Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Bruges: Lace, blood and rugs

I have spoken before about the meaninglessness of the term "luck" when applied to the expat experience. But there's (at least) one thing I'm happy to put my hand up and say I've been lucky to do, and that's having the chance to visit some of the world's finest art galleries and museums and see the very best artists the world has to offer. From the Hermitage to the Uffizi, the Louvre to Tate Modern, the Kunsthistorisches Museum to the Vatican Museums, and many more - I haven't seen everything, but I've seen a lot.

Due to the vagaries of fortune, it can take a somewhat Herculean (or Pokemonian) effort to see all the masterpieces by any given artist, but between the Arnolfini Portrait and Man in a Turban in the National Gallery in London, The Virgin of Chancellor Rolin in the Louvre, the Ghent Altarpiece in, well, Ghent, to which I have now added the Madonna of Canon van der Paele in the Groeningen Museum in Bruges, I think I can safely say I've seen all the superstar works by Jan van Eyck.

Van Eyck is a helpful name to add to your memory banks for the next time someone challenges you to name three famous Belgians (I also suggest Hergé, Magritte, Jacky Ickx and Jacques Brel). According to Wikipedia, he was only "probably" born in what is now Belgium, but he was definitely active in Bruges in the first half of the 15th century, and his paintings charmingly invoke the fashions in clothing and furnishings that he would have encountered in his daily life. Long credited with inventing oil paint, it's now thought that he was merely superlatively skilled and innovative in its use.

That much is still glaringly obvious today. I don't know how long I stood staring at the Madonna of Canon van der Paele, but there is so much detail and such skill in rendering the different textures displayed in the painting and perfect perspective, that you could drink it in for hours on end. 

It may sound silly, but I was captivated especially by a humble rug. Even looking at my photograph of this painting of a rug blows me away. I can't even comprehend how he tricks your brain into believing that the rug is lying on top of a flight of steps, or how he distinguishes the texture of the rug from the thick, stiff folds of the Virgin's gown, the tiled floor or the rich brocade on the bishop's robes. If you look carefully, you can even see that he's painted in "cracks" on the fold line of the rug over the top step. It's not necessarily my favourite painting of all time (nominees for that post would include Magritte's Empire of Light and Kandinsky's Im Blau - which can often be spotted in photos taken in my living room), but it is one of the most astonishing in terms of its technical virtuosity.

As you may have gathered by now, one of the things I did in Bruges was visit an art gallery - namely, the Groeninge Museum. It's a relatively small collection, but this allows you to really pay attention to its fine collection of Northern Renaissance art (I took much less time on the post-Renaissance stuff). Another particular highlight was Bosch's Last Judgement - which is stylistically about as far away from van Eyck as you can get, with its bizarre, nightmarish depictions of hell.

Loved the guy pulling a face at Mary in this crucifixion scene
Goodness, is that a man or a satyr? Renaissance leggings certainly leave nothing to the imagination, at any rate
I'm not sure whether it comes across in the photo, but when I walked in the room, I literally thought that this was a stuffed bird in a box frame - probably the best trompe l'oeil effect I've seen
I got to the museum so early that I was able to make it out in time to get to the Basilica of the Holy Blood while the relic was on display, which happens at 11 am each day. I sat for quite a while looking at the lovely chapel and observing (from a distance) as a queue of people took turns to go up to the altar to kneel before the relic and pray, while an exhortation to do just that (and to donate money) played on a loop in five different languages. Not particularly conducive to prayerful contemplation, I would have thought. According to legend, the phial containing Christ's blood was brought back from the Holy Land to Bruges by Thierry of Alsace in 1150, however, more recent research has concluded that it was probably filched during the Sack of Constantinople in 1204. An impressive pedigree either way.

Basilica of the Holy Blood (Source: Wikipedia)
Sticking with the holy theme, in the afternoon I visited the Jerusalem church, a 15th century church that, like the Temple Church in London, was supposedly modelled off the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (although funnily enough, they look completely different) - rhis one doesn't even have a round bit, as far as I can tell. It is still privately-owned (and thus you have to pay to get in), apparently by the descendants of the original owners, who are buried in a fancy tomb in the middle of the church, which is kinda cool.

For the price of entry to the Jerusalem church, you also get to see the next-door "Lace Museum". This consists of a few rooms with different styles of handmade lace (which are, admittedly, quite impressive) and a few explanations about how lace is made and the different techniques or patterns which can be used. None of these explanations actually left me any the wiser about how lace is made, except that I possibly had a vague idea that it involved poking holes in a piece of cloth: this is not true. I was also informed that there were lace-making demonstrations from 2 pm onwards. By the time I had thoroughly exhausted the delights of the Lace Museum, it was still only about 1.57, but I thought I'd go into the demonstration room anyway. This consisted of an old lady who was apparently getting a lesson on how to make lace, and her instructor. After a brief (although friendly) hello, they both ignored me. All conversation was in Dutch, and the actual mechanism by which shuffling spools of thread around needles stuck into a piece of card resulted in lace still remain a mystery to me. I probably lasted until about 2.03 before the sensation of awkwardly hovering at the shoulder of an old Belgian woman got too much for me. Perhaps if I'd waited a bit longer, or perhaps if it was summer and the place was packed with tourists, there would have been more of a real "demonstration", but as it was, I pretty much felt both the church and the museum could have safely been skipped.

So that was that, other than the fact that the sun came out and I took photos on the way back to the hostel which didn't actually get transferred off my camera the first time (thus I didn't put any of them up on the last post). That seems to happen with annoying regularity - I quite often realise, "hmm, I'm sure I took more photos than that", but I wonder how often I've wiped my memory card with dozens of unseen photos on it. As everything's prettier with a blue sky behind it, here are some snaps of Bruges in living colour:

Markt square

Pretty church on the way to the train station
The back of the Church of Our Lady

The scenery on the train journey back to Brussels had a real Christmas-card feel to it - all flat, snow-covered fields with the odd church spire peeping through
(PS I figured out for the first time that you can move images next to each other with the mouse. However, I clearly was not 100% successful at getting them to behave exactly as I wanted them to - and can't be bothered fiddling about with the HTML.)

Friday, February 22, 2013

And the award for least creative blogpost title goes to...

In Bruges!

And indeed I was in Bruges about a month ago - and when I got back home I watched the movie In Bruges, which is pretty good, although I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that since even I had heard good things about it and I manage to watch about one film a year. This year, I've already smashed my average by watching In Bruges and Django Unchained, so I'm probably done until 2014. It was definitely extra fun seeing the places I'd been to just days before in a movie though (this is more thrilling for those of us who grew up far from the bright lights of New York, Paris or LA).

I've wanted to go to Bruges for ages (before the movie even). I lived for five months in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France, literally half an hour away from the Belgian border, but while I got to go to Belgium about once a week on average (for work), the fact that I was working up to 16 hours a day, 6 days a week and the difficulties of making the public transport schedules work for me meant that I never made it to Bruges despite being relatively near by.

So when I had to go to Brussels, I knew I had to take the opportunity for a quick trip to Bruges. Since my train tickets (to Brussels and back) were on the IIO dime, I didn't want to take the piss by staying too long after the interview, so I only had from early evening on Wednesday to mid-afternoon Thursday to see the city. As with Bologna, I feel there are definitely more things I would have liked to have seen and done if I had more time, such as going up the tower in the Grot Markt or seeing the collection of Memling paintings in one of the museums, but it was great just to have the chance to see the place at all really.

I was expecting a very chocolate-box, fairy-tale feeling as I set out to explore the city on the first evening - I love the Middle Ages, and Bruges is meant to be one of the best-preserved medieval cities in the world. At first though, for whatever reason, I wasn't really feeling that magic. Maybe it seemed too touristified, despite the fact that it was very cold and snowy and picturesque and definitely not the high season. However, I wandered into a deserted snow-covered courtyard outside the Archaeological Museum and a carillon of bells (is that a tautology?) from the nearby Belfry started playing and it did feel a bit like a magical movie moment.

More next time on the specific sights of Bruges, first here's some photos from around the city:

The aforementioned Archaeological Museum at night

Statue on a bridge with the Church of Our Lady behind

The Basilica of the Holy Blood

Judgey bear (?) knows what you did

The Burg square

Town hall in the Burg square

Dude in the canal! He seemed to be in there deliberately to break up the ice, but damn, surely there's a better way! Or at least you put on a hat or something!

At least ice kitteh has her fur to keep her warm

The 122 metre-high spire of the Church of Our Lady

Frozen canal

Frozen canal with a view of the Church of Our Lady

If there's one thing they love in Bruges, it's light pollution

The Grote Markt

Me in front of the Belfry

A snowy square with that omnipresent Church of the Lady behind

Pavilion near the Groeningemuseum

Snowy statue near the Archaeological Museum

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Interview at the IIO and a brief look around Brussels

Decided I had better blog the rest of my Brussels trip, because if I hear back that I didn't get the job, I won't want to do it! Obviously, between the four hours of tests, one hour panel interview, travelling about, preparation etc., I didn't really end up with a lot of time to see the city. I have been before, and I would have really liked to go back to the art museum, since I remember it fondly, but there didn't end up being enough time. I was also gutted that they opened up a new museum on the history of the book since my last trip, but when I visited it was closed just for the afternoon to change the displays :( This only gets done once every three months, but typically it was just at the only free moment I had to pop in.

Something I did make time for: eating chocolate and reading a book while soaking in the jacuzzi tub in my hotel room. Oh yes! I would have liked to add "drinking a glass of wine" to that mix, but I was being very well-behaved. I do love a good bath, even if the jets on this one were out of control - not that they were all that hard, but they created an almighty splash all over the bathroom! Oh well! It was, in fact, hard to leave my posh "luxury suite" in a chic but quiet central Brussels neighbourhood. I'm not accustomed to travelling in luxury (my next stop was a dingy dorm room in Bruges), but the IIO were picking up the tab :D

I also made it down to the Grande Place three times - not hard, since it was close by and it is just stunningly beautiful. My night photos didn't come out very well, but I was lucky to be able to swing by to take some snaps in the some late-afternoon sunshine after the test day. The city in general looked very nice with the snow, especially when it was sunny, although it was quite treacherous to walk on the icy pavements.

As for the interview, it was pretty much your standard 5-person panel affair. I felt like I talked a bit too much and said things I didn't mean to, especially about my last job (I didn't slag anyone off or anything like that, but I didn't mean to say anything about how we all got let go, and it just came out somehow). I was glad that I'd studied up on the history of the IIO and so forth, as they did ask, and I was also able to slip in a couple of questions of my own which showed I'd done my homework. I just wish people would actually ask about your skills and why you'd be good for the job instead of all of those "what would you do if this happened" or "tell me a time when you had this problem", because no matter how many interview guides I read or times I practice, I seem to either get stuck for an answer or feel I'm coming across as insincere, or say something I didn't mean to. I suppose from their point of view that's the idea, but it is frustrating.

So anyway, I suppose it was pretty average across the two days, apart from the good result on the French test, so I don't really have high hopes, especially since a couple of the candidates already had some sort of IIO connections. Still, it was a nice free trip and an interesting experience, and as I said last time, I think I did well to get down to the final 5. I got an email from another Brussels-based international organisation recently, saying that it would take them longer to draw up a shortlist because they got almost 300 applications. The IIO is way bigger, more important, and better-known than that place, so I can only imagine they got hundreds of applicants too!

This creeps me out, because I could have sworn this was a real woman, but she seems to have morphed into a lace-making soul-sucking demon mannequin while I wasn't watching

The very beautiful Grande Place - third time was the charm for photos with blue skies

Staute of King Somebody (I think). Informative stuff, as usual

My cushy hotel room

An amusing chip shop sign
I actually took this photo of the Mannekin Pis on my last trip to Brussels in 2007. This time, he was just in boring undressed mode
A pretty shopping arcade near the Grande Place

The pretty Notre Dame du Sablon church, as viewed from my hotel room windows