shopping

pluie à rotterdam

Sometimes you go on vacation for so long it becomes very regular, like home. You grocery shop at your regular store, you work, you go out sometimes with friends. So sometimes you need a vacation.. from your vacation. The nice thing about being in Europe is the ability to hop a train for a modest fare and end up two countries over, two hours later. So it is with the Netherlands, my most cherished vacation spot, a place a few years ago I thought I would never go and now have gone twice.

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Gare du Nord

It calls my name, equally nice in the fall as it is in early summer. The clean air North Sea air breezes through town as the easy going locals zip by on bicycles usually with a partner hitching a ride sidesaddle on the back. Many a kind and smiling face greeting me around town, the gentle tune of the melodic Hague church bells like a pleasant memory floating through the air to greet me through the patches of ever-drizzling rain. I don’t think it stopped raining the whole weekend, though my spirits couldn’t be dampened. We hopped over just for the weekend so say hello again, snack on street food and acquaint ourselves with the newly re-opened Mauritshuis museum in den Haag.

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Den Haag Centraal

I was tempted to see the collection last year as it toured while the museum was under renovation. The closest stop was New York and it was a very tempting 12 hours away, though I’m glad I didn’t because getting to see the works in the new space was a real treat. The Royal collection is small, compared to the massive retrospective department-stores-of-museums in Paris, and is housed in a 17th century residence, now owned by the government of the Netherlands. The museum houses a stellar collection of paintings, mostly Dutch Golden Age, including some very famous favourites such as Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson and Fabritius’ Goldfinch.

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Het meisje met de parel (Vermeer) 1665

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The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (Rembrandt) 1632

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The Goldfinch, aka “puttertje” (Fabritius) 1654

The museum was absolutely packed, especially with snooty art types like me who refrain from snapping selfies and linger in front of works contemplatively scratching their chins. They were also all above a certain age.. I won’t say which. The only way in which the flighty consumer types that normally frequent the said massive retrospective department-stores-of-museums in Paris are superior, is that you can bet that they won’t spend more than 2.6 seconds in front of a painting, so if you want a look, you just have to wait around for your turn. With snooty art types this could mean waiting for a very long time. That’s okay though because there were a number of truly excellent works that I could just stand in front of all day.. well at least until my legs fall asleep.

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Vanitas still life (Claesz) 1630

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Old Woman and Boy with candles (Rubens) 1617

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The Messenger, aka “Unwelcome News” (ter Borch) 1666

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Wooded landscape with cottages (Hobbema), 1665

There were a number of works which I have never seen before, and it’s always nice to make new friends and be surprised. I’m afraid my SO is rapidly becoming my artist’s assistant, helpfully scribbling down titles and observations for later digestion. My notebook came home full of Vermeer, Rembrandt, Claesz, Jordaens, Leyster, Rubens, Steen, Hals, as well as some new pals such as Beuckelaer, van der Weyden, van Aelst, ter Borch, de Vlieger, and Hobbema.

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Spruistraat

Retiring from the Museum we shopped around the slick cobbled pedestrian streets of den Haag, checking out the celebrations leading up to St. Nicholas’ day on Dec 5th, featuring Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) and his racially inappropriate sidekick Zwarte Piet. Zwarte Piet’s origins lie somewhere between a liberated Ethiopian slave to Moorish origins, to the more modern preference of his helpful little face blackened with soot from climbing down chimneys. Regardless local folks seem to like dressing up in Victorian garb and blackface playing carnival music and tossing candy out to the little kids.We followed this parade from a distance, trying to figure out what was going on until we stopped for nieuwe haring and the folks behind the counter explained the tradition to us.

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Similar to traditions back home, children leave shoes by the fireplace on St. Nicholas’ eve in hopes of waking in the morning to find a treat inside in exchange for good behaviour. Though if you’re naughty you don’t get a lump of coal you get beaten with a switch by Zwarte Piet. The children usually leave out a carrot or some hay with a thoughtful bowl of water for Sinterklaas’ horse, a cup of coffee for Sinterklaas and a beer for Zwarte Piet. Despite the fact that traditionally Sinterklaas was accompanied by just one Zwarte Piet we have Canadians to thank for throwing a Sinterklaas party after the liberation of the Netherlands, encouraging a whole slew of Pieten to roam the streets.

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Lola Bikes and Café

We departed our rented flat early on Sunday, forgoing a cold shower as the hot water heater was inoperable, and strolled up to the so called best coffee in the Netherlands. It also doubles as a serious bicycle store because, hey, you can pursue two passions at once. SO had a good time checking out all the bikes and gear, pointing out the superior composition of the metal in particular bike gears or somesuch. I decided I liked the pink one for.. reasons. The coffee was truly excellent and we happily lingered way longer than intended. Back on the train we traveled to nearby Rotterdam to check out the town and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.

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rotterdam at night

Rotterdam has a very different feel, the majority of the buildings very contemporary with lots of skyscrapers. A huge amount of old Rotterdam was destroyed by bombing and subsequently rebuilt in modern fashion. The city has much less warmth and character somehow, probably a figment of my imagination as I’m known to be very sensitive and have a tendency to personify and anthropomorphise.

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The “little” Tower of Babel” (Bruegel (the Elder)) 1563

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The Wayfarer (Bosch) 1500.. the only museum to house Bosch in all the Netherlands

Boijmans is a huge museum with a very diverse collection, ranging from medieval to contemporary and every facet in between. It has a lovely selection of Bosch and Bruegel, including the famous “little” tower of Babel and the Wayfarer who is said to be choosing between debauchery and virtue. Some other favourites of mine include van Dalem, Koninck, Havicksz, and Daubigny.

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 landscape with dawn of civilization (van Dalem) 1570

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An extensive landscape, with a river, (Koninck) 1664

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The cascade of Mahoura, Cauterets (Daubigny) 1873

The museum also houses a very nice selection of French Impressionist works including featuring a nice but unusual MonetMaison du Pêcheur” featuring a very nice seascape with cabin on a very uncomfortable angle lending the impression you are in some danger of leaning too far into it. The collection also houses some very nice works by Sisley, who is rapidly becoming a favourite of mine.

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la Maison du Pêcheur, Varengeville (Monet) 1882

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Le moulin à eau Provencher à Moret (Sisley) 1883

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Un verger au printemps (Sisley) 1881

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Moonlit city square in Cherbourg, (Sidaner) 1934

A bit father down in the collection there is a really nice Sidaner, an intimist painter whose “moonlit city square” is expertly illuminated, and its quiet volumes of night shades a rare achievement in my opinion. Apart from the very broad range of styles and endeavours there is also a lovey collection of very modest floral still lives which are uncomplicated, delicate, and very lovely.  

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Peonies (Fantin-Latour) 1882

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Polder with mills near Overschie (Gabriël) 1898

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Cineraria (van Gogh) 1885

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In the vegetable garden (Mauve) 1887

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Study of the Trunk of an Old Tree, (de Gheyn II) 1600-1610

If you decide to go museum hopping don’t forget that art feeds the brain and the heart, but not the stomach so around 3:00 we were losing steam and remembered that humans require nourishment to walk around for hours and hours and had to resort to overpriced museum café food. Oh well. After exhausting the collection, and the soles of our shoes, we wandered around Rotterdam taking in the weird architecture and public sculptures before picking a restaurant with maximum comfort and slow service for some r&r in the form of Phở

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glace aux pétals de rose

We are far enough in to our vacation that the ending is coming in sight and we’ve started counting down instead of up. Missing holidays and events back home, missing our family and friends, missing our pets, our language and our lifestyle, we’ve begun to respect the time we have left in France and look forward to home. We currently have a “to-do” list of things we want to see and do and considering SO works all week we only have a few weekends left to accomplish these. I have the unique opportunity to be able to come and go and check stuff out around town without obligations but it’s tricky to strike a balance between spending vacation blogging in your apartment and seeing all the sights without your partner. I’ve taken to checking out small or so-so things, (or places I would uniquely go nuts for) during the week and leaving the show stoppers for the weekend.

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This includes, of course, shopping. In the plethora of research I did before coming to France, I heard that the French dress very smart and jeans and sneakers are unheard of. This is not true. It’s probably an outdated statement because they fashion sense here is very similar to back home. This time of year people all around this latitude bust out their scarves for fall. As far as I can tell the French wear scarves all year. If it’s too hot they wear amazing Hermès silk scarves and if it gets cold you would be hard pressed to find someone without a pashmina, even the guys. The gentlemen here seem less concerned about preserving a “manly” attire opting for fashionable scarves, jewelry, shoes and purses. I don’t know what they’re called. Murses? Regardless they are very popular, especially the small, flat ones that go across the shoulder and sit against the body. These are super common due to the pickpocket problem.

Women’s style is almost indistinguishable from back home until you go shopping. The whole low waist thing never happened here and all the pants, skirts, panties and shorts all are what I would call “high waisted”. You will also find a greater amount of slacks to jean material here. I don’t think of myself of a “tall” lady, I’ve never shopped in a special section because I’m a pretty average 5′ 8”, but I have to buy special pants here or I end up with floods. I dunno if people are just shorter on average here or something but back home pants are always long enough. That’s ok I just have to shop in the “tall” section.

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There is also the stereotype of the French having an aversion to bathing. SO’s supervisor informs me that 20 years ago you would see people around town with really greasy hair but the whole shampoo trend seems to have caught on. Though, women seem less concerned with their coif then back home, and the men moreso. Recently a lot of men have adopted the super spicy pompadour-fade hairstyle, which you probably saw a lot of if you caught the world cup this year. You won’t find $50 blow dry bars here, just average small stylist shops and nice cuts without all the straightening and highlights you find back home. I’ve heard foiled hair referred to as bacon strips.

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Hnnnngg  Photo: AP

French ladies seem to go for a more au naturel hairdo, embracing their hair in all its frizzy curly wonderfulness. The most attractive thing is the confidence. Back home everyone is so worried about their appearance they go to such lengths to preserve a perfect look, so me being the schlub that I am I often feel embarrassed when I see gorgeous primped ladies walking around. The bad news is everybody feels that way, primped or not. I’ve ran across the street enough times to buy bread without a bra, no makeup and my crazy unbrushed hair thrown up in a bun.. and nobody batted an eye.

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Photo : damejuliette.com

Anyway, getting back to excursions, I took a trip out to Chantilly to see the Fra Angelico exhibition they have going on. Chantilly is about 45 minutes to the north. It’s a nice, small town with lots of forest to stroll through. Chantilly is famous for it’s horse racing and the Château de Chantilly which houses the Musée Condé (one of the oldest art collections in France). Of course you may also know Chantilly lace or Chantilly cream. The latter is not exactly ditinguishable from regular “whipped cream” though some think the addition of sugar and/or delicate flavours like orange flower water is the distinction. It’s very light, not like that waxy stuff that comes out of a can. Regardless, it is delicious. I went to Dame Juliette to snack on a crepe topped with raspberry-violet jam, rose-petal ice cream and chantilly cream. Omg the best thing I’ve eaten in I dunno how long. Seriously if your mother ever told you not to shove flowers in your mouth she’s wrong. Well, flowers that have been whipped and frozen with cream and sugar. Also, not poisonous flowers.

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“Saint Benoit en extase au désert” (Musée Condé),
“Saint Romuald interdit l’entrée du couvent des Camaldules a lEmpereur
Otton III, coupable d’adultère” (Koninkijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten),
“La conversion de saint Augustin” (Musée Thomas Henry),
“Scènes de la Thébaide” (Collection particulière), “Saint Grégoire le Grand
(ou Célestin V) refuse la tiare pontificale” (Philadelphia Museum of Art).

(Fra Angelico) 1395 – 1455

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“Cinq anges dansant devant le soleil” (Giovanni di Paolo) 1405-1480

The museum itself has a collection of Fra Angelico works as well as some contemporaries such as Botticelli and Raphaël. The highlight was the curator’s brilliant deduction of how a number of pieces from various different collections are actually fragments of a larger work, so they managed to get these works on loan and rearranged them. It’s really astonishing. They also had a number of works that formed the panels of a chest which for hundreds of years had been separated. Not only this but they had a number of works from the permanent collection of Musée Condé that were of the highest calibre from that era I’ve seen yet. Indeed, the Musée Condé itself has a great amount of very old and/or very famous works, which shown in an intimate interior setting is a refreshing change to the pristine and echoing halls of contemporary galleries. The Château’s interior is unsterilized with amazing patterned parquet floors, marble topped furniture, elegant wainscoting, high ceilings, gleaming objet d’art and shimmering chandeliers.

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In preparation of my return to Paris I had purchased a return RER ticket thinking that if the RER goes there it must go back the same way. I’m not sure if this is so because all the trains seemed to be TER or IC, which I’m not sure the ticket is no good for. The train station was under construction and consequently there was no one to ask for help. Afraid of becoming stranded but also not wanting to spend another ten euros on a duplicate ticket, I eventually decided to just get on a TER and hope that my ticket was valid, playing the ignorant tourist if I had to. Instead of delving into my notebook I spent my travel time nervously fiddling with the ticket in my pocket, my eyes darting around the train for ticket control. The fellow next to me asked me something in French that I didn’t understand but upon spotting the control officer at the back of the car he shiftily changed seats looking as guilty as I did. Relax, I thought. You paid a fare it’s not like you’re stealing. Even still I left the car for one not containing ticket control to join the group of shifty freighthoppers, getting off at Gare de Nord before anyone was wise.

mes pieds perdus

Well, they can’t all be good ones. The difficulty with being new in town is trying to get your bearings.. and when you take the subway, it eliminates any orientation you’ve gained, and when you emerge from the tunnels.. well your guess is as good as mine as to which way to go. I’d like to think of myself as a person with a good sense of direction. Given some baseline I can find my way without a problem. This difficulty arrises when I cannot for the life of me figure out which way is north. Sure, I can figure out what street I’m on but if I pick the wrong direction to embark in, look out! map2I had intended on taking the métro as far as Arts et Métiers and taking a bit of a walk to get to the nearby mall. However, I began walking in the wrong direction.. I even went back and checked the map.. until I got to Republique and realized my mistake. So then I got on a vélo to make up some lost time and headed back to boulevard de sébastopol but again, took a right instead of a left. Now, it didn’t take me too long to realize my mistake.. but I was now on a one way street, and had no idea if I was allowed to bike in the opposite direction… and I didn’t want to get off the only street where I kindof knew where I was. So I walked my vélo back a few blocks until I gave up and took some parallel streets which happened to be inundated with pedestrians and open air markets. Stress!

Finally, I got thru it but somehow missed my turn so now I was all the way down to the Louvre. I took a right to drop off my vélo where I knew there was a vélib station but as I approached that stupid little voice in my head said, don’t give up now! At least you know where you are! Just keep going and you’ll find it. I usually like what the little voice tells me, but today she was wrong. I biked up to Rue Étienne Marcel, parked it at a  vélib station and decided to walk the rest. Now, it also helps to know where you’re going. Cause if you mix up the names of the shopping mall and the crazy library, you’re gonna have a bad time. After going thru some crazy security for some reason, I realized this was indeed, not a shopping mall. But I did use their free wireless to try an figure out what the fuck was going on.

So, now I know where the shopping centre is.. and it’s nearby.. but I’m exhausted after spending my day just walking and biking for no good reason. However, when a woman sets her mind to something, you can bet she’ll make it happen. So I pulled up my socks and walked into the nearest thrift store I saw to drop some coin plastic on some new (old) shoes. Next, a new purse (to match the shoes, of course), a new dress cause you never know when you’re going to need something nice to wear out on the town, new slacks, some face towels, espresso cups(because drinking espresso in a big mug is sad), and some new lounge wear, which is really coming in handy right now.

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Just to keep things interesting the Châtelet station from which I departed from the mall has a connection to the line I need to take home, it just requires a small walk. So I stuck my ticket in the machine and began. Now, when I came to the entrance to line 11, there was another ticket gate. What? I already used my ticket to get into this darn place, and it was my last one! I hoped to find a ticket desk or machine but there didn’t seem to be any.. and when I tried to leave, it required a ticket. A ticket to leave? Je suis foutu. Eventually I found an information desk and shamelessly begged for help. Turns out you have to use your ticket twice ; once to get in to the stupid station of horrors and again to enter whichever line you desire. I suppose I would normally have the patience to figure this out but not today. I went home and got straight in the bath with a glass of wine. Yep, it’s  been one of those days.

les étranger souriant

We spent a quiet and short morning together until SO had to catch the train to Marseille. I offered to go to the train station with him to stand on the platform and wave my kerchief at the train as it leaves the station, dramatically. My offer was not accepted. Which is good because I was totally bluffing about riding my bike down there today.

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leaving the house.. why?

Dimanche dans Paris is quiet and slow. Most stores are closed today to allow people the freedom to have a “day of rest” and spend time at home with family. That being said, there are still a number of areas in town which do not comply and are open for a shopping experience extraordinaire! One of these areas is the Marché aux Puces / Saint-ouen, and is said to be Europe’s largest open air antiques and flea market, with over 2500 stalls in different themed marchés, block after block of impromptu flea market stalls along the sidewalk, as well as a large number of people hawking “legal” goods, etc.

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When I ride the métro I’ve taken to writing down a small cheat sheet of directions and station-stops, which is invaluable. I don’t really like standing in front of maps and tourist info things because it makes me look like a target, especially traveling around by myself. This way I can just put on my shades and walk around like I know what I’m doing, and not many people bother me.

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hey, I don’t feel like talking to you now, I am an artist 1

If you’re ever looking for the Marché aux Puces and you’re a bit lost, just look for the hordes of people. Seriously it’s so hard to navigate except for to merge with the stream and let yourself flow along, listening to the variety of languages with french accents or the inverse, checking out table after table of knock off shoes, football jerseys and purses, as we push past the occasional blockage of stationary people waiting at some window for a falafel. After some time I departed the crowds in favour of the less traveled marché of antiquities, spending my time perusing the usual bricabrac; crates of old doorknobs, wooden frames, postcards, lead type, china tea cups, glass vases, leather bags, wooden side tables and mirrors, as well as some unusual things, like doll heads, apothecary jars and unused wine labels.

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I think I might have interrupted the guy in the top corner’s phone call..

I also found a stall that specializes in antique keychains. If it sounds specific, it is. Everything from miniature wine bottles, ads for shops of days past, tiny cars, tiny shoes, tiny folding knives, tiny ice skates, tiny anchors and tiny dogs. I opted for the tiny shoes. I mean, do you know me?
I spent a long time browsing, and I only saw a small portion of the place.. but this is good because it means I can come back and see new things all the time. And also pick up those items I regret not purchasing!

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I managed to find a small asian grocery that was open near my flat and picked up a few things for dinner. Now, leeks slow braised in garlic and white wine sauce, a simple emmental frittata, short grain rice in a creamy mushroom and beef broth, fresh pinto bean salad. I probably made enough food for 4 people, but that’s what I do. Whatever, leftovers are good. And I bet you couldn’t find that meal at a restaurant for the 4.50 euros I paid for it. Also turns out I’m a good enough cook to pull it off with a hotplate. Bam! Ok, enough gloating. Bon appetit!

1 http://youtu.be/MK0ITXBWpHE