Belgium Diary #1: Brussels

Originally Belgium wasn’t even on my plan for this trip, but then I remembered an old family friend living in Brussels, who would totally let me stay with her, so I figured this would be a good chance to add another country to my list. I chose to go there during the weekend because, like Germany, Belgian rail has a weekend ticket – you buy a “zone” ticket for half the price, and can travel anywhere you want within that zone from Friday night to Monday morning. I planned on visiting Bruges and Ghent, so that seemed like a really good deal.

I arrived by bus from the Netherlands on Friday afternoon (the bus ticket cost 9 euro, which is a steal compared to the 45 euro train ticket). It was too late for any activity, but I spent a very happy evening walking round, seeing all the sights like the Grand Place (or Grote Markt) and the surrounding streets. All the shops seem to sell nothing except for chocolate, lace, and waffles, but since I just had a huge dinner, I decided to save them for another day. I also saw the Arc de Triomphe at the nearby Parc du Cinquantenaire, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of Belgian independence – so it’s kind of ironic that it actually reminded me of Paris more than anything else.

View of Grand Place from the Mont des Arts Garden

Royal Square

The official Royal Palace (the work place, not the residential one)

Parc du Cinquantenaire at sunset

And of course, I saw the Manneken Pis, the famous sculpture of the little boy peeing, just off of the Grand Place. I’ve filed it with the Mona Lisa and the Little Mermaid as “things that are a lot smaller than you thought”, because it is ridiculously small – as you can see from the photo.

But there are plenty of reproductions around, some a lot more colorful and entertaining than the real thing.

Like this one

On Saturday I went to Bruges and Ghent (they will have their own post), and on Sunday, I saw more of Brussels. Half of it I spent in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts – it’s mostly standard “art museum” collection, but the Art Noveau stuff is drop-dead gorgeous. Also bonus point: the museum cafe has really good cakes and is not as overpriced as other museum cafes I’ve seen.


I want to take these to furnish my own Art Noveau house

I also visited the frighteningly huge Palace of Justice (which has been covered in scaffolding for 20 years), a nearby church, and, in the afternoon, saw the Atomium (it was too late to go inside, but I don’t mind) as well as the Japanese Tower and Chinese Pavilion (which are near the residential Royal Palace). These Oriental buildings are part of the Museums of the Far East, which sadly were closed in 2013 for renovation (and considering the speed of renovation on the Palace of Justice, I doubt they will be opened any time soon.)

The Palace of Justice – and me, for scale

Inside the Église Notre-Dame du Sablon

Some rare instances of Flemish architecture

All in all, I had a fun time in Brussels. I may not be one for big cities, but I’m glad I stopped by.


SIA Inspiration: Hokusai

It’s again my turn to host SIA, and I went the traditional route and picked an iconic piece – perhaps the best-known woodblock print and the most famous work of Japanese art, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Hokusai. You know the one:

I’ve picked one of Hokusai’s prints from the same series for SIA a while ago, but this time, I just read about this print in an excellent book called A History of the World in 100 Objects (I will talk about it in my Book Reviews post on Wednesday), and it gave some really cool insights into the print and Japan during the time it was made. Here’s an excerpt: “It is printed on traditional Japanese mulberry paper, just under the size of a sheet of A3, in subtle shades of yellow, grey and pink, but it is the deep, rich blue that dominates – and startles. For this is not a Japanese blue – it is Prussian blue or Berlin blue, a synthetic dye invented in Germany in the early eighteenth century and much less prone to fading than traditional blues. Prussian blue was imported either directly by Dutch traders or, more probably, via China, where it was being manufactured from the 1820s. The blueness of the Great Wave shows us Japan taking from Europe what it wants to take, and with absolute confidence.”

Of course, it is also that blue that draws me to this print and makes me decide to pick it for SIA. There are various shades of blue to play with, plus the curl of the waves and the dots of sprays can also be translated into an outfit (lace and polka dots, maybe?) Look more closely at it and you’ll find tons of things to interpret. So get inspired, and remember to send me your outfits by next Monday, September 5th. Have fun!


Icelandic Diary #6: Reykjavik

We finished our Iceland road trip with a visit to the capital, Reykjavik. After the epic previous five days, it was a bit anticlimactic to come back to Reykjavik, I have to admit. Not that Reykjavik is not great, but it’s merely cute in a hipster kind of way, and that cannot compare with the awesome countryside surrounding it.

Still, that didn’t stop us from enjoying ourselves. The museums were all closed for the holiday, and some of the shops too (I was disappointed, because I had planned on shopping at the Red Cross thrift store), but we spent an enjoyable day walking around, climbing on top of Hallgrímskirkja, gawking at Harpa concert hall, and looking at all the amazing street art.

The photo that everybody got – the view of Reykjavik from top of Hallgrímskirkja

angel street art

So. Much. Street Art!!!

harpa

The interior of Harpa is insane. I don’t even know which way is up in these photos

View of the harbor from Harpa

The Pond, next to City Hall

Then, at dinnertime, it being our last day and all, I suggested we splurged a bit and went out to eat instead of going back to the hostel to cook. We went to Cafe Babalú, a quirky place with awesomely kitschy decorations (they have Star Wars stickers in the bathroom). We had lamb soup and, for me, a giant slice of Nutella cheesecake for dessert. It may have cost half a week’s worth of grocery, but man, it was so satisfying to have some an actual meal instead of random combinations of food.

Cafe Babalú, inside and out

Finally, it was time to say goodbye – my Amsterdam friends and I were going back to the Netherlands early the next morning, and Debbi back to the US – but we all agreed that it was an unforgettable trip, and were already planning our return. Maybe some time in the winter, to catch the Northern Lights? We’ll see.


Iceland Diary #5: Vik & Selfoss

Jökulsárlón is the furthest east we went in Iceland; after that we turned around and drove back toward Reykjavik. Since it’s a pretty long journey compared to our previous days (nearly 5 hours), I decided to put in one more stop – Vík and its black sand beach.

black sand beachblack sand - bird tracks
My boots were so dusty at this point that the sand was blacker than them!

After walking around on the beach in Vík for a bit, we drove on to Dyrhólaey, another beach down the road with the famous natural arch standing in the sea (funny tidbit: when we put the coordinates for Dyrhólaey into the GPS, it said there was no route to it, so we had to ask for direction at the Vík gas station. Turns out the GPS couldn’t find a route to those coordinates because they are literally in the sea.)

I’m particularly proud of this photo, because it looks like the cover of a 1950 children’s book

It was a little bit out of the way (no more than 20 minutes though) and the beach was closed due to a rock slide warning, so we didn’t get to walk around much, but it was totally worth it, because while we were there, we got to see puffins! Hundreds and thousands of them, nesting on the cliff faces and flying out to the sea. We didn’t expect to see puffins at all during this trip (I thought we would have to take a bird-watching tour, which, considering our policy for paying extra – heck no), so it was a very pleasant surprise.

That night, we stopped at Selfoss, a small town just outside of Reykjavik. I was in charge of putting the itinerary together, and I picked Selfoss because I figured, “foss” means “waterfall” in Icelandic, so there must be some cool waterfall there to check out. When we arrived and looked it up more carefully, however, we discovered that while there is indeed a Selfoss waterfall, it’s actually on the opposite end of the country. Sure, let’s give the southwest town with no waterfall the same name as a waterfall in the northeast, that’s a good idea!

In the end though, the stop at Selfoss wasn’t a total bust, because one, they gave us free sheets (most Icelandic hostels give you pillows and duvets but charge you for the bed linens, which I think is a stupid policy because it means we had to lug around duvet covers and pillowcases. On the other hand, it also makes you appreciate the small things in life, like free sheets); and two, we got to visit Kerið, a nearby volcano crater. For a small fee (400 krona – about $3), you can walk around the crater and go all the way down to the lake formed at its bottom. It was beautiful.

Afterward, we walked around Selfoss for a bit. It was the Saturday before the bank holiday in Iceland, so everything was pretty much dead, but we did find an ice cream shop, where I had my first taste of Smurf ice cream (it was actually just blue ice cream that tasted like marshmallow.)

The Selfoss church


My Smurf ice cream, and tiny lopapeysa (Icelandic sweaters) outside a craft store

And then it was time to head back to Reykjavik, back to civilization!


Iceland Diary #4: Jökulsárlón

So far in our Iceland trip, we haven’t seen that much “ice” (with the exception of Snæfellsjökull). It’s that old myth – Iceland is not covered in ice, and Greenland isn’t green; it’s actually the other way around. Still, we were about to rectify that with our next destination – Jökulsárlón, the glacial lagoon (“jökull” means “glacier” in Icelandic, and “sárlón” means “lagoon”.)

The drive from Skógafoss to Jökulsárlón is the longest stretch we had to do, not counting the drive back to Reykjavik – over 2.5 hours – and yet it was the most boring. OK, the road itself isn’t boring. You can’t find any boring road in Iceland even if you try. The thing is, by this time we’d had the car for five days, and reached a point where a view that, on the first day, would make us stop and scramble for our cameras, now only elicited a mild “Huh, that’s nice.”

Meh. Seen it.

It didn’t help that we passed through almost nothing but endless lava fields. Sure, it was interesting at first – it looks so alien – but after a while, it got repetitive.

It just goes on and on…

The only entertainment we got was from pointing out the sheep and horses, and hay bales wrapped in colorful plastic that looked like giant marshmallows.

But then we got closer to Jökulsárlón and saw Vatnajökull (aka the biggest glacier in Iceland) in the distance, and things started looking up.

Jökulsárlón was unreal. It wasn’t like anything we’ve seen before – blocks of impossibly blue ice floating around on a small lagoon, some close enough to touch.  I wish we could’ve stayed for the sunset, it must be insanely gorgeous.

Play for full effect

Debbi’s hair contrasts nicely with all the blue ice

It’s a ship!

jokulsarlon album coverWe had different themes for our group photos. This one is “boyband album cover”

After the lagoon, we drove on to our nearby hostel. All of our previous hostels have been in or near a town, but here it’s just a tiny cluster of farmhouses in the middle of nowhere. Despite its size, its proximity to Jökulsárlón means that it was full, so instead of dorm rooms, we were given a separate cabin. We joked that if this was a horror movie, we would probably all be murdered by the farmer and his family of cannibals.

vagnsstaðir hostelThis would be the photo found by the protagonist as he’s investigating what happened to us

We actually did meet the farmer when we took a walk through the field after dinner. He was very nice. He said “Great weather, isn’t it?” and we all agreed. Except for that bit of rain when we were at Skogafoss, every day had been gloriously sunny and bright. It wasn’t exactly warm though – the farmer was wearing a T-shirt, while we were swaddled up in our thermal shirts and sweaters. Even Debbi and my Amsterdam friends, who are used to freezing winters, had to wear their big coats. But he’s a local, so I guess 50F is positively tropical for him.


The Door Within

watercolor tee black pants red kitten heels by 14 shades of grey

Last week when I posted the inspiration for SIA, “The Door Within” by Jean Fetman, which was found by this week’s host Erin in a dumpster (!), I said I didn’t know if I could participate or not because I had nothing that colorful in my closet. But then Jen and Erin persuaded me to try, so try I did, and lo and behold, I did find something – this top!

So maybe it’s not as colorful as the painting, but the painterly quality of the print on the front is an OK match. To pair with it, I chose my black pants and burgundy heels because there is a bit of black and dark red in the painting, and then topped it off with my “house” pendant – the title is “The Door Within”, so I wanted to include “a door within” in my outfit as well. I’m just happy that I did manage to put together an outfit for SIA after all, but the outfit itself is not that bad (even if I do say so myself.)

I wore this to a faculty meeting last Saturday – school hasn’t officially started yet, but we’re slowly getting back to the everyday grind. I am not looking forward to it…

watercolor tee black pants red kitten heels by 14 shades of greywatercolor tee black pants by 14 shades of grey

watercolor tee house pendant by 14 shades of greyblack pants red kitten heels by 14 shades of grey

17_erin_fetman

Top: local shop, Pants: thrifted, Heels: Zara, Necklace: hand-me-down


Iceland Diary #3: All Of The Waterfalls

The third day of our Iceland road trip saw us starting towards the coast to get on the Ring Road, the main highway of Iceland, and away from the “Golden Circle” – an area around Reykjavik with the most sights and tour activities (Thingvellir, Geysir, hot springs, etc.) However, before we left, there was one last stop in the Golden Circle that we needed to check out – Gulfoss, or the Golden Waterfall.

It isn’t the most powerful waterfall in Iceland (that one’s up north), but it is huge. The pictures can’t convey the size and power of it, even though I did try to include people in my photos, so you guys can imagine the scale. We felt the spray all the way from the parking lot, and I was really glad I got my waterproof jacket and boots with me. There were tourists walking around in sandals and flipflops (I guess they didn’t want their shoes wet?) and I admit, I side-eyed them really hard.

Coincidentally, our drive to the Ring Road also took us past two more famous waterfalls, and they’re literally by the side of the road, so we didn’t have to go out of our way to see them. First up is Seljalandsfoss. It’s most well-known for the fact that you can walk behind it (and why most packing lists for Iceland recommend that you bring rain pants – but honestly, the spray wasn’t that bad.)

The second waterfall is Skógafoss, which is right in the backyard of our hostel. We planned on walking there after dinner, but when we arrived, it started raining. We didn’t mind too much – it was the first rain we encountered in Iceland – though by the time it stopped, we were too tired, so we decided to turn in early and saved Skógafoss for the next morning.

It turned out to be a great decision, because the next morning was clear and sunny, and it allowed us to even see a rainbow by the waterfall.

skogafoss waterfallThe obligatory cheesy rainbow photo

With that crossed off our list, we continued along the coast, onto our next destination!