Thursday, May 27, 2010

An afternoon in Leuven, Belgium

Whenever a trip I’ve agreed to months ago starts to loom as less than a week away, I start to wonder why I’m doing it. New York is pleasant at this time of year, I finally have plenty of time to write, and sixteen hours of plane travel across six time zones within a ninety hour span is not entirely idyllic, between the cattle car conditions on board and the jet lag on both ends. Nevertheless, I’m finding once again that one key reason I agree to do it is that I actually enjoy it to a surprising extent. (Other motivations include exposure for oneself and one’s ideas, and getting to meet or re-meet and learn from people outside one’s usual set.)

I pretty much have a system by now for these European red-eye flights that leave New York in the early evening and get you to your destination in the early to mid-AM when your body thinks it’s the middle of the night. Get an aisle seat. DON’T eat the airline dinner (which is not only vile, but served well after midnight according to the clock at your destination – absolutely no way to get your body to start adjusting). Instead, I have a regular breakfast at NYC time on the day-of, and then one more meal in NYC: a mid-afternoon linner (or you could call it dunch) that is reasonably easy on the system (such as a veggie hummus platter plus fresh or dried fruit). Coffee only at breakfast (first NYC and then the next morning on the plane), and alcohol preferably not at all though perhaps a glass won't throw you off too much. Melatonin plus a sleeping pill on the plane, in the hope of getting a couple of hours of sleep while also starting to reset the body clock, then when you get there hit the ground running. An enjoyable book (in this case, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall) verges on being indispensable on the plane, and music that you’re in the mood to enjoy helps enormously as well.

Upon arrival at the Brussels Airport, I took a convenient commuter train to Leuven (15 minute wait, 20 minute ride). Having Google-mapped the walk from the train station to my hotel, that went smoothly as well. Then after changing, shaving, showering, and stretching (for various balky body parts), out onto the street to spend the afternoon walking around. The key is to make it to dinner without napping, and then you can achieve a normal bedtime and (with melatonin, plus other aid as needed), you’re on your way to being able to function the next day.

Today in Leuven, just like in March when I went to Vienna, I had to get through the early bit of feeling exhausted while not having yet developed a feel for the layout, what is most worth seeing, etc. Leuven has a lovely cathedral and town hall, but so do lots of European towns. As in Vienna, the sunshine bailed me out, as did a local rather than touristic lunch (a “broodje” or sandwich, in a place where students from the university were lined up well out of the storefront). I’m still not entirely sure what was in my broodje, although bits of roast pork (?), egg, mayo, and tomato were certainly involved somehow. Then cappuccino came to my rescue when the early afternoon lull hit.

Leuven is not as big on museums as Vienna, but it was fun in both to see how the locals shop for food (admittedly a particular interest of mine). Plus one has to hunt down particular items, such as pastry in Vienna and chocolates here. And if you can cap it off by seeing an interesting and unusual tourist site rather than just the usual run of things, it can be surprisingly exhilarating to one’s sleep-starved mind.

Here in Leuven I had the half-baked idea that the out-of-the-way Museum van Humbeeck-Piron, which is dedicated to the work of the artists Pierre van Leuven Humbeeck (1891-1964) and Maria Piron (1888-1969), might be the ticket. Not that I am familiar with either of them. But after a long trek that finally took me to the right place and even a sign referring to them, it somehow turned into a dry hole - I think the place wasn't open. So my education about these 2 painters will have to wait.

Still an enjoyable enough ramble, with shopping stops (to look at food, not fashion) along the way, enlivened by Leuven's canals, statues, parks, and cafe-filled squares, but perhaps there was still something missing.

But I decided to slog on to the other main medieval church in Leuven, St. Michael's a few blocks past the bigger landmark St. Peter's that I had already seen several times. Not only is St. Michael's a lovely and much quirkier church, but so far as I could tell (as I cannot make much headway in trying to read Flemish) it is the temporary home of an art exhibit that plays dissonant modern anti-war themes (?) against the medieval background, making for a highly memorable if perplexing viewing experience.

Almost time for the opening reception at the conference I'm attending, which means I've made it and will probably be able to function well for several hours before I crash. Debate on transitions tomorrow, probably Brussels or Bruges for a day trip on Saturday, home to NYC on Sunday.

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