Amsterdam

I visited Amsterdam, the city of canals and over a thousand bridges. The city has a relaxed vibe and is bicyclist-friendly. The bridge railings were covered by locked bikes, mostly black-colored. The locals are generally patient, unless they’re biking, in which case, pedestrians better steer clear.

We started our walk in Dam Square.

The houses had hooks on them, for moving furniture. In olden times, property tax was determined by the width of the house. We saw the narrowest house along the canal.

The narrowest house
The narrowest house

We walked by several coffeeshops. In Seattle, weed is legal. In Amsterdam, weed is neither legal nor illegal. And yet, the coffeeshops somehow get stocked. But I did not partake, because I made a vow to never do drugs for my entire life. At the college I went to, the economics professors supported the legalization of drugs, to curb the violence associated with distribution, generate tax revenue, and institute quality standards.

We passed by Spui, a public square where protests often take place. Once, after a streak of rainy days, there was a protest against the rain.

Spui
Spui

We walked around FOAM, the museum of photography. The main exhibit was a William Eggleston retrospective. In the past, only black-and-white photos were considered legitimate enough to display in galleries. Eggleston changed this with his color photography. The photos on display were a selection of the thousands he took of everyday America. He used dyes to produce vivid colors and effects, as though the picture was shot with an Instagram filter.

We took a day trip to Keukenhof, where millions of flowers were in bloom. It was like the Skagit Valley Tulip festival, but on a grander scale. For example, there was a windmill like the one in RoozenGaarde, except much larger. The display gardens were elaborate. Flowers were placed into frames link 3D paintings. Tulips were arranged into a Mondrian grid. There were fields of tulips of every color, as far as the eye could see. There was even a music machine, about as large as a food stall. A man fed punch cards into the machine. Each song was a whole folded tome.

Bruges

I took a day trip to Bruges, a medieval town near Brussels. That said, most structures were rebuilt and not truly from the medieval era, save for a couple pillars. Locals still live there, but if felt touristy.

The history of Bruges is filled with rebellion and general rowdiness. An example is the legend explaining why there are swans in the canals. The people of Bruges imprisoned Emperor Maximilian, then forced Maximilian to watch the execution of his friend and advisor, Pieter Lanchals (“Longneck”). So as punishment for the revolt, Maximilian decreed that Bruges would have to keep swans, long necks, in its canals.

Bruges swans
Bruges swans

Another story is the origin of a beer brewed in Bruges, Brugse Zot, translated as Bruges fool. To calm down Maximilian after imprisoning him, the people of Bruges threw a party for him. They also wanted funding for a mental hospital. When the request for the madhouse was made during the party, Maximilian said the town was already full of fools, all they had to do was close the town gates and they would have their madhouse. Now, the nickname, Bruges fools, is a point of pride for the locals.

Brugse Zot beer
Brugse Zot beer

At the town square, Markt, there was a mix of renovated modern buildings and old-style buildings.

One prominent structure on the edge of Markt is the Belfry. The Belfry was rebuilt after fire and expanded to be taller several times. We climbed the Belfry, pausing in the middle to see the mechanical gears that controlled the bells.

At the top of the Belfry, we had a panoramic view of Bruges.

View from the Belfry of Bruges
View from the Belfry of Bruges

We walked by the Gruuthuse Museum. Gruuthuse was a prominent family in Bruges. They became wealthy from taxing gruit, an ingredient in beer.

Gruuthuse Museum coat of arms with unicorns
Gruuthuse Museum coat of arms with unicorns

In Bruges, there is a beguinage, a community of single and widowed women. The community was self-sustaining. It produced its own food and had its own church. If someone committed a crime outside the beguinage, they could enter the beguinage for safety.

The beguinage
The beguinage

On the way back to the train station, we passed by a fair. There was a ride covered in American flags. Also painted on the ride was a pirate flag, a shark, and a topless woman. I thought this was a strange choice for depicting an American beach city.

Brussels

I stayed in Brussels for a few days, sightseeing in this very walkable city.

I had to try Belgium waffles and beer. The waffles are normally eaten plain, as they are already sweetened. But like a filthy tourist, I piled on ice cream, chocolate, and berries. I ate Belgian frites cooked in animal fat. They tasted like regular French fries (burn!!!). And I sampled different varieties of beer. While Germany has the Reinheitsgebot (“German Beer Purity Law”), in Belgium there are no regulations for ingredients. The brewers can throw all kinds of random ingredients in, such as coriander.

At the Grand-Place, we saw the various guild houses and the Town Hall. The Town Hall was asymmetrical because one side was built first. So the other side has different windows. And the other side is shorter in length, to not block the road. Engraved into a wall is a monument for Everard t’Serclaes, who scaled the city walls and opened the gates to recover the city from the Flemings. People would touch the statue, since that will supposedly make sure you can return to Brussels again.

The most famous statue in Brussels is a 24-inch sculpture called Manneken Pis. It is a sculpture of a boy urinating water into the fountain. One theory on the origin of the sculpture is that it is to commemorate the boys who were piss poor. There were tanneries, and the leather making process requires ammonia. So piss poor boys would sell their pee. This beloved statue was stolen multiple times, once by a French soldier. This upset the people of Brussels, so King Louis XV returned the statue and knighted it. French soldiers would have to salute the statue when they passed it. Now the statue is dressed in different costumes each week.

Manneken Pis
Manneken Pis

There are comic murals painted on walls, such as the one below of Tintin. Belgium has the highest concentration of comic creators.

Tintin comic mural
Tintin comic mural

The comic below of Broussaille was controversial because of the purposefully ambiguous gender of the person on the left. The mayor forced artist Frank Pé to add earrings to make the person more feminine so that the couple looked like a heterosexual couple. To date, the mural is on Brussel’s gay alley. Belgium was the second country to allow same-sex marriage, after the Netherlands.

Broussaille comic mural
Broussaille comic mural

We walked by some interesting buildings, such as the Bourse (the Stock Exchange, now an exhibition hall), an indoor mall (Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert), the Art Nouveau Musical Instruments Museum.

Musical Instruments Museum in the Art Nouveau style
Musical Instruments Museum in the Art Nouveau style

We walked around Place Royale, home to museums and the Palace of Justice. We also saw the Royal Palace, extended by King Leopold II. King Leopold II exploited Congo’s natural resources, and under his authority, atrocities were committed against the people of Congo. Using the wealth obtained from Congo, Leopold II built many buildings in Brussels, earning the epithet the “Builder King.”

Saint Jacques-sur-Coudenberg, a neoclassical church in Place Royale
Saint Jacques-sur-Coudenberg, a neoclassical church in Place Royale

Brussels is the capital of the European Union. There were EU government buildings and embassies surrounding the center garden.

We also visited the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken, which are only open to the public a few weeks a year. That said, the gardens were not particularly impressive, and we had to wait in a long queue during Belgium’s Labor Day (May Day). The glass buildings were iridescent, shaped like crowns.

Royal Greenhouses of Laeken
Royal Greenhouses of Laeken

We were in town during a jazz festival and caught a jazz performance in a small jazz club. The musicians were not notable or of spectacular talent, but it was nice to sip on some drinks in an intimate environment. After each set, there was one extremely enthusiastic audience member whooping and cheering them on much louder than the rest of the audience, saying how great they were, asking for encores. I wish everyone could have their own hype man.

Paris

I visited Paris for a few days, seeing the most popular attractions in a whirlwind tour. We walked around the Seine, visited the Louvre, climbed Sacré-Cœur, took pictures of the Eiffel Tower.

I climbed Sacré-Cœur again
I climbed Sacré-Cœur again

I am thankful that I had the opportunity to study math in Paris several years ago. During the study abroad program, I visited the Louvre 5 times, versus the quick few hours I spent on this last visit. All the art is visual overload, and I appreciate the art more when I can see each room at a leisurely pace.

Apollo "Sauroktonos" (the "Lizard-Slayer"), the selfie-taker
Apollo “Sauroktonos” (the “Lizard-Slayer”), the selfie-taker

I was able to visit a few places that I had always wanted to see, but missed the last time I was in Paris. First was the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris. The permanent exhibit featured murals, one showing people in motion by Matisse. Another mural showed the history of electricity. The main exhibit was for Karel Appel, who made large, “violent brushstrokes” to paint globs of vibrant color onto canvas. The forms appeared to have been drawn by a kindergartner with no sense of proportion, as he purposefully went against classical styles and methods of painting.

Karel Appel exhibit at the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris
Karel Appel exhibit at the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris

I walked around Parc des Buttes-Chaumont for a few hours on a weekday. Parc des Buttes-Chaumont is a park in the northeast part of Paris, with a gazebo overlooking an artificial lake. Students playing hooky and some elderly folk strolled on the grassy hills and trails. From the gazebo, I could see Sacré-Cœur perched on Montmartre.

Parc des Buttes-Chaumont
Parc des Buttes-Chaumont

In the study abroad program, I lived at Cité Universitaire, so I would always pass by Denfert-Rochereau, the metro stop near the Catacombs. After waiting in line for two hours, I finally got to see the ossuary. There were stacks and stacks of bones, some neatly arranged, others tossed carelessly into a pile. The bones were arranged in groups, some from soldiers of a certain conflict, some were moved from overfilled cemeteries.

The catacombs
The catacombs

As I walked through the underground tunnels, surrounded by thousands of bones, I felt a chill. Each skull used to belong to a living person. Also, the tunnels were drafty.

A Tale of Two Toilets

I was in a restaurant in Lucerne, Switzerland, a predominantly German-speaking city. I needed to use the bathroom. One bathroom door said “Toilette Damen,” the other, “Toilette Herren.” There were no symbols for men or women, so I looked back and forth between the two doors in despair.

“Damen” must be for the men, and “Herren” sounds female, like for her. So I pushed open the door that said “Toilette Herren” and saw a wall of urinals, and I immediately realized the error of my thinking. A waitress chuckled as she walked by. “Damen is for women,” she said, smiling.

I walked back to the table and told J what happened. Swiss women must be weird, using urinals, he joked. But it makes sense, he said, because “dame” means lady in German, so “damen” must be plural for ladies.

From this incident, I learned a bit of German. It also reinforced the notion that designs for signs, buttons, etc. should symbols, color, and contextual clues, not just words.

5 interesting facts about Switzerland

I went to Switzerland for vacation. As a tourist, here are things that I found interesting:

  1. King size beds are friend-zone beds. At all the hotels I stayed at, a king bed was just two twin beds pushed together. And instead of having one king-sized comforter, each twin bed had its own twin comforter.

    King bed in Switzerland
    Can you feel the love tonight? Me neither.
  2. When you order coffee, you get expresso. When I asked for an Americano, I was met with blank stares.
  3. Tips are built into restaurant prices. And most meals were ~$30 per person.
  4. Even in the cold, cafés kept dining tables and chairs outside. We ate outside, kept warm by the blankets that were provided.

    Warm and fuzzy blankets to eat in the cold
    Warm and fuzzy blankets to eat in the cold
  5. Every city I went to had an old town, a pedestrian shopping area with cobblestone streets. And every city I went to also had one casino.

    Lucerne's old town, full of new chain stores
    Lucerne’s old town, full of new chain stores