Jun. 27th, 2007

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 Why Brussels Sucked:

It was unseasonably hot.  It was nearly impossible to navigate, and I have breezed through every other city on this trip with ease (even the supposedly notoriously difficult Amsterdam).  The directions to the hostel were so terrible I spent an hour wandering up and down hills before finding the street I needed at a 90-degree angle to where they said it would be.  After that much time wasted, I had precious little to find the Musee des Beaux-Arts...and when at last I did, it was the Palais des B-A.  Arrrgggh.   So, more walking, and finally arriving at the museum, which by then was closed.  So I never saw The Fall Of Icarus or any of the other masterpieces, and Brussels was pretty much a complete wash.

It was punctuated by a failed attempt to meet up with some people from the hostel that night, and ending up alone in a cafe, getting service that even by European cafe standards was terrible.

Also, the Bruxellois apparently have no sense of humor.  Despite valiantly trying to put a comic spin on my predicaments, I never saw one of them so much as crack a half-smile.  Most regarded me as if I were from another planet.

And finally, Brussels is ugly.  I can say this because everyone who lives there freely admits it.  It's not even the edgy, exciting sort of ugly you get from parts of New York, though.  It's not a lively arts and industry and street performers and subcultures, so-much-goes-on-here-we-have-no-time-to-make-it-pretty ugly, it's just plain ugly.

Next time I come to Belgium, I'm staying in Antwerp and just taking the train to Brussels for museum visits.

Amsterdam and MINI United:

MINI United was cool.  Not at all a "singles mixer for MINI owners" as Bruce had jokingly called it, though.  In fact, my number one complaint is that most people there came with an established MINI club from their hometown somewhere in Europe, and the way the festival was designed, people mostly just stayed in their established cliques.  There weren't any events that would really encourage you to meet anyone else.

So the whole thing ended up feeling like going to an amusement park by yourself, but what an amusement park!  Over the course of 3 days, I:

    - learned to do a cool James Bond style reverse 180-degree turn
    - took 6 speedy laps around the Zandvoort Formula 1 circuit in my loaner MINI from MINI USA
    - took 2 far speedier laps as a passenger to one of the MINI Challenge drivers, in his souped-up track racing MINI
    - took one of the new diesel MINIs for a high-speed rally-style group test drive around the public roads of the small beachfront community of Zandvoort.  I think we flouted about 15 different European laws, but we did so very safely.  :)
    - drove go-karts at speeds no American company would ever allow
    - saw two half-hour races in the MINI Challenge series...and discovered I have a much higher level of patience for motorsports when they don't last 4 hours (I'm talking to you, NASCAR)
    - saw several live bands, and some DJs from Hed Kandi (a pretty good house label, only slightly cheesy)

Meanwhile, the MINI USA crew gave us free drinks every night, an Amsterdam canal cruise the first night, and dinner at Jamie Oliver's Fifteen on the last night.

After MINI United, I spent most of my last day checking out the Van Gogh Museum, which was entirely worth the hype.  Those paintings have to be seen in person to be truly appreciated.

On the whole, I liked Amsterdam.  The ethnic food is amazing, and the quality you can get from cheap street food is unparalelled.  The city is very pedestrian-friendly, and the red-light district not nearly as dramatic as people made it out to be.  The people are some of the nicest, most hospitable people I've ever encountered in a city this size.

Night Train

Cue Oscar Peterson....  After Amsterdam, I took the CityNightLine to Switzerland.  Provided you're not a light sleeper, it's a great way to travel and save yourself a night in a hotel.

Now I am in Interlaken.   If Brugge was Kiki's Delivery Service, then Interlaken and the surrounding villages (especially the hike down the valley from Murren to Gimmelwald) are Nausicaa's home valley in Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind.   I spent the whole day yesterday riding trains and cable cars up mountains so I could walk down the other side of them.  It's so picturesque here you can't quite believe it.  I exhausted the camera battery by mid-afternoon, so the stunning views of the Eiger as I walked through Murren will have to remain unphotographed.

Now I'm off to pack up the gear before an afternoon of Alpine hang-gliding, then a night train to the Czech Republic.

Apologies for the mundanity of the posts so far...foreign keyboards and 30 minute time limits don't lend themselves to rumination, but there will be deeper, juicier stuff once I return.

Love to all of you,

Jonathan

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