The selfie: days 131 — 135

These five days cover the last couple days of our stay in Belgium and the first couple of our stay in the Netherlands. And I think they include some of the most amazing and memorable things I’ve seen in Europe.

On May 11 we headed into the mountainous(ish) south, to the quaint little town of Han-sur-Lesse. Picturesque as it was, the town wasn’t the real attraction: that would be the awesome cave system (about 3M years old, and last visited by me 38 years ago) plus a semi-wild nature preserve. I took many awesome photos in those caves, but none of them really stood out. What did, was a gorgeous panorama of the countryside. A little part of me is still torn: I could have used a more “sciency” kind of photo, seeing as it was a sciency kind of day, and panoramas like that are hardly unique. But what can I say? This was the sight that really moved me.

Footnote: the cave has changed a bit since we last visited. One chamber that used to house a snacky restaurant place complete with tables, is now used for a big sound and light show. And to end the tour we’d all float along in little boats out the cave mouth; that’s stopped now since they discovered evidence, at the bottom of the river, that humans used these caves long ago (4,000 years, I think?).

On the 12th we capped off our stay in Belgium with a tour of Antwerp. Amongst the sights was the amazing Plantin-Moretus museum, housed in what used to be the private home of 16th century printer Christophe Plantin and his stupendously rich descendants. It’s a great place if you want to look at how Golden Age rich folks lived, see how the whole printing business worked, and enjoy some samples of old-school printed art. One that stood out for me was a sonnet written by Plantin himself, entitled Le Bonheur de ce Monde. Plantin was a humanist, and though still religious, he seemed very much focused on this world instead of the next one. This was a time when people were starting to question a lot of things, and the rising merchant middle class was challenging the power of the church.

On the 13th we relocated to Amsterdam. Honestly, Amsterdam and the Netherlands are what I was most looking forward to: sure, Belgium had history, but did they have windmills, canals, and all sorts of cool stuff? Plus it was brand new to me! After checking in I snapped a picture of the street, and… there was Amsterdam in a nutshell: the busy crowd, the bikes, the cool old houses, everything. It was perfect.

The next day wasn’t so inspiring, photo-wise. We stayed in the city, visiting the Amsterdam History Museum (very awesome) and the Maritime Museum (pretty good). We would also have gone to the Anne Frank house, except it turns out you have to reserve tickets months in advance. Too bad! I took some good photos, but nothing that really grabbed me. It’s only when I went out on my own after dinner that I saw the houseboats. All right, I know it’s silly, but wouldn’t living on a houseboat in an Amsterdam canal be kind of awesome? The legal ones get water and electricity from the city, so just add internet and I’d be all set. Dare to dream!

On the 15th we went on a guided tour north of the city, visiting a heritage village with windmills, then Edam where they make cheese (also, clogs), then the fishing village of Volendam. And for the first time in a long while I had my daily pic all planned out: it would be a selfie, with windmills in the background. I went through maybe a dozen tries with different angles, different windmills, with and without my hat, until I got one complete with the Dutch flag! Gorgeous. Sure, I was squinting a bit, but my selfie standards aren’t high.

PS: can I just take a moment to gush about Amsterdam ferries? They’re completely free, no tickets or anything! They’re a service provided by the city, just like roads bike paths and whatnot. Now that’s good city government right there.

The first step: days 126 — 130

On Saturday, day 126, I left Canada for the first time in almost 19 years, and travelled to Europe for the first time in almost 34.

(Yeah, I haven’t travelled much in my life. I want that to change.)

It was a big step, not gonna lie. I was super nervous about whether there would turn out to be some problem somewhere or everything would turn out okay. Going through the international security gates was a big and scary step, one that I had to consciously choose to make.

Passport check in Schiphol was also scary—in anticipation, not in fact—but I didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter.

So there I was, in Amsterdam. My family, who’d flown from Montreal and had arrived a couple hours earlier, were waiting for me at that big checkered cube thing that’s apparently a popular meeting spot.

Then we set out for Brussels. The first week would be spent going around Belgium, the second week would be for Amsterdam.

Some shenigans with trains followed—shit happens, right, and I’m sure the train system is tops, but there was work being done on some tracks which required us to take a longer route, and then we had to switch trains at Rotterdam for some reason that I forget right now.

Aside from that I really enjoyed the journey. It looks like the Netherlands doesn’t do suburbs, or at least not the North American kind. There’s no big urban sprawl of big detached houses. All I saw was either (a) a lot of row houses in small towns or conurbations, or (b) bigger houses in rural settings, nothing in between. I approve of this. We talk about promoting densified living but the Dutch have got this shit figured out. Plus, people on bikes. So many people on bikes. Plus quaint little canals. And wind turbines in fields. And I saw my first windmill! It was just from a distance and went by too fast for me to take a picture, but that’s okay. I’ll take more.

On our real first day we went on a bus tour of the cities of Ghent and Bruges. I took so, so many pictures, and for the first time, I couldn’t decide which would be my hashtag-dailypic.

But then my brother and I decided to climb the Bruges belfry, and the choice was clear.

On day 2 we stayed in Brussels and visited a few churches, museums, and neat public places. The Grand-place, just a block from our hotel, was particularly impressive with its neo-Gothic façades and ornately decorated spire. Since we had some extra time to kill I proposed we go visit the Atomium. Turned out to be even better than I expected, with great views of the surrounding area and a nice dose of 50s retro-futurism. Plus, we learned how to get around the Brussels metro, which is never a bad skill to have.

That evening after everyone else retired to their rooms, I was feeling restless and in need of some air and photo opportunities. I quickly checked out Google Maps and found a few likely spots, then set out.

My official pic of the day was of a building bathed in the light of the setting sun, but in hindsight maybe I should have waited a bit and made a picture of the Anspach Fountain my official one. But no take-backsies! Is that going to be a rule? I don’t know.

On day 3 we visited the little university town of Louvain-la-Neuve, where my family and I lived way back in ’79. It’s a nice place, with some pretty students enjoying the warm spring weather, but as for reminiscing? Ehh. It was too long ago, the memories are too dim, and most everything’s changed so much anyway.

Oh well, I’m not upset about it. The point of this trip was to create new memories anyway, not revisit old ones.

Plus, the Hergé Museum! We happily spent a couple hours there.

Part of me kind of wanted to head out tonight, but no landmarks caught my eye, I’m too tired. Fortunately I saw that coming, and snapped a picture of Rue du Marché aux Poulets. It showed the lovely textures of old town streets like this one, the varied materials, colours, window styles and window heights, signs of a city growing organically over centuries. And, a few modern signs. That’s not a bad thing. People here live with the old, but are not bound by it. Touches of modern are good, as long as you respect the foundations.

The little things: days 121 — 125

I don’t think I’m ready to do themes yet.

Some of my inspirations last year did them. Or at least, I think they did. Their photos had very general one-word captions that felt like special challenges or something. I’m not there yet. Maybe next year?

Mind you, I’m getting better at finding interesting angles and combinations of objects. Case in point: a bunch of tulips near St. Paul’s, such lovely warm colours. They caught my eye but at first I didn’t really know what do do with them. Just shooting them “head on” didn’t feel right, even from near ground level. Been there, done that.

But then, I noticed the rainbow flag flying from the side of the church, and managed to get he tulips and the flag in the same shot. So thanks, St. Paul’s, for being LGBTQ-friendly and giving me a nice photo. And also for hosting the VMC Xmas show, that is da bomb.

The next two shots fit the “little things” motif to different degrees. Little birdhouses hanging from trees in the West End? The Hobbit House, which turns out to be an outreach centre run by the Baptists? Sure, why not. I mean, the latter doesn’t actually have any Hobbits (probably) but Hobbits are small. And it’s a small house. I’m curious how old it is, though. The name feels very hippy, but the place looks older than that. Interestingly, I don’t remember any Heritage sign.

I wanted to continue the theme on day 124, but seriously, how could I resist the sight of Bute & Barclay? The green-clad trees reachin towards the blue sky, shading pedestrians underneath them? Absolutely perfect.

The sky wasn’t so blue the following day, but it gave me a weird tableau that I don’t think would have existed without the rain. Discarded shoes, wet benches, and… a rusty can hanging from a chain? I don’t get it, but the overall feeling was one of loss and loneliness. And curiosity, because what’s the story here? I captioned it “catching the rain” but is that what’s going on? I don’t know, and I probably never will.

Looking up at trees and also voting: days 116–120

3/5 of these days were nice and sunny. Not a bad number for this time of year!

The pattern here is me looking up. Which is not a bad thing: I’ve consciously tried to look up, look down, look sideways, look anywhere but what’s right under my nose. That way lies laziness and a boring Instagram. And it is fun: to play with harsh contrasts, to celebrate blue skies in his city of mine, or take one last shot near Jericho Community Centre on the last day of volleyball and the last day of April.

Oh, and a voting selfie. That was an interesting experience. I was ready to skip it even though they had a wall and a hashtag all ready, but fuck it. This was a special experience, my only major election this year, and what’s the point of this photo-a-day project if not to capture special experiences?

Still, I also have to make sure I diversify. Life is more than just trees and blue skies.