Friday, August 26, 2011

Views from the windows

From spontaneous student parades to sudden summer storms, the light and the views are ever-changing during a week in Maastricht.






Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Notes from around town

StormThe summer thunderstorms continue to rumble though almost daily, arriving from the south and darkening the skies behind the apartment.  It’s caused the gutters to overflow across the top of the building, leading to a deluge inside the windowframes.  Towels and basins are keeping it contained until the builder and the landlord arrive on Monday.

The downside of infrastructure investment is road construction.,  Belgium seems particularly bad this summer, with every major highway afflicted with narrowing and backups.  Brussels's Ring Road is particularly bad – I lose a half hour around Zavendum every trip though.

Summer afternoons, coffee in the café, people watching.  And I have to notice that ever more of the male-people are sporting a particularly gruesome haircut.  Long,slicked straight back, overgelled, it’s a bit 50’s, somewhat urban, not at all appealing.  I think that the style peaked when the mannequins start to sport the look – hopefully it will pass when “gel freezes over”, in November. 

Andre Rieu is putting the movie of his summer 2011 Maastricht show on the big screen.  The Vrijthof spectacular is being shown across the US in September.

The best Albert Heijn stores (the local grocer) always seemed to be located across the river (Plein 1992, to be exact).  Sad approximations were kept between Markt Square and the Vrijthof.  Suddenly, the announcement that the smaller one is closing, the larger is updating.  PlanetThe result is wonderful: better selection, upscale decor, friendly clerks.

Even better is the conversion of the Liege Carrefour to Carrefour Planet.  An upscale take on the acres-of-aisles hypermarket, it is better organized, easier on the eye, and better specialty selections.  The checkout is still crowded and the groceries are still expensive, but the experience is so good you almost don’t notice.

How can you monetize artistic creativity?  In the current downturn, artists are struggling more than most.  I think the alternatives are to sell works, teach, take commissions, or merchandise the works (keychains and postcards).  Cutting prices and increasing volume seems to be the favored strategy – but it’s a race to the bottom.  Better marketing, ascending the know-like-trust hierarchy, would seem to be a better approach. But when I look at their websites and business cards, they seem strikingly bad. Maybe it needs better networking opportunities outside of exhibitions – Pitch ‘n Mix for the creative arts?

PenguinsAnd this is my favorite store window in town this summer…maybe watching for the next thunderstorm.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Exploring Belgian beers

B_Bier 1On warm summer evenings, I’m more of a café person than a pub person.  It’s wonderful to sit along the river in worn wicker chairs, watching the clouds turn colors and the bicycles drift by, a steady red lamp on the back, a flickering white on the front.  There’s a tranquility akin to having an aquarium, schools of bikes against the river.

Maastricht, close against the Belgian border, benefits from it’s proximity to Belgian brewers.  The Bier Kaart can be as long as a wine menu, and just as confusing in names, styles, and prices.  A good way to start is to pick up a “Top 20 list” and dip into a varied sampler (Café’s also offer flights of beers, but these usually are in a ‘single-double-triple’ order that escalates alcohol and density rather than balancing flavors).  A good one comes from Rough Guides, with half of the suggestions easily available in local bars and the other half that may take a bit of looking. (I tend to favor getting served in a café over buying bottles in the store – the experience just isn’t the same).

When I go with a good friend, we each get something different so that we can compare.  I tend towards the darker, thicker end of the spectrum, which is nicely balanced by friends liking the light blond varieties.  Usually specialty beers will be in the 6-9% alcohol range, although they can go up over 11%, really fortified by American standards.

The presentation is unique for each beer: they will have their own glass, unique in shape and style, and a preferred serving temperature.B_Bier 2  The hourglass-shaped Kwak glass is always a hit with visitors (moreso than the beer), but I prefer the flat goblet of Orval or snifter of Le Chouffe.

Tasting is a lot like tasting wine: a little bit, swirled, and held for 30 seconds.  The swirl is to get a feel for where the beer sits on your tongue: a fruity beer like Kriek will hit the sweet and sour spots, while a molasses beer like Rochefort 10 settles towards the back.  The pause sounds pretentious, but you’ll be surprised how the aftertaste lands.  Westvleteren, for example, has a sudden hit like a late firework burst after the initial flavors die out; a lighter D. Tremens settles like a warm blanket and floats up your nose.

Anyway, you get the idea (and a good hit of 10% does wonders for everyone’s descriptive abilities).  For me, it’s one or two to taste, shared with a voluble companion, against the backdrop of a Maastricht evening.  ‘and substitute sailboats or cricket for bicycles if you prefer watching a different sort of aquarium.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Scaring the birds

The Appartement-aan-de-Maas is busier than it used to be: pans clang through the afternoons and French drifts up through the courtyards.  The new Tapas restaurant on the ground level expanded their kitchen up into a laundry hut on the terrace.

Overall, it’s not a bad thing. It gives some life to the back of the building and staff is invariably polite when glimpsed catching a smoke outside the kitchen.  Tapas is neither smoky nor greasy (indeed, little cooking seems to happen, it’s more cutting and assembling), so there isn’t an assault of heat, noise, and smells from the restaurant.

Dutch flats are closer together than American apartment blocks, and tend to cluster irregularly around shared inner spaces with lots of windows all around rather than aligning in neat rows with windows front and back as was common in Chicago.  It leads to a lot of intimacy with the neighbors, a bit disconcerting when I first moved to Arnhem but scarcely noticed today.  People occasionally wave across windows but generally ignore one another, respectful and circumspect for the most part.

While the arrival of the kitchen has made the inner court busier, it hasn’t disturbed that ambience much.  It has, however, had a salutary effect on the pigeons.  The numbers are markedly down, and those that remain are scruffier and a bit dazed – maybe not getting the sleep they are used to with the cooks busy until midnight.

It’s also likely to have an impact on the Middle-eastern girls living downstairs.  They struggle with having me in the building, closing the door and turning the locks every time I come up the stairs.  I feel bad that I seem to scare them just by living here: what purpose is there to characterizing men generally in that way?

Now, the new tenants on the terrace are right outside their bedroom windows.  They’ve been on summer holiday, but return next week to discover the changes. I can’t imagine that they will keep to the Dutch custom of ignoring the neighbors: ‘more likely that they move within weeks. 


It’s had a salutory effect on the pigeons

  They keep to the usual custom of keeping a blind eye to the neighbors, so if don’t   each other’s households, and neighbors are generally respectful of the shared spaces and circumspect in attire.