Monday, March 3, 2014

Weekend in Belgium: Bruxelles

Grand Place, Brussels
After spending a weekend in Paris, I am excited to get to visit another new country.  This weekend, I took a trip to Belgium to visit a couple friends that I have there - one was my roommate from Spain in 2010 and the other was a classmate of mine at Michigan.

If you follow European music at all, you probably have heard of Stromae.  Well, Stromae is a Belgian singer from Brussels.  He first hit the charts bigtime in 2009 with a single called "Alors on Dance" ("And So We Dance").  This song was crazy-popular while I was in Spain in the summer of 2010.

Now, Stromae has a new album out with a hit song called "Formidable" ("Wonderful").  The music video for that song is shot in Brussels around the city.  The days I spent in Brussels were also a bit rainy, so the video can give you a decent taste of how some of the busy central parts of the city look and feel.

My Genevois coworker loves Stromae and his lyrics, explaining to me that his lyrics are well-done in French and are complex, especially when juxtaposing their subject matter with the music and generally up-beat dance rhythms.  For example, "Alors on Dance" is described by New York Times author Scott Sayare as a "mournful anthem that evokes unemployment, divorce, debt, the financial crisis and a sort of resigned hope 'to forget all our problems.'"  As Stromae (aka Paul Van Haver) explains, "It's just a desire to be realist...And it's not about saying that everything's going badly, because that's not what I say in my songs.  But it's not about saying everything's fine, either.  It's life."

Stromae is also compared to Jacques Brel, especially in the way he rolls his r's in "AVF."  My coworker also recommended listening to some Jacques Brel for a taste of really good French-language music.  Apparently, Brel is also extremely famous in the Francophone world, even if from a while ago.  After watching this video of one of his most famous songs, I can see why.  You can clearly see all of his emotion and passion pouring out through the lyrics and the rough way he sings them.

And just because I love Stromae's new album, Racine Carrée, I am including another music video for another great song off the album.  The song "Papaoutai" is told from a child's perspective who is trying to understand and come to terms with his father's absence.  The theme mirrors Stromae's own life, as his father was Rwandan, largely absent during his childhood, and was later killed during the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. 

In any case, back to the trip and time in Brussels itself.
I landed in Brussels (Bruxelles in the French spelling) late on Thursday night (February 27th) and found my hostel from the metro station.  On Friday morning, I got myself organized and then made my way down Rue Antoine Dansaert Straat to head into the heart of historic Brussels - the Grand Place, known as Grote Markt, in Dutch.  That's the first interesting thing that I noticed about Brussels is that the streets often seem to have both a French name and a Dutch name.  The Dutch words can be a bit similar to German, but are even harder for me to pronounce than the French names.
Death of Saint Sebastian
The Grand Place is beautiful.  I was lucky to be able to see it during the day on Friday and then lit up again on Sunday evening.  On Friday, I visited the City Museum and saw some beautiful sculptures from Brussels and stainglass windows with different shields of various provinces and famous cities.  
Cain and Abel
Saint Michael
I also learned more about the Manneken Pis, a really famous statue that is part of a fountain.  The statue's name means "Little Boy Pissing," and it now makes sense to me where those plaster statues that people buy at Home Depot originally come from.  I still do not understand why this statue is such a big tourist attraction.  Neither do my Belgian friends, although the explanation they gave me was that Belgians have a good sense of humor.  The City Museum actually has a whole section dedicated to Manneken Pis and all of the outfits that are put on the fountain for different holidays and events.
Belgium keeps it classy.
On Friday afternoon, my friend took me to see the Magritte Museum, an entire museum dedicated to the famous Belgian painter, René Magritte.  Along with the art museum in Basel, the Magritte Museum is definitely one of my favorite art museums that I have ever visited.

You have probably seen his famous painting of the man in a bowler hat with the green apple in front of his face (it's called "Son of Man"), but the museum had several other fascinating Magritte surrealist paintings.  
Son of Man, 1964
As explained by the Museum, surrealism began as a literary movement but in 1924, the Belgian art scene led a full-fledged surrealist movement.  Surrealism's roots rise out of feelings of revolt and aversion to the atrocities of World War I, and the movement preferences spontaneity, the subconscious, and play, as opposed to a rational realism.  Surrealists use these techniques to offer positive alternatives to the horrors of the past.  Other famous surrealist painters include Salvador Dalí, Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, and Joan Miró.
Giorgio de Chirico
Joan Miró, Spanish Dancer
Max Ernst, The Celestial Army
The entire exhibit was very well done and in between the paintings, famous quotes from Magritte's writings were displayed in French.  I have included below some of my favorite quotes and paintings from the museum.

"Progress is a preposterous idea."
Melancholy on a Beautiful Day, 1913
Woman on Horseback, 1922
"There is no choice: there is no art without life."
Palace of Curtains, 1935
September Sixteenth, 1936
"Surrealism is the immediate knowledge of reality."
Georgette, 1937
The Traveler, 1937
Poster Project for the Organization of Belgian Textile Workers, 1938
The Return, 1940
"The surrealist is to banish the notion of deja vu and seek out the not yet seen."
Paul Delvaux, Pygmalion, 1939
Homesickness, 1941
"I did not have an idea, I only thought of an image."
Companions of Fear, 1942
The Blaze, 1943
"The world and its mystery cannot be remade; it is not as if it is a model you can just copy."
Black Magic, 1945
The Thousand and One Nights, 1946
Memory, 1948
"The art of painting is an art of thinking.  Its existence emphasizes the importance of the role played by the human eye in life; indeed the only sense with which a picture is concerned is that of sight."
The Fair Capture, 1950
"The real value of art is measured by its capacity for liberating revelation."
Almayer's Folley
Words v. Images, 1954
Here, Magritte gets into some semiotics stuff, where he is saying that the picture of a pipe is not a real pipe and that words and their meanings are arbitrarily assigned by us.  Hence, we can change the meaning associated with a particular arrangement of letters if we so chose. 
"We musn't fear sunlight just because it almost always serves to illuminate a miserable world."
Empire of Light, 1954
"Rebellion is a reflex of the living man."
Domain of Arnheim, 1962
"All that I desire is to be enriched by intensely exciting new thoughts."
The Human Condition, 1962
"I saw the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, it's not bad but it's better on a postcard."
The Search for Truth, 1963
"I don't like money, not for itself, nor for what it can buy, as I wish for nothing that is known."
The Search for the Absolute, 1963
One Fine Late Afternoon, 1964

On Sunday, March 2nd, I returned to Brussels and was able to see more in the city.  We first stopped by the Supreme Court, a huge, beautiful building which sits on a hill overlooking the city.

After enjoying the views of and from the Supreme Court, we took an elevator down the hill to visit a flea market in a plaza.  From the flea market, we wandered over to see a church and a park nearby, enjoying the beautiful weather along our way as we walked through the city.

The church is called the Sablon Church and is beautiful on the inside.  It also has a mausoleum for the family of the man who invented the international postal service.  The mausoleum was beautiful and extremely ornate.

Across the street from the church is the Little Sablon Plaza.  This plaza is filled with statues of famous Belgian authors, philosophers, military figures, statesmen, scientists, and others who opposed the Spanish Inquisition.  It was a great little taste of Belgian history.

Brussels is actually quite a fun city, and even in the short time that I had in Belgium, it was nice to be able to see many beautiful places in it.  I hope to come back soon!
Beurs/Bourse (Belgian Stock Market)


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