Ghent: The Art, The Mustard

At Last! 
Sometimes you feel cool and sometimes you feel like a dummy.

That’s just the way it goes, I guess. 

When planning my few days in Brussels I got it in my head that a trip to Belgium wouldn’t be complete without seeing the famous Ghent altarpiece.  The altarpiece, painted around 1430 by Jan van Eyck has 12 panels depicting biblical and other religions scenes.  Noted for its then groundbreaking application of realism, it was once described as encompassing "the whole art of painting".  This impressive piece endured the destruction of the iconoclast era and lost panels due to theft during WWI and WWII – spending some time in a salt mine during the latter.  After a massive restoration effort the altarpiece is now displayed in St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium – theoretically a 45 minute train ride from Brussels.

Despite a rocky start of lost luggage and no guide book, I found my way to the train station and hopped on a train that certainly seemed to be headed toward Ghent.  About 45 minutes in and what felt like an equal number of stops I asked the train attendant how soon we’d be arriving in Ghent.  He gave me a sympathetic look from under his navy cap

“Oh no. You should have taken the other train.  This train goes to Ghent, but it is the slow train and stops at every town.  It will take 2.5 hours.”

This is when you feel like a dummy.  And you feel even more like a dummy when you finally arrive in Ghent without plans or a map or wifi and expect to just ask around in French only to realize that in Ghent they speak mostly Dutch, not French. 

In the train station an automated map showed me the general direction of the church and I decided to walk instead of navigating what seemed like a complicated tram system.

Ghent is medieval and beautiful, but felt a bit glum after the perpetual sunshine of Oman.  I was stopped at an intersection, feeling sorry for my lost self and my incredible-see-great-art-adventure come wander-about-without-a-clue when a swarm of bike riders charged down the hill toward me and tore through the intersection. There must have been 30 of them all wearing scarves and blazers. It was like a great whooshing, swooping  flock of crows - if crows chatted on cell phones and carried back packs.  Ghent appeared to be a town ruled by two wheels. Bike riders overran sidewalks and filled entire roads from curb to curb.  They held their heads high and wore skirts fearlessly.      

When I caught a closer look at these tweeded bike riders I discovered they looked a lot like me: freckles, sandy red hair and pale skin.  Which makes sense as my people are, in part, from Northern Europe.  My People!  I thought, lengthening my stride.  This sense of community, albeit completely imagined, breathed life into my legs and lifted my spirits.  I ate pickled beets and dried pork for lunch on a sunny park bench and watched dozens more bike riders sail past. 

When I finally stood in front of the altarpiece it was everything I hoped it would be.  I snuck an audio guide off the table when no one was looking and worked my way through each panel.  Even the teenage group of field trippers added to the ambience somehow. If you want a bit more than that you can read about it here and here and here and here. 

Nose Of Ghent
Later in the day I made friends with the lovely and Flemishly tall Una and asked her about the famous mustard shop I vaguely remembered reading about but didn’t know how to find.  The lovely and flemishly tall Una led me through town, past the cart selling “Noses of Ghent”  - a purple jelly candy shaped like, well, a nose – and to what can only be described as an artisanal mustard shop.  I picked a beautiful stone jar and the …mustarder(?)…mustardier(?)...mustardess(?) dipped a giant wooden ladel into a wooden barrel of mustard.  A barrel large enough for an adult sized game of hide and seek.   

...barrel of mustard
“It has to be wood” she tells me

“Don’t scoop your mustard with metal and never leave the spoon. It will split the 

You’ve been warned people.   

Una showed me how to ride the tram back and identify the “fast” train to Brussels.  I arrived in Brussels later than I had hoped and saw less than I would have liked in Ghent, but a spoonful of that eye watering mustard this morning reminded me that the trip was definitely worth it. 

Best spicy mustard I've ever had


Brussels, Belgium: Moules Et Frites

The Grand Place, Brussels

I understand it now. 

People, some people anyway, talk about moules et frites, mussels and fries, as the pinnacle of simple, perfect, Belgian/French food. To be honest, I do not know many of these people.  But after eating steamy mussels on the streets of Brussels last month, cooked in tomatoes and fennel, I understand why these people, who I imagine to effortlessly sport silk scarves around their necks, would say such things. 

“If I ever opened a restaurant we would serve moules et frites.  Only moules et frites” my new friend and much more experienced eater says to me after we clean our plates on a small table in front of Mer du Nord.  The street corner in front of this walk up restaurant is packed with Belgians, nubby scarves and shrimp scampi on tiny plates.  I nod and say absolutely like I have always believed this to be the perfect meal.    

I feel less fondly about the escargot we slurp out of salty broth.  But I would eat them again with enough butter and garlic.  …but I would eat almost anything with enough butter and garlic.

Last month I went to a library conference in Brussels and I have to say that eating oodles of great food before, after and sometimes during talking about books makes for pretty much the best trip ever.  Before leaving muscat I pulled my trusty hunter green rain coat from the back of the closet (I literally had to brush dust from the lapels) and packed my favorite boots.  Winter clothes also make for pretty much the best trip ever.    

I made new traveling friends in Brussels and met up with a new/old friend who happened to be there for a conference as well.  We tromped through the night from creperie to fry shack, Grand Place to royal palace.  When I left her I hiked my black jeans back through town, churches lit up and bars spilling out into the street.  I got lost a few times, asked bar keeps for directions in passable French and flipped my collar up around my ears to keep out the cold. 

I’ll just say it – I felt cool.  I know, hard to imagine I don’t always feel cool when I’m puttering around the garden at home or soaking beans for the next day’s lunch - but there you have it.

Grand Place
Yes Please.  Oh wait, they cost 9 Euro each?  I'll just look. 
Would that this were on my way to work each day
Cool bistro where I had lunch with friends on our last day
Church by our flat
Tres Romantique!  The streets of Brussels



"I see my ancestral landscape. Perhaps to know so familiar a place better it must become strange again."
The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky: Ellen Meloy

It was a great American summer. Well, it was a great American 3 weeks. We ate hotdogs and corn, went fishing and night swimming, barbequed, met up with family, jammed with friends.  

But it never fails that when we go home I feel at once like we've never left and that everything has become foreign. It's not a bad feeling actually. In many ways I like it. To carve a sizable space for nostalgia while away and quench it every year or so. To fantasize about pork products and Target only to be confronted with the reality that it's just bacon and another place to buy stuff. To pack in a whole year of late nights and dinners out and breezy balcony talks before returning exhausted. Admittedly, we forgot the bit about "Rest & Relaxation" this year on our trip home. I imagine we'll get better at it over the years. 

There's a strange kind of loneliness to go back to everyone and everything you used to know, away from the community you've worked so hard to become a part of in your host country. There is an equally strange kind of loneliness to come back to post - which life was I taking a break from again? 
It's whiplash. Am I Brooke of the 2 AM Wendy's drive-through ordering or Brooke of the Omani fort exploring?  If you can weather the gear shifting, it's pretty awesome to be both.          


Stockholm, Sweden: On Places and People

Journal    July 4, 2014
We Paid 200 krona and pulled our yellow pedal boat from under the
bridge.  Six of us steered into a deep harbor bobbing among speed boats, double deckered tourist barges and wakes from large cruise ships.   On one side the now mint green rusted roofs of  Gamla Stan bore down on us.  Karl made peanut butter and honey sandwiches that we ate in the sun.  Baby Thea stood on tip toe at the helm of the boat, looking out to sea.
You can’t believe what glacier water lakes feel like on skin parched by the Arabian sun.  Max climbed the 7.5 meter diving platform above the icey lake on lidingo island and paced, squatted, paused before he joined hands together above his head and dove into the blue below.  Opting for a much calmer arctic experience I was content to wade among the reeds with the naked babies holding bags to catch small fish.    

“The lakes were carved by glaciers” our friend and geologist tells us.  This makes complete sense as we gasp and force ourselves deeper into the impossibly blue water.  Not turquoise like the shores of Oman, but ultramarine, nearly navy in its darkest places.  

When I think of our few days in Stockholm last month my memories are flooded with four images:  green trees and fields, cold dark water, endless pale light and the sweet faces of our friends.  Sweden is 80% wilderness and in the summer months the sun shines on all of it for almost the entire 24 hour cycle.  After swimming in lakes and walking through forests and talking for hours it didn’t occur to us to make dinner until nearly 9 o’clock most days.  On our last night Max and I walked the green path to the grocery store and passed straight backed bike riders with straight white teeth.  A mother and son on an evening bike ride from one leafy treed neighborhood to another. 
We ate hot dogs with spicey mustard one afternoon and dangled our feet in a large fountain.   We had walked passed barn faced Scandinavian houses to the Vasa museum where an incredible 17th century blunder turned out to be the incredible 20th century discovery of a near perfectly preserved warship.  The Vasa, completed in 1628, was only 16 feet wide to its 172 foot long hull.  On its maiden voyage a faint gust of wind toppled the ship in the harbor and it quickly sank.  The warship, complete with 172 canons, was discovered late in the last century and has proved to be a unique relic of shipbuilding in the region.          
I once read an article written by a father who traveled extensively with his son.  He said that he traveled with his young son in order to increase the memories they had together, to have more shared experiences and more things to discuss as the child grew older.  These experiences proved to be foundational in their relationship.  Although we had kept in touch via email, it had been years since I had seen this dear friend living in Sweden.  We had created many memories in the past, but it’s hard to duplicate that kind of immediacy via letters, emails and phone calls.  It was such a joy to share new experiences in a place that was foreign to both of us – my memories of freezing Swedish lakes and cool sunlight fused with cooking and drawing side by side, the palm of her son in my hand as we walked to the bus stop.   


My New Lizard Family

“I’ll just settle in to an all night vigil with my eyes open.” I yell to Max who is laughing at me from the shower. 

Above my bed, where my head would rest and mouth inevitably fall open as I sleep, there is a small, pink, blue-veined lizard.   I have seen an increasing number inside the house over the past few weeks – under dog food bowls,  scurrying up corners where walls meet.  Some are as small as pennies and others large enough to fit nicely inside an Altoids box, long tails hanging over tin sides.  The dog is quite confused with his new housemates and just yesterday accidently pulled the tail from one before backing away to let the critter waggle its way under a dresser.  I have seen a few shriveled and brown, petrified after being trapping under rugs or shoes. 

And I know why they are infiltrating our home.  I hardly blame them.   The heat outside is unbearable.  

I ran errands around town yesterday and I sweat all day.        

Water collected, pooled and dripped from behind my knees, the nape of my neck, my back, my upper lip.  At the same time my eyes are beachbone dry in response to constant air conditioning blasting me from shopping malls and car dashboards.  

As the lizards empty out of the streets and into my home (they are, right now, nestling in behind my laundry basket) there is a new kind of nightlife around the neighborhood.   Many families have left for the summer and only their house staff remain behind to care for plants and pets.  Despite suffocating heat, construction is at full throttle to tear down and rebuild before Omanis and expats return in September.  In Amman we saw SUVs roll in with foreign license plates in June and Jordanians identified Gulfies escaping the heat for a few months.

“In Jordan?”  I asked with a raised eyebrow.  It sounded ridiculous.  Why would you trade in one hot desert for another?  But at 75% humidity today in Muscat compared to 12% in Amman and a 10 to 15 Fahrenheit degree difference in temperature, I understand now. 

When I walk the dog at night it is like taking a bath standing up.   But I see Filipinas gathering at the ends of driveways, some wear pajamas and some walk dogs.  During the day these same women carry groceries in from Land Rovers wearing crisp uniforms but the hot nights bring with them a sense of easiness.  They meet together on street corners and I hear snippets of what could be gossip or longing for home. 

At night the construction sites turn into makeshift man camps and I shuttle quickly past with dog to avoid the midnight showers I can hear behind flimsy walls.  Buckets of warm soapy water are filled and dumped and excess runs out of the construction site and down the hot pavement.  I catch a glimpse of a thin frame in a lungi, waiting for his turn with the bucket; I look away to concentrate on missing the steaming soap puddles at my feet.

I’m mostly ok with the lizards in my house.  I don’t mind them on the ceiling, behind the toilet and underneath the couch.  But directly above my bed is where I draw the line.  I have waking nightmares of tiny lizards flinging themselves from the walls, lizard hands and lizard feet splayed wide, and landing in my mouth, my hair, my ears. 

Max shoos him around the ceiling of the room and I can fall asleep knowing he is resting above the air conditioning unit instead of a short free fall from my pillow.  I let the dog out one last time before bed and flames claw their way into my house.  But I leave the door open a bit longer to see if any of our lizard friends want to join the pack. 

I am not heartless. 


Signs of Summer (For Me At Least)

1. I think about swimming all the time

2. But I hardly ever swim because it's too hot to swim.  That's right, too hot.  Salty bath water doesn't feel quite as refreshing as the imagined icey rivers and lakes of my Rocky Mountains. Or even as refreshing (and more realistically given my suburban upbringing) the city pools packed with children but still colder than anything in Muscat.

 3. On my last day of library class one tiny first grader stared up at me through thick bangs and said "I don't even care."  Out matched by a lime shirtdress on the last day.  I'm happy to say that I cared to the end, but I understand that classes in June are hard for a five year old.

4. All of my clothes are washed at "boiling" these days

5. Somehow, nestled amid shops selling thick Persian carpets, I found a used book store.  An honest to gosh used bookstore full of spine lined paperbacks.  It even has a buyback policy.  I bought six books today and told the women at the desk I'd be back in a week.  Aaahhh, summer reading.

6.  I am actually reading.  Librarians read, don't get me wrong, but a large chunck of our job is all about the gist.

"Oh yeah, I've read about that book. It's supposed to be a really interesting look at/take on/refute of___________.  I think you'll like it."

If we had professional mantras, this would be one of them.   I know a little about a lot of books and to just dive in, whole hog, to one book at a time for pleasure is well, really pleasurable.  So far this summer I've covered killer Bengal tigers and river dolphins, shifting sexual identities in the Middle East post Arab Spring, a trip through Jerusalem's old Mandelbaulm gate, and a spooky modern day fairy tale about time, stories, and childhood.  Bring it on summer.

7.  I spent an entire day, sun up to sun down, last week marbling paper in my very own kitchen.  Finally!  says I.  I've wanted to learn for almost four years and this week it all came together.

8.  My best intentioned plans of developing a new library curriculum over the summer have so far been thwarted by painting and new episodes of "Moone Boy".

9. I am packing to visit my family.  I love to be away and I love to come home.

As most of our moves and trips home have coincided with the hottest months over the years, home itself has come to be a sign of summer.