Thursday, October 31, 2013

Maybe It's My Eyes

I have begun to believe, recently, that there must be some characteristic in my face, or perhaps in my posture, that yells in a tongue that I do not comprehend (otherwise I would stop yelling), "please rob me." It certainly cannot be my wealth (current checking account balance: $38.17), or outward displays thereof (I accepted long ago that I cannot have nice things, as I tend to destroy them in the early weeks of ownership and in doing so, degrade their utility as a status symbol). And yet I keep getting sort of fruitlessly robbed, in a way that seems to leave all involved parties just sort of inconvenienced.

The two chaps with the handgun got away with a Discman, which despite its sworn written assurances to the contrary skipped readily, and the real loss there was the 43 minute Carmina Burana techno remix that I had found on Napster and was listening to at the time of the relief of property. The Guatemalan ATM skimmers did manage to reduce my checking ledger to $1.49, but that only really means that they got like twenty bucks, and the bank paid me back for that anyway.

I guess over the years the TSA has stolen most of my dignity, but since the floor fell out of that currency in response the early 21st century "Terror Craze" I think that that hardly makes me special. No, I've been robbed a lot of times, but the perpetrators generally haven't gotten away with much. Really, only one demographic of grifters really breaks this mould, and that demographic is cab drivers. Those guys have my number.

In Rome, once, a guy took me on two full loops around the city before "finding" the right street. Another time, after learning how hard hitchhiking can be for those 6-feet plus, I paid a cabbie like $400 for what I'm now pretty sure was technically human trafficking. That was  long night. Even here in the United States, I once got into a cab that happened to be black instead of yellow (but still smelled like cigarettes, Pine-Sol, and the black market sex trade), and wound up paying more than twice what my yellow car born companions did for the same ride.

So it should come as no surprise that I was more than a little bit incredulous when I was quoted a flat 10 fare for the 5 minute ride from our hotel to the airport on our last day in Shannon, Ireland. I mean, they insisted that I didn't need to schedule a particularly early ride, because the trip is "only 5 minutes." Then they told me it's $15 plus tip and there's no bus, and they didn't even crack a smile when they said it. In the end, of course, no amount of incredulity could do me any good, and I capitulated to the robbery. Looking back on my most recent trip to Europe, I can say that that was the best 10 I spent in three weeks.

That early morning heralded the impending winter with a crispness in the air that had me wearing somewhere between four and seven shirts. The driver was a shorter, stocky man whose ruddy cheeks seems to flow directly from a high collared jacket, bypassing any semblance of a neck or jowls. He had one of those massive, sort of smashed-in noses that made me wonder if he could see his feet to tie his shoes in the morning. He wore boots with no laces.

"You'll sit in the front with me," he said after we'd loaded my bags into the back of his VW Transporter, with a not unkind brusqueness that left little room for deliberation. Approximately five minutes later, after I had paid him 10 (plus tip), I rushed into the terminal to scrawl down as much of our conversation as I could before it was lost forever. It went something like this:

"I went to America once," he told me, and before he knew of my midwestern roots, went on, "to Chicago. Lovely place. We stayed in Orland Park, did our drinking in Tinley Park. Orland Park is a monstrously large housing development, but has no bar. Tinley Park, though, is only a fifteen minute walk and has quite a nice one."

I mentioned that I grew up near there, and was familiar with the area, as well as with the idea that some towns had no zoning appropriate for bars. He sort of nodded with the same affect that might go along with listening to a creationist question the theory of evolution while you have a vicious hangover: when you know they're wrong, but it's just not worth arguing. He went on:

"The one problem I have with America is that your fucking beer is shit. We finally found some microbrew that was good, but all that Budweiser, Miller, Coors, is shit." I tried to defend the burgeoning craft beer culture here, but before I could put together a real spoken thought, he broadened his stance. "And your cider is shit too."

While the driver didn't seem particularly interested in comparing our disparate observations about my native land, he did seem to acknowledge that Tinley Park is not really Chicago, and was sure to mention that he had done some real city stuff. Namely, that they had "walked through the Brookfield Zoo when it was 105 fucking degrees!"

Naturally, the conversation turned eventually to food. "The pizza is delicious."

Connoisseurs of midwestern gastronomy know that while Chicago Pizza is certainly its own genre, that every shop makes it a little differently, yielding strongly partisan feelings on the matter (I once saw a man get shivved by his date in an Antigua nightclub because he insisted that Pizzeria Duo was really the original). So naturally I asked him where they went.

"I tried every fucking pizza they made," he said with a vigor that at once gave me concern (he was captaining our vehicle at upwards of 120kph) and satisfaction that he had embraced the partisan anger that is canonical in Chicago pizza culture. But it didn't stop there.

"And the ice cream!" He was really rolling, now. "You guys got flavors of ice cream I never even dreamed of! And on top of it, you got 'Buy One Bucket: Get Two Buckets!' deals everywhere. Un-fuckin-believable."

The topic having come to food, he couldn't help but assure himself that I had eaten the proper Irish foods. I don't recall, now, exactly which meals I mentioned except that corned beef and cabbage was not among them and that he seemed satisfied. The only exception was the seafood chowder. I had that with every meal at which it was available (sometimes breakfast) until I found my other lactate threshold and spend 36 hours throwing up. The driver had strong feelings about chowder as well.

"A chowder shouldn't have too many vegetables. Sure, some celery, a bit of onion, maybe even a tiny bit of carrot. But if there's more veggies than fish, they're fuckin' cheatin' ye."

And there you have it.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Zen and the Art of Destroying a Rental Car

Driving in Ireland is fun. Really fun. The most obvious and initially striking difference between driving on the island and most of the rest of the world is, of course, that cars utilize the left side of the road, and the driver's seat is on the right (although improper) side of the car. This is at first, unnerving, and after only a week in-county we never did quite get the hang of which side of the car to approach when holding the keys, or from ineffectively glancing over our right shoulders when turning in that that direction. In fact, from the early moments in the rented Opel Something-or-Other the putative rule of thumb was more or less, "check every blind spot you can think of every time before doing anything especially turning left or right and you're going to want a spotter if you need to parallel park it really is harder than it looks all backwards and everything."

The novel fright of turning left in a five lane intersection in downtown Dublin by relying finally on motor-memory (despite having made the conscious decision not to make that mistake only seconds before entering the intersection and then once again as the turn was initiated) and finding yourself facing a row of headlights and unimpressed tour bus drivers and making a last minute correction only to nearly but not actually strike a cyclist  loses said novelty rather early on. Fortunately after only one or two faux pas your globetrotting Horans matched pace with the predictably steep learning curve and made it out of the city without incident (or at least with plausible deniability that there was any incident worth mentioning). Also, Rick Steves told us to be sure to spring for the full coverage insurance, so, you know, fuck it. In any event, the right improper side drive thing isn't really that tricky to get the hang of, and only begins to explain why driving in Ireland is so much fun.

The baseline adrenal trickle that comes from driving in a foreign country stems from the same basic uncertainty and nervousness that accompanies all of those mundane activities that are taken for granted in home life when they are attempted abroad. A routine trip to the domestic grocery store incites only an astringent distaste for the fellow blurry-eyed shoppers and what seem like unnecessarily long lines due to understaffed checkers because Jon is on his break and the last thing we need is for those guys to unionize so they might as well get a break if that keeps them quiet and besides the line isn't really that long except for when stuck behind that one morbidly obese lady with the ten-gallon perm and the one lurking curler still in and the five or so children but who's only privy to the whereabouts of about three at any given time, who insists on checking the receipt line item by line item to make sure that all of the ten cent coupons she spent Sunday afternoon clipping over the din of her stories and her three accounted for children are accounted for themselves on paper to make sure she gets what's right, even though you only have like one thing of Ballpark Franks and a six pack of beer and she has two whole carts of Jimmy Dean Breakfast Bowls Et Cetera and it really should have been a photo finish to see who got to the check line first but she had way more inertia and so out of self-preservation you got the heck out of the way and just let her go first (then the line gets sort of long). Those reassuring home life inconveniences pale in comparison to the fear and loathing that well and constrict a wayward diner's breathing at the prospect of approaching an overwhelmed butcher's counter over an inland sea of four-foot-tall local women in colorful regalia all pining for the finer cuts while Our Fair Foreigner only wants to get something that isn't a kidney or a gall bladder or something and is thumbing dumbly through a phrase book but the stupid thing only has things like, "I'll have what she's having" and said Foreigner sure as shit isn't about to pay for whatever it is that that lady right there just bought, that's for sure (I mean, is it supposed to be that color?).

To be fair, traveling in a mostly English speaking country is much less intimidating than in a land where the tongue is alien, and since being admitted to the Euro Zone and especially after the tech boom of '95-through-aught 8 -- and let's disregard what happened in aught 8 out of politeness -- it's probably fair to call Ireland a First World country. And a tourist friendly one at that. But with that said, the ante can't help but get upped when the Traveler has some skin in the game, and I don't mean by accidentally eating something that sort of felt like an artery and now he has the burden of going down to the tienda to look for some floss because whatever-it-is won't come out from between molars fourteen and fifteen and he's starting to think that it being an artery might be best case scenario. No, driving is a different thing, and while the prevailing advice for foreigners in Ireland, should one run over a child or something, is not to keep driving and "don't stop for God's sake because those people over there who just saw that will pull you out of the car and light you on fire with the gas you paid for, right there on the spot: judge, jury, and hangman, I shit you not just hit the gas and let the cops come find you," the foreigner's status quo is still somewhat unsettled and never entirely at ease.

Adding the very narrow asbestiform roads that wind through the countryside with no regard for sight lines through corners or intuitive route finding, the predominance of small and sporty (in comparison to a 2000 Ford Ranger with sloppy suspension and a wet/unimpressed pound dog as copilot) cars, and the relative unavailability of anything but a six speed manual transmission, well, it isn't very difficult to see why the British and the Irish are so fond of their motorsports. And so through the stifled-but-not-really and ultimately infructuous gasps and well-meant-but-not-entirely-constructive criticism that seeped forward from the rear passenger section Opel's cabin from our self-appointed driving supervisors (who politely declined any offer to try a hand at steering, when the opportunity was presented), my father and I set gaily about destroying a rental car.

After waiting for two or so hours through the constant assurances from a smiling but un-helpful Hertz attendant that our vehicle could be no more than, say, thirty minutes away, as the car that we were supposed to have received was carted away on one of those 8-car double-decker flatbed car-trailers with extensive cosmetic damage to the passenger side (of the car), we finally took possession of our eventually damningly spacious Opel Something-or-Other. Also the full coverage insurance and the additionally insured (Yours Truly). "Incident" is such a nebulous word, so in the interest of truth, if not transparency, I will say that we left Dublin without collision.

It was not until we found ourselves hugging the 3/2 lane tarmac that meandered through the Irish countryside like a long ribbon held against a stiff breeze that our chariot began to suffer. We learned early on that the impossibly dense hedgerows which served to dash any hope of knowing what lay around the hairpin corners to which we were wholly committed were left to be pruned by the cars themselves. When no traffic was incoming we would frequently find ourselves borrowing a score or two centimeters of the opposing lane. However, when confronted with oncoming cars and the remarkably frequent tour buses which drive what is left of Ireland's economy, we were left with no recourse but to graze the encroaching flora. Such was the consistency of this sort of barter that we noticed the hedges bore an extra, waist-height indentation where the side mirrors of countless Opels before had torn at the still green frayed woody ends.

That sort of phenomenon explains the lion's share of the damage, which I maintain may buff out. The plastic side mirror cover fell as an early victim to an unnaturally robust twig, and we spend most of the week with exposed red and while and yellow wires and an electric mirror than could only be manipulated by hand. This proved especially inconvenient because at about the same time the passenger side window began to decline to ascend. The party line is that this was not our fault, and that only very circumstantial evidence could insinuate our guilt. This was fixed halfway through the week by a different and friendly Hertz attendant who covered the electric window buttons with duct tape and asked us not to use them. Later, when we glanced off of a very well camouflaged stone wall at somewhere between sixty and seventy-five kph we hypothesized that we might have saved Hertz a great deal of money, and ourselves a great deal of time, by simply taking charge of the badly damaged car that was intended for our use on day one.

In the end I believe that it was primarily the low speed collisions that were our undoing. The full coverage insurance explicitly excluded damage to the wheels and tyres (sic), and through several attempts of mirror image parallel parking we did quite a number on the front passenger wheel. The tyre (sic) seemed ok. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Partial Credit.

Today has found the intrepid Horan family wedged between two nights in a guest house near Dingle, Co. Kerry, on the southwestern coast of the island. With two nights in the same place, we are left with the ability to idle away an entire day, and brainstormed for amusements. This area is in the center of a quickly growing Irish surfing scene, and we thought that that would be fun. We found board and wetsuit rentals for 25 Euro, and had nearly pulled the trigger before consulting the surf report. Fortunately we hopped online and saw that it forecast a 23-25 foot swell. We decided that today was not our day to surf.

Harry and I instead decided to go for a stormy trail run on Mount Brandon. After a spartan breakfast that paired nicely with the Eastern Bloc hospitality afforded us by our Hungarian waitress, the two brothers set forth towards the trail head in the wind and the rain.

By the time we started the run, the storm had lifted slightly, and we managed to climb a rutted dirt road through dry set stone walls and bleating sheep. The clarity could not last, and before long we caught up with the ceiling. As though directed by some cosmic maestro, the trail exhibited a graceful diminuendo to make way for the 50 meter visibility that was settling in. We looked up into the haze to where a ravine petered to a runnel and back down to where a stone pillar stood as our last landmark before a sea of gray consumed the landscape. We discussed pressing further into the tempest before rationalizing that relative to the amount of exercise we had gotten in the previous week, this really was quite strenuous, and, that "we're going to die out here."

Harry sizes up the storm and looks for the trail.

We retreated to the car (elapsed run time: 13 minutes) before heading out for an out and back on the relative safety of the gravel country road. We accepted partial credit for our run ambitions.

Harry negotiates Drew Creek.

The rain continued on our drive back towards the guest house and as we were weaving through the outskirts of Ballydavid a silhouette emerged on the side of the road and indicated that it would like a ride. Never ones to to leave a stooping old man out in the rain, we slowed down, pulled over, and he crawled into the back seat.

We greeted him and were met with some indecipherable dialect of muddled speech, so addled by age and whiskey that after I posed that he may only speak Gaelic, Harry wondered if he was speaking anything at all. No matter, the man fastened his seat belt and we were off. We had made it only 100 meters before he indicated to us through insistent mumbling and gesticulation that we were going in the wrong direction.

I have not hitchhiked often, but my understanding of the process is that it is uncommon for the rider to inform the driver that he is going in precisely the wrong direction.

But the man seemed quite comfortable, and who were we to throw him back out in the weather? Besides, it was a layover day on the coast and raining. We headed back past where we'd picked him up, and started looking for where he might want to go. He indicated forward, mumbled to himself or his audience, and would  from time to time erupt laughing to some private joke. We continued driving through the narrow, twisting roads of rural Ireland and before long the lanes widened, the houses became more sparse, and we were headed towards the open road. I thought perhaps to Dublin, but Harry seemed to think we were headed more towards Galway.

Harry asked him where he was headed, although at this point we were fairly committed to driving until he indicated that we should stop. "A Laic," we understood him to say. Harry looked for A Laic on the map, to no avail. "Can you show us where A Laic is?" Harry asked him, holding up the tourist map of the entire island. He responded only with another large grin and two thumbs up. We settled in for the long haul and hoped that we didn't run out of fuel.

We never made it to Galway or Dublin. We found ourselves before long returning to Dingle by a route more direct than we knew. While it was quite in the opposite direction that we had intended at the time, we expected that it would save us some effort when we headed back in the afternoon. Before our new friend set off on foot into Dingle, we shook hands and snapped a quick photo.
We made it to Dingle!
Just as he turned a corner to disappear I had a revelation. "Best of luck, Alec!" we called to him. He hunched his shoulders more against the storm and turned silently out of sight.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Chapter 2

I've made it to Ireland now, and after an uneventful flight and bus ride, met Harry and my parents in Dublin. Dublin is a concise but frantic city with an international flare and treacherous road crossings. In addition to cars being on the wrong side, which, however easy to comprehend from behind a desk is entirely unnerving when it comes time to plunge into the road, but the drivers and pedestrians there seem to give no credence at all to signal lights. The city seems to have a great depth and texture to it, but in only two days I never felt like we so much as scratched its superficial surface. I suppose I'll have to revisit.

We've made it now to Adare, the earliest known location of Drew, my mother's maiden name, and by way of Cashel. My dad was in Ireland in 1978 on vacation, tooling around in a rental car and seeing the country. He spend most of the time cruising small towns for music, conversation, and photos of the local scene. He promised more than a few portraits to be delivered to the subjects of these photographs. So secondary to the stated goal of tracing the Drew roots, this trip is, in part, to fulfill an old promise.

It turns out that small towns in Ireland are still very small. We stopped for dinner in Cashel, where a photo that had hung in my childhood home my entire life was taken. It pictures five old men, sitting on a bench, in wollen coats and billed hats. A picture of Irish romanticism.

Kevin only had to display the image to two people before the proprietor of the restaurant declared that she knew each man in the photo. They were all deceased, but we missed the youngest man's wake by only a week. The woman went to school with his daughters and promised to deliver it that night.

We found no trace or recollection of the Drews in Cashel.

We checked into a hotel and took to city to find a pub, and now, at the epicenter of our heritage, some roots. We found a number of lame duck tourist trap bars lining the main street, and with the wind out of our sails luffed back towards the hotel. We were only halfway back when a dark haired man of about thirty sized us up, and without interrupting his cell phone conversation directed us with only a pointed finger to enter Bill Chawke's.

Inside, a moment later, he explained to us that he saw two young lads with their folks heading away from the only pub in town with anything going on, and that when the parents headed to bed this would be the only place to be. Furthermore, he and his mates had just won their hurling match.

The entryway is guarded by bronze busts of seven republican martyrs of the Easter Uprising. Our new friend, Fitzy, was a bit of a buff on local history, so we asked him about the name.

Fitzy: Drew? Nae, no Drews. We've got a couple of Kellys. The two lads behind the bar are both Kellys. Never heard of a Drew, though. Where you headed next?
Us: Dingle.
Fitzy: Dingle? Don't call it Dingle. It's An Daingean, but when you're there look up An Canteen and find Blondie. Tell him Fitzy from Vienna sent you. He'll love it.

 We chatted for a while more before he dismissed  himself, "with a few things I need to do," and then disappeared towards the dance floor.

We spent the rest of the night chewing the fat with some of the older codgers in town, who also don't remember any Drews. Disparate accents may have contributed to our lack of headway. An early conversation with a man who by the end of the night would be going by Viscount Wilson went something like this:

Wilson: And which family are you looking for?
Us: The Drew family.
Wilson: A Jew family? No, I don't remember anyone like that. How long you in for, where you headed next?
Kevin: Gandanga.
Harry: Aldongka.
Ben: Tatanka.
Wilson: What the fuck are you saying now?
Harry: Dingle.
Wilson: Oh, fuck, yeah, Dingle. I don't know if there's any Jews in Dingle either.

A while later the folks turned in and the revelry put to and end by what was either a fight, or someone falling off of a bar stool (which one it was is still up for debate), Harry and I found ourselves chatting with Wilson/Sir Wilson/Lord Wilson/Viscount Wilson. He was quite a fellow, and the rhetorical fencing resumed right away. At one point he took off his glasses, and Harry held up three fingers. "How many?" he asked. Wilson sat, perplexed, for a moment and said, "because of the whiskey?" The conversation drifted to his family.

Ben: You have any kids?
Wilson: Yeah, I've got three of them. Well, I killed them.
Harry: You shot them?
Wilson: No. I put their feet in cement and threw them off a bridge. They were eaten by a dolphin. Or a donkey. I can't be sure which.

From there the conversation deteriorated into a comparison of the relative swimming abilities of donkeys that he had known.

Before long we finished our Guinness, but the older man still had a full pint, and didn't seem to want to drink alone. He went through each of the young bartenders and tried to get them to pour us a beer after hours. It went something like this:

Wilson: Hey Tomas, what do you say we get these lads another beer?
Bartender 1: No, you know we're closing up for the night.
Wilson: Say Sean, I'm just sitting here for a bit, how'sabout getting these Americans one more pint?
Bartender 2: If you're asking for pints of water I'll be happy to pour 'em.
Wilson: Seamus, I asked Jonathan if it'd be all right if you got these guys a couple drinks. He said yes.
Bartener 3: If the question that you asked and received the answer, "yes" was, "can I go home?" then yes I agree with him. The answer is yes. The door is over there.

After his final defeat he looked at us both with a glimmer, "you'll never get if you don't ask," he said, and took another sip.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

In Bruges

"You're going to Belgium?" One of my more outspoken and discerning food critic friends asked with obvious distaste, "To do what, see how much mayonnaise you can eat?"

I have to admit that I had similar reservations about the food. I had heard about the waffles, and the french fries, and I kept hearing about buffets that offer fifteen different kinds of mayo infusions. Honestly, I was sort of expecting the cuisine to be like  in England (another country that I have never visited but still feel strongly that they have horrible food). Fried everything, extra grease, slathered in mayonnaise, and served in a soggy paper cone. Yet the Belgian tourism office website declares in huge font straight away that this place is a "Foodie's Delight," that fine haute cuisine abounds with the quality of the French and the quantity of the German. Of course I understand that the Belgian tourism office website exists solely to get people to come spend money in Belgium, and that they're likely to have a palpable bias, but I figured that if the food was really as bad as I imagined, that they might just not mention it. So I came in cautiously optimistic, with an open mind.

I come to tell you now that the cuisine of West Flanders is unbelievably good. In your face, haters.

Whether it's braised rabbit in a rich and spicy bearnaise (with a heaping side of fries), mussels steamed in white wine and garlic (with a heaping side of fries), or a chicken, crusted in herbs and roasted to succulence (with a heaping side of fries), it's all magnificent. It seems as though Belgian tourism got it right. It really is haute French cuisine, and plenty of it.

A nice dinner doesn't really come cheap, though, it's easy to spend $30-40 before even ordering a beer. So it's a good thing that the street meat is just as good. A bratwurst is just a few Euro and those waffles we keep hearing about are even less.

I wish now that I'd taken a few photos of the food, but I just can't quite get myself to pull the trigger on that in a restaurant. Maybe next time. I did get a snap of this $7 coffee in Bruges, though:
Worth it? Yes.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Straight up, WWI sucked.

We've been tooling around the country near Roselare for a few days now. Really, ever since we got here. We're getting around, now, to setting out from the womb of R&Breakfast for the cruel, cold, rainy, Belgian coast. I suppose if we had gone five days ago, we would have found sun and heat, but then, the Belgians are a people starved for sun and heat. If we had gone five days ago, then we also would have found crowds. Which terrify me. Even more terrifying than crowds are crowds of people speaking a language you don't understand. And even more terrifying than that are crowds of people speaking a Germanic language that you don't understand. If I thought that there might be crowds of people speaking a Slavic language that I don't understand I simply wouldn't go.

No, it's much better that we find the beach wrapped in the damp embrace of misting rain and drear. I would otherwise find myself reduced to a quaking puddle of tears, self-loathing, and french fries.

These last few days in the Roeselare area have been a little bit of a blur. We made it back to Ieper/Ypres/Yjpr and Passchaendaele in a more timely fashion and made it into the museums which had locked the door in our faces before. We visited a couple of very small breweries, and a very large cookie factory. We rode bikes on some little roads and Tom really liked the light. We went to this rally race. Hollande was ridiculed by Europe and the NYT.

I've come to a couple of conclusions.

Belgium is, by many rights, the land of beer and chocolate (I haven't been in to a chocolatier yet . . .), but beer selection in pubs is actually sort of limited. Beer production seems to be either at a national/international scale, or an incredibly local scale, without much in between. So when you go to a pub, you can get 3-4 of the national brands (think Budweiser, but more difficult to pronounce) and a handful of the local beers. But each bar has, pretty much, the same 8-10 beer selection. It's not the orgy of innumerable tastes that I had anticipated. After a day or two you sort of find something that you like and roll with it.

This beer (available Sateside) warns us not to turn the bottle on its side or pour it into a juice glass.
We dropped in on the Saijsoenbrouwerij Vandewelle for a meeting with the brewer, a tour of the place, and a taste. Unreal. This is Chris Vandewalle:
Simply put, the man loves beer. And it shows. Even though Belgium is a mystical wonderland where beer is a cultural pillar and there is 1 brewery for each 6,500 people, they are susceptible to the same economic forces as the rest of the world. For decades the craft brewer struggled to compete with the scale of the national names (like Stella), but Chris explained to us that there has been a resurgence of awareness for small batch, locally made, seasonally available, organic, humanely raised and harvested, artisan beers in the last several years. Apparently there are hipsters everywhere, only in Belgium they seem to be doing some good.

Chris works four tens throughout the week so that he can afford to take Friday and spend fifteen hours brewing in his home operation. He only makes 4,000 liters a year for sale, "and more on weekends for myself, when I'm getting low."

Chris shows off his grandfather's recipe book

Also in Lo-Reninge we visited a giant cookie factory. All I can really remember from that is the anxiety that I felt when one of the cookies would sneak past all of the vacuum powered cookie sucker arms that moved the finished product from a conveyor belt. It makes me think that there's a Finding Nemo-esque story in there somehwere . . .

Hang in there, little cookie. You are lost but not forgotten.
We also checked out the rally race on the way to the WWI museums. It's big doings around here, and I couldn't help but notice that many of the local drivers seemed . . . inspired. It also turns out that rally racing is way more exciting in a four minute clip on the internet than it is in person. We sort of just stood there with a group of Belgian rednecks (they exist) and listened to Adele on the iPhone in someone's pocket. Every five or ten minutes a fancy and loud car would drive by real fast. Even though you could hear these cars coming from a mile away, and Tom and I were pretty sure that we could cross the street in less than ten minutes, and we promised not to sue if we got smoked by a rally car, the course marshal still made us go all the way around the finish.

Then we spent several hours in the Ieper and Passchaendaele WWI museums. 

WWI sucked.

So we're off now to Bruges and the rainy coast.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Big Timers Only, Small Fries Need Not Inquire

Nico Mattan stood us up. But that's a story for later.

After some breakfast, museuming, and a bit of high intensity napping, we made our way towards Izegem to check out the Izegem Koers pro race. The town has a bit of an American/Montana connection, it's where the Euro Cross Camp is headquartered, and Tom has spent a lot of time there.

This area of Flanders is steeped in cycling heritage and rabid fanhood, and this race in particular has a long tradition of being a local holiday. We were told later that the factories in town close each year on the first Thursday in September so that no one can miss the event. I had heard tales of the drunken uproarious crowds, slinging accolades and jeers from behind riot barricades and bloodshot eyes; of old men, mothers, and children, worn bleary from beer, mayonnaise, and the exhaustion that comes from a whole day's efforts seeped in partisan rage. I couldn't wait to charge into that fray wielding sausage and beer, and immerse myself in Belgian cycling culture.

And yet our arrival set us upon a tepid corps of disinterested lookers on. At the finish line the riders came through to see one lap to go. The chaos and discord that I had so anticipated was in fact a viscous mass of thin lips and puckered faces. The race leader was alone off the front. He had earned five seconds and was resting his forearms on the tops of his handlebars, his face a picture of misery as he time trialed off the front before the tattered remains of a chase group which bore down behind him. It was an ideal of the glory and self flagellation that I think synonymous with the Flandrien, and yet they were met with silence. Muffled conversations continued without pause, a man sitting near me never looked up from his newspaper. As they came through the riders edged to the right side of the road to avoid the wispy plume of cigarette smoke that wafted from the beer garden and onto the course.

Hours later a fan explained to us that while, yes, the race is a local icon, perhaps 100 years old, it is still a local race. "Oh yes. The riders here are professionals, but they are very low level," Glen explained when I asked him about the lackluster fans, "with the Vuelta going on now, all of the big riders are there."

And there it was. These young men had born their flesh and their souls for the amusement of a crowd that wanted celebrity.

But to say that the fans were ungrateful would be misleading. They just didn't seem particularly invested in the results of this race. The entire city was in the grips of a celebration of cycling. An extemporaneous carnival filled the marketplace. The only businesses that were open were the bars, and the recent bout of fine weather ensured that they were empty inside. Instead the streets were flooded with jubilant packs of friends and families.

The Wild Rockies Landscaping European Office was enlisted to assist with the pretty impressive infrastructure that they had in place for a Thursday afternoon race:

And during the podium presentation, as twenty or thirty people looked dumbly on, we were instructed to applaud by a pirate, and 1974 Eddy Merckx supervised.

TomRob sizes up the street meat situation in Izegem.

These are the three person outdoor urinals that were strewn about the city.

"No no, your shoes are definitely more 'Euro' than mine."

And we made it to one of the scavenger hunt sites: De Pekker.

The revelry couldn't last forever, and before it got dark we decided to go. We talked about looking for the Team USA development house in Izegem, we'd heard that it was damaged in a fire (accident or insurance fraud, it's up to you to decide) and wanted to check it out. "The only thing about going to the house," Tom pointed out, "is that I really don't know where it is." And so we rolled back towards Roeselare. Most of the 10k between the towns is along a paved bike path which parallels a shipping canal. At one point, though, at the outskirts of Roeselare is a bar with an artificial beach, which doubles for commuters as a cyclocross sand section.

Outside of the bar is a spa that advertises with its own UNIMOG:
Best spa ever?
In the end we made it back to R&Breakfast just after sunset. "A Belgian sunset," Tom pondered, "I haven't seen many of those. One year when I was in Belgium I only saw the sun twice."

I'm mostly just glad that the finer parts of American culture are making it across the pond.