Sometimes the Magic Works, and Sometimes it Doesn’t

December 1-12, 2011

London, Brussels, Charleroi, Mons, Amsterdam, Brussels, Charleroi, Mons, Brussels, London

Aboard the Eurostar to London

And so we bid a fond adieu and afscheid to Belgium.

It’s a grey country; not just the grey of December, but a special sort of nationalized cultural acceptance of dull.

The country comes in several shades, all of which contain, as the main hue, grime. Grimy concrete, grimy stone, and grimy bricks. If they got it, it’s grey. Even the brown is grey. If they use paint, I suspect it’s all bought surplus as factory over-run from Chechnya, and blended as part of some EC standards  policy. We’ll give you the Parliament, you give up chroma. No one wants a vibrant bureaucracy.

The sole shot of color is in the signage, and that only the lime green of the pharmacies. I suspect they have such a bright hue to assure you you’re not going blind, and thus prevent an influx of panicked tourists who need to be convinced that things will get better at the border. It’s like Oz; Belgium is Kansas.

After 10 days of incessant moving about, checked out of the hotel by 11, no clear idea of what or where to do or go, I suspect main purpose of travel is to remind you how well off you were before you left home.

But it’s become hugely easier than it used to be. Sorta. Take the general purpose Euro, for the moment. (I do miss the lira; turn in $700 and you were a millionaire.) Your credit card is good anywhere, but it won’t work. It doesn’t have the necessary security chip. The machine will reject your attempt to get cash in any of 5 languages. The rental car has a navigation system that will mislead you in your chosen tongue. Even when it’s right on target it’s not an unalloyed benefit. It gets you where you think you want to be, but you miss the joy of happenstance.

The first clue that Venice hasn’t a monopoly on hoovering visitor’s wallets was the queue at the Bureau du Change at the Gare du Midi. It was largely composed of Africans, and judging by the luggage, the poorer sort of European voyager.

The rates offered were the worst I’ve seen since leaving Czechoslovakia in the mid 80’s, when it was still behind the Iron Curtain.  Then, inbound, there was a tourist rate of 17 krona to the dollar for the first few hundred dollars. Then, if you had more (which you had to have and spend in order to get a visa) you got 12 per dollar. After that tranche there was the official commercial rate of 7. This rate was otherwise referred to as the stupid tax.

The guy outside your hotel, whispering in your ear, looking like he had an urgency of the lower intestinal track, gave 30 or 40, depending on whether he thought the VB were due to make a sweep, and whether he had paid his VB tax this week by turning in some hapless customer for black market currency violations.

You weren’t allowed to leave with any krona. So, when you (good ambassador for capitalism and the honesty of your ilk that you wished to seem, and besides which you had other shit you really didn’t want looked at) showed your handful of non-exportable paper money (made out of possibly used and recycled toilet paper) the exchange rate was unfavorable: to wit, 0. They kept it. You got back nothing but a small smile, impossible to suppress, that said “We eat meat tonight!” But I digress.

The rate at the Bureau du Change at the Gare was about 15% too lousy. Teach you to lack plastic resources. The Hertz counter staff took special care to warn me away.

Belgium is shaped like an amoeba, and is in the process of mitosis  It’s a strange country; two cultures, neither of which thinks the other is intelligent, well-meaning, or honest. Wallonia, the southern part, speaks French. Northerners, the Flemish, speak Dutch. Outside of the major hotels and tourist spots, no one speaks English, which is surprising. Most Europeans speak about seventeen languages, 6 of them well. Here, one will do, and most assuredly, it’s not yours. And not those other fucking Belgians’, either. The only force uniting the country is their mutual dislike of foreigners (not the tourist kind, rather the kind that live there and do the work that Belgians won’t (sound familiar?).

It’s not that Belgians don’t want to be helpful unto you, the rich tourist leaking money like pus from an old war wound. They are eager to please. Disarmingly so. And they often speak a language that has all the trappings of English. Sure sounds like English. English grammar, English syntax, just not any language that you can use for mutual understanding and productive conversations.  It’s like fake tits; just don’t rely on them for the milk of human kindness. It’s a dry well.

The default response to your needs is “Yes, of course”. To any question. “Yes” seems to have many meanings, none of which are what you or I would expect as native English speakers. Yes means anything but yes. It can mean “I haven’t a clue as to what you’re asking”, or “My sister is beautiful, yes, but married”, or “yes what you’re asking is a good question, but I don’t know how to answer”, or “yes, sorry but we’re closed until next Wednesday”. All of the meanings of yes can be safely translated as “no”. Except for the occasional “yes” that is a “yes” but that’s a special case, as in, “yes, but that will be extra”.

I suspect some of the political confusion is a direct result of listening to Euro Pop. It resembles ’70’s porn soundtracks, but not so exciting. Ron Jeremy would have had to take up some other profession if he had to perform to this wilting agent. And it’s pervasive. The car radio had 58 channels, and magically searched out new stations as you moved about.  All of them were tragically void of invention. I think there’s an automated factory in Macedonia that wholesales this treacle by the terabyte. Gack.

Belgians come in two varieties, but neither is of the fat sort. When you nearly get killed every two minutes by speeding bicyclists, hogging the designated bike lanes you’re innocently walking upon, you get a clue why. Even the road trip gas station food is better than any McFatty’s in the US. Oh, and there are exactly two of those allotted for the country; one for each language.

Since it’s an old-fashioned country the unit of length is the cubit, and the two varieties of physiognomy are thusly measured. One variety is 2.6 cubits in all three dimensions. Not fat, really, just solid.  If you leapt to the designation “peasant” you’re pretty close. The other variety is an impossibly tall 4 cubits, minimum. And that’s the ladies; I’m not used to being the short one in the crowd. This type has extended features, long faces, large teeth; I suspect an equine contribution to the gene pool; think Equipoise due to their rather unflappable nature, or Sea Biscuit, due to the slight awkwardness. Definitely not Man o’ War.

Strangely, there aren’t any actual horses in evidence. Nor any roadkill on the highways. Note to self; examine your menu with a keen eye for detail; “potage” may mean it’s time to go vegan.

A surprise is how clean the streets are. Especially when you want to throw something out. There aren’t any identifiable trash barrels. They do have them, however. It’s what you’re standing on. By midnight, the streets are knee-deep in discards. At dawn a fleet of sweepers and mechanical washing devices storm the Centrum and clean everything up, and polish it to a uniform grimy grey (recycled water, or thinned paint, which see?). Problem solved.

My camera didn’t survive the trip over.  The handle, which contains the battery and a lot of the computer, cracked, with collateral damage.  I felt like I was in “The Day of the Jackal” sitting in the hotel room using glue and pieces of a wooden hanger to repair it. Then when I tried to go to work found that the prism was cracked and the mirror jammed, and the electronics fried.

Fotocare in NY to the rescue! Camera to arrive overnight (now”overnight” is two and a half days, but, better than no camera at all). My “industrial shitholes of Europe” tour interrupted, I drove up to Amsterdam to visit “The Kitchen Maid” Vermeer’s masterpiece. The Rijksmuseum is still under construction after about 20 years of steady, plodding, Dutch thoroughness.

The Dutch are a pleasant melding of German efficiency and Italian responsibility. Museum is been here long time, long time to come. We’re working on it, doing a good job. Whenever. Would you like a beer? mushrooms, naked ladies, sex show? The Rijks only has the “highlights” on view and I wound up more than satiated. Bored. I can take only so many self-satisfied burger’s ladies who seem to be smelling something rotten, and groaning boards.  Back to Brussels to pick up the camera.

Thank you sir, you are in our fine country for 5 more days, yes? There is no designation for “here 5 days only”. Please to give 700 Euro’s to import. You will get money back, for sure. When you leave. Hah. (It would have helped on leaving if they had written down the serial number off the camera, instead of off their bicycle, but I’m still working on that one.)

Brussels is the seat of the EC bureaucracy, and it was tough to get a room last week. They all were in town, all 20,000 with voting rights, adroitly dealing with the crisis du jour, plus also the impending collapse of the Euro and the EC.

They managed to pass a carbon tax on cow farts, by a vote of 6,273 to 1,354, with “too many to count” abstaining. That’s an official number, that “too many to count”. Since they’re not voting, who gives a shit, a vote which is expressed by that particularly Gallic gesture; raise one’s shoulders and spread your arms with your palms rotating in to out. Translates as “eh?” Brussels in is the Flemish region, but the lingua franca is Walloon. Perfect compromise for the EC capital. No one understands anyone else.

Having accomplished so much, they then adjourned till February, when they’ll take up the banking crisis. This solved my hotel problem, so it ended well.

I’m of mixed mind about this trip; I went to London expressly to see the Gerhard Richter show. He may be the best painter ever. Certainly in my top ten list.  The candle, a skull, one of the clouds, the landscape of Chinon. The Bombers, the Mustangs in flight. Betty. The nude descending the stairs. My, My. Stun gun wonderful.

The reproductions for sale were shameful; not a simulacrum, not worthy, a lie, a misrepresentation, and an embarrassment. Didn’t anyone bother to compare? So much of Richter is his mastery of subtlety. The postcards, posters and pigment prints were frauds.

Then a tour of every Museum within yodeling distance. Enlightening. Bruegel is amazing. The kid, Brueghel II, is like the Turner classic movies colorized version of Dad. Kid must have stopped off in Amsterdam for the mushrooms. Vivid palate and much more detail in all the figures, to lesser effect. Bosch now strikes me as a more juvenile taste, but, you know, fun.

The Tate Britain has in fact committed mitosis, with half of its self migrating to Liverpool. Throw them a bone, give’m some culture. Bad news, guys. You didn’t have that much to spare, and the Tate Britain is looking pretty thin.

I missed two objects that move me deeply; Jacob Epstein’s Jacob Wrestling the Angel, and Turner’s Slave Ship. They would almost make up for the hassle of a trip to Liverpool, which has, aside from half of the good stuff from the Tate, water.

So, off to the Musee des Beaux Arts. Lots of Old Masters; Three cheers for Hals, the sense of joy leaps out at you, in pleasant contrast to the painters of the pious rich who had the need and the necessaries to immortalize their disapproving sour nature. This museum was a treasure; Fall of Icarus, a couple of other great Bruegels. A good Bosch or two.

Gimme some Cranach, a few Durers (like a baker’s dozen), a Holbein or two, every Bruegel, some Bosch, a few Grien, and I’m done with the OM crowd. Skip to Goya, and not the court suck Goya. the Tres de Mayo and Black Paintings genius Goya.

What else did I glean? The Natural History Museum in London had some terrific minerals for sale, and I did a quick web search (standing in the shop with my phone) of sources of ball-shaped gems that were cheaper than the ones for sale in the museum shop, and less to carry. Fits well with the glass marbles I’ve been working with. See “studio work”, below.

Other than that? What images did I start? Not much. One or two good things from Mons at night, one or two things of an industrial canal in Charleroi at dusk with a rising full moon (a whole saga unto itself to time that one) and again at dawn. But re-energized. Raring to go back to work. Eager to be home.

I’ll try and get something done with the Underground tomorrow morning before heading to Heathrow. I have one image I’m enthralled with that I took in 2008. But maybe not. Maybe that’s for NYC, Boston and Chicago. The station shouldn’t be completely underground for it to work.

But I’ve come to one important realization. It’s getting harder and harder for me to shoot in the field. What I see in the capture is so very far from what I wind up with when I’m done. Which I never am. Working on images is an act of subtraction. Excising everything that can be removed, until there’s nothing to take out. LIke a surgeon after a cancer. Out with it, until the patient will die with one iota less, and won’t live with one iota more.

The last expendable atom is liberated and off into the ether, it can take me months and months. And when I go back to the original, the result is hardly recognizable. The subtractions aren’t obvious. If they work, they’re invisible, but completely necessary.

But when I’m in the field, or in the hotel, looking at the day’s images, they all suck. Every one. Heartbreaking. But hope rises in the morning. I can fix this. (And did. 12/25/2011).

It’s time for studio work. You’d think I wouldn’t have needed 12 days, and 4 countries to figure this out. Sometimes I’m a slow learner, and have a gift for doing things the hardest way possible.

Pulling into St. Pancras Station. And so to bed. Then to Heathrow and home.


About rjsteinberg

From 4' x 5' albumen prints on cloth to The Palladio Company, to large format digital work in color. A long strange trip. Sidestep to NAPC, Inc. Bettern being bored.
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