[29 October 2009]
Jason Bourne and James Bond make navigating the winding narrow streets of continental Europe at high speed with a Mini-Cooper seem like an effortless joy-ride. On foot, attempting to make heads or tails of cities laid out with all the careful forethought of Middle Ages urban planning will inevitably transform you and your traveling companion into people too obnoxious for Road Rules, forget about The Amazing Race.
I don’t recommend getting completely lost together 20 times a day if you need to strengthen your relationship. Especially if your wife wields the compass.
We arrived in Brussel’s Midi train station a bit frazzled from our last-minute dash to catch our train from Amsterdam. Monitors alerted us to be on watch for pickpockets. OK, it’s a European train station. Par for the course. Something else tingled my Spidey sense, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. We both had dates with gorgeous Belgian blonde ales (when it comes to beer, the Rockista and I have a very open marriage).
The Rockista failed in her first attempt to purchase a STIB ticket from the kiosk. I put my book bag down in front of me and stepped in to breed further confusion. We puzzled it out while two tiny men bought tickets at the kiosk next to us. In total, it took about three minutes. I looked down.
My book bag was gone. And so were the tiny men.
I followed my first instinct and searched for a policeman, gendarme, dude with authority, somebody. I found nobody. Here we were in one of Brussel’s largest stations, where visitors get warned to look out for thieves, and the only people I see around me are the local cast of a Rififi revival.
Welcome to Brussels, capital of the EU!
As pissed as I was (seriously, I get robbed so much no matter where I am that I might as well live in a commune), our dates awaited. We checked in at the Les Bluets (nicest place we stayed in Europe. Warning—no elevator!) and returned to the scene of the crime to make our appointment. We crossed the Grand-Place and licked our lips at the tempting windows of waffle shops and chocolatiers. Within a couple blocks, we felt a new sensation (Aaand now… do dooo da doo da doo!).
Graffiti marked the buildings that flanked deserted streets. Unfortunately, they didn’t stay deserted. Groups of young men, older than the gangbangers we in the States are accustomed to, ambled about. From behind, a dark stranger snuck quickly by. He was checking the doors of all the homes and businesses on the street. In central Brussels.
It was at this point that the Rockista and I realized the cause of our twitchy panic. We had been in Brussels for three hours and had yet to sight a police officer. I worked in some tough Chicago neighborhoods. I don’t scare easy. But I was spooked.
We in America hate taxes and the city of Chicago is almost broke. But when you get off at Union Station you see police. I’m no criminologist Brussels, but you could get rid of the pick pocket problem if you put some dudes with sticks on beats.
The Rockista and I chased down a cab and finally arrived at the end of our pilgrimage—a street barely the width of a Chicago alley. People spilled out all over, beers in hand. Laughter rolled to our feet which we could only receive with broad smiles.
We were at the Delirium Cafe—the home of Delirium Tremens and over 500 other delightful brews.
[Cue heralds and choir.]
When I returned to my feet, I made my way toward the large wooden bar at the heart of the Cafe. Two stools awaited our arrival. The bar keep turned in our direction and we ordered two pints. I knew how Pooh feels as I watched the amber ale our glasses. We toasted. We drank.
We fell in love.
I’ve been to Las Vegas and many other so-called adult party spots. Forget about it. Delirium Cafe is hands down the best night spot I’ve ever been to. The main room has large tables filled with beer steins, animated conversation, and big ‘ol arena rock. Yeah, the high school kids there are kind of a buzz kill, but you don’t notice them that much. The upstairs is the Hop Lounge where they pour the weiss beers. It’s much more of a subdued vibe with comfy seating.
The downstairs, though, is where it’s at. You know the Delta house parties in Animal House? It’s just like that, but without togas and cokeheads peeing on you. On the ceiling they have a collection of cocktail trays from all over the world. Pretty neat idea for sound proofing. The bands were loud and raucous, even if the second one nauseated me a bit with a few too many Police covers. [shiver]
A European vacation is not really complete until you see a group of debauched Aussies uniting the nations with a sing-a-long version of ‘Down Under’ while liberally applying beer to each other. Cheers!
The next day I found an awesome record shop across the street from the Bourse, The Collector. I picked up a Magic Sam album and the last volume of Vanguard’s 60’s Chicago/The Blues/ Today!, which I had sought for the last couple years. Good place to scope out in between a bunch of tacky tourist clutter.
On to Paris, the City of Lights. More like the City of Urine. Seriously, the entire city stinks like two week old kitty litter.
When my book bag was taken we lost the name of the hotel we booked, so we arrived sans hotel. On a Friday night. Yeah, not the brightest idea ever. We stayed our first two nights at the Aviatic. Nice joint, recently rehabbed. A little over our budget though, so we moved to the Hotel Sunny. Delightful tiny hotel with tiny rooms and fair big city prices. Who doesn’t want to stay in the Hotel Sunny, right?
We were in the 5th Arrondissement on the Port Royal Boulevard. The nearest Metro stop was Les Gobelins. The Rockista and I always found ourselves in this very cool neighborhood a few blocks from our door, the Butte-aux-Cailles. We frequented the La Folie en Tete and the Sputnik for drinks and conversation. I especially enjoyed rapping out all of ‘Gin and Juice’ with a table full of brothers at Sputnik. Good times.
The area also has restaurants galore. Come on, it’s Paris. We ate well. Culture wise, well, there’s an awful lot to see in Paris. The Rockista had never been, so we needed to squeeze in everything. I did manage to drop her off one evening and sneak in a couple beers at this cafe on the corner. I talked with a few folks. First, Ed from Philadelphia. He worked for a re-insurer, and times are good. We discussed health care and Obama’s Nobel prize.
To my left were two kids, an Argentine and a Parisian. The Argentine told me how Americana artists like Wilco or Bruce don’t translate so well overseas. I guess I understand that. They love the Beach Boys, though, and what’s more Americana than the Beach Boys? Or Chuck Berry? I ruined their night by informing them that Beck was a Scientologist. You would have thought I told them there was no Santa.
I was going to completely unload this whole passage about all the Van Goghs we saw and how Van Gogh was the first modernist and why, but… well, I didn’t like it. Van Gogh cut off his ear and painted sunflowers. They’ll be there (the sunflowers, that is) waiting when you arrive.
On the last evening of our trip, the Rockista and I enjoyed the last of our Amsterdam B.J. Hunnicuts. The Butte was rocking and rolling. Two weeks in Europe had come to an end.
The Rockista headed to the airport and I went to the dock. I walked along the rows of shipping containers until I found 45-89. Airhole. Good. I knocked. An eye appeared from a sprung latch.
“Yeah. Even at 50.”
Li Pen opened the door. Not bad digs. I threw my bag on the bunk I shared with three other Pens (or is it Lis?), made some Ramen noodles on the hot plate, and joined the other around a laptop. As an HGH-mutated Sylvester Stallone mowed down generic Asian after Asian, I picked up the littlest Pen (or Li). I propped him up on my knee, and with enthusiastic jerks, taught her the national anthem.
“USA! USA! USA!”