Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Letter from Belgium I

(Caveat: although I am writing from my own laptop in the hotel lobby, the instructions on this blogger are all in Dutch, so please forgive me if I screw this up.)

I have been here in Brussels for a conference since Tuesday. (I was giving a keynote lecture called "Hopeful Monsters and Doomed Freaks: Evolutionary Overtones in Canadian and American Drama" which I gather will be published sometime early next year.) The conference actually ended on the weekend, but I am taking an extra week to stay in Brussels and make excursions abroad, so I thought I would provide a brief update.

Naturally, when I arrived last Tuesday, the first thing I did was stroll around the neighbourhood, keeping an eye out for any theatre posters. In an inauspicious beginning, these were the first two that I saw. Naturally, I was less than thrilled at the prospect of sitting through either of these.

However, I found out a bit later that the hotel where I am staying, and where the conference was being held, is actually in a suburb, Ukkle (I think of it as named after a ukele-playing uncle) to the south of the main city. So, instead, on Friday, the one evening I had free (after the Canadian ambassador's reception) last week, I went with a couple of friends in search of some theatre downtown. What we ended up going to was a sort of conceptual-installation-variety-performance which was based on the conceit that this was a force created to prevent the Flemish and the French sections of Belgium from killing one another. (Brussels is officially bilingual, although more French than Flemish; and all the other regions are separated into either Flemish or French, with a tiny German section in the East. But plenty of English seems to be spoken, too.)

The show was better, perhaps, in concept than in execution. There were lots of soldiers with guns, a tank at the entrance, then a supposed hospital bed where one lay down and listened to people speaking in French and/or Flemish about their feelings about the tensions between the two groups. In another room, there was a band that sang, in Flemish and French, songs that sounded a lot like the 80s new wave band, The Psychedelic Furs. There was a dance performance that we had missed already. And then there was the performance in the photo below, which basically consisted of one man, on the left, in a black suit, who sat at the table and read, aloud in Flemish, Franz Kafka's "Letter to My Father" while another man, in his pyjamas, loafed on the sofa, read silently the day's Frankfurt Times (I checked the date) and drank beer. That was it. No movement to speak of, except for a woman in a black dress who entered twice and uttered a line --- presumably representing Kafka's mother. The marble floor on which we were sitting started to feel very, very hard.

And that has pretty much been it as far as actual theatre has gone so far, although there was an execrable one-woman performance that was offered as part of the conference, about which the less said the better (the performance, not the conference, which was mostly quite interesting.)

Anyway, with the conference over, on Monday I walked around Brussels, including trips to Le Musees des beaux arts (interesting photography exhibition, some nice Reubens, although I'm afraid he doesn't do much for me, and about a third of the collection seemed to be on loan, and the 15th & 16th C section was closed, which meant no Bosch and no Brueghel, which was exactly what I wanted), then went on to the comic strip museum, which was edifying, at any rate; then I tried to go to a recommended restaurant with a name something like Spanokapita, for which I had to follow a road with a name something like "The Road of the 6 Jetsons" (this is the sort of world I live in) --- but it was closed when I got there, so I ate at a random place, which served this amazing piece of fish (though my guts were in turmoil that night, so...who knows what caused that). Then I did plenty more wandering and returned home with my feet badly blistered and fell asleep reading.

Then, yesterday I went to Bruges, which is very beautiful indeed in parts, but in the main areas is ridiculously crowded with tourists. It made Niagara-on-the-Lake, which I think of as the most tourist-plagued place in Canada (though that may just be because I've had to suffer through it during too many summers), look postively pastoral. This is something that I should have anticipated, especially in that today is May 1st, so it was undoubtedly a 4-day weekend for many people. I guess because we don't celebrate May Day in Canada this was not in my mind. Off the main areas, though, in the residential streets off the canals, it was very pleasant and very pretty. To my frustration, the Groeningmuseum was closed on Mondays (imagine my surprise to discover that this is not a museum dedicated to the creator of The Simpsons). So, again, no Bosch for me. I'm thinking about heading for Ghent tomorrow, so I can at least see some van Eyck. Since I have not seen nearly enough of the great Flemish painters, by way of retaliation, I am working on a joke about all the spray-painted graffiti I HAVE seen, which will contain some allusion to the great phlegmish painters. Details to follow.

Today, I spent the morning reading and writing and nursing my poor feet, and then this afternoon went in search of Art Nouveau architecture. The Horta museum, dedicated to the architect who pretty much invented the style, was closed (May 1st), but I saw some great buildings, took a few photos, and drank beer at a sidewalk cafe while eating the best chicken club sandwich in Christendom.

Given that it is May Day today, most theatres are dark, but I am hoping to go to the theatre tomorrow night. So far, however, most of what I have been able to find seems to be extremely talky, and after the experience with Kafka's "Letter to My Father" (which at least I know) I worry that my French is just not so good that it will withstand a whole evening of a static play made of nothing but talk. I'm sure I would end up with a headache, having understood about half of it. (Of course, you're thinking: "what about your Flemish?" but I don't like to show off.) What I need is something with lots of pretty pictures and music. Speaking of which, what I HAVE discovered is playing, which would be perfect, is a production of Stravinsky's opera "The Rake's Progress," and it is directed by Robert Lepage! (When I was in Milan a few years ago, I saw a production of Lepage's "Polygraph" which he had directed---odd to go half-way around the world and see the work of Canadians.) Apparently, this was playing throughout the conference, but nobody seems to have known about it. There will be some gnashing of teeth when people find out, I expect. Unfortunately, it appears to be sold out according to the La Monnaie/Theatre Royal website, but I will find out more about that tomorrow, and report on how that turned out in my next post.


Antonella said...

I must be feeling your share of the excitement about you being in the Capital of Europe! You'd prefer Metz perhaps? It's less than a 4-hour train ride (pour toi et moi même) -aber leider sind unsere freien Tagen noch gezählt... ma forse c'è la faremo ... oppure ancora quest'anno somewhere else in the world. Enjoy my friend! Oh and yes - I recommend Geox or Bama those sandle thingies with the velcro straps. Never a blister with those and you look American in running shoes ... abbraccio!

Mary Fraser said...

goddamn globetrotter. call me jealous and banish me to mississauga.

working on my flemish, though. phlegmish, rather.

Craig said...

Metz would have been fun, Antonella. Alas, I only opened this up again today---a bit late for that. But thanks for the shoe tip. Though as it happens, I'm wearing Doc Marten shoes---somewhere between sensible and foolish, to be sure, but not particularly American looking.

And Mary, I don't really have the heart to banish you at the moment---not to mr and mississauga, at any rate.