Learning to outfox the old folks...
19.04.2014 - 19.04.2014 10 °C
Aboard the MS Treasures
Maastricht, The Netherlands
Saturday, 19 April 2014
I cannot believe I completely forgot to tell you about Le Manneken-Pis yesterday! That must be an indicator of how tired I was, since it’s one of THE sights to see in Brussels. (The other indicator would be the fact that the dining room at the hotel, on land, was swaying while we ate dinner…) So, about that pissing mannequin…
After breakfast at the hotel this morning, we were culled into small groups by the ever-efficient Tauck staff and sent out on a brief walking tour (and when I say brief, I mean brief: less than 45 minutes!) of Le Grand Place and Le Manneken-Pis with Hilda, our local Brussels expert. (Although she kept looking up key dates in her notes, so I’m not sure how expert she truly was, but that’s another story.) She walked us through Le Grand Place (or maybe La Grande Place, or Le Grande Place…who knows? I took six years of Spanish, not French.), pointing out all the guild halls that surround the square, including the Maisson de Brasseurs, or Brewers’ House. Brewers as in beer, where the Belgium Beer Museum is now located (that’s for you, Tim!). We didn’t have time to go in, but it couldn’t have mattered less, as nothing was yet open that early on a Saturday morning—I am even gladder that we bought lace yesterday, because there was definitely no time today.
From Le Grande Place, Hilda duck-marched us to Le Manneken-Pis. This statue, whose name translates to “little boy peeing” is exactly as promised: it is a bronze statue, approximately 60 cm (approximately 2 ft for those of you who haven’t made the conversion to the metric system) tall, of a little boy who is peeing. Apparently it is the unofficial mascot of the city of Brussels and a pilgrimage to visit him is required. There are several legends of his origin: he commemorates a little boy who extinguished a potentially fatal fire using the tools God provided; he was a gift from a grateful nobleman who found his little boy, who had been missing for five days, peeing in that manner at that spot; or (my favorite), an evil witch caught a little boy peeing against her door and in a fit of pique cast a spell to turn him to stone, but a man was wandering by and substituted the statue at the last minute, thereby saving the little boy. Whichever legend you subscribe to, as near as I can tell he’s the Belgian equivalent of a concrete goose, because he has an extensive wardrobe that varies seasonally, and apparently many of the outfits are gifts from visiting dignitaries. And apparently somebody publishes the schedule of outfits, in case you are really curious. And because I know you are, I tried to look it up, but all I could find was this gallery of pictures of the outfits—I know you’re disappointed, but life goes on.
After that, it was time to board the buses for a brief driving tour around Brussels. I must confess that I nodded off during part of it, somewhere after the second King Leopold, but I woke up in time for the Atomium. This giant thing (it’s not exactly a statue) was built in 1958 for the World’s Fair held in Brussels, and according to the tour guide, it has, and I’m quoting now: “Nine atoms to represent iron.” I do not have words to express the chemical wrong-ness of that statement, but thanks to the omniscient, omni-present Wikipedia, I can (correctly) inform you that it represents the unit crystal cell of iron, which is a (at least for the α-phase) body-centered cubic. (My mind kept going to protons, saying, “But the atomic number of iron is 26. Fluorine is number 9!”)
After that, it was back on the bus like a herd of sheep, heading to Maastricht and LUNCH. But first: the “comfort” stop. That’s a potty break for us commoners. I tell you about the “comfort” stop only because we were totally prepared for the situation and thoroughly amused by it. We had been warned by the tour directors that you had to deposit a €0.50 coin to get into the rest room (it was a very lovely Texaco station…so lovely they had bouquets of flowers for sale!). Upon said deposit, the turnstile opened and you could get into the restroom and you would be issued a coupon for €0.50 to use toward any purchase at the attached quickie-mart. Well, Julie and I are rapidly learning that with these oldsters, you a) sit by the rear door of the bus and b) you get the hell off as soon as the door opens or you’re going to be there until Mercury cools as they get canes down, hats adjusted, purses situated, etc. So, invoking our hard-won knowledge, we were the first ones off our bus and we power-walked our way past the pack leaders from the bus in front of us. Now, this being Tauck, you KNOW there was a tour director handing out €0.50 coins so everyone could potty gratis, but we had even passed him. But fear not, dear reader, for I had two €0.50 coins of my own, one for me and one for Julie, and we “comforted” and were out of there before some of the others even made it into the line. And Julie used our two coupons to get some very lovely Haribo gummy-bear disks. (That’s the best description I can give you: imagine squishing a gummy bear into a disk.) Plus, we got made sure to pick up our €0.50 coins on the way OUT rather than the way IN!
From the comfort stop it was about an hour to lunch, which was a private luncheon at the Chateau Neercanne, which was near Canne (hence the name…not very imaginative, really). Our group’s lunch was held in the Chateau’s wine cellar. Well, that’s what they called it, but I think more technically it is the wine cave, where the wine is aged before bottling. Now, it’s a banquet room, but it was still very cool, with candles for lighting and everything! Lunch was quite the leisurely affair and started out with HEAVY appetizers (so heavy that I didn’t eat my entrée, but more on this in a moment), including some delicious shrimp croquette thingies, a sweet potato soup (yummier than it sounds), mozzarella/tomato/olive salad (from which the mozzarella balls could be readily extracted), and some cold salmon with lemony mayonnaise. After that, it is my avowed position that only smoked salmon should be served cold. Yuck! (And I should mention that the booze was, as always at a Tauck function, free-flowing.) After that came the aforementioned entrée: veal. They might have called it veal, but y’all, it was just fancy pot roast, with mashed potatoes and gravy and everything. So the next time you make pot roast, freak out the fam and tell them they’re having veal. See what they say. At least they redeemed themselves with dessert: a shell of chocolate mousse filled with vanilla custard—I could have eaten another one of those easily.
The funniest part of lunch wasn’t the food, though—it was the thief. As I mentioned, the wine was free-flowing, and the appetizers were situated at stations around the room. So the hosts had provided those little clips that go on the side of the plates to stick the stem of a wine glass in. They’d already put some on the plates, but there were big containers of them setting next to each stack of plates. Well, I looked over just as a woman at the next table opened up her purse and filled it FULL of those clips! Now, this trip wasn’t cheap, so I know she can afford to buy them—they aren’t expensive or rare. People are strange…bet she steals towels, too.
The herd boarded the buses in a food coma, then we headed to the Netherlands American War Cemetery at Margraten. It is the only American war cemetery on Dutch soil, and it was built to inter the remains of the American soldiers who died liberating the Netherlands during World War II. Eight thousand three hundred and one souls are buried there, which is technically considered American soil—they even fly the American flag over the cemetery. All the graves, which are marked with marble crosses and Stars of David, are oriented so that they face the United States; they are even canted to account for the curvature of the earth, so the rows, which are perfectly straight “horizontally” curve as they flow “vertically.” (That’s the best way to describe it, or perhaps by comparison to Arlington, the columns are not perfectly straight the way they are in Arlington.) The tour directors explained that in gratitude for the American liberation, Dutch families living in the area “adopt” graves and maintain them, bringing flowers for holidays and staying in contact with the deceased soldier’s family in America. And when the care-taker dies, his responsibilities are inherited by a member of his family. Some of the graves already had Easter flowers on them—I saw one that had a beautiful pot of orchids, and another with a giant arrangement of Gerbera daisies, and while we were there I saw several Dutch (and I’m assuming they were Dutch because they drove personal cars, not on a bus like us) families coming in bringing vases and flowers with which to decorate graves.
The tour directors explained that a previous Tauck tour director had started a custom of giving guests a flower to lay on the grave of their choosing, and they continued it by giving each of us a yellow rose to mark a grave. The grave stones are marked with each soldier’s name, rank, unit, and home state, and I think many people looked for soldiers from their home states. I saw a soldier from West Virginia in the front row, but I figured the graves in the front row get lots of flowers from people who can’t walk very far, so I kept wandering until I found my spot: the grave of an unknown soldier. The inscription was almost identical to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington: “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.” Figuring that most people use the home state approach, I left my rose on the unknown soldier’s grave since he might not get very many.
They also had a wall of names, similar in concept to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, of soldiers whose remains were never recovered. I’m sure my camera has a panorama mode that I could have used to record the inscription on that wall, but it was too late to figure out how to do that, so I wrote it down for you: “Here are recorded the Americans who gave their lives in the service of their country and who sleep in unknown graves.” Doesn’t that just give you chills?
From there it was a short ride to the ship, where we once again deployed our “rapid deployment system.” Consequently, we were the first ones shown to our state rooms, where we unpacked (you have to stash the suitcases under the beds, so you HAVE to unpack unless you want to deal with that every morning and evening) and sorted out the electronics and chargers—two 110V American plugs are provided, so I just plugged in my power strip and away I went! (A bit more related to this theme later…)
We went to the precruise briefing, which, unlike on an ocean-going cruise, does not cover evacuation procedures beyond saying, “if the boat starts taking on water, go upstairs to the sun deck…if she sinks completely, your feet might get wet.” Instead, it was more about what time to get on the bus and what time dinner was served. Also, it was about free booze for a lot of folks: open bar on this cruise, which is totally lost on me. While we were sitting there, Julie and I saw a vision of our future: we met two women, both retired, single, and in their late sixties, traveling together. Their names are Stephanie and Ann. Stephanie’s a physical therapist and Ann’s a lawyer, and they are well-traveled and delightful. We even sat with them at dinner (it was a triple whammy tonight: chicken with mushrooms, veggie ravioli with cilantro sauce and cabbage, and horseradish-coated cod…I had the always-available steak. It was not worth writing home about, and yet I find myself essentially doing just that…) Anyway, during dinner the topic of power outlets and chargers came up. Stephanie did not know if she could safely use the American outlets to charge her camera or iPad, or even how to log her iPhone onto the Wi-Fi. I explained about dual-voltage converters, but her eyes glazed over. So after dinner, the Geek Squad, namely me, made a house call to get her wired up. Well, maybe you had to be there for that to be funny, but I assure you we all thought it was hysterical!
That’s almost a minute-by-minute accounting of the day, so with that I will bid you bon nuit until tomorrow, when we go exploring in Maastricht. Don’t expect too much—it’s Easter Sunday and most everything in town save the churches will be closed!