started the long uphill climb to Brussels. We’d been tossing around the idea of biking in the Alps, but I think that idea has now been nixed. (I could do it! I just need toe clips on my folding bike.) The route was pretty, if steep. We got lost, as is usual, since the route is often not well marked. We found ourselves and headed for the center of town. The LF 2 actually ends at a youth hostel. How well planned!

I stooped to try to find Xena’ brand of dogfood and I think I restarted on the wrong street. I lost the route again, but it’s ok because I know what direction center is and there’s a nice bike lane on this kind of major road.

Bike lanes are useful for so many things. For instance, you can park delivery vans there. I don’t know if this is normal or not for the early part of a tuesday afternoon, but the traffic was terrible in Brussels all day. Stop and go on every major road. So the delivery van parked in the bike lane means you have to very very slowly merge into traffic, pass the van and then go the half block to the next obstruction.

There was a giant flatbed truck in the bike lane. Not parked, just intruding. A roadie whizzed past it. It moved about 5 centimeters further forward in traffic and slightly out of the bike lane. I reasoned it must be planning a left turn and needed the space, but as it moved forward, it got the the left. I started around it and it started moving again . . . to the right. The truck hit Xena’s trailer. I started yelling and it stopped. Xena’s trailer catches on things all the damn time. The guy could clearly hear me yelling and dinging like crazy, so I started forward again. And so did he. I tried to stop, but was pushed forward about two meters. I started hitting the flatbed and screaming at the guy to stop and trying to get out of the way. I couldn’t get free from the truck. People started to stop to see what I was yelling about. The guy was not going to stop until another bicyclist got in front of him. He still didn’t stop the truck engine. I couldn’t get the trailer free and was afraid he was going to start moving again. so I left Xena out and Nicole ran up to get the guy of the truck. A gasp went up as Xena tried to run far away. “C’est un chien!” I tied her to a tree.

Xena’s trailer was pinned under the truck such that it’s tire was caught underneath. The tire was destroyed. The spot where it was stuck was right in front of the truck’s tire. A few more meters of the truck creeping forward and the truck tire would have caught up with the dog trailer and that would have been the end of my dog. Or if he had sped up much, it would have been the end of me.

The driver finally stopped the engine and meandered around to see what was going on. I started yelling at him in French. He pulled the trailer free and lit a cigarette and looked bored. Wanted to know what I wanted him to do about it. Why was I holding him up?

I was unhurt, the dog was ok, my bike was ok, but the one trailer wheel was dead. I said he should have to pay for it. Then he got excited. The bike line is not for bikes, it’s for trucks. If you try to get around a truck and it hits you, you’re at fault.

I took stock of my situation. The thoroughly bored truck driver was clearly done with the matter. He was just going to finish his cigarette and leave. I could ask him for his information and if he provided it, I would be a foreigner who wasn’t even a resident of Belgium. I gave up and was ready to stomp off when a cop approached.

The truck driver spoke in Flemish with the cop. I spoke in French and then in English, saying he should have to replace the tire. The cop told me that trucks have to keep right. It’s the law in Belgium. In the future, I should look out for trucks. Because, he indicated but did not say directly, they have greater rights to the bike lanes than do bikes. He asked if I had insurance. Suddenly things took another mood. Is it legal to be insurance-less in Belgium? Would they deport me? I said I had health and personal liability and he let me go.

Either Belgium really does have way too many laws, many of which are stupid, or the cop was totally corrupt. Or it could be both things. If trucks have greater rights to bike lanes than do bikes, then painting them on the ground actually greatly reduces bike safety through making false promises. I’ve biked in several countries. In San Francisco, in Manhattan, in Paris, Berlin, Prague, Dresden, Amsterdam. The only city that I consider too unsafe to do again is Brussels. If marked bike routes are open season for trucks, I want nothing to do with biking there.

I collected myself and my belongings and walked a few meters to a café and ordered two hot chocolates. Oh my gods, my dog almost died. A woman there came up to me and said she’d seen everything and offered to be a witness. I said the cop said I was at fault. She said I was most certainly not. I told her what the cop said the law was. She became frustrated. Belgian laws! Too many of them! All so stupid!

The café waitress brought out to coffees and then realized she had gotten the order wrong and started to apologize profusely. I can’t say how little I cared. I tried to explain why I didn’t care at all, but it didn’t come across so well.

The doggie ride was not going any further, so we chained it to the bike rack in front of the café. With two or three days in town, it should be possible to get it repaired. We started walking towards the tourist info. Slow going pushing the bikes along while Xena pulled every which way on her leash. Her two flaws are barking outside of churches and pulling on her leash. I couldn’t get mad at her though. She had almost been flattened.

We went by a gay travel agent. I went in to ask if he had a list of gay bed and breakfasts. He could do me one better and book me a room! But with a dog? This was a city!! No hotel in the city is going to take a dog! Maybe I could try the tourist office.

So I continued on my way to the tourist office. There were four hotel rooms in the entire town. Congress was in session, so all the other rooms were gone.

Belgium has a ludicrous number of congress people. 74 in the upper house. Hundreds in the lower house. They have more representatives on the federal level than does the United States. Not per capita but in absolute numbers. The Routard reports that Belgian’s number of ministers per capital is far and away the highest in the world. Note to Belgians: this is why you have too many laws and they’re stupid. It’s ok to have a giant government, just make it a bureaucracy in the French style. You have too many lawmakers!

Anyway, two of the hotels were hostels (no dogs) and the others were three stars and quite pricey. The helpful woman called a bed and breakfast booking service for me. A dog??!! while we went back and forth, I decided to get one night at the three star. She went back to book it and it was gone. There was nothing at all in the city. The best option was camping 7 km outside of town.

Normally, I would whine a little about having to camp 7 km away, but I would do it. But this was impossible! I have no dog trailer. How am I supposed to transport everything out to the campground?

I went to confer with Nicole and proposed taking a train home, getting things repaired at home and then taking a train back and continuing our journey. We pondered for a while and then got some beer in a cozy bar and then decided that was a fine idea. We went looking for dinner, but it’s high tourist season. I had mediocre salad. Then we went to the train station, passing little public green squares, filled with foxtails. They really don’t like dogs in Brussels. They’re francophones, but they’re not French.

We purchased tickets and nicole went to retrieve the dog trailer from where it had been left. I started repacking and folding things to get them on the train. Pull the bags off the bikes, fold up the bikes, etc. I had a bunch of yogurt and 2 kilos of oranges in my food pouch. I looked over and say a homeless-looking guy sadly holding a can of beans. “Avez-vous faim?” I asked. Are you hungry?

I gave him the oranges, the yogurt and some laughing cow cheese. He was incredulous. How could I just be handing over so many oranges? I explained that I was in a wreck and going home, but he was still in disbelief. Soon, all the hungry folks in the train station had oranges. And came to talk to me while I waited for Nicole to return. Wow, my dog is cute, is she mean? Can I help them make rent this month? Maybe a few coins? Are these bikes valuable, I bet they’re valuable. Can I try on your hat? Are you travelling with your husband? Every damn indigent for kilometers around was coming by to hassle me. Never give two kilos of oranges to a homeless person unless you’re leaving the area right away or else you’re asking for trouble. Because if you can afford to just walk away from so much food, clearly there are other things you can afford to walk away from.

After Nicole had been gone for about an hour, the guy cleaning the floors told me that I had to move everything. Great, two people’ stuff and me. I left Xena tied to my bike and pushed Nicole’s to a new spot. Then I was getting some bags to move. I tried to keep one eye on each pile of stuff. And I saw one especially pushy panhandler grab Nicole’s bike and start wheeling it out of the station. “Hey!” I yelled, running towards him. “That’s my bike! That’s my bike!” My hat flew off my head. A woman who had just seen me move the bike turned to stare. “I was just looking,” he said. “Look with your eyes, not with your hands!” Some guy tries to make off with a bike and I’m quoting my mom at him. (God rest her soul, I couldn’t post this if she were still alive.)

He left and I got the rest of the stuff moved. The floor cleaner asked what happened and I told him in French and then he sort of lost interest. Is it an anti-foreigner thing or an anti-francophone thing? No cops were called. It probably would have been my fault. Other people have the right grab unlocked bikes or something, I’m sure.

Nicole returned and as I was explaining what had occurred, the would-be thief returned and asked me for money! “adieu misseur!” I said at him, very loudly. He wanted to know if there was a problem. There certainly was. I shouted at him that he should go away and that I didn’t want to speak with him. This was loud and in French and in the middle of a crowded railway station in a Francophone area. And . . . nothing happened. He didn’t go away. No security fold appeared. The cleaning guy ignored everything in favor of his cleaning.

In the Netherlands, there would have been a small army of cops there within a few moments. They’re not aggressive, they just come quickly after shouting.

But no cops came and instead of going away, he pulls out a giant folding knife! He didn’t unfold it, but showed it to me surreptitiously, like a secret threat. He was skinnier than I am, walked with a cane, and one of his legs was artificial. I was pretty sure I could take him, knife or no. I switched to English and just started aggressively swearing at him. Not waiting for backup but ready to kick his ass.

Let’s review my day so far. I had run away from a camp site straight out of an 80’s horro movie. My dog had been caught under a truck. I couldn’t get a hotel room. This asshole tried to steal my bike. And now he’s showing me his knife in such a sneaky way that at first I thought he was trying to expose himself. I would have fought him, no question.

When I was in Prague recently, I spent an unfortunate amount of time around the train station in the middle of the night, trying to get a cab. Almost everybody there was carrying a knife, ready to shank each other. I saw some guy slapping a homeless man. But none of this was pointed at me. (Having a dog is sometimes very helpful.) But now, in the first world, in a supposedly civilized country, some asshole is threatening me with a knife in a crowded area and I’m shouting at him, clearly about to smash him and nobody is paying it the slightest heed. He finally wandered off, with several angry f-bombs echoing in his ears.

I guess if I wanted the cops to come, I should have tied up my dog where she would have barked.

Anyway, Brussels is the sketchiest place I’ve ever traveled in the first, second or third world. Corruption is widespread and immediately obvious to the most casual observer. The traffic is terrible and dangerous (good luck meeting your Koto obligations, Belgium). The train station is less safe than NYC’s. Fuck that shit. I’m not going back. Brussels fucking sucks. And I think I know why the Flanders bike routes maps are out of print. I am so done with Belgium. I used to think it was a lovely mingling of Dutch and French culture, but instead it’s just the worst of both coupled with a severe inferiority complex. The border region is nice, some people are nice, but overall, it’s crap.

The high point of my day was buying a very average loaf of bread and seeing somewhat decent produce in a grocery store. If you like Francophones and food culture, don’t bother with Belgium, just go to France. If you like Nederlands culture or beer, just go to the Netherlands where they’re actually laid back and cool.

Ok, the musical instrument museum is cool, but for the most part, there’s so much assine cultural resentment that it severely impacts the rest of the culture. Not worth the effort of biking there, certainly not worth my day today.


12 June 2007 23:21

I want to start this entry by stating that I am no more injured then the last time I posted. Nicole is similarly unscathed. Xena is fine and in my possession. I still have (afaik) all my stuff (except for a handkerchief which I was fond of, alas). Almost all of it is in working order.

I am on a train. When I post this to my blog, I will be in Den Haag. I will now pause for a moment to go find some wood and knock on it.

When I last typed, I believe that I was sitting in a laundromat in Antwerp. I think I wrote about the cathedral. Did I mention that I left Xena tied up outside directly outside the main entrance? Whenever she is alone in a strange place, she fears being left there forever and so urgently tries to attract my attention so that I can come rescue her. She barked loudly the whole time that I was in the church. I could hear her barks echoing. I’ve come to like the acoustic of external dog barks resonating in large stone vaults. However, I can see how others might not feel the same way. But it really gives a feel for the resonances of a space.

Anyway, when I came out to get her, the ticket seller yelled at me for a bit, saying that everybody was scared to come in because there was an alarming, barking dog next to the door. I apologized profusely and felt really guilty. What if somebody’s vacation was ruined because they were too frightened to see the cathedral and they only had half an hour of opportunity to do so (because they went to the museum first or something)?

We biked to Mechellen. The trip was uneventful. Painfully uneventful. Some folks yelled at me for letting Xena run along side the bike in the woods. The LF 2 is really poorly laid out for a long section of in Belgium. It has no signs and it’s really boring. Also, people who live close to Antwerp are often unfriendly and hostile and scowl at you in a threatening manner when you say hello as you bike past. And some of them seem to like to deface signs for bike routes. By spray painting over them so you can’t read them, or drawing in new arrows pointing in wrong directions or taping over parts or removing signs entirely.

When I got to Mechellen, though, I pulled out my Routard and started calling the three listed hotels. None of them took dogs. In the Netherlands, every hotel takes dogs. In France, people adore dogs. Even in Germany, people are quite warm feeling towards dogs. I think Belgians are desperate to differentiate themselves from their language-sharing neighbors. As such, they’re not too fond of dogs.

A friendly older woman approached me and started telling me about her bike tours. She gave the excellent advice of calling small towns’ tourist offices before 4:00 so they could book you a hotel. Great advice. She also said I probably wouldn’t find a hotel at all for the evening. Yikes.

There may or may not be a lot of hotels in Mechellen, but they’re not well marked. In Antwerp, I sort of walked around, looking for hotel signs and knocking on doors. Apparently, I was very, very lucky. Anyway, I biked past and so went into a very swanky looking hotel. There’s no camping around there, so I was kind of stuck. But they didn’t take dogs either! The woman at the desk, though, was awesome and called a much more moderately priced hotel and booked me a room.

So we ended up at the Hobbit Hotel. I mention it by name because the owners are REALLY REALLY nice and are just starting out and want some publicity. So it’s a typical utilitarian two star, but with really good service and good breakfasts. The owners eat the same breakfast as the guests, so it’s tasty even if there wasn’t an excess of choices. Also, as much espresso as you want. Also, there’s wifi in the bar area. It’s free, but you have to ask about it before you can get the password. They also offer secure bike parking and I think also bike rentals. It’s about 2 km from the center.

I booked two nights because of the cathedral. It’s carillon has the most bells in the world. UNESCO lists it as a world heritage site. They have regular concerts, three times a week when the carillon school is in session and one time a week in the summer. The concert was the next day at 3:00. So we walked around, got some food, went into a bar with a gay flag, got some more food and generally slacked until the concert, which lasted a little more than an hour. It was widely ignored by one and all.

Sometimes, laptop artists worry about something often called “performance aspect.” What this tends to refer to is the visual component of performing an instrument. For instance, if you go to a piano concert, usually it’s possible to see the pianist. You can see her gestures and get a sense of her musical interpretation by how she moves her body. This extra-musical information is widely believed to be the main reason that people pay to go to concerts. If you want to listen to the Goldberg Variations, for example, a CD of Glen Gould may be the best possible musical way to hear it. But if you go to a concert, it won’t be as polished, but you can see the pianist moving around. So goes the common wisdom, usually offered as reasoning for why laptop music is lacking.

I bring up performance aspect because carillon concerts have none. Was I listening to a live performance? Was I listening to a MIDI file? I don’t really have any way of knowing how “live” is really was, except that bells were actually ringing. The process that activated those bells, however, was invisible. Does the lack of performance aspect make a difference to carillon concerts? Is this why virtually nobody else was paying attention (or are they not as tickled pink as I am by hearing Strangers in the Night dinging out of a church steeple?) I once heard Carmen performed at the Grote Kerk in Amsterdam and others were listening. I think I have too little data to draw conclusions, but it’s something to think about. Nobody whines that they can’t see the bell-ringer.

After that, I wanted to go into the cathedral, but I really did want to upset anyone like I had in Antwerp. The cathedral had a very large square in front of it, filled with hedges. I tied Xena up, to a tree in the hedge, far enough from the door that nobody would be alarmed to enter, but close enough that it would be clear where her owners were. There didn’t seem to be any residential houses nearby. The French and the Dutch don’t seem to mind barking dogs too terribly much, so I figured it was ok.

The church had an amazing number of relics. They had St Celestine, who is rumored to have some sort of prophesy (and who is my patron saint, according to me), and a bunch of other saints. So many relics! It was awesome! No cathedral is complete without having several display cases full of human bones. Also, they had the most amazing pulpit ever. I can’t even describe how florid it was, covered with animals and plants and saints and crucifixion, frogs, snaked squirrels, apples, all so very ornate and overdone and carved in wood. Pictures will be forthcoming via flickr.

After a while, Nicole got worried about the dog and went outside to check on her. The police were holding her leash. Some woman with two dogs had come by and become very worried about our obviously abandoned dog. (You can tell she’s abandoned because she’s wearing a collar has no water bowl near her). The woman offered her water but she wouldn’t take it! Clearly, this calls for police intervention. Nicole false claimed to have been unable to hear the dog barking. The police gave her a talking to, but let her keep Xena. You can’t take the dog in the church, you can’t let her bark outside. The hotel folks would have been happy to look after her (almost too happy, though), so I guess that was a solution. Also, it’s a solution to take turns, which is what we did with the city museum and the other church that we visited. I told the hotel owner about this when we came back for the evening and she was shocked. Belgium has too many laws, she explained.

The next day, as we were checking out, she asked if we’d forgotten anything. The dog, maybe? It would be ok if we forgot the dog. Xena is charming to everyone, except to cops and concerned ladies who offer her water.

We started down the path to Leuven, the home town of Stella Artois. The bike route took us down a canal. For the whole day. On the same canal. Although we were instructed to cross from one side of it to another at the halfway point, so I guess that broke up some of the monotony. At least it was easy going. And people started to become more friendly again, which was a relief. Also, the last bit smelled like beer. mmmmm

We got to Leuven and Nicole asked me why it was famous. I suggested we stop for a beer (maybe a Stella) and look at the guidebook. As we got to the Grote Markt, I said, I’m going to guess it’s known for it’s beer, it’s cathedral and it’s stadthuis (aka, city hall). That thing was ornate when it was built. But then, on the advice of Victor Hugo, they decided to cover every possible nitch with statues of notable personages from the region. The effect is astounding. It puts Brussels’ flamboyant Hôtel de Ville to shame. I’ve never seen so many statues at such high density. And at the base of every statue were a bunch of tiny bass reliefs showing even smaller people. It’s amazing.

We sat down in a café facing the stadthuis and asked for a beer recommendation. The waiter brought us really strong beers. Biking in the hot sun + really strong beer = unable to walk afterwards. Nicole was more steady than I, so she went first into the cathedral and then I went. The inside is charming, plus the altar of the previous church still exists under the newer church. And they have lots of relics. And a life-size carving of a falling horse as at the base of their pulpit, so complete that it actually has a carved asshole.

The town is a college town, and thus has lots of vegetarian food at reasonable prices. I found it to be entirely charming and worthy of a longer visit than I allocated for it, but when I went to find a hotel in town, they were full because of some university event, so we went on to go camp as we had originally planned.

My fietsroutsen maps of the Netherlands have campgrounds marked on them, which is a very useful feature. My Belgian maps not only cover far less ground, but don’t mark campsites, only mention their general vicinity. Some of them have had signs from the bike routes, so I just hoped the one right outside of town would be similarly marked.

I thought we might have gone too far when we passed the gypsy camp. (like, with real Romas), but when we got to the top of a hill and could see nothing but rolling fields in every direction, I knew we had gone too far. A family biked up behind us, so I asked if they knew where a campground was. They lived next to one, but it “wasn’t wonderful” and the owner was “kind of crazy.” How bad could it be? I just want a flat spot and a shower. We biked with them the way there. They explained that the path we were on was only for bikes and agriculture. Also, it was the hilliest part of Flanders. I think I broke a speed record for the dog trailer. They also talked a tiny bit about Waterloo. Napoleon was defeated because he failed to account for the little hollows that run through the hills.

The route was beautiful. Rolling fields (of barley!) on either side. Farm houses in the distance. Moody, grey skies. It was the prettiest part of the trip.

We got the campsite and the owner was, as advertised, kind of crazy. The campsite had a large grey, greasy lake in the middle in which steely grey fish would slither around, just beneath the surface before returning to the murky depths. The fish were huge. The lake was a breeding site for mosquitoes. He insisted the water was lovely. Spring water! Drinking water before it got in the lake. You can’t drink the lake water, but right before it goes in, you can. We asked where the showers were. “The toilet is over there, go to the end and then up, you understand?” Showers? “The toilet is over there, at the end.” I started to become suspicious, but he started asking questions about our dog. Was she friendly? Had she ever bitten anybody? He proclaimed his love for animals and said that if we ever came back riding a live elephant, we could camp for free! He kept talking about this for a while and the light was fading, so we rushed to set up the tent as fast as we could when he finally wandered off.

Nicole went to powder her nose (for European readers: she went to use the toilet). She came back. “It’s uhhh rustic. You’ll need to jump over a trench to get there.” Good gods, open sewers! ewwww! I went, past the moldy, mossy, abandoned caravans, marked with yellowing “for sale signs” and there were slugs in the toilet. (Not, like, in the building. I mean, in the bowl. I peed on a slug.) I told Nicole that I didn’t think it had been cleaned since the Carter administration. She pointed out that there was no Carter administration in Belgium. We started joking about what political event had lead to his abandoning toilet cleaning. Maybe it was personal. Maybe his wife left him and he didn’t realize they needed cleaning. Or maybe she had died. Maybe she had forgotten to clean them one day and he had killed her and left them unkempt in warning and protest. As it got darker and the skeeters swarmed, this theory became more ominous. The frogs screeched their mating class in the background. The birds screamed like banshees. It was the loudest campground ever and it was all animal sounds. The less than quarter moon was hidden behind a cloud and I could hear the large fish darkly rising to the surface to snatch bugs from the air and splashing back down to the opaque bottom. Why had he asked so many questions about how mean the dog was? Why was there nobody else in the campground? Who owned all the greenish empty caravans? What happened to them?

We finally went to sleep, although I woke up about a million times. why had the frogs fallen so quiet all of the sudden?

When we got up in the morning, he was no where to be seen. The showers . . . yikes, I wouldn’t have mentioned them either. And did I mention how weird the water tasted. Drinkable lake water, eh? We packed up as fast as we could as the greenish clouds swirled menacingly overhead. Xena, usually eager to frolic in campgrounds sat nervously near the gate, anxious to leave. the bottom of our tent was covers with odd roundish, slimy, oozing creatures.

We peddled up to the top of the hill, where we had last seen the bike route and spent a while riding through the town, until we came back to the inexplicably grey camp ground. The route went right past it. And then around the back. And then meandered and then came back to the other side. We didn’t see a single person. I started looking for signs from the Blair Witch movie. That’s how today started. It got better. And then it got worse.

8 June 2007 15:54

No better time for typing than while sitting at a Laundromat. They should come with wifi. Today, I went in the cathedral while Xena barked her little doggy self dizzy. afterwards, the ticket sales person yelled at me for tying her so close to the cathedral. I think I’m very lucky that she did not call the police to have poor Xena removed. There has got to be a way to get her to stop barking. She only does it when I’ve left er alone and she fears that I will never return. When I’m around, she never makes a peep.

The cathedral had a lot of Mary in it, as was to be expected, but also a lot of St Christopher who was the partron of some of the guilds who decorated the church. There was only one reliquary with two saints in it, but I could not tell who they were or what parts of them. Relics have fallen out of favor and aren’t boasted in the same way they would have been in the past, alas.

The church has an astonishingly tall steeple, all filled with bells. An incredible, unbelievable number of bells. They give concerts there during the summer, starting next week . Alas, I will not get to hear the huge number of bells playing live, but even just the hourly chimes are fairly impressive. They do trills on the bells, something one hardly ever hears, in my experience (which, admittedly, is not vast). The church has two organs. One of them is the older one, but they also have one from 2003, designed specifically to play the works of Bach, but, the informational sign added, it’s ‘touch’ allows works from many periods to be played.

While English speakers don’t often hear of new organ works, there is actually a quite active school of organ composition in Mexico. And of course, there’s Henry Brant and others in America turning out new works. Bach is ok and all, but you’d think there’s already an adequate installed base of organs for playing his works.

The church also had quite elaborate confessionals. This is a wooden structure designed to hold one officiating priest and two sinners (who may also be priests). The priest is in a chamber in the middle and the sinners are situated on either side, in a sort of a nook equipped with a kneeler. It is enclosed on three sides and has a bit of a privacy shield. The priest turns his attention to sinner number one who has a script. “Bless me father, for I have sinned. It has been [x time units] since my last confession. Since then I have [ list of sins ].” Then the priest talks for a bit about the sinner’s sins, possibly offering advice and assigning the sinner a penance, which is to say a list of prayers that the priest assigns for the duration assigned. When I was a youth, it was usually three ‘Hail Mary’s and an ‘Our Father,’ but it could be a great deal more to be repeated at specified intervals. If you die before these are finished, the dogma used to state (and perhaps still does? the afterlife has changed a lot in the last few years) that you would have to go to Purgatory until your prayers were completed. But back to the sacrament. After the priest assigns the sinner a penance, iirc, they say the act of contrition together and then the priest offers absolution, which is the assurance that God has forgiven all of the sins, including the ones the sinner forgot to mention, but not including the ones he or she omitted on purpose. After this is completed, the priest turns his attention to sinner number two. Meanwhile, sinner number one makes the sign of the cross and vacates the confessional so that a new sinner may sit and wait for the priest’s attention. It’s a sin to try to overhear the hushed conversation on the other side, although if you did, you could confess it right away, at least.

The confessionals in Antwerp feature extensive wooden carvings, including pained looking saints. That carved saint weeps for your wrongdoings. I would feel intimidated to have so many holy figures so pained by my surreptitious glancing at images of naked ladies. Alas and woe. St Peter weeps!

Today, I learned that map of the national bike routes in Belgium is out of print. Nobody seems to have any copies left and nobody can say when it will be printed again. I did find a map to get me as far as Brussels. It’s not until I leave there that I run short of map.

7 June 2007 22:01

Today, I awoke and then went right back to sleep. A bed! a mattress! Pillows! The hotel guy had been a bit disparaging about the room. “It’s very small.” But you can walk upright in it! And I don’t need to sleep on the floor! Amazing! But alas it was just for one night.

I tried in vain to find maps. I bought a book about Belgium. The Routard was the best one. French travel books are better than English ones. Everyone should learn to speak French just so they can read the poetry of the Routard. I bought chocolate. I searched for a new hotel room. I found one. I ate some food. I ate some more food. I walked around a bit. I ate some more food. And then the whole day had evaporated. Nice!

There are statues of the Virgin Mary everywhere in Belgium. Roadside shrines abound. But there are especially a lot in the city of Antwerp. She is the patron mother goddess saint of the city. Anybody who put a statue of her on the side of a building got a tax break. (Protestants were not so welcome in town for a long while.) The statues here often involve her holding a baby Jesus. The city hall has one such statue. It’s hundreds of years old, but I’m curious about whether or not there’s separation of church and state. I saw a little brick house holding an electrical transformer, which had a tiny chapel dedicated to Mary sticking out of it. I don’t know if the electric company was angling for a tax break (or if said break sill exists in modern times), but this was clearly semi-official at least and also clearly relatively recent.

In the roadside chapels, it seems that Mary is much less likely to be holding Jesus. There’s often a smaller statue of him to Mary’s right. Another saint might be at her left. (Her left, not the prayer’s left.) Often these chapels have candles and little notes addressed to Maria. Interestingly, the smaller side placement of Jesus suggests that he’s in second place. Which is sort of logical given that he’s the kid and all. But, looking at all these chapels dedicated to her, I think there’s some truth to protestants’ charge that Catholics worship Mary. And that she’s a goddess figure.

She’s an interesting Goddess figure in that she’s usually not at all feminist. Her presence is often reactionary. She was obedient, submissive, etc and her high status makes women feel more represented. Places with a high level of devotion to Mary tend to have a lower level of feminism.

Also interesting about Mary is that she’s both Maiden and Mother. She’s rarely depicted as a crone, even at Jesus’ death or afterwards. In the Middle Ages, before the Assumption of Mary was invented (in the current dogma she had her own, personal rapture), the dormition of Mary was a popular devotional image. Dormition meaning death – the final sleep. But now, she is forever young – depicted as the same age whether she’s holding Jesus as a baby, weeping at the foot of the cross, or ascending into heaven. I know of one sculptor who is making images of her as a crone.

Finally, what’s interesting about Mary is her relationship with Jesus. Mary is the queen of heaven. So what does that make Jesus? He’s not the prince of heaven. There is the Mystery of the Holy Trinity. God is three persons, but also one person. St Patrick explained this with the shamrock: three leaves but one plant. But the reason it’s a capital-M Mystery is because it’s unexplainable. If Jesus and God the Father (and the oft-forgotten Holy Spirit) are all equal and there’s only one god, then they must all be that one god. So Jesus is his own dad. Jesus and God the father and the holy spirit are all king of heaven. Which means that when the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, that was the same god who is the Father who is Jesus who is the Holy Spirit. Which is to say that there’s a lot of precedent in the west for deities getting a free pass on the incest taboo and I think Christianity is not an exception to this.

Anyway, Belgians seem to agree that there’s something about Mary and so the stick her every where. But there’s an important difference between countryside shrines and city statues. The city statues are for Our Lady of tax evasion. As mentioned above, having one on your street exempted you from certain taxes. Therefore, all the city ones are officially sanctioned. Also as mentioned above, the almost universally have a crowned Mary holding a crowned baby and the country side ones often do not, but rather have a giant Mary standing over a small earth and a snake.

The urban, official Mary is Mary the mother. The rural Mary is Mary the independent power. If Mary is popular among the people, it’s natural that she would be the subject of the town’s cathedral and the patron of the city. But the subtle differences in her presentation reflect differing heirarchies. The Mother Mary is the submissive servant of God, although a queenly one. The rural Mary is much less reactionary in her iconography. One could believe that her image would inspire devout women to excel instead of submit. By putting an official image of MAry around the city, civic and religious leaders were able to take a popular movement and channel it into submission.

In other news, my landlord left a comment on my blog before I called him. In it, he was threatening to call interpol on me. I’ve never been an international fugitive before. I know what you’re thinking, “what could possibly be so illegal in the Netherlands?” Fear not, I was not abducting and murdering cute toddlers. No, my rental contract had expired and so he was contacting all sorts of people telling them to cancel their contracts on me. Like my insurance company, which I guess is not going to reimburse me for my stitches (at 17€ each).

In most states in the US, when your rental contract expires, your tenancy shifts to something called month-to-month. This means you have to give 30 days notice before you leave and you just keep paying rent to the landlord. Is this not the case in the Netherlands? I was paying my rent every month. Except this month, apparently I’m paying an extra supplement in the form of out of pocket expenses incurred by having my insurance suddenly cancelled. I suppose I should have verified that he received the email that I sent him with my new phone number when I first got the phone.

Um, other news. Xena is acting weirdly freaked and I don’t know why, but it might have something to do with being in a loud, strange city. Children stare at the bandage on my chin. My mouth is all swollen and apparently I’m even less intelligible than usual. I really want a chiropractor to fix my neck. I can almost eat. My ear hurts from my jaw smacking the ground. I recommend avoiding smashing your chin into the pavement. Also, Nicole looks horrified whenever she sees my gash.

Tomorrow, I’m going to go look inside the giant, lovely cathedral and I will find a map of the route to Brussels, damn it!

6 June 2007 23:20

Oh my gods, I’m in Antwerp!

I learned a few things yesterday. Not like, about myself. When people start talking about their recreational activities and learning things about themselves, it’s because their recreational activity sucks. Also be aware of words like “tough” and “challenging” and phrases like “pushing myself” and anything involving “limits.” These key words signal people who like to punish themselves. They do things like run 26 kilometers for no good reason and learn something about wanting to barf while running. I learned nothing about myself, but did acquire information that may be useful to travellers:

If you walk up to a stranger and, without any polite words or words in their language, ask where to find a bank AND you’re covered in blood, the person will be happy to help. In fact, strangers will offer to do a lot of things, like drive you to a doctor.

Also, I learned that Bromptom’s messenger-ish bag’s support frame is pretty tough and will protect a laptop from death. Also, bike gloves are great for preventing road rash. Oh, and I learned it’s important to look where you’re going. If you’re gazing off to the side at deer and some fool road engineer decided it might be a good idea to put a huge wooden post in the middle of the road, you might hit the post. Your bike will stop, but you will not. I took my first trip over my handlebars and landed on my hands and chin. My hands are fine, but my chin was not. I’ve got three stitches in it now, but all of my teeth are still in place. I got stitched up and was back on the road in about an hour.

So, yeah, I was looking at deer and ran into a pole. I remember seeing the pole in front of me and thinking I was going to hit it. Then I remember flying through the air and I remember hitting the ground and thinking “oh good, I’m ok.” And then I noticed that Nicole had fallen too and I wondered why. And I saw people stopping in alarm, so I thought I should get up off the ground and try talking to them in broken Dutch. Somebody alerted me that I was dripping blood everywhere. I asked if the dog was ok. She was fine. Her trailer hadn’t even tipped over. She wasn’t even freaked out very much.

A passerby and the postman had a discussion and decided that I needed stitches, since the bandaid that Nicole handed me wasn’t really helping. The passerby drove me to the doctor and had a talk with the receptionist, explaining what had happened. The first thing they did was tell me I would have to pay cash and ask if I had the money. While I was leaking blood everywhere. That conversation would not have occurred in France. There, they stitch first and ask about money later. But in Holland, I can drip blood on the floor while folks discuss my ability to pay.

The stranger who gave me a ride to the doctor waited for me the whole time and then gave me a ride back to where I crashed and Nicole and Xena were waiting. Nicole had righted my handlebars and checked my laptop for visible dings and removed smashed things from my bags – including an orange and plastic wine glasses designed for camping. Alas, my wine glasses are dead. But my laptop seems ok. And then we biked slowly for a while longer and stopped to camp for the night.

I don’t want to say that it was anybody’s fault but my own that I ran directly into a pole. But. Why the hell would you put a pole in the middle of the road anyway? It’s dangerous! A car that hit it would maybe not hit bikes on the other side, but certainly hurt the occupants of the car. Those poles would not be legal in California. Markers have to break away in a crash or cause a vehicle to glance off of it. The start of barriers, where a car could smash into the end and cause injury, are padded. they have big reflective garbage cans full of sand at the start of every barrier on the highway. Ok, to be fair, if I had run into a barrel of sand, I still probably would have fallen and my chin would still have hit the ground, but I think those poles should go.

Anyway, after biking a while longer, we stopped in Essen, Belgium. For those of you following along on your Landlijke Fietsrouten maps at home, Essen, Belgium is not the same town as Essen, Germany. There are several important differences. 1. One of them is in Flanders and the other is in Germany. 2. One is a famous city and the other is a tiny village. Anyway, we went to Essen, where, ironically, I couldn’t eat so much because smacking your chin in to the pavement is much like getting a big punch in the jaw. I couldn’t open my mouth very far and it hurt to chew. I drank a liter of the soymilk in my bag. It was light! Curses! Why would anybody want low calorie soy milk?

A guy at the campground said he knew another guy who could fix the wheel of Xena’s trailer. Nicole ran her bike into it and it was all askew in a comical sort of way. If you ever want people to stare at you in the border region of Belgium, bike along with a huge bloody bandage on your chin and a dog trailer with a warped wheel. Anyway, the bike fixing guy seemed a bit, well, off. So instead of having him spend the whole next day fixing the wheel, Nicole and I walked to dinner.

It’s hard to eat when you can’t really chew or open your mouth. Also, vegetarians are sort of at the mercy of the chef. You usually only have one option. “It is squishy?” I spent 2 hours mushing up my pasta with my fork and slowly putting it in my barely open mouth. I went to the bar to pay and a drunk guy looked right at me, surprised, and made a comment to the great amusement of all gathered there. The bar tender declined to translate. An old drunk guy started talking to me in English. He wanted my address. He wanted me to know that he had connections in California, with a very sexy lady. “Not a man, a sexy lady.” Oooo-kay. I got my change from the bartender and was leaving. The drunk old man said, “you’re a very attractive person. A man or a woman, I don’t know.” Apparently, he’s bi-curious. I’ve got nothing against bi-curious folks, but I do try to avoid them in bars because often they’ll want to kiss you and then run away. My heart gets broken too easily. I did not tell him he would break my heart and his boyfriend’s too (not to mention the sexy California T-girl), but instead said “me neither.” He called back “You’re neither?” but I was already out the door.

And today, after getting a bike shop to de-warp Xena’s wheel, I biked to Antwerp. We went back across the border to get back on the Fietsroute and followed it for 50+ kilometers. This evening was the first time I felt brave enough to try the laptop. It works! (so far) Those of you following along at home will not that we’re late in arriving in Antwerp. Oh my goodness, we got lost around Breda. We spent half the day sightseeing and the second half of the day lost. Somebody put duct tape over many of the signs for the LF-13b. Is the route closed for some reason? Is this a joke? Why would you put duct tape over the signs? I cursed the LF-13a/b for being confusing and poorly marked and it extracted revenge in the form of blood.

We went in wrong directions for hours. My landlord called my school and left a message saying that my rental contract had expired. My school called me, while I was pondering which way to go. So I called my landlord, who explained that he’s been reading my blog. (Hi Yuric!) So I’m not being evicted. Hooray.

I’m too tired to continue for now. Perhaps I’ll find wifi tomorrow.