In early May 2001 I spent a week in Belgium and England. I brought a camera. Here are some of the things it saw.
The primary reason for the enormous numbers of photographs taken of buildings and plants is,
I strongly suspect, that they tend to hold still. In the case of buildings, the Belgians also
supply a second reason: gilt. Flowers either need no second reason, or have none, depending on
how sentimental you're feeling.
This figure watches over a small café patio in a corner of the Grand Place, Brussels.
The weariness in her expression is a function of frustrated ambition. She wishes to be a guardian of
young lovers, but instead she is forced to preside, day after day, over a gallery of Eurocrats fiddling
with their cell phones and idle Americans attempting to explain to each other the political structure
of European football.
This appealing atelier sits over a pedestrian gate into a cathedral courtyard in Bruges. The
cathedral itself, directly behind me as I took this picture, was much more impressive, but the
courtyard was too small for me to back up far enough to take a decent picture of it, so you'll just
have to imagine sitting in one of these little colored windows laughing at me while I try.
I did not write down what it was that came into being in 1862 at this address in Bruges, but
whatever it was, it's still there. Bruges stopped being cool around 1500, though, that's sort of the whole
point, so only idiot Americans easily astonished by a little bit of colored paint would waste their time
photographing modern-day embellishments like this.
In the United States, the only facades kept in condition this good are fake ones in amusement
parks. This is a random private home on an unremarkable side-street in Brussels.
This one a couple blocks away needs a little work, though, which might be why there was a group
of tourists standing in front of the unornamented one next to it arguing over a guide book.
The gate was nice, though.
This balcony is on a middle floor of an imposing Art Deco building that now houses the Brussels
Museum of Musical Instruments.
I was sorry we didn't have time to stick around past sunset to see how this angel looks lit up at
night. This detail, too, overlooks a tiny intersection of no apparent note.
I don't remember what this was part of. Apparently I'm very easily amused by shiny paint.
Very easily amused.
Also leaves, ironwork...
The Blair Witch Project iconography seems to have lost something in translation.
We spent quite a while at the Antwerp zoo, and I ended up with lots of pictures of people and flowers.
There were animals, too, some of which I really liked, but with a very few exceptions you can't see why in the
Plus, not very many of the animals come in these colors.
The flower pictures are really for my mother, because otherwise I'd have to try to describe these flowers
to her, and neither of us would get what we're looking for out of that exercise.
I stood in front of this guy for almost ten minutes, waiting for him to clobber himself in the head with
his cudgel while attempting to shoo away a pigeon.
There's a nice, sleepy little park across the street from my friends' apartment.
And outside the park, there's Brussels.
By far the majority of the pictures I took on the trip were of people. One might argue,
plausibly enough, that I could have stayed at home taking pictures of people. True enough. But not
#1 appears somewhere in this photograph. Not pictured here, or anywhere else, is the non-communicative
Spaniard next to whom I was seated, who spent the whole trip reading a motocross magazine in a language
he didn't speak and fiddling with his sunglasses. I hope that girl had a nice flight without me.
Here are some other people I could have bonded with during the flight, but didn't. You probably think
the person on the left is moving in this picture, but no, that's what he looked like sitting down, too. Possibly
I should have gotten more sleep before I left.
The trains in Belgium mostly run on time. Which is good because there is no phrasebook in the world
that can decipher train-station PA announcements in a foreign language.
There's also a subway system, which you can distinguish from the regular train system by the fact
that it is in color. All signs in Brussels must be written in both French and Flemish, even place names, which
means that all subway stations have two names, even though in many cases the two names are exactly the same, or
very close. My favorites were Park Parc and Maalbaek Maalbeek. This is Schuman Schuman.
I was surprised by how little Brussels has been Americanized. There are a few McDonald's outlets, but I didn't
see any other American fast-food or retail chains. You know they're getting the information somehow, though,
because pop-culture homogenization is proceeding apace on all other fronts.
Here, for example, you see Belgian youth out at lunch time on a school day perfecting the American art
of never once landing a single skateboard trick.
There are, however, various spheres of industry in which the Europeans retain clear dominance. One is
the manufacture of tiny, incredibly cute cars. The current state of this art is the Smart, a joint venture
between Mercedes-Benz and Swatch. One of the primary advantages of the Smart is that you can park it anywhere,
although you'll note that this one has managed to incur a parking citation nonetheless.
Easier to just leave it on a sidewalk, anyway.
Do you think I could get one into this country if I agreed to have it legally classified as a very
small parade float?
This woman looks very grandmotherly, but the conductor spent a good ten minutes attempting to explain
some irregularity about her ticket to her, and it's David's and my theory that she deliberately buys an inapplicable
rail pass all the time, and then counts on outlasting officials by just smiling and looking befuddled.
That's my friend David, on the left, looking up the address of the only "authentic" Mexican restaurant
in Antwerp, "Tacco House". Sadly, by the time we located it, it had gone out of business.
Apparently there is something very interesting directly behind me. Any moment now one of these people
will wonder why I'm not taking a picture of it.
This, for the record, is what it was.
But who's more interesting, I ask you: this shivering girl and the boy behind her who has just inadvertently
dropped something into his right ear...
...or this stone monk?
I believe I have numbers on my side.
Somewhere in Asia, this man is showing his relatives a video of me taking his picture.
Pretty much every place we went in Belgium was packed with school children. If you haven't been doing
so well in school recently, apparently your class gets last pick for field trips, which usually means you end up
going to see whatever's currently being repaired.
The good kids get to go to the zoo.
The tranquil environment of the zoo, and this industrious tableau of aspiring draftswomen learning the
fundaments of their trade by drawing from life, was marred just slightly for me by the incessant hiss of the one
in the middle spraying fixative on everything.
Whatever you do at the Antwerp zoo, you do not want to run afoul of "The Wheels".
The kids aren't looking at the animals. I'm not looking at the animals. One begins to question why the
animals are there at all.
This child, I suspect, has a theory.
This child has just seen the Lion, and temporarily forgotten that he's not supposed
I forgot a few times, as well. This is another one for my mother.
I suppose this one can be for my mother, too, if she wants it. I grew up in Texas, where cockroaches can
grow fairly large. These ones from Madagascar are much larger.
These are candied almonds. They don't have anything to do with the zoo, but I thought you might need
something pleasant to clear your mind after the giant Madagascan cockroaches.
Or, if you prefer, here's a bundle of sardines.
Neither I nor these kids stayed around to find out whose snack the sardines were to become.
We had an important appointment elsewhere to contemplate differentiation.
Whatever line it is that this creature and I are on different sides of, it obviously doesn't have anything
to do with melancholy or dignity.
Some lines are self-maintaining. Some require plexiglas.
And for some, plexiglas isn't enough.
This is an animal's hand.
This is me.
And then we're gone.
It sort of seems like cheating, to me, to take pictures of places that basically exist
only to have pictures taken of them, but I did go to two such places, and it would have been pretty silly
not to have taken pictures while I was there. The two were of slightly different types.
History is not exactly my best subject, though. I see "medieval city" and I think "enormous haunted
castle". This turns out to be a misconception. Bruges is not a fortress city, it's a city of pleasant courtyards,
narrow streets, placid canals and graceful bridges. And thousands of tourists taking turns getting out of the
way of each others' pretty photographs of the pleasant courtyards, narrow streets, placid canals and graceful
I haven't been to Venice, but I have been to Amsterdam, and as a system, Amsterdam's canals are
more impressive than Bruges'. Bruges' are not there to be systematic, though, they're there to have pictures like
this taken of them.
Once you're done ahhing over the canals, the other thing you do in Bruges is climb the bell-tower. This
is the bell-tower. There are 366 steps to the top, with diagrams at every landing tell you, encouragingly, how
far you've come and how many stairs are left. On one hand, 366 steps isn't really that many, and the
spiral reverses somewhere in the middle so dizziness isn't likely to be a serious problem.
On the other hand, once you get to the top you're quite a ways up. This is what Bruges looks like from above.
As you can see, the town's original cathedral and its original ferris wheel are both still intact.
I also took advantage of our visit to the bell-tower to take a heading for a trip to London.
I actually did go to London, but if you look very closely you'll realize that this isn't it. This is
my other shameless tourist expedition, to the intently goofy Mini Europe, which would probably be the greatest
miniature golf course in the world if it were a miniature golf course. But it isn't, it's a just an endearingly
shabby little collection of 1:25-scale models of famous European sites.
There was some argument, to be honest, about the endearingness. I thought it was shabby in a cute
way. My friends were leaning towards just plain shabby.
And yes, admittedly, I could have taken a train to Paris and shot this photograph of the real thing.
But just try getting this shot in Paris: The Eiffel Tower seen through the Arc de Triomphe, with a
giant mutant metal atom in the background.
The Atomium, the giant metal atom, is by far the most striking and appalling feature of the place. One
of the many architectural abominations marking the spots on the planet where World Fairs have been held, it is
well over three hundred feet high, and badly in need of polishing. From afar (and you can see it on the skyline
from anywhere in the city), it looks merely incongruous. Up close it is the only real structure I've ever seen
that looks less like an solid object than like a bad matte painting from a dated science-fiction movie.
Mini Europe cowers, shabbily, beneath it.
More moving parts would definitely improve the experience. This boat putters in desultory laps in some
miniature lagoon, propelled by a cunningly concealed cable (can you guess where it is?!), an effect that
might have been more convincing before the model's sails fell off.
In this detail from the model of Venice, we see a prosperous merchant in inflatable pants arriving to
purchase protocol droids from a badly out-of-scale Jawa.
Man 1: "Well, this is definitely the Acropolis, but where is the great Athenian civilisation?"
Man 3: "I could swear it was right here."
Man 2: "Oh, great."
The motorized re-enactment of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, witnessed by just the one idling
wall-sitter, captures a pathos I don't remember from the newscasts.
This blatantly retro-fitted nod to the Chunnel doesn't have anywhere near the same attention to scale
and detail as the rest of the models. For example, the real Chunnel is a passageway bored out under an
existing body of water, rather than a large plexiglass duck-bridge built over a railway. Also, riding through the
Chunnel in a train is not nearly as interesting as this model implies it would be.
This is the model of the Grand Place in Brussels. I realized, when I got home, that I neglected to take
any good pictures of the real thing.
Here is my friend David again, wondering why he ever agreed to walk around Belgium with me for six to eight
hours a day, four days straight.
Here are my feet, wondering something similar.
While I was in Europe I also took advantage of the existence of the Chunnel to zip over to London for a
couple days. My first day there was entirely devoted to record-shopping, and I did not take pictures. The second
day, though, was the Saturday of the FA Cup Final, the single biggest game in the English football season
(socially comparable to the Super Bowl, although the culmination of a different competitive structure). The
finalists this year were Liverpool and the North London team Arsenal.
This is the back gate, row-houses flanking it unfazedly on either side.
I am now standing in front of an entrance turnstile. From the doorway of the flat on the right it is a
leisurely seven-second walk to the stadium.
Inside Highbury, about forty minutes before game time. Maybe I should have mentioned that the FA Cup Final
was not being played in London. It was actually being played in Cardiff, Wales, but I figured the next best
way to watch it would be to find a partisan Highbury-area pub. I didn't have any specific one in mind, but assumed
one wouldn't be hard to locate.
Indeed, although Highbury itself was deserted, a distant crowd roar was clearly audible from the stadium,
and a trail of flags led towards the noise.
There was quite a lot of it.
Twenty-five minutes before kickoff, spirits high.
Twenty minutes before kickoff, spirits high. The throng enjoys a rousing rendition of the traditional
Arsenal chant "We Hate Tottenham". Tottenham are another London team. They are not involved in this particular
game, but Arsenal fans don't wish there to be any ambiguity about the fervent nature of their antipathy.
Fiteen minutes before kickoff, spirits perhaps cresting a little prematurely.
Ten minutes before kickoff, many judgments already impaired.
These fans appear to be taunting me, but I am actually standing behind a small knot of policemen, and they
are taunting the policemen. The policemen are wearing black and white, which happen to be the colors of Tottenham,
and so this particular chant goes "Are you Tottenham? Are you Tottenham? Are you Tottenham in disguise?" Apparently
the policemen convince them that they are not Tottenham. Or else the game finally starts.
Halftime. So far, the game has been goalless and, except for one apparent goal-saving Liverpool hand-ball not
called by the referee, uneventful. Spirits: still high.
72nd minute: Arsenal's Swedish midfielder Fredrik Ljungberg runs onto an incisive feed, slices
through the box past stranded Liverpool goalkeeper Sander Westerveld, and deposits the ball in the net.
Arsenal 1, Liverpool 0, with only eighteen minutes left to play. Spirts are suddenly very high. Arsenal are going
to win the Cup. Breakable objects are flung in the air, much aimless running-about is done. Arsenal are the
greatest football team on the planet.
Spirits: not so good.
Concern, disappointment, anguish. But mainly a surreal combination of disbelief and a grim satifaction.
Defeats are familiar, after all. This may be the only time an Arsenal fan is ever truly at peace. The
worst has just happened, and so for a few moments there's nothing left to fear.
Just when I start feeling rhapsodically teary-eyed about the serenity of the noble Arsenal fan, though,
I notice that at some point the police have changed into strange-looking black jumpsuits. I can think of no pleasant
explanation for this measure. I am wearing normal clothes. These noble Arsenal fans don't mind me photographing their