Thursday, August 4, 2011

A medieval abbey in Brussels

Yesterday I went to Brussels to visit Bruxella 1238, a museum with the remains of a Franciscan abbey buried under street level in the middle of the city. It's only open once a month (on the first Wednesday) with a guided tour, and there's only one tour in English. I'd known about it since last year but this was the first time I'd finally been free on the right day and made the effort to go.

I'd invited a friend from my Dutch class to join me and we took the train together from Hasselt in the morning. We bought our tour tickets at the Maison du Roi in the Grand'Place, then walked over to the museum entrance next to the Bourse. There were four other people on the English tour besides us. The site is small so a small group is ideal.

The guide gave us a lot of historical background on the early development and medieval history of Brussels and led us through the archaeological site along permanent walkways. The walkways and stairs took us over the ruins, but where we had to cross the walls of the abbey, we actually had to climb over the walls themselves, stepping on top of the stones.

The site, underneath and alongside the Bourse, was discovered during roadwork in 1988. After they'd excavated the foundations of the medieval abbey, it was decided to make it a permanent museum rather than cover it up again. It's now covered by a glass roof and you can look down into the site from the street, but most people walk by without noticing it.

You have to use your imagination to picture what the abbey might have looked like in the Middle Ages, since we can only see the foundations and subterranean levels of the buildings now. Several skeletons--monks who were buried beneath the abbey--give the site a funereal air and bear witness to the real people who lived and died there.

Afterwards, we returned to the Maison du Roi, where our tour tickets were also good for admission to the Museum of the City of Brussels. On the first floor there's a scale model of Brussels in the thirteenth century that shows the abbey in relation to the rest of the medieval cityscape. On the ground floor, you can see sculptural fragments from some medieval buildings, although not from the abbey.

As our guide explained, Brussels had its origins in the Middle Ages. There was no settlement, nothing but swampy marshland and meandering tendrils of the River Senne, before the 11th century and the first city walls were built in the 13th century. The abbey founded in 1238, therefore, is one of the oldest remnants of the city's past. Definitely worth taking a look if you're in Brussels on the first Wednesday of the month, or happen to be walking along the north side of the Bourse and remember to look down.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Fun with Dutch words

I'm trying to learn Dutch.

This is not as easy as it sounds. In fact, one of the most annoying things about trying to learn Dutch is the frequency with which other people (both Dutch- and English-speaking) say to me, "Dutch should be easy for you since it's so similar to English!"

While it's true that both English and Dutch are Germanic languages, this linguistic relationship is not as helpful as you'd think. Pronunciation of vowels and most consonants? Not similar. Sentence structure? Not similar. Use of gendered articles? Not similar.

Actually, it's only similar in ways that make it more difficult to learn. Chief among these is the ubiquitousness of false cognates. (Ha! I do in fact remember something from high school French!) A false cognate, as my French teacher once explained, is a word that looks or sounds like a familiar English word but actually means something else in another language.

For example, I was super excited to see lots of signs that said "RAMEN" when I first moved here. I foolishly thought that I'd found a plethora of Japanese noodle shops, a familiar sight in Los Angeles. "Ramen," as it turns out, is the plural of "raam," which means "window." Lots of places to buy windows.

Sometimes the similarities seem deliberately misleading. "Limoen" sounds a lot like "lemon," except it actually means "lime." (Citroen is lemon.) A "penseel" is not, as you might think, a pencil, but a paintbrush. And "mist" in Dutch means "fog" whereas "nevel" means "mist."

Pronouns are especially fun. "Hoe" (pronounced "Who") means "How." "Wie" (pronounced "We") means "Who." See what I mean?

Herewith I give you a list of Dutch words and what they actually mean in English:

(Dutch word=English translation)

rug=back (of a person)
golf=wave (thus microgolf=microwave oven)

... and my absolute favorite:


Friday, July 22, 2011

Calder's Ear

In celebration of Alexander Calder's 113th birthday today, I thought I'd point out that the rotating sculpture that sits atop the Mont des Arts in Brussels is his "Whirling Ear", created for the American pavilion at the 1958 International Exposition.

It languished in storage for 40-odd years before someone had the bright idea to dust it off and gift it to the city. It was installed in the center of a fountain at the top of the Kunstberg in 2000.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Why Belgians are stripping

Spotted this story on, about Belgium's continued lack of a national government and what a few exhibitionists are doing about it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Follow me on Twitter

I'll admit it. I've been a slacker lately. I've been averaging one post a month, which is pretty lame. I could bore you with a laundry list of excuses, like "It was the holidays and I was busy!" or "I'm freaking out about being unemployed and trying to find a job!" But I won't...

Instead, I'll just tell you that I have a new outlet for my thoughts about life in Belgium, one more suited to the general brevity of my attention span these days, not to mention the shallowness of aforesaid thoughts. Yes, I'm talking about Twitter!

You can find me here, tweeting pithy observations and fleeting commentary as usatobelgium. I'm not abandoning this blog, but I needed another medium that doesn't require me to sit and compose my scattered thoughts into a well-ordered whole. Or even whole sentences.

I still intend to write some very interesting, well-researched and thoughtful entries on a variety of topics including: the cult of the bicycle, Trappist beer, religion, and the Great Kebab Debate. But for now, I'm afraid I'm not capable of more than 140 characters at a time. Not nearly enough space to tackle Belgians' obsession with cycling. See you on Twitter!