Sunday, June 28, 2009

And Now Bruxelles!

We're here. We managed the whole Paris exit fairly well. No major problems. We had great fun in Cambrai, France and Geoff's GPS worked admirably well, getting us into Bruxelles, but now we are wiped out. Our first impression is of a very busy, bustling, narrow streeted, high traffic kind of fun park, and that's just the hotel block... there is more out there waiting for us! Hopefully we will find an Internet cafe and dinner. Hopefully we will be able to fall asleep in broad daylight. It's 20:30 and the light suggests 15:00. PLease attribute spelling errors, bad grammar and brief post to having had lots of fun our last night in Paris. More soon.

Le Quack-Pack du Cambrai

Como se dice "quack" in French?

For us, novice European travelers, barreling along a French highway is interesting, a new experience... but any good road trip calls for a detour. Detours away from the main expressway or freeway or superhighway... those deviations from the GPS sanctioned route will lead to great discoveries.

Our drive from Gare Nord to Bruxelles was going smoothly. We did see the Marche du Puces en Ouen, but unfortunately we kind of got swept up in the traffic. It was Alex that wanted to see the stalls of the rag and bone men, the curiosities and knick knacks, but wedged in to the back of our Renault, he felt the pull of forward momentum stronger than the need to try turning around to battle traffic in the opposite direction. I hope we can make it up to him... somewhere between Bruxelles and Barcelona we hope to find a flea market where an artistic, history loving, robot building, imaginative young man can bargain for Medieval curios, old coins and cool bow ties.

Happily we found ourselves on the A1, completely by chance, and it couldn't have been too much easier to follow the signs out of Paris, on our way to Belgium. Geoff got used to driving a manual transmission again. We fiddled around with the windows, adjusted the AC... the usual little things that occupy your time in a new car. Outside the windows we saw more and more open land, planted fields and forest. Cows. Wisconsin? Is that you? Ever imagine you are seeing a familiar face in an unexpected place? Well, we were seeing a familiar space in the French countryside... rolling fields, steeple topped villages, farm houses... any moment I thought we would come to Cambridge.

OKay. Other than the pleasure of thinking of Wisconsin, the fast drive and steady hum of a straight road, with only occasional cows and steeples to capture the imagination... well, it got a bit hypnotic, kind of droning, sleep-inducingly hypnotic. Maybe it was stayin up to the oui hours in Paris the night before... whatever the reason, Geoff needed a nap. The GPS protested: stay on the A2... do not digress, no. NO! U-turn, u-turn! We made the exit for Cambrai. It looked like a big enough dot on the map for a scenic nap spot. We aimed for the steeple, for the center of the Ville and we all perked up seeing the funny, blue, French pick-up truck, the ivy covered brick building, the very old homes and all the beautiful flowers. Geoff turned the car in the round-about, then we turned right where the sign said "Ville Centre," then we saw the duck pack.

Hold on.
Did you see... did you... was that a duck in a pack on the man's back?

Geoff was already stopping, pulling over on the little street, because he had seen it too, and when you see a full grown man, dressed interestingly, surrounded by a laughing crowd,and sporting a wire cage with a live duck, there is no other thing to do but stop.

I grabbed the camera (too obvious?) and set forth. A fair size crowd of young men was gathered around a man dressed as a fowl, duck or chick, whatever... he was actually still in a shell, with felt covered bird feet coming out of the bottom. Actually, I had second thoughts about approaching a rowdy crowd of strange men, and only my searing curiosity about the duck on his back propelled me forward. I had to get the picture!

The rowdy young men, handsome too, were jovial, high spirited, and obviously in league with the hatchling and even though I only wanted a picture of the duck in the wire cage back pack, I was in store for so much more! The man dressed as a newly hatched bird and wearing the duck pack approached me with a binder full of flyers and he began his talk, in French, blushing hard, laughing harder.

"Hables espaniol?" I asked hopefully. He did not, but he called out to his buddies for a Spanish speaker and it became an urgent mission of theirs to communicate their cause to me. A friend stepped forward, eager to help me understand, and in French-Spanglish he explained...

This hatchling is either

1. married to the duck and in need of a home


2. a bachelor, enjoying his last days of bachelorhood and in need of a home.

I definitely understood that this was a "gran fiesta!"

The binder was full of real estate flyers for small homes, some with gardens and views, hand painted, lovingly maintained, all for sale. I could buy a home, sign his certificate and support his bid to get a honeymoon cottage of his own, by donating a small fee and putting it in the duck decoy he wore around his neck (next to the noose.) As an added bonus one of the guys brought out a boombox from the decorated wagon they were pulling and I was treated to an embarrassed yet brave version of the chicken dance, with music. His friends called out and howled good naturedly, and he tried to remember all the steps... hatchlings aren't too coordinated and remember he did have a duck on his back!

At last we have a home of our own! He did not realize we share this common ambition, not to mention a shared interest in fowl. We have at long last bought ourselves a place to settle down. I would say it is a fixer, a bit rough around the edges. Only three bedrooms, but there is a garden and I think we can add-on. And why quibble? I got it for five Euro. He is closer to his goal too I hope.

This was the most original, funny, creative thing I have seen in a long time. If it is a tradition, if you understand it better than I do, I would love to learn more, because no matter how much was lost in translation it was still hilarious and wonderful. And yes, I am thinking of making a Betty-Pack and soliciting for a real home of our own!

If we do not return to Garage Mahal, please forward Betty, the cats and Joe the rabbit, to Cambrai, France. We are in the orange roofed house. I will plant blue lobelia in the window boxes.


I Heart Bruxelles

Our hotel, near the Grand Place is lovely and even with us spread out in three rooms, the arrangement is good. We are in a peaceful corner of a very busy city, in a very busy neighborhood, and though we were a bit overwhelmed initially, we are definitely warming up to everything quickly. The hotel clerk not only checked us in and assured us the Renault Espace would fit in the narrow courtyard, he also gave us maps and directions, suggestions, recommendations, warnings... without any inquiry from us, he kindly offered a guidebook's worth of useful information, including where we should eat.

We went to our three adjacent rooms, dropped our bags and dropped in to our beds. I think we napped or just zoned. Some of us showered. I watched some television... a lot about local culture can be picked up from a little viewing of the flat box. Then we willed ourselves to rise and go out and stretch our legs, find some food.

Gah! It was half past eight. At night! We have become night owls. The boys would have nothing to do with our plans. They needed peace and quiet. Max explained that they were happy with their time alone to think and read. Fair enough.

Maria, Geoff and I took our map and very quickly realized just how close we are to the sights. The sights include Mannequin Pis, and how a peeing statue the size of a large burrito ever came to be the emblem of a city... go figure. But we took pictures and sort of gave a nod to the local attraction, because why not? We will not be buying Mannequin Pis chocolates, frittes, cork screws (picture it if you dare,) T-shirts, ashtrays, shot glasses, tea towels or plates. I did see a cute shirt about the rain in Beligium, some pretty lace and waffles, lots and lots of waffles.

Then we came to the Grand Place and it is quite a site and sight. It's the expression and success of merchants that built the towering buidings around the main square, and all the flowers are a crowning touch that take my breath away. Hanging from baskets, in flower boxes and window boxes, in corners and every little niche are every kind of bloom, full and abundant... so lovely. We walked all around the place and up and down a few side streets.

We made a note of the shop with the strawberries and the chocolate fountain. We looked for the restaurant our hotel clerk suggested. We listened to the many languages, watched the guides leading tours, raising their umbrellas to lead the way through the milling crowds.

We owe the hotel clerk a hug, unless that would be faux pas. But he deserves a hug... he did not lead us astray. We did not get a table outside on the Place, but we walked up the stairs and inside T'Kelderke and we waited patiently. Maria was almost patient. Poor thing deserves dinner well before 21:00. It was worth the wait... we ate, as Alex said it is done in Belgium, as much as Germans and as well as the French. Our dinner was delicious and with beer and the peaceful nook with stunning views our night was complete. We'll have to sell our place in Cambrai if are going to move here and have onion soup and grilled goat cheese in honey for dinner every night.

Now it is morning and we are preparing to do laundry, not in our sink, but at the laundromat across the way, then we have got to find WIFI... so au'revoir for now.


judy in ky said...

What fun! I loved your photos from Cambrai. Remember when you wrote about "spontaneous giddiness"? That kind of experience is what travel is all about. (Guess what... word verification is "silly"!)

The little beanerina looks adorable in front of the fountain... love her pose, love her outfit.

I would love to come visit you in your litle orange house!

Teresa Stenson said...

Really enjoying hearing about your journey.

I wonder if you'll get 'spotted' anywhere in Europe, by one of your readers?

They could start a blog about you guys, always a step behind, could be called 'Chicken Run'. Now is that just weird?



aww I like the duck man. PS: I don't mean to be annoying or anything but would you mind following my blog at:

It is a blog dedicated to try and bring back the TV show My Name is Earl. Besides that it is also a fansite for the show. It is very funny and I have a dream that with enough followers and commenters that dream CAN COME TRUE! thank you.

Dallas said...

That's fantastic that you got to see one of the hen/stag parties where they kidnap a bachelor or bachelorette and force them to dress up in a crazy costume and earn money. Your little house is a great souvenir. :) I love Maria's pose infront of the statue - by the way, I've never seen him dressed up either. It was great meeting you this morning. Hope you have a great rest of your trip.

Elliot said...

French ducks say "coin coin". :)

I enjoyed your story about the man in the chicken suit. Only in France do you get such creativity.

Very cool blog, also.


CrazyCris said...

Just dropped in via the "blogs of note" (congratulations btw!) and had a great laugh with your duck story!
I'd say definitely part of a bachelor's party, and one of the more tasteful ones at that! (they can get pretty scary in France and Belgium! ditto the bachelorette parties!).

As for the Mannekin Pis, there are two legends behind it.
One is that it was made in rememberance of a little boy who stopped a fire (back when everything was made of wood and that would have been disastrous) by peeing on it.
The other talks about a desperate father searching for his lost boy and saying he'll have a statue made of him in the exact state he finds him...

You should go look for the Janneken Pis! The poor girl is hidden away and doesn't get many visitors! She's in a side street that's just off the Rue des Bouchers (where all the restaurants with the pushy waiters are, right off the Grande Place, btw don't eat there! expensive and not great!). I don't remember how far down, but I find her every time. It's a right turn into a dead-end street, and she's in the back right corner, cadged in poor girl!

I hope you enjoy Belgium! There's so much to see!

magicss said...

Travel is magical...

TCavanaugh said...

Awesome bachelor story...I am glad you are keeping us included on your trip! :)

Anonymous said...

Jeez, I LOVE the new house! Small is the new large. You can even transport it to Encinitas.


Julie said...

It's been wonderful getting a play by play of your journey! Loved, loved, loved the bird man, his duck, and house. Love Maria Ballerina posing. She always makes me happy. "Mind your way," going home!

Sara said...

I am so enjoying your adventures...and what unique adventures you have found too! Love your new little, tiny, home.

Merrigan said...

Very funny, thanks.

Merrigan said...

Very funny. Thanks.

npa said...

that's a novel way to ask for donations, referring to the man with a duck. i don't think people here will react the same way. love reading your blog. more power!

dewatobay said...

Wonderful - the pix of Maria posing in front of Venus brought tears to my eyes.

Maria in Seattle (Amy Smith's step-mom)

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