Saturday, 28 December 2013

Christmas in the foreign: Brussels and Maastricht

We came back from New Zealand on a late Eurostar, arriving at Midi in the dark, laden with baggage. It was cold. It was early December. We’d been eating asparagus and drinking chilled white wine in the sun only a couple of days before. But, jetlagged as we were, there was something which perked me up on the taxi ride home: the Christmas lights. Brussels, I salute you, you Continental types do know how to decorate. Each area seems to have its own designs. All white, all quite understated, but all the central area, the major streets, and quite a few others, had lights up. It made the fact that it got dark at 4pm a little easier.

Two visitors – my friend A and my mum – also made the pre-Christmas-weeks fun, as we shopped for Christmas presents together and did the touristy things which the Dutchman and I don’t do on our own. Last year, before I was living here, I had a brilliant weekend trip with H, drinking hot chocolate and laughing at the Christmas market (one of my abiding memories is the looks we got for opening a bottle of Prosecco on the Eurostar on the way over…!). The Brussels Christmas market was a little disappointing. There was not much that one would actually want to buy. I think we were all expecting the kind of German market that gets shipped over to Oxford and most other English cities, with pretty little wooden huts and nice artisanal products. Eh, not so much. A shame. I enjoyed walking through the streets and just looking, A drinking mulled wine and I warm spiced calvados to stave off the cold. Next year I think I would like to go to Frankfurt or Cologne.

The other Christmassy thing which I loved here was the crèches in the Cathedral. All created by different ethnic groups or associations, dotted around the Cathedral by various chapels. There were some really beautiful, well-made ones, some amateur some crafted by artists, and most kept their identity as a focus – the Nativity in China, in Africa, in Haiti…

To inject a bit of Englishness into the proceedings, I made many mince pies, with the mincemeat my mother and I made back in October. We gave some to our landlady, took some to the Dutchman’s parents for Christmas Day, I will make more as our contribution to the annual Rotterdam Christmas meal with the Dutchman and his friends, and of course I ate a fair few. We still have the boozy, fruit-packed, darkly crumbly Christmas cake too, again made back in October and fed by my mum right up until the week before, but it doesn’t photograph well, especially sans marzipan and icing, at the Dutchman’s request.

We were in the UK before Christmas, briefly, for my PhD graduation (on my birthday!) and to see family. We woke up together on Christmas morning, had our stockings (delivered by Father Christmas, even though one of us had already had a visit from Sinterklaas in early December), went to church, had a delicious lunch of spiced apple and parsnip soup, and then travelled to Maastricht. The Dutchman’s father made a simply outstanding meal (five courses, very nouvelle cuisine, all well-executed) and we exchanged presents. On Boxing Day (the reason behind the name of which I have explained to many, many people) we had coffee with the Dutchman’s very sprightly 94-year-old grandmother and then came back to Brussels. I can’t deny that I missed my parents and our family traditions, but I was happy to have had Christmas together.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Well, at the Opera House.

When my lovely friend A came to visit last week, we finally acted on a tip given to me over a year ago by Belgian Waffle, to go on the ‘behind the scenes’ tour of the Opera House, La Monnaie (De Munt). We were completely unprepared for what this dull Saturday morning had in store for us.

La Monnaie is responsible for Belgium. For a hilarious history lesson, see Belgian Waffling’s post here, but the short version is that riots started during an opera led to the creation of this independent nation. (The Dutchman is convinced that if it still belonged to him, the roads would not be in such a poor state, but I digress.)

The tour starts in a way rather unassuming way. You are not in the Opera House, but the building behind it. This is the first surprise. The tour begins in the ateliers, the workshops. In fact, most of the tour is here, only heading over to the actual Opera House for the final twenty minutes or so. We were not complaining. (Tours are run in French, Dutch, and English if the audience is there, but we found that our guide often forgot to repeat herself in English. Never mind, we had plenty to occupy us.) The guide began her talk in front of row upon row of costumes for Hamlet, the latest production. We were given a bit of history, but swiftly moved on to talking about the work that is done here, and the production teams which work year round to supply costumes, sets, and props for the shows.

First stop was the painting studio, and the various workshops for set design:

Chaotic but obviously dedicated, this is a side of theatre production that one doesn’t often see. I loved the fact that the plans were lying about, that one could see the names of famous operas casually scrawled on the backs of flats, and that all that magic comes from paint, wood, metal, and hard work. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this area was the 'assembly room' where they check the sets before taking them across to the Opera House itself (bottom left photo above). A cavernous space, marked all over with measurements, the industrial look is about as far removed from the final setting as you could get.

My favourite part of the tour was wandering through the costume department:

There were rows of sewing machines, boxes and boxes of bits and pieces, bolts of cloth, and notes everywhere. After walking through the rooms where they make the costumes, we saw the storerooms - an archive of previous operas and other productions. The guide told us that the costumes and props for one opera are 'copyrighted', as it were, to that specific production, and cannot be reused for any other production. Apparently they auction off the surplus every so often, when they run out of space.

I also loved the little in-between spaces, where props from old operas had been used to decorate the spaces: a giant bookcase from Don Quixote near the lifts, costume sketches on the walls, and those beautiful wings hung up like coats.

The last stop in this building was to see the miniature theatre, an eighteenth century copy of the theatre at Bayreuth:

Our guide also gave us a ‘show and tell’, which added to the experience, but made me feel a little like we were a visiting school group. We handed round a severed head modelled on a famous singer for a role where he was executed and a make-up artist’s notes for travelling productions. It was certainly interesting and a nice addition, but I think it would have been hard to impress us after being allowed to walk freely through the workshops (especially for me, who once harboured the desire to be a Theatre Designer). Time had really flown, and having started the tour wondering if we would actually see the Opera House, I was quite disappointed to leave the ateliers.

We entered the Opera House through the artists’ entrance, a stark contrast to the plush velvet-and-gold main entrance. Like the workshops, the Opera House was mostly empty, giving us the space and time to appreciate it in a way I don’t think you would when filled with people. For example, the sweep of the staircase and expanses of rich carpeting are more impressive when you can see the full scale. Inside the theatre itself, we sat in the ‘best seats in the house’, centre of the front row of the balcony (I think the sight line is called something like 'the Prince’s Line'). We also stepped into the Royal Box – the worst seats in the house for actually seeing the opera!

View from the Royal Box - looking out to the audience, not the stage!
(Please excuse terrible phone photo.)
The tour made me want to see a production at La Monnaie, but it also made me want to explore the backstage areas of other theatres. I don’t know how well-known this tour is, but I honestly think it’s one of the best experiences I’ve had in Brussels. Especially when followed by a massive cone of frites with mayonnaise.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The Other Side of the World (2 of 3): New Zealand - North Island

Whangarei - Bay of Islands - Matakana - Leigh Coastal Walk - Coromandel Peninsula - Mount Maunganui (Pacific beach) - Rotarua and Tamaki Maori Village - Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Park - Lake Taupo - Tongariro Alpine Crossing - Napier (Art Deco town) - Gisborne (Cook's First Landing) - Lake Waikoremoana - Cape Kidknappers (Gannets) - Martinborough (wine) - Wellington (Te Papa, Old and New St. Pauls, Botanic Garden via Cable Car - Soames Island trip)

- The Whangerai Falls were the first thing we saw on our first full day, involving a hike through lush, dense bush, walking across a swinging rope bridge, and emerging at the base of the falls.
- A boat tour through the Bay of Islands was the best way to explore this area, including seeing a whale and going through 'the hole in the rock'. The weather started cloudy and grey and brightened to beautiful blue skies with scuds of white cloud, and then ended with a moody storm.
- Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Park was full of exciting things like boiling mud, 'champagne' pools, and weirdly coloured water (due to mineral deposits). Plus the Lady Knox Geyser they set off every morning!
- We attempted to do a short hike round the waterfalls which lead to Lake Waikoremoana, but after a few lovely vistas the heavens opened with hail the size of golf balls. Cue hasty retreat to the car.
- Other days had better weather - for example the day I swam in the Pacific Ocean for the first time ever!

Town & Country
- What can I say about the Tongariro Alpine Crossing? It was simultaneously one of the best and worst things I've ever done. The Crossing is a 19.4km hike up a volcano (the route taking you up the charmingly named 'Devil's Staircase') and then ACROSS THE CRATER EDGE and down the other side, through ankle-deep volcanic ash and then, further down, woodland (which involved fording a stream - a great way to find out if your boots are waterproof. Or not.). You should get spectacular views across the countryside, and also amazing views of the volcano and its blue lakes. Well. When we did it, it was not so much that it was raining, as that we were INSIDE the clouds. It was foggy and wet and cold and horrible and we basically did the entire thing without stopping, in five hours. I'm quite proud of myself!
- Wellington was windy but so much fun! The Te Papa Museum is enormous, full of interactive bits and pieces and a wealth of information. We did a walking tour of the city, including going up the cable car to the Botanic Gardens, and happened across a memorial service at the 'Beehive' government building.
- Makatana, oh Makatana. You are the most hipster place I have ever seen! I love you and your antiques and crafts market, but I love your food market more. We ate: an excellent pie with cream cheese pastry (ever so flaky), a whitebait fritter (allegedly a great delicacy), a massive caramel brownie (aw yis), and drank fantastic coffee and smoothies (but no craft beer, because the Dutchman was driving, solidarity and all that).
- The wine tasting in Martinborough was a lovely day's activity. There are many vineyards within walking distance of each other, so we had a nice tour of cellar doors. Everyone was friendly, we tasted some excellent Riesling and Sauvingnon Blanc, and a surprisingly amount of red wine. We stayed in a rather nice B&B that evening.
- Napier and Gisborne were the other two towns we visited, when not tramping through bushland. Napier is famous for its Art Deco architecture, having been completely rebuilt in the 1930s following an earthquake. It made for a nice morning's walking. Gisborne was a little disappointing. The town is the site of Cook's first landing, which is commemorated by a few statues, but little else. There was an excellent museum about encounters between Maori and Pakeha (Europeans).

The Unexpected
- We saw our first Kiwi at the Kiwi North sanctuary which was an amazing experience!
- One Gannets at Cape Kidknappers
-I also loved the impromptu trip we took from the Wellington City & Sea Museum, consisting of a guided tour by a curator and then a ferry ride to Soames Island, an amazing island with a sad history of human quarantine - although they called it the 'Ship'n'Chip' tour which is clearly missing a trick; 'Fish'n'Ships, surely!
- Another highlight was the Maori Cultural Evening we attended near Rotaroa. You arrive on a bus, which is your tribe for the evening, and are treated to a welcome ceremony and taken on a tour of the 'village' with various activities - such as learning the Haka, as the Dutchman did! - before dinner is served. They cook the meal in a hungi, a pit, which produces some of the most tender smoky chicken I've ever had, plus kumara (sweet potato) and carrots, all served in enormous portions. It was, as one of our table said, a bit like Christmas!

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The Other Side of the World (1 of 3): Hong Kong

New Zealand is about as far away from Brussels as you can get. It is FAR. So far, that the aeroplane has to stop to refuel half way there. We took the opportunity to have a brief stop in Hong Kong: two days of jetlag and eating.

First impressions do count, but I don't know if I would feel any differently about Hong Kong if I experienced it without a massive TIME HANGOVER. It was muggy, it was noisy, it was crowded. I really enjoyed my time there, but two days was enough. The novelty of the Mid Town Escalators hadn't worn off yet, and I was still curious about the market stalls on the street selling more varieties of fermented um, things than I knew existed.

We had no idea what time our bodies thought it was, and although we were shattered, we didn't want to waste any time. The first we did as tourists was ride the Mid Town Escalators to the port (I love the translations of the rules - do not wail against the flow is good advice for life!), to catch the Star Ferry to Kowloon. There we visited the Temple Street Night Market, which was a riot of neon signs and all kinds of stalls (fake bags, ornate chopsticks, mobile phone cases, bunches of herbs). We ate dinner in a tiny place, with no idea what anyone was saying or what we had ordered to go in our noodle soup. After that, the night had really fallen, and we headed back to the dock to see the 'Symphony of Lights'. We'd already seen the impressive skyline of skyscrapers, which light up the horizon, but the show was much-vaulted in the guidebooks, so we were prepared for something spectacular. To be honest? It was a disappointment. Nothing really happened that was any different from the usual night scene, apart from green lasers haphazardly running across the sky. It was the skyline itself which was impressive - see the photo, bottom right, above - with all the lights and the sheer presence of the big name brands and banks, not the 'show'. We stayed in the cool air for quite a while, though, talking about what to do next. I had one non-negotiable trip in mind. Tea at the Peninsula hotel.

The Dutchman and I got dressed up and tried to look as if we were rich enough to do this every day. Tea at the Peninsula is regularly included in lists of 'the top ten things to do in Hong Kong', and rightly so. Ok, so it isn't in any way traditionally Chinese, but it is traditional: the British influence is still present in Hong Kong, with the trappings of the colonial era nowhere more present than in the ritual of high tea. It was spectacular, both in food and location. I had delicate jasmine tea, whilst the Dutchman went for an Assam. We had a selection of little savouries, including an open cucumber sandwich which was perfectly seasoned and a bite-sized salmon quiche. The scones - one fruit, one plain - were enormous. The cakes were easily the best part (aside from people-watching!) and two gave a nod to Chinese cuisine: slices of green tea cake heavy with plums; cassis and tapioca squares. We both liked the pink confection best - see that swirl of pink in the glass? That's whipped vanilla cream and raspberry marshmallow, hiding fresh raspberry purée. (I also took photos of every meal we ate on the flights. Not nearly so interesting.)

Another 'top ten' experience was riding the cable car slash tram up to Victoria Peak, which gave spectacular views over Hong Kong island and across the bay to Kowloon. On the way back down, we passed the Foreign Correspondents' Club, which made me imagine Ernest Hemingway and Patrick Leigh Fermor drinking gin in club chairs. Not that either of them did that here, but, you know, I love the stereotype of the FCC. We did a lot of walking, wandering about the various neighbourhoods: the 'entertainment district' was rather seedy, but it was fun to look around; the Dutchman ran round the tiny Kowloon Park about fifty times whilst I read the guidebook and plotted dinner destinations; we stared up at all the major banking buildings in Central. The one thing we didn't see was much dim sum. We'd been expecting enormous feasts of little packages of steamed and fried deliciousness, but it seems to be such a 'breakfast' thing that we didn't catch it in time. (This was my fault, being an ignorant Westerner, who baulked at the idea of eating 'dinner' in the morning. Somehow I couldn't face rice and noodle soup that early in the day. I needed orange juice and something bread-like.) But oh the char siu pork! The hoi sin roast duck! The five spice beef brisket! The explosion of spring onions on soup! The slurp of noodles from a bowl!

I wasn't sad to leave Hong Kong, because we were headed to New Zealand - rather than the end of the holiday, it was the only the beginning! If we'd stayed longer I would have liked to have seen the Buddha on Lantau Island, but apart from that it was an excellent stop off.