Antwerp: Architecture, Beer & Sewers

I will admit that the main reason I was interested in going to Antwerp is because it featured in one episode of the animated version of The Tick (a ridiculous super-hero parody from my early college years). In his nigh-invulnerable state, The Tick smashes up Antwerp while chasing some bad guy and his side-kick (not to mention the Belgian police) laments the loss of such amazing, unique, and historical architecture. It stuck with me, and when I realized that Antwerp was a viable day trip from Brussels, I decided I had to go. When I started searching around for what else I could do in Antwerp besides look at amazing, unique and historical architecture, I discovered a Sewer Tour. Who does that? Me! To the underground!!


Amazing, Unique and Historic Architecture

The architecture in Antwerp is truly stunning but so much of it is hidden by advertising and construction. Plus the streets are so narrow it’s hard to get a full view of the remarkable buildings. Just the train station alone is a stunning work of art.20180712_125014

Given the challenges I was facing with transit and my desire to see more architecture, I decided to take a leisurely walk to my tour starting point. I got to see the market square and famous statue that I’d first seen depicted at the Mini EU.20180712_142303The statue is that of a Roman soldier named Silvius Brabo throwing a giant hand into the distance. The story goes that long ago a giant named Druon Antigoon was charging a toll to those who wished to cross the river. When people couldn’t pay, he would cut off their hand and throw it into the water. Brabo rescued the people by cutting off Antigoon’s hand in turn. Now it’s the most famous statue in the whole city. Europe: Where the history lives!

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I also passed by an enormous cathedral which is another famous Antwerpian landmark, however, unlike every other cathedral I’ve ever been too, this one charged an entry fee of  6€. I don’t know what makes this place cooler than Notre Dame (free to enter), but I also didn’t pay to find out.

Not to mention some of the fun and interesting street art, like this sidewalk these nappers and a life size tiger that was part of the zoo’s promotional materials.

 

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It was a longish walk and I stopped for coffee and a rest on the way. I got in trouble for sitting at the wrong cafe patio. Not big trouble just “you can’t sit here because you bought that coffee from the stand with the same name as us”. If I’d known, I would have bought coffee from them, but really who knew two cafe’s on the same block with the same name didn’t share seating? It reminded me of the waffle shop in Brussels that wouldn’t let patrons use their seating if they ordered from the counter inside instead of from the waitstaff outside. Belgians are really picky about where you sit, but once you have ordered something from the correct place/person then you can sit there as long as you like.

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Finally I made it to the sewer tour, but I was a little early. It took me a while to find a public place to sit and wait. There were plenty of restaurants, but I only had 15-20 minutes. You’d think I could find a bench or something, but I think Belgians hate free chairs the way that Dutch hate free water. In the end I sat on a bench that was half occupied by a street busker with an accordion. Not ideal, but I really needed the rest before another long walking tour since the heat was swelling my feet quite badly.

In the Sewers

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The underground tour was great. They decked us out with boots and coveralls to protect our clothes, gave us sturdy packs to cover our own handbags/etc, and kitted us out with tour tablets that had videos for each stop explaining the history in Dutch with English (and other) subtitles. The guide was dressed more comfortably, but also probably changed at the end of his work day. He spoke English well but as I was the only English speaker on the tour I often had to remind him to translate for me, which he was totally willing to do, he just had to be reminded.

It was basically a tour of Antwerp from below. Very different from other city underground tours, De Riuens are what became canals in other cities like Amsterdam, but in Antwerp Napoleon covered them over because the smell was too awful. The sewage itself runs in pipes alongside the passages, but we still waded through brackish runoff water with compost and rat droppings in it. Good call on the galoshes and coveralls.20180712_153504

 

The tour took us around the main part of downtown Antwerp, and every so often we stopped to watch a video on our tour tablets. It was a great way to get informed about the history and to put into perspective what was going on above us, but it was also a bit difficult to watch the screen AND look around. The Dutch tourists could listen and let their eyes wander, but I had to read subtitles if I wanted the information. Only after the videos were done would the guide then add a few tidbits or answer any questions.

Along the way, between video stops, he would also pause briefly to point out interesting little bits of sewer trivia. My only complaint is that it was a bit fast for my tastes. Not walking too fast, that was almost impossible to do since we had to walk carefully, but not enough stops for photo-ops! I was the only one trying to take photos and look at details.

This is the fungus that grows like fine white hair in the rat poo.

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That is the rare spider that doesn’t live anywhere else in Belgium because the environment in the sewers here is so unique. (the photo is only spiderwebs because the spiders were very very small). These are the rats (couldn’t get a photo of them because they ran away too fast).

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Over there is the part where the church was built it so it looks nicer because they had more money than the civil government.

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This is the part where they built air vents that look like chimneys from the topside because workers were dying from bad air down here.

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Here’s where the locks were lowered so the tunnels could be flooded at high tide rinsing them clean. That’s why the walls sparkle sometimes from the salt water residue/salt crystals.

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Over there is the water overflow so the human waste can stay in the smaller tubes when it rains and the water can gush out the top leaving the heavier materials (human waste) behind. Also here are the wet wipes that don’t dissolve when flushed but accumulate as a kind of really gross felt. Don’t flush wet wipes.

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That’s a secret passage the Jesuits used for who-knows-what in the past but for smuggling provisions and people during the Great War even though they were often arrested by the Germans.

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Over there a stalactite it starting it’s life and in a few hundred years may really amount to something. Those black clouds that churn up with every step we take in the gray opaque water, grateful for having loaner boots, that’s compost. Here is where we used to let the cows out. Here’s where hundreds of thousands died from disease related to unclean water. Here’s how beer saved the water because breweries wanted clear beer.20180712_160139

 

Yeah… Antwerp (and probably a bunch of places) had horrible water quality that caused rampant disease and death, but nobody did anything about it until it was about BEER (or more likely about beer money). Brewers who were fed up with shitty (literally, ew) water messing up their product demanded that the city do something about it. Beer saved clean water.

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Since it was another underground tour, I thought it would be cooler but it turned out to be humid and hot. I felt like I was melting inside my coveralls. Unlike other underground tours where the streets of previous versions of the city were gradually built up around (looking at you Seattle) the De Ruien’s tunnels were never streets. They were canals where everyone dumped all waste until it smelled so bad it had to be covered. It took hundreds of years to go from open sewer canals to a healthy system that keeps the city, the river, and the drinking water clean today.

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Despite the crazy humidity, compost water, and rat droppings, it was an incredible and unique experience that I’m glad to have had.

Antwerp Beer And Street Life

Once the tour was over, I didn’t really need to worry about getting anywhere on time, so I decided to meander slowly back to the train station by a slightly different route to see more stuff. I walked down to the river to see the castle but it was sadly closed for construction.

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On one of my frequent “it’s too hot” breaks, I sat down to try the local beer, De Koninck, and get a plate of fries which is a huge snack or small meal depending on the size of your appetite. I don’t know beer language well, you can see from the pic it’s not pale even though it’s called blonde. The flavor is pleasantly nutty, and not at all bitter or sour. After that I had to try a coconut beer because some guys at the next table ordered it and I was intrigued. That was one of the best beer decisions of my life, right there. Like a piña colada and a delicious beer had a love child. 

There was a lot of busking in Antwerp. In the other cities I’ve encountered begging in droves, but here it was hordes of buskers. A new one every block, sometimes 2-3 in the same block. I especially loved a lady dressed as an oxidized statue who came to life whenever she heard a coin in her bucket. I thought she was a statue when I first saw her, and only when I paused to take a photo did I realize she was a person. She played with some little girls and blew kisses at people who gave her coins before winding down to her starting pose.

I also paused to listen to a young man sing Hallelujah soulfully, but there were more performers than I could have ever imagined outside an actual festival.

The Down Side of Street Life

The unpleasantly unique street life in Antwerp was the randos. I got approached twice by random dudes. While I was walking. Who does that? I mean, that’s not how you have a conversation. It’s weird and creepy. I was walking and suddenly there is a guy walking next to me trying to chat me up.  Ew gross go away. I don’t know if they were building up to a scam or trying to get a date or what… I can’t actually imagine doing that to another human, and I talk to strangers all the time. I have never engaged anyone who is already walking unless a) we are in a tour together, or b) I’m in a great deal of distress and need help pronto.

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These dudes were just chatting me up. I tried to tell them ‘no thanks’ as politely as I could but it took several tries, and what do you do when you’re already walking and they come up and walk with you? How do you walk away? I’m already walking! Dudes, don’t do this shit! It’s bad enough when you come up or of nowhere at a pub or when we’re sitting at a bus stop or park (also hella awkward btw), but to start walking with me made me feel hunted. It’s not “being friendly”. As a person who talks to strangers constantly, as a person who does randomly have conversations with dudes as well as women, I won’t talk to you if you give off creeper vibes and that shit is creepy AF.

Ending on a Positive Note

Once out of range of the creepy dudes, my walk back to the station was much nicer than my walk from the station had been. By that time in the evening ¾ of the shops were closed and all the people were sitting in restaurants instead of crowding the sidewalks. I could see a little bit more of the buildings without feeling like I was going to be run down by pedestrians in a hurry.

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The architecture and street performance isn’t even the end of it, since there’s plenty of beautiful mural art on the sides of the more modern and less interesting buildings.

Lastly, returning to the station cooled off and full of delicious beer and frites, I took a little more time to enjoy the Antwerp train station in all it’s architectural glory. The station is truly a work of art. I wasn’t even sad about missing out on the castle and cathedral after seeing more of that station.img_20180712_224539_138

 


If you want to watch the cartoon that first brought my attention to Antwerp, YouTube has your answer.  “The Tick vs Europe”

 

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Utrecht: History & Music

July 26th, about halfway through the vacation. I was suffering through an unbelievable heat wave in The Hague (Den Haag), Netherlands. I was not enjoying myself. The heat was oppressive and causing me physical illness, and the transit in the Netherlands was without question the most obnoxious of the transit systems I have experienced in my life. However, Utrecht was a happy place that I truly enjoyed and may even brave the Netherlands again to visit. Not only was the city itself cute and bohemian in a “university town” kind of way, the exhibits I went to that day made me take several steps back and re-examine some of my perceptions of human history and development.


The Underground Tour

As an American, I didn’t grow up around places like this. I am sure that there are places in the US that have 2000 years of human occupation, but sadly the original colonizers did a very good job of erasing any traces of it. Perhaps as a result, I am eagerly curious about places on earth where the stories of humans can be traced back and retold over such vast stretches of time. I also love all things underground. The DomUnder was practically begging me to come and visit.

Dom Square in Utrecht boasts 2000 years of human occupation and I decided to go on a little tour of the archaeological dig site. The first stop on the tour was below the main office (where it was blissfully cool) to get some history lessons and watch a film.

They divided us into “English” and “Dutch” language groups. The English group was less than half native speakers, and was comprised mainly of people from other EU countries with a few Asians as well, all of whom were able to follow along in English, but not in Dutch. One more example of why ELF is so important!

The English guide gave us a good timeline overview of the square, walking us through the various stages of construction from Roman frontier fortress to modern day with a series of maps, drawings and photos to help us see the evolution. Then we all huddled together and watched a very dramatic short film about the square with actors in period dress and CG reconstructions of the architecture and the dramatic and destructive storm that reshaped the town.

2000 Years of History

Starting around 50 CE (that’s AD if you’re old), the site began it’s civilized life as a Roman fortress on the outskirts of the Empire. The Rhine river was, at the time, flowing through the area and just here it became shallow enough to cross. To defend the crossing point, a fortress, or castrum, was built.

Traiectum - Wttecht - Utrecht (Atlas van Loon)

Traiectum, the name of this castellum, was built mainly of wood with a stone wall surrounding it. It was burned down during the Revolt of the Batavi in 69-70 CE. The film we watched speculated that there may have been a romance and betrayal involved in the sacking of the fort, and that it was the wife of an officer who buried the gold later found by archaeologists below the lowest layer of burned wood.

Begrenzingskaart castellum Traiectum Utrecht Domplein Within 20 years, the Romans reclaimed it, and maintained power until about 270 CE when the Franks invaded. There isn’t any substantial change to the site for another 400 years, although evidence suggests that it was not abandoned, simply that the castellum was never rebuilt and any structures were temporary. You can still see the outline of where the old walls were built in the modern streets of Utrecht by looking down for some distinctive metal plates.

20180726_185026Around 630, the last of the Merovingians established a small abbey using the stone walls left by the Romans to enclose the grounds.

In 720, a chap named Willibrod who is intensely famous in the Netherlands and unknown everywhere else, established the church of St. Martin which more or less still stands today. He really loved preaching out in the frontier and was not always warmly received, having been driven out violently on at least one well known occasion by pagans who were not at all interested in this new-fangled religion he was peddling. He was canonized after his death.

The Vikings came through Europe between 857-920 in a rash of Church raiding. A lot of wealth was concentrated in churches and they were often poorly defended. St. Martin did not escape. Interestingly, there’s a viking rock on display in the square today, although I’m not sure if it’s from the time of these invasions or from a later time after the Nordic countries had converted to Christianity.

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Around the turn of the millennium, the church was once more destroyed, but this time by a fire. The rebuild was inspired by the Roman round arch style. Shortly after the Emperor built a palace within the walls of the old Roman castellum (yes, where the cathedral is) and there was a bit of state vs church argy-bargy over who had ultimate authority. It seems the Emperor and the Bishop wouldn’t share an entrance from their residences into the cathedral and so two separate entrance halls were built.

In 1253 there was, shock and surprise, another huge fire that destroyed nearly everything (that’s at least 3 by now). During the subsequent reconstruction, the church transformed into a proper French Gothic cathedral completed in 1267 and the famous church tower (see below for more on that) was built in the mid 1300’s.

Dom voor storm (retoucheerd)
Things go along fairly peacefully until 1647 when an enormous and devastating storm swept through the town. My subsequent research says a tornado, but the reconstructions and explanations I experienced that day in Utrecht made it seem much more like a thunder and lightning with extremely high winds kind of storm. Either way, it was so bad that the townsfolk seriously questioned what they had done to incur the wrath of God, because nothing outside the Bible even compared.

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The wind (tornado or otherwise) completely destroyed the nave of the cathedral that connected the tower to the rest of the structure. The nave was not small. You can see from drawings how much of the space it took up, and in heavy stone with Gothic arches, gargoyles and other bits of stone crenelation all over the place. It was flattened. Rubble. The people of Utrecht were devastated and although the city continued to function, no one cleaned up after the storm for 150 years.

NIMH - 2011 - 0518 - Aerial photograph of Utrecht, The Netherlands - 1920 - 1940

Even when cleanup began, it was little more than clearing the rubble and a few halfhearted attempts at restoration. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that there were serious efforts to return the cathedral and tower to their former glory. The nave was never rebuilt and it is that space that is now the main square of Utrecht between the church and tower.

The Dig Site

Armed with this historical perspective, we trooped back upstairs and headed into the main square where a hole opened up to lead us down into the dig site.

20180726_125940Here we were given “interactive flashlights” that we could use not only to see, but also to trigger the audio tour in our headsets. I like headset audio tours much better than trying to listen to a single guide, so I admire the choice, however, this was maybe a little too interactive. We had to find these tiny little RF chips tucked in amid the displays and aim the light at them to trigger the audio file to play. The chips weren’t labeled and there was no way to know if I got them all or missed any since a single display could have 1-3 chips in it. It was a little like playing hidden picture in real life. Here you can see one nestled among some old Roman artillery.

Despite the hunt and peck games, the displays were absolutely fun. There were two more mini movies underground, including one meant to replicate the storm itself, and the rest were pieces of the actual dig sites that had been left for display. There were walls from the original fortress. There were tools and pottery and jewelry from the Romans. There were pieces of clay tiles with cat prints in them, proving cats have been walking on wet paint, wet cement, and wet clay forever.

There were the support pillars of the cathedral, and remnants of the rubble of the catastrophe of the storm. There were even earlier dig crew’s archaeological tools that got left for a few decades. Plus the immortal remains of at least one Bishop (probably).

I could have stayed much longer mulling over the details, but as always, I was the last person trailing behind the tour group and the guides politely reminded me that the tour was over as I was taking photos of the last few displays. Returning to the surface, I had a whole new perspective of the square in which I stood, seeing now in my minds eye the layers and layers of construction and destruction that shaped it for over 2000 years. Will someone stand in Washington DC or New York city in 2000 years and marvel at the capacity for human growth, change and tenacity? I hope so.

Church, Gardens, Tower

20180726_111320Although I had accidentally meandered through the gardens at St. Martin’s between the bus stop and my tour start, once I finished the tour I was eager to have a closer look at both the cathedral and the tower. The tower is the tallest church tower in the Netherlands, and I think the tallest building in Utrecht. It stands 112m tall and if you want to see the view from the top it’s 465 stairs (no lift). I admired it greatly… from the ground.

The cathedral is undeniably French Gothic. It could have been picked up and moved over from France. Beautiful stained glass windows, impossibly high arches, and a great deal of overly grotesque carving including gargoyles, skeletons and dead dudes.

It’s not that I’m tired of looking at cathedrals, but I did reach a point in Europe where one French Gothic cathedral began to look rather like all the rest. It’s interesting because in modern architectural design, international companies like McDonald’s and Starbucks want their stores to all look the same on the inside because they want to establish a brand and also that their customers would feel comfortable with the familiar, even in an unfamiliar city. Now, I’m not suggesting that the Catholic Church is the McDonald’s of the middle ages… no, wait, I am… And since the average human didn’t travel more than 20 miles from home their whole lives back then, the only people this was meant to appeal to would be the ruling and priestly classes, so they can go to church anywhere and it’s always the same. 20180726_110921

The Speelklok Museum

This is a museum dedicated to self playing instruments and music machines that pre-date the gramophone and other recording devices invention and rise to musical dominance. The museum roughly covers the time from 1750-1950, but focuses mainly on the Victorian and Edwardian periods (1840-1910). It opened my eyes to the history of music and music technology in a whole new way and made me completely re-evaluate my ideas of change and progress in the modern world. I couldn’t fit it all into a single post with the rest of Utrecht. If you haven’t already read the whole story, you can follow this link.

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Is That a Theremin or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

My final moments in Utrecht, I stopped into a cafe for a sandwich and a nice iced latte. The Netherlands is not so snooty as France when it comes to putting ice in coffee, and I was grateful for their lack of coffee-purity during the unrelenting heat wave. I was sitting upstairs, trying to imagine a breeze through the open window and taking notes on my phone about the thoughts swirling in my head after my visits to the Underground and the Speelkloks when suddenly I realized that the music I was hearing in the background was a Theremin.

Not everyone would know this strange instrument either by sight or by sound, but due to an odd quirk of my proclivity for learning peculiar information and my ability to involuntarily remember completely useless trivia, I recognized the sound before I even realized I was hearing it. It was as though some part of my brain whispered “theremin”, and my conscious train of thought stopped and said “what?” before registering what my ears were hearing.

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I had only ever heard recordings of the theremin, but I was sure that was what I was hearing and as soon as I realized the sound came from the street, I peered out the window. Lo and behold, on the street below was a middle aged man in a bright blue Hawaiian shirt busking for change with a theremin.

A few minutes later, he was joined by another gentleman who sat down on the ground and pulled a sitar from it’s case and began to tune it. Another instrument not readily recognizable, at least not to those who are not from South Asia. I first learned about it from the Beatles of course, since they became entranced by it’s sound after visiting India. It is also a unique and (outside India) fairly obscure instrument.

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So there I am, staring down at two middle aged hipsters with the most unlikely instrumental duet I have ever heard of, and they’re good. Not like philharmonic good, but the theremin is a HARD instrument and I don’t really think the sitar is a piece of cake, so “good” is a major accomplishment and thousands of hours of practice. And there they are, on the street, playing for coins. Of course I contributed to the growing pile of money in the sitar case (pay your artists!), and if you like what you hear, I even made sure to get the band name so you can support them yourself. They are called Guau! (pronounced “wow”) and they are from Spain. You can get the album here.


For those of you playing the home game, I’m finally finished with final exams and the complex grading math that is the end of semester excel spreadsheet. I’m stuck in Korea until January 9th, when I’ll be embarking on another long trek. I’ve been so busy with work (and art) that the blog has been very slow, so I’m going to do my best to churn out a double handful of posts to leave you with before the next big adventure begins. Hope you enjoyed Utrecht, and as always, thanks for reading. Happy Holidays and Merry New Year!

Miniatures

I have always loved tiny versions of regular things. As a child, I was most fascinated by toys like my tiny working blender where I could make about 2 oz of chocolate milk at a time, my tiny Barbie spoon which I would use to make a dish of ice cream last longer, and a series of miniature fuzzy animals. Living in Japan in 3rd grade may have been the most ridiculous overexposure to the cute and the tiny since I was easily able to get tiny art supplies, tiny erasers shaped like tiny food, and tiny key chains shaped like tiny everything. As an adult, I have stopped acquiring stuff so much, but I cannot help but squee at the sight of well reproduced miniatures. Thus, when I found out that Europe has a proliferation of miniature theme parks, I was captivated. After careful consideration, I chose to visit 3: The Mini-Europe in Brussels, The Madurodam in Den Haag, and the Miniature Wonderland in Hamburg. I was not disappointed.


Mini-Europe, Brussels

The weather this summer was insanely hot, and the northern Europeans are simply not prepared. It cut into my outdoor activities severely, and I almost didn’t make it to this park. Lucky me, there was a single cloudy and cool day during my week in Brussels. It doesn’t make the best photos, but overcast skies certainly make a happier me.

The park is right next to the Atomium a huge statue constructed for the 1958 World’s Fair. I honestly believe that nearly every strange structure in a city can be attributed to this cause, not the least Seattle’s own Space Needle and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. You can go inside. I did not.

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General admission is not too expensive at 15.5€ and it’s so full of amazing things that I felt it well worth the cost. I recommend bringing snacks and drinks since the on-site Cafe is overpriced.

Once inside, there is a winding path through a whirlwind tour of Europe. It is seriously all of Europe. The most famous buildings and historical sights of each country (at least as decided by the Belgians). It’s enormous.

While ogling the array of tiny architectural marvels from a distance, I came across a series of informative signs at the front. They were… interesting. Among other things it gave credit to UK for modern democracy (as an American my response is, “um excuse me?”) and also represented rampant European colonialism as “the spirit of adventure”. I know each culture teaches history in their own way, but… I suppose if the history can’t be accurate, at least the architecture is pretty spot on. (top: mini Brussels, bottom: real Brussels)20180710_14411620180711_111548

Some vignettes were reproductions of old villages, but most were modern familiar and famous sights. At the starting point for each nation, there was a button to push that played what I’m fairly sure were the national anthems. Some exhibits were also animated, many activated by another button. As you can imagine, kids raced along to be the first to push each button.

Because they’re miniature and placed on the ground, most exhibits are at eye level or below. I took some bird’s eye photos, but my favorites are the ones where I was able to get level with the model ground, as though I were standing inside. I used the selfie stick a lot to get better angles, and wished I had a better zoom since many of the amazing details were hard to capture. The three I loved most were Galileo testing his ideas at Pisa, Don Quixote and Sancho in la Mancha, and a tiny blue TARDIS in London.

I was blown away by the level of detail, the cathedrals especially. It’s hard for me to say how accurate they all are. I found the models of places I’ve been before to be a bit lackluster, while I found the ones I haven’t seen in person to be amazing. I visited several of these cities after Brussels, so you can see for yourself how they stack up. (top: mini Copenhagen, bottom: real Copenhagen) 

copenhagen

More than anything, it reminded me of the “bigatures” that were used in the LOTR movies. These models were often gigantic, the size of a sofa or even a car, yet because the originals are multi-story, towering masterpieces, it still counts as “miniature”. (left: mini Maastricht, right: real Maastricht)

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It took me hours to navigate the entire park, and I am ashamed to admit there were one or two countries in the mini-EU I hadn’t heard of before. Overall, it was an amazing visual experience, and a fun photography day since I got to do a lot with experimental angles and effects. I took hundreds of photos, but here are the 50 I think are best.


Madurodam, Den Haag

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The Madurodam is far more focused than the Mini_EU. It is exclusively about the Netherlands, while Mini-EU covers all of Europe.  The attempt at being interactive was really more of a pain than an enhancement. Mini-Europe had a plethora of buttons that played music or activated moving parts. Most of the animations at Madurodam were coin operated so cost extra, and the informative audio clips, while free, required you to scan a card to hear it and see the educational video. I was constantly having to rearrange my camera and sunbrella (umbrella for sun) to dig the card out of my pocket. 

Despite this inconvenience, I did enjoy the miniatures. The quality of the constructions was high, and I liked the fact that there were more scenes of neighborhoods or city blocks rather than just a single monument in isolation. It’s hard for me to speak to the accuracy, and I didn’t recognize as many landmark buildings, since my travels in Holland were somewhat limited. Photography was if anything more fun since I was able to get much closer to the buildings and there were more interesting and active scenes, rather than stark and empty buildings (although both styles have an appeal). The one building I did get to see for real was the Dom Tower at Utrecht (left: mini, right: real life).Utrecht Dom Tower.jpg

One thing that Madurodam had that Mini-EU lacked were the shows. There were several locations where one could go into a small theater and watch a kind of puppet/animation show about some aspect of Dutch history. The shows reminded me of 80’s Disney animatronic entertainment, and some used puffs of air or sprinkles of water to create realism. 

One was about the namesake Maduro, one about the rebellion against the Spanish with William of Orange, and one about the founding of New Amsterdam. The performances were lovely, and I’m grateful that they were all available in English as well as Dutch, but the content left me feeling very uneasy.

George Maduro was a military officer who fought in WWII and eventually died in Dachau. His parents donated the money to start the park as a living memorial to their son. I’m quite sure that the video of his heroics is hyperbolic, but it is the one I mind the least, since it is after all a monument to his memory. Nonetheless, it does seem he was an extraordinary young man, who became a leader at a young age, escaped a German prison, became part of the resistance smuggling Allied troops through Spain, and finally perished in a concentration camp. The presentation was a panoramic movie screen that used a combination of actors in historical dress, photos of historical events, and shadow animation to give a sense of the battles and prison experiences of Maduro’s life.

The Rebellion against the Spanish was part of the 80 Years War, or the War of Dutch Independence. It was a combination of religious rebellion (Catholic vs Protestant) and of course the tangled web of European nobility and the right to rule (collect taxes). The Dutch were tired of being controlled by the Catholic Spanish, and William of Orange provided a central figure to rally around. The presentation was captivating. We entered a war room of the mid 1500, decorated with all appropriate trimmings. We sat at a large table and the video projected a revolutionary leader apprising us of the dire situation, and of the need to go to war for Prince William. We were made in large part to feel like active participants in the planning of the rebellion.

The last performance I visited was the most elaborate. We started off by going in a dark ship’s hold. The space was decorated with ship’s stores and some animals and it swayed slightly to represent the waves at sea. A ship’s captain narrated the journey of the Dutch pilgrims to the Americas, including a small storm with special effects. When the “ride” was over, we emerged into the harbor of New Amsterdam where we stood on the quayside and watched the invasion of the British. Well before the American war for Independence, this battle was fought between the Dutch and English for control of the colony, and the port city later named New York, after the English won. We were encouraged to take up “firelighters” to ignite the cannons before us and try to sink the English ships. Very fun and interactive, but sadly historically inaccurate and loaded down with propaganda.

I didn’t have the best cultural connection with the Dutch. While I found the individual Dutch people I met to be courteous and friendly, the culture as a whole felt to me like one of wealth and entitlement. Madurodam was far from the only place I encountered these attitudes while there. Basically every Dutch written info blurb or tour guide about this country did this at least a little, but the shows at Madurodam were best at putting them in a clear and succinct way that helped me identify my unease.

They’re rich and proud of it, but more they know they got rich with the Dutch East India trading Co. and rampant colonialism and they’re proud of that. Like ‘we are so awesome cause we built better ships than those horrible English and we got billions of euros of equivalent wealth by exploiting “unexplored” regions of the world’. Oh and ‘we invented democracy a 200 years before America when we fought a revolution against the Spanish (for King William) and we are responsible for everything good about New York, which was completely devoid of people (Indigenous People don’t count, right?) when we arrived to build it’.

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I did not know anyone was still bragging about colonial wealth. A lot of people (mostly white and Western) benefit from it, but most of us at least try to acknowledge it was a horrible atrocity. They seriously brag about it here all the time. At Madurodom, it was laid on so thick I felt like I was drowning in it. Holland and I are not destined to be friends until this country gets woke about it’s role in global wealth inequality and gets rid of the saying, “God made Earth, but the Dutch made the Netherlands.”

The miniatures were of excellent quality, and it was a cute park. Despite the colonial superiority complex, I still took a million pictures, which I have winnowed down to the top 50 in this video.


Miniature Wonderland, Hamburg

The miniature museum was astonishing. It is completely different from the other two miniature parks. Both Mini-EU and Madurodom were outdoor parks that focused on reproducing famous architecture in miniature with great detail. Miniature Wonderland is an indoor attraction (climate control!), and focuses on the tradition of model trains. If someone had told me “model trains” I would not have gone, and I would have missed out. I don’t know what most people think of when they hear “model trains” but I think of the train, the tracks and maybe some engineering specs with a side note of mini-landscapes. At Miniature Wonderland, the landscapes the trains travel through are far and away the stars of the show. The trains are fun, but in many ways, merely an added detail. Although, I did see the Hogwarts Express pass by once, and that was a nice touch. I took so many more pictures here than at the other two parks I couldn’t actually narrow it down to 50 photos, so there are 2 videos. Here’s the first one.

Famous places were replicated, but in the style of a model train set, rather than a single building. As a consequence, there were many reproductions of famous landscapes, as well as cities, and towns. There was so much detail not only in the buildings but in the humans! There were thousands and thousands of tiny miniature humans engaging in every activity imaginable. There were passengers in the trains and people inside the buildings. I even found some nude bathers in a secluded lakeside retreat!

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In addition, everything moved and lit up, not only one or two attractions, but nearly everything. Every building and car had working lights. Of course the trains moved, but also ski lifts, and airplanes, and dolphins in the sea! Some were button activated, others on a timer. It was enchanting. Moreover, the lights would change from day to night and different things would be visible. At night, all the buildings lit up and you could see the delicate window dressings, or be a peeping tom and see what people were doing inside. During the day, the landscapes and building exteriors were on display, while the insides of buildings were dark and hidden. 

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The museum spans two floors in a large warehouse building near the water. Although there is a gift shop, and a restaurant, most of that space is dedicated to the models. There’s also a central control area where several employees monitor the trains movements and other activities around the scenes.

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My only complaint is that many of the viewing areas were cul-de-sac, so once you got in to see the point of interest, you were sort of trapped fighting the tide to get back out. Mini-EU had a single path with easy to follow arrows that kept the flow of people moving and avoided clumps or jams. The Wonderland was much harder to move around.

A local woman visiting with her husband noticed I was on my own and took it upon herself to point out the curious and interesting details around the various sets. She would run off and then come back to show me something else, and before she left she made sure that I wouldn’t pass by the Lindtt Chocolate factory which gave out actual pieces of chocolate!

I watched Mt. Vesuvius explode and pour lava made of light down onto a tiny replica of ancient Pompeii.

And we all flocked to the airport whenever a plane was ready for landing or departure.

There was even a miniature miniature park!

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Tickets are sold for an entry time, and you can stay as long as you like afterward (until closing). Early morning and late night tickets are cheaper, and I got a deal on a combo harbor boat tour. I enjoyed the boat trip, but seriously underestimated the amount of time I would want to spend inside the miniature display, and while I was shuffling out as the exhibits were being shut down for the night I felt I had still seen less than half of the stunning hidden delights tucked away in the extraordinary displays. Here’s 50 more of my top photos from the second half of the displays.

Nagoya Castle: Now with 10% more Ninja!

If there is one famous place that exemplifies Nagoya, it is the sprawling grounds of the reconstructed Nagoya Castle. I couldn’t possibly visit Japan’s fourth largest city without spending some time at it’s most famous historical monument! I was hoping to get a sunny day and take some sweeping landscape photos of this majestic structure, but the weather was not on my side. Even without the sun, Nagoya Castle was beautiful, fun and educational to visit. Plus, there were Ninjas!


I woke up Tuesday to the sodden realization that the weather forecast had changed again, and the rain was not going to stop until I was back in Korea. It wasn’t as bad as Monday, however, mostly cloud cover and the occasional sprinkle. I had forgotten my umbrella at the katsu restaurant the night before, but I wasn’t worried since umbrellas are for sale in every subway station and convenience store (right next to a huge steaming pile of foreshadowing).

Golden Bus or Subway?

I looked into the possibility of doing the Golden Tour Bus day pass. The Me-Guru is a kind of hop on hop off bus that runs around the most popular places in Nagoya. You can get a Me-Guru day pass for 500 yen which is great if you are planning to hit up several tourist hot spots in one day. Unfortunately for me, there wasn’t a stop anywhere near my friend’s house, so I was going to have to take the subway at least 2 times (out and back) making the 500 yen ticket less attractive to me. If the Me-Guru isn’t getting you where you want to go, you can also get a city day pass for subways for 740 yen, or subway bus combo for 850 yen.

Nagoya Subway ticket machines

Photo Credit: Nagoya Station.com

The main attraction of the Me-Guru Golden Bus is that it drops you very close to tourist attractions that might otherwise be a hefty walk from the nearest regular bus or subway stop. Atsuta Jingu is very central and easy to access, but the Nagoya Castle and Tokugawa Gardens are rather out of the way. Lucky for me, the Me-Guru bus also offers single ride tickets for 210 yen which you can buy on the bus just like any other city bus. I would recommend the Me-Guru day pass if you happen to be staying anywhere near one of the bus’s stops, however I opted to take the subway (270 yen trip) to Nagoya Castle, then the Me-Guru to Tokugawa (210 yen), and finally the subway again (270 yen) back to my ersatz home base for a grand total of 750 yen.

I mention all this because it’s acutely important to figure out transit in Japan before you go unless you are made of money and time. Since most of us aren’t… Data plans and mobile WiFi hot spots are expensive and not really necessary given the proliferation of free WiFi, but it does mean you can’t to a Google search any time anywhere, you have to find the WiFi first. I like to research my routes over breakfast and take screenshots of the map and directions to reference later when I’m out of WiFi range. So, Tuesday morning, while I was enjoying my “morning service” again, I pulled up a million maps to see where I would go and how far I would have to walk/wait between each one. The public transit options between the Castle and the garden are dreadful. Hence the one stop Me-Guru ride.

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If you don’t plan ahead, you may not know where the next bus stop/subway station you need is (it might not be the one you came out of or the closest one may not go where you want to go). You could find yourself walking farther than you want, which doesn’t sound like much, but we tracked our walking on Sunday and got almost 10 km in one day of aimless tourist meandering. It adds up fast, and while I don’t mind walking for health or enjoyment, I don’t want to waste vacation time and energy walking extra to the bus stop when I could be using it to walk through something cool! Plus, if you suddenly find yourself knackered from unexpected heat, humidity, and ridiculous amounts of walking (this happens to me at least once per vacation), taking a taxi back to your hotel in Japan could cost 50-100$, that’s US dollars, folks. Taxis are EXPENSIVE in Japan. Ubers are not better.

Let Them Eat Gold

From the nearest subway station, the walk into the Castle compound is down a little restaurant corridor that sells everything from Nagoya specialties to the Castle’s very own gold plated ice cream. Yes, gold plated ice cream. It’s not actually very expensive, and it’s highly Instagramable, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy one as I have recently been complaining about the out-of-touch rich people in America eating gold plated tacos while children can’t get fed in school… soooooooo…. no gold ice cream for me.

The ice cream isn’t trying to be Richie Rich, it’s actually meant to imitate the golden tiger-fish that is the symbol of the castle. During my post vacation research phase, I got curious about how they could afford to sell these golden ice creams for 6-9$ a pop, and I discovered that you can buy edible gold sheets for surprisingly cheap. One seller on Amazon is selling 10 sheets for 7$. The gold taco I was upset about? 25,000$… US….At 0.70 per sheet, it may be silly to eat a golden ice cream cone, but it’s not actually Louis XVI levels of decadence and class warfare. Eat the rich.

Fire Bombing Damage

Nagoya Castle is the number one tourist stop in Nagoya and it’s not even finished! Almost everything you see there was destroyed by Americans in WW2 during the fire bombings. A fact the informative signs will not let you forget since everything you read will tell you how the original was destroyed and whether what you’re looking at is a transplant or a reconstruction.

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Traveling around Asia, you inevitably see signs like this because nearly every temple, castle and historical site has been sacked during one war or another. In China and Korea, you find things that were destroyed by the Japanese. In Japan, you find things that were destroyed by the Americans.

The castle and grounds were still heavily under construction during my visit, but I’m told with some degree of excitement by the locals that the reconstruction should be finished this (2018) summer.

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Hommaru Palace

The first sight that greeted me walking in the gate was the tower of Hommaru Palace. The tower is done in a similar style to the main castle, but is much smaller. Once you get around the corner and over the moat, there is a beautiful brand new palace. According to the literature I was given to take home, the Nagoya Castle was declared a National Treasure back in 1930, but sadly destroyed in the 1945 air raids… ok they don’t call out America by name, but we all know. The palace compound has been undergoing reconstruction on and off since 1959, but the Hommaru palace reconstruction only started in 2009!20180508_134013

I am not an architecture buff, but I do enjoy a beautiful building. I especially appreciate that Nagoyans decided to use all traditional materials and craft techniques to remake the structure. It doesn’t just look like the original, it preserves the artistry and history of Japanese culture — not only the woodwork, but also the fittings, metalwork, and paintings. There was an intense research project designed to microscopically and chemically analyze the original scraps that survived the fire bombing (have we mentioned that recently, because Nagoya Castle does not want you to forget) so that the paintings could be replicated as authentically as possible.

Despite the chronic reminders of our history of conflict, the restoration process is fairly interesting. If you want to see more details, they’ve got a lovely website.

As I approached the palace proper, there was a group of Japanese businessmen having a chat in front of a very photogenic area. However, my faith in Japanese politeness was rewarded. As soon as one noticed me holding my camera (phone) nearby, they gestured to the others to move out of the way and we all smiled and bowed to each other before I went on to take the photo. So much politeness!

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Following the path, I noticed an area where a few other visitors were lining up and entering the building so I paused to check it out. The staff were sooooo excited to share with me. They showed me a little video of how to tour the building correctly (no touching, no flash photos, etc) and explained the character in costume stopping all the bad behavior on screen was the father of the famous king who had ruled from this palace and a famous general.

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I was asked to wear my backpack on my front to avoid bumping anything, and all of us were asked to remove our shoes before going inside. Slippers were available, of course, and there were free shoe lockers as well. For an extra 100yen, an audio tour of the palace was availble in several languages. I thought about getting the English one, but it was taking the staff 10+ minutes to set up the couple at the front of the line, and I wasn’t second in line. I decided to risk moving on less informed.

The palace itself is bright and open. Although the day was cloudy, the inside of the palace somehow still managed to feel sunny with the warm wood halls, paper windows, and gold accents. Drifting sock footed through the hallways, I felt a sense of what visiting the royal palace might be like. Everything was hushed and clean. The halls were made of the same pale wood on all 4 sides creating an effect of being inside a tree. Every few meters, the interior hall wall would open up into an opulent room. The 3 visible walls inside each room were covered with the ornate and painstaking replicas of the Edo period paintings.

In practice, each of the rooms would have had a specific ceremonially significant purpose. A room for receiving guests of a certain social standing or another. A room for dining, one for tea, one for drinking sake and listening to music. One room had a fire pit built gracefully into the floor and a hidden vent in the ceiling to carry the smoke of roasting meat and fish up and out. The low wooden bars are just to keep people from walking into it, not an actual part of the function. Indoor fire pit is now added to my list of things I want in my imaginary dream house of the future.

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The palace doesn’t take long to explore and it’s included in the park entry fee. I highly recommend a walk through. On my way out, I ran into the very helpful staffer again. It turns out she had lived in America a while ago and was happy to practice English with me (although I don’t think she really needed “practice”) She told me some more about the restoration process and said I really needed to come back after the construction was complete to see it at it’s best. It made me happy that the people working there take so much pride and interest in the history and culture of the site. Enthusiasm is highly contagious and just talking with her made me more excited to be there.

Surprise! Ninjas!

Just after leaving Hommaru, the path turns a slight corner and suddenly there’s the first real view of the Castle proper. This was the real moment I was sad about the weather. Nagoya Castle is elevated, and huge, so any photo will have plenty of sky in the background. My cloudy, rainy day resulted in a very plain light gray sky instead of a fluffy cloud filled azure backdrop. Is it cheating to use filters?

Did I mention there are ambulatory ninja on the castle grounds? It’s part of a cultural and historical show. According to the ninja website, two words I never thought I would string together in a non-hyperbolic fashion, there are performances every weekend, but weekdays are listed as “hospitality”, a kind of meet and greet.  I was there on a Tuesday, so I only met the two posing for photos and promoting their future shows.

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No Nagoya Castle for Me

Sadly, the castle was closed for the finishing touches of construction, so I couldn’t go inside, but I’ve heard there’s an excellent view from the top. Looking at other people’s photos online, it seems the decoration style is very similar to that of Hommaru palace. The only truly distinctive thing I missed out on seems to be the huge Shachihoko (the tiger fish) that you can sit on and pose with, and the tall geometric stairwell. Next time.

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photo credit: Matcha Magazine

Since the castle proper and some of the other areas were closed off for construction, I was encouraged to wander a little off the beaten path. In addition to stopping for teeny tiny flowers which earned me some very strange looks. (Why is she looking at the grass when the castle is right there?) I also wandered off into a little forest grove filled with large, semi-flat stones. It was not cordoned off, but also not really connected to the main walkway either. After some assistance from the Google oracle, it seems I discovered a stone tomb of unique historical properties.

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I’m still unclear if it’s an original or a replica given the whole bombing debacle, and I don’t know why it was over there all by itself in an extremely unmaintained state in the middle of what were otherwise meticulously maintained grounds. The only informative sign was in Japanese and it mostly focused on the description of the architectural style, geography and time period with no mention as to its context near the castle. Still, it was pretty, and from inside the trees, I got some fun new perspective angles on the castle itself that don’t look identical to every other tourist shot on the web, so yay!

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A large chunk of the grounds were completely blocked off during my visit. I found a few more interesting goodies like ancient gates and the working tea house where you can stop and have a traditional cup of matcha green tea and a sweet. Of course the souvenir shop would never be closed for construction, but I found the gardens to be a bit lackluster, as though they had not been tended to yet this year, so even though they were not blocked off, they weren’t exactly visitor ready.

Samurai and Shachihoko

20180508_131428On my way back toward the main gates, I happened to run into the Samurai. Ninjas AND Samurai. It’s like cosplay meets museum, so very Japanese. Much like the ninja, the Samurai pace the palace grounds daily for photo ops and perform shows on weekends and holidays. My desire to avoid weekend/holiday crowds may have backfired here, but the guys I met were pretty cool nonetheless.

The last important sight before my path led me outward was the Shachihoko – the fish tiger. What’s up with that? Well, it’s a mythological creature that is half fish (specifically a carp) and half tiger. The Japanese characters that make up the name of the creature is also a combination of “fish” and “tiger”. 鯱 (shachi) = 魚 (sakana, fish)+ 虎 (tora, tiger) Some argue that the fish is really an orca because “shachi” also translates as “orca” in Japanese.  I love language.

It’s often put on temples and palaces to ward off fires, but in Nagoya it has become the special symbol of Nagoya Castle due to the two large golden Shachihoko on the roof. Most of the souvenirs, or omiyage, of the castle involve this magical creature in some way, and of course, so does the golden ice cream.

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I do hope that I’ll have the opportunity to return to Nagoya again after the construction is complete. I would not only enjoy seeing the inside of the Castle proper, I suspect I would greatly enjoy the gardens and side buildings that were inaccessible during my visit. What little I could see through the scaffolding looked intriguing. Plus, next time I won’t feel guilty about trying that glittery frozen treat now that I know more about the edible gold market.

Due to the weather, there is no accompanying photo album to this trip, but I hope you’re enjoying the Instagram photos in the mean time. As always, thanks for reading ❤

Oh, and the umbrella foreshadowing? I’m afraid you’ll have to read the next post to find out about that adventure. 🙂

In the Merry Month of May

As the fine spring weather draws to a close, and the deeply oppressive heat and humidity of Korean summer loom on the horizon,  I tried to make the most of my final outdoor shenanigans before I’m consigned to the AC or at least the after dark until October. This May, I visited 3 festivals and a historical theme park. The later truly deserves it’s own blog post, so I’ll come back to it another time. For now, let me share a few of the marvelous spring festivals I made it to this year.


May 13th: Gamcheon Culture Village and Festival

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Gamcheon is a famous little neighborhood in Busan that has been on my bucket list of things to visit while living here, and somehow I made it a whole year without going! Lucky for me they decided to hold a festival this spring, which I found out about a whopping 2 days before it was set to take place. It is referred to (by the Korean tourism industry) as the “Machu Pichu of Korea”, but actually dates back to the Korean war.

20170513_141043During the war, Busan was the only city in Korea that was not taken over at some point by the invading northern army. While elsewhere all over the peninsula, whole towns were being leveled to the ground, Busan was becoming a haven for refugees as well as US and other foreign aid troops. The population crisis caused the unique housing style of Busan, which involves building houses and apartments right up the side of the mountains that weave in and out of the city.

I’ve often found this blend of urban and natural to be beautiful and a great improvement over flat concrete, but nowhere is it more on display than in Gamcheon. According to the sign, “The virtue of building a house so that it does not block the view of the house behind it demonstrates how this village preserves traditions of national culture in which people care about one another and live together in close proximity and intimacy.”

20170513_135839The houses are painted a cheerful array of bright colors that make for a stunning view from the ridge above. However, once you descend into the neighborhood, there is no end of quaint surprises in the form of beautiful murals, surprising statues, and wandering flower planters. The neighborhood is not only adorable, it’s become a hot spot for bohemian culture, local artists, musicians and other experimental creations.

As we walked down the main road, we were surrounded at once by the festival tents and lanterns overhead. Soldiers in uniform were having a blast dancing along to a local live music performance while shops offered multicolored balloons and delicious iced treats. There were about a million places for kids to try their hand at various types of arts and crafts. A section of the festival showcased historical culture with backdrops, costumes and traditional games. At the top of the hill, the local school kids put on a talent show, and a wandering parade of traditional dancers could be heard wending around the twisting and narrow roads.

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There were famous photo op stops where we took turns waiting to get the best view, or take a picture with the famous landmark. My friend and I went into the mock up lighthouse, but decided the line to sit next to the statue of Little Prince was just too long for such a hot day. Instead we wandered around admiring the variety of murals and other decorations. My favorites included a flight of stairs painted to look like a stack of books, some old pants that had been turned into a walking flowerpot, and the very creepy baby faced birds that watched us from up on the rooftops.

I realized I put off visiting Gamcheon for so long because I thought it was just a bunch of colorful buildings on the mountainside. Everyone says it’s a must see, but not enough people talk about what’s inside those buildings. I found Gamcheon to be a wonderfully unique neighborhood, not only because of it’s architectural design, but also it’s dedication to art and freedom of expression. Certainly a must see for both long term residents and short term vacationers.

Follow this link for more photos from Gamcheon.

May 20th: Busan Global Gathering

This was another last minute arrival. As good as the tourism websites are in Korea, there is so much going on, I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s hard to create a single comprehensive list. Even my native Korean co-workers are astonished that I know about all these events they’ve never heard of. At least I know it’s not just a language barrier?

20160521_194154I went to this festival last year when it was held at the citizen’s park, which a beautiful grassy park with trees, a beach, and a big fountain. I had a great time visiting all the booths from other countries and sampling goodies they brought. There was a large space in the middle of all the tents where we could flop down in the grass when we needed a rest and I ran into lots of fun people (most of whom have since returned to their own countries) and sat on the lawn drinking the German beer and Spanish sangria until the sun went down.

Looking back, I realize I didn’t even write about this event last year because it was so small compared to the other things going on around me last spring. Despite my lack of blog-love, I did have fond memories of the event and was looking forward to going when I heard it was being put on again this year. For unknown reasons, the organizers decided to put the festival in a different location this year. A location of dirt. Gaze upon the contrasting images of last year and this. One looks like a great day out at the park, while the other looks like a flea market in an abandoned sandlot.

Appearances and lack of picnic space aside, the festival was still fun. There was a new twist this year of stamp collecting. We got our guide pamphlets when we arrived and were told that a few booths around the festival were offering stamps. If we collected 5, we could register for the raffle. The booths giving stamps require us to complete some mini-quest. At the first one, we put on mittens with Korean letters and lined up to make a sentence that we read out one syllable at a time. Israel’s booth implored us all to put on a yarmulke and have our photo taken. It seemed a bit odd, since I don’t think women usually wear those, but presumably someone in the booth was from the Israeli cultural delegation, soooo…. not offensive?

Another booth required us to take a try on a stationary bike to generate electricity used to power the blender making the smoothies. The Indonesian booth was giving out prizes for a plastic archery game. I managed to score the second ring from center. I went back to the Spanish booth for more sangria and got talked into adding on some amazing seafood paella. When I came back by to compliment the chef and take some photos, he came out to meet me. It turns out he’s a teacher at the the culinary department of Yonsan University, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised it was so delicious.

After perusing all the booths, which seemed to be more numerous and more varied than the event last year, we wandered a ways away to find some grass to sit on while we waited for the raffle drawing. We’d been told the drawing was at 4, however around 3:30 they started calling numbers from the stage, and we didn’t even notice for ages because it was all in Korean and the grass was so far away. By the time we got back to the stage, there were only a few more numbers before the raffle ended and we decided to head back to the main road in search of some Sulbing. Then as we were leaving, we heard more numbers being called! The raffle was fairly strict about winners claiming their prize within only a few seconds of being called, so we knew there was no point in heading back, but it was still rough.

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On the whole, I think the Global Gathering is a wonderful event and I hope the city keeps doing it, but it would be more enjoyable with plenty of places to sit and enjoy the food on offer or just take a rest as well as a more reliable time table for advertised events like performances or raffles.

Follow this link for more photos from Global Gatherings 2016 & 2017.

Haeundae Sandsculpture Festival

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I don’t know if I’m feeling jaded because it’s my second year in Busan or if the festivals this spring really were not as awesome as last year. Expectations can ruin just about anything, and maybe it was a good thing I didn’t try to recreate my entire itinerary from last year. One of the things I did revisit was the Sandsculpture festival at Haeundae Beach. Not only is a day at the beach a nice way to greet the summer, the main attraction of the festival, the sandsculptures, would be all new works of art made fresh for this event.

I also wanted an excuse to go back to the fancy secret bar in Haeundae that I discovered at the sand festival last year. My friends and I agreed to meet in the late afternoon for a leisurely stroll up the beach to take in the sculptures before having dinner in one of Haeundae’s multitude of foreign cuisine restaurants, only to stroll back down the beach at night at take in the night-lit sculptures before changing shoes and heading back inland for craft cocktails.

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There’s no way to be disappointed by giant sand sculptures. The amount of effort and planning required to create this beautiful and transient artform is impressive no matter what the subject matter is. Last year the theme was nautical liturature, and sculptures from stories like the Odessey (above), Gulliver’s Travel’s, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader among others were scattered around the beach like very artsy mountains. Many of the sand mounds were covered in art all the way around, with hidden gems that made us want to explore every inch.

20170527_170816This year… I’m not really sure what the theme was. Each mound only had art on one side, yet despite the fact that there was a temporary walkway between the two rows of mounds (because walking in sand is hard), the art all faced the shorefront buildings, leaving only half facing the walkway and the other half showing their backs. The backs of the mounds remained smooth but for a single word that was presumably the inspiration for the art on the front.

In no way do I wish to denegrate the work of the artists. There were several very impressive sculptures. Merely that unlike last year, the art did not seem especially cohesive, and I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more of it. As I meandered in and out of the mountains of sand, trying to capture everything with my phone, I found one very special piece about travel. Amid the representations of world famous landmarks and the couple taking a selfie (of course I took a selfie with the statue taking a selfie, what kind of person do you take me for?), there was a giant postcard expressing greetings from Busan and sent to Seattle, WA (which, as the city I have spent more years in than any other this life is the one I tend to call “home”).

I also enjoyed the “couple” piece, which was of an elderly pair expressing the growing old together dream, as well as the “rest” piece which was simply a mosaic of sleeping and dreaming (some of my favorite things).

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There were far fewer works this year, since not only were there fewer sand mounds, but each one bore art on one side only. I still had a lovely time, but we finished much faster than expected and spent some time just chilling out with cool drinks before leaving the beach in search of dinner.

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Even though it didn’t offer the stunning art display I was hoping for, the day still managed to give a one-two punch for my brain. Part one was the shock and reminder that other white people exist in such large numbers. I’m the only foreigner at my job, and I can spend days not seeing another one while commuting between home and work and doing regular errands. Sometimes I go out and I’ll see a handful at whatever expat bar I go to, but since most 7627aab3b42cac8b205bb627a6521eaeof the festivals I go to are Korean, I’m still in the minority almost wherever I go. Almost. I don’t know what Haeundae looks like on a regular day because it’s so far from me that I usually go to Gwangan when I need a beach fix. On this day, it was like that scene from Lilo and Stitch where Lilo goes down to the beach to stare at pale tourists. Only most of them were fairly fit being recent college grads or military folks on leave. But so much white people!

The restaurants were full of us, too. Which brings me to part two of the brain punch: just because I’m suddenly in the minority here, doesn’t mean the struggle to stop my privileged thinking is over. The place with a menu that my whole group could agree on told us there was a 30 minute wait… not to be seated, just to order. We took up seats around a table and pontificated on what could lead to a restaurant having enough tables to seat but not serve everyone. At which point, my lifelong Americanness reared it’s head. We have some bizarre cultural assumptions about the service industry I’m still trying to break free of. They told 5745331-customer-service-memeus the wait ahead of time, and we agreed. That should be enough, but part of me was still, “how did they not staff more people on a festival day, the restaurant should be doing something to make up for this inconvenience”… Woah, ‘Murica brain. You didn’t have to come here. They did everything reasonable to make sure you knew what was going on. Check your entitlement! PS. There’s no tipping here, so when waitstaff are nice to you it’s just their job and not because they’re livelihood depends on the whims of customer satisfaction.

Living abroad is a non-stop self-evaluation and learning process.

20170527_214612After dinner, we headed over to The Back Room, a secret speakeasy style bar that I visited last year and loved. I had an old favorite (real whiskey sour), and tried a brand new concoction tried an Aviation, which is gin based cocktail with creme de violet, lemon and cherry. Fancy and delicious. We stayed out way too late drinking and chatting, which only served to remind me that every event can be made special with friends.

Check here to read about last year’s Sandsculpture festival and TBR visit, and to see the sand castle pics from last year and this year.


I had some hard times in the hot weather last summer, and again this year in the heat of SE Asia. It seems however much the heart is willing, the flesh is not down with heat+humidity. I’ll be putting up one more Korean spring adventure (for the Gaya Theme Park), and of course working to finish the stories from the Malay Peninsula. However, I plan to use the summer to work on a new project about teaching (the other part of my life). Even if you’re not an English teacher, I hope to give some insight into what it is we do out here for the curious and those considering the career. And don’t worry, I’ve already got a fall trip to the Philippines planned, so the travel stories aren’t stopping any time soon. As always, thanks for reading!

Malay Peninsula 9: Clothes shopping in Georgetown

Here in Korea, Spring chugs along into summer. The mornings I stand outside overseeing the kids recite their daily English are still a little bit chilly, but by the time I leave school at 4, it’s hot enough to want a shower and an ice cream at home. The festivals of May are coming fast and furious, and just today, the whole 6th grade went away on a field trip, leaving me with some unexpected free time to power through another story from winter break.

The next major destination of interest on this trip is actually Koh Lipe in Thailand, but it would take me two more days in two more cities to get there. In researching my travel path, I came to realize that Penang and Langkawi are places that used to be awesome hidden gems, but have gone mainstream tourist in the last few years. This story is less about Malaysia and more about clothes, but sometimes that’s where the adventure takes you, especially when it ruins a pair of pants and requires an emergency replacement.


By Train and Ferry

20170122_100830The train from Ipoh to Butterworth was a delightful piece of transportation, and in retrospect, the last clean and comfortable transit option I would get on this trip. The train was spacious, sparkly clean and climate controlled with a nice view of the Malaysian countryside out the window. The train station in Butterworth is easy walking distance from the ferry terminal and bus station allowing me to take a quick detour and buy my bus ticket to Kuala Perlis. (there were only two running each day so I didn’t want to miss the morning bus!)  Then I headed over to the ferry terminal to catch the quick boat over to the island of Penang. The ferry ride was brief yet delightful, with beautiful views of the cities and a cooling breeze.

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From the ferry terminal I was able to hop on the free cat bus toward downtown Georgetown. I know that “cat” stands for “central area transit” but I could not help but be amused at the similarity to the famous Miyazaki character from My Neighbor Totoro. No, the Georgetown bus didn’t have a furry face or eight legs, but I liked the idea that I was riding in the cat bus anyway. The free bus has stops all around the central area and is a great way to see the sights. In my case, a great way to get closer to my hotel.

Who Colonized this Architecture?

I was staying in a UNESCO world heritage neighborhood, and my little hotel was doing it’s best to live up to the standard. The whole place was dripping with charm and atmosphere. The architecture and decor was some strange clash of China and New Orleans. I’m not sure how else to describe it, because I haven’t been to many places that have the unique New Orleans architectural style which I always understood to be a French influence, yet here in Georgetown, which was a British colony, I found that the styles were far less colonial British and far more colonial French. I’m not an architectural expert, and you shouldn’t take my word for it. All I can say is that having been to Beijing and New Orleans, Georgetown felt like the all time city mash up between the two.

Expat Life

After I got checked in, I took all the clothes I wasn’t wearing down the street to a laundromat where the machines dispensed their own detergent. One of my 2 pairs of pants had acquired some holes in an indelicate place and I needed a replacement. While my laundry was spinning away, I wandered across the street to engage a group of expats who looked like they may have been in town for a while and asked about the best places to find cheap pants replacements.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to be directed to the mall and the international brands like H&M or the Gap. It shouldn’t shock me that more than half the expat community just wants to live surrounded by familiar brands and western styles, but it does. With the exception of being unable to find a thing in my size (bras anyone?), I like to buy clothes that the locals are wearing for two reasons: one, it is more likely that they know what is suitable to the climate they live in; two, I’m less likely to stand out as the obvious newbie/target. There’s some bonus material about local economies and new experiences in there, too.

One guy finally realized I wasn’t impressed with western mall options and told me where the local clothes markets were to be found. I spent the rest of my laundry cycle chatting with an older French lady who had rented out her property back in Europe and lived in Malaysia working under the table for the hostel she stayed at because it was cheaper and easier than trying to deal with paying all the bills in Europe at her age. Note to self: Malaysia as potential retirement country?

alibaba-trousers-tie-dye-baggie-genie-boho-gypsy-harem-pants-250x250Laundry complete, I set off on a walking self-tour of the cheap clothes district. I am not normally a fan of shopping, but I have decided that if I am ever going back there, I need to do it with an extra suitcase. So many beautiful clothes, many inspired by Indian fashions, glorious batik fabrics and wildly reasonable prices compared to what similar fashions cost in the US. Skirts, shirts and dresses abounded, but pants were a little challenging. Free size is really a misnomer because it only applies to a size range from about 6-12 (US). the most popular pants seemed to be the Ali Baba style which are big billowy and flowy, but cinch around the ankle, looking not unlike the pants Aladdin wears.

Thigh Gap Deficit

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art: GarbageHumans on Etsy

Why not just get a flowy dress/skirt/alibaba pants? Well, if any of you have thighs that touch, you may have some idea of the horrible phenomenon known as “chub rub”. The unfortunate and unflattering name notwithstanding, it’s not just about chub. I know lots of svelte people whose thighs touch because thigh gap beauty standards are insane! (no shade on naturally skinny folk, this is about people trying to achieve beauty standards that are not natural to their body type). So, in hot / humid weather, the chafe is real. Imagine getting a blister on your inner thighs. Ouch! I wear biker shorts under skirts or dresses and it helps a lot with the rubbing, but I only had one pair with me and I needed another chafe free article of clothing for the rest of my journey.

Coloring Outside the Runway

Pants in my size came in 2 types. Black, coarse, thick fabric (wtf it’s 30 degrees and 90% humidity out here?) or clown pants. I wish I was joking. I know that as an American my sensibilities of color are drab in comparison with everyplace other than England. Our puritan ancestors despised joy and now we’ve culturally accepted the idea that bright colors are somehow gauche or low-class (hello systemic racism?) because we associate them with the heathens and the brown people. This disdain of bright colors is something I’ve been observing in myself and others since I first started traveling. Buying hair clips in China was challenging because I didn’t want the super bright sparkly ones, I wanted the earth toned ones. Watching people cringe in Hindu temples because they see the brightly painted statues as gaudy while the Hindus see the colors as a celebration of their faith. And now in Malaysia trying to buy a pair of pants that I might ever wear again.

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photo: TheHaremLoft on Etsy

Bright colors, elephant print batiks (really, I know the elephant is popular in SE Asia, but don’t put elephants on plus size clothes, it’s just rude), and even patchwork patterns of jangling colors and prints. I might have worn them there, because the locals did and because they wouldn’t stand out like a sore thumb, but the chances of me wearing them in Korea the next summer were slim to none. I have begun to learn to appreciate the bright colors and patterns in art and even in clothes on other people, but I still can’t put them on myself. I think because of my weight I was subconsciously trained to try to occupy less space, and almost certainly because of my gender I was taught not to stand out. I’m working on it, but I wasn’t ready for elephant pants just yet.

The Mystery of Viscose

20170122_182655Eventually, I found some black pants that were a lightweight material and had a beautiful blue pattern around the cuffs. They were about 7$US, so I wasn’t overly concerned with the durability and I was delighted with the way they fit. Of course they were from India (I’m starting to believe all my favorite clothes are), but unfortunately, they are made of a material called “viscose”. I did not know what this meant at the time. I had never heard the word and I was so desperate for pants at this point, I didn’t really care. But later, while laying in the AC of my hotel room, I looked up the word and discovered the world’s most temperamental fabric.

Viscose is made from plant fibers or cellulose, making it a uniquely natural synthetic fiber. It has some ties to artificial silk and to rayon, but is ever so much more delicate. Many laundry blogs (yes those exist) indicated that although there are tricks to washing most “dry clean only” clothes, viscose is so sensitive to water that it can loose it’s shape or shrink dramatically if it gets wet, and it can tear to shreds if it is squeezed or wrung out while wet because of how the water impacts it’s delicate plant based fibers. On the other hand. I have rayon clothes I wash all the time, and I’ve had bamboo sheets that went in the washer and dryer, and because of the way the bamboo is processed, it’s viscose too. My cheap, imported-from-one-developing -nation-to-another pants did not come with washing instructions, just the 100% viscose tag. I have no idea how to clean them without utterly destroying them because even dry cleaning is an adventure when you aren’t fluent in the dry cleaner’s language. I hope I can get them to last the summer at least, fingers crossed.

Wrap It Up

20170122_172744I tried to find some local-ish dinner food, but my travel weariness led me in the end to a little boutique restaurant near my hotel that was more expensive but also vastly more comfortable. Amid the offers of western sandwiches and pasta, I found a lone offering of the national dish: nasi lemak. Omnomnom.

I also managed to pick up a beautiful blue batik sarong which was one of two things I actually planned to buy on this trip. After I got cleaned up and I watched a few YouTube videos on how to wear a sarong, I went 20170122_182721out for a beer in my new tropical get up. I got the impression that Georgetown is so popular among backpackers and expats for a combination of it’s strong western influence and plethora of cheap bars. (many places have a regular “ladies night” menu which are totally free or insanely cheap) I wasn’t particularly sad to leave it after only a short time, but I can see how it would be a refreshing break if I were on a multi-month trek of SE Asia, and I’d definitely love to go back for more clothes when I’m not backpacking.


We’re about halfway through the stories of the Malay Peninsula adventures. For those wondering how I keep the memories so fresh months after the experience, I cheat. I wrote everything down as soon as I got back in one giant GoogleDoc, and it’s just a matter of edit and polish for each chapter afterward. There’s no photo album for this post, but I hope you’ll check out the Facebook, Instagram, and/or Twitter pages for regular updates and photos on adventures as they happen. Thanks for reading! ❤