Saturday, September 19, 2009

In Brussels (part II)

Brussels is considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, so I have been told. I haven’t got around to look much into its history, and of all European countries, Belgium is of those I know the least about. I didn’t know what to expect, didn’t know really where I should be going (except for the general direction given to me by the hotel’s receptionist)…

In one of my favourite Seinfeld episode, Elayne wanders the streets of New York, weeping, as she bumps into Jay Peterman (who later becomes her employer). She cries to him: “Sorry, I don’t know where I’m going”, to which he replies “well, that is a great way to reach places you’ve never been to”. It’s funny but also so very true, and I keep that in mind whenever I wander around places I had never been to before.

The hotel I stayed in is within 10-15 minutes walk from touristic Brussels. Very simple walk, too – just go south on the same street you’re at and turn left to Groote Markt. Walking the streets, I realized why they say Brussels is beautiful: because it really is.

I didn’t take too many pictures due to my rather low mood, and you could find good pictures in Google anyhow… so I suggest you take a look. Very old buildings, very impressive details, even for people that are generally unimpressed with art (like yours truly).

Looking to my left, I saw a nice statue two blocks away from me and so I decided to deviate from the original plan and get to the Groote Markt using an alternate route. Once I arrived, I realized that I am now in some sort of a maze: very narrow streets, boasting literally hundreds of restaurants, pubs, bars, food stands, gift shops… try to recall a movie you’ve seen recently, with scenes involving terraces full of people basking at the sun and having a good time. Got it? good. It’s exactly like that.

I allowed myself to get lost and walked rather aimlessly, despite the fact that my BlackBerry’s help might be limited later on (I wrote in the previous post that something must be wrong with Google Maps when it comes to mapping out Brussels). I needed the walk, and the air, more than I needed any “context”. You probably also found yourself, at some point in your life, walking aimlessly for the sole purpose of walking and absorbing your surroundings in order to just feel better; so you must know what I am talking about.

One thing that stands out when you’re walking the streets of Brussels is that, despite it being a major tourism attraction, almost no regard has been given to people who people who can only speak English (Belgium has three official languages – Dutch, French and German; Dutch is the most popular, however it is spoken in various dialects). This makes it rather cumbersome to get around, especially when you walk through those beautiful narrow streets. If English is the only language you speak, you’re bound for trouble if you’re only relying on signs. Most locals, though, can speak English so you should be OK to ask people for help.

After walking for quite a while and having a good meal, I came across (what I believe was) the famous cathedral, and parked my butt on the grass there where I started to write the previous post. The view was lovely – the cathedral is really impressive and the atmosphere is altogether relaxed – people lying on the grass, absorbing the mixture of fresh air and terrible smog that comes from the nearby junction (which happens to be a rather busy one). Some couples smooching around.

After about 45 minutes I decided to go back to the hotel, which turned out to be a tricky endeavour due to not being able to read any sign and Google Maps misbehaving. I had a little map that I took from the hotel, and it was only semi-helpful. Took me some time to realize where I am and where I should be going, but I finally made it.

After resting for a few hours, I realized it’s dark outside and that I am hungry, and perhaps it would be interesting to explore Brussels at night time. Grabbed my jacket, headphones, and off I went on my way listening to Get Lucky (what else could I be listening to? this album is one of the most addictive albums I ever came across) and trying to work out some mental details that are related to the severe emotional swings I have been experiencing recently. Glad to say it helped; music is one of the two most effective ways I know of to get to a state of peace of mind (the other one being wandering through nature; Jasper, Alberta being the place), and Knopfler’s music does it best – ridiculously better than any other – and perhaps that’s one of the reasons I’m such a big fan of it.

Might get lucky now and then”, he sings. Up to that point, all chords in the song (the title song, also named Get Lucky) are major and it sounds jolly, but comes the word “lucky”, he strikes a completely and utterly unexpected minor chord (C#m, in case you wondered) that makes your soul shake and – if you’re in a really shaky mood – tears build up.

I recall listening to this song for the first time; I was working at the office, and just realized (thanks to Jeroen sending me an email) that the song has been released for preview in the artist’s official website. I listened to it and that minor chord, done so simply and lightly, made me lose focus for a few moments as I didn’t know how to compute the beauty of what I had just heard.

Took the turn into Groote Markt and, guys, I have to say that I was genuinely impressed. At night, the beauty of this city exceeds your expectations and you can’t possibly avoid saying WOW. The narrow streets were full of people, restaurants with fully-occupied terraces; perfect weather – I would say it was 21-22 degrees, soft cool breeze, intensified when you look up and see the moon and a few stars shine through absolutely clear sky.

The main point of interest in that area is something that I could best describe as a square, with the museum at one side, and what appears to be a cathedral facing it. At night, both are lit in with stunning yellowish light, making this sight one of the most romantic ones I have ever witnessed. In the square itself, you see groups of people – usually youngsters – sitting in circles, talking, laughing, some are playing the guitars… an ultimate chill-out location.

Bars and pubs in literally every corner, and then some. I couldn’t keep count of the Stella Artois signs, mainly because (and I am taking a huge leap here as I am not a beer drinker so I may be talking rubbish) this beer is made here in Belgium. Restaurants of any kind you can think of; one of those narrow streets, for example, is full of seafood – and only seafood – restaurants. However, after spending some time in a restaurant with my best friend in London just the night before, I found it kind of pointless to sit by myself and decided to postpone eating until I come across some take-out place.

I continued wandering through the streets quite aimlessly, listening to songs (well, yes, Get Lucky again; you get the chills when you listen to So Far from the Clyde while walking through these wonderfully-lit streets. The prominent, well-emphasized minor chords of this song blend wonderfully with the feeling of romance that takes over you).

On my way back to the hotel, I started chatting with Pavla, Zuzana’s sister. Apparently, Zuzana drew a picture for me, mailed it to her sister in the Czech Republic so she can scan it and email it to me. Facebook for BlackBerry doesn’t show you pictures embedded within messages so I had to be patient until I go back to the hotel, but Pavla and I had a good funny chat at the meantime.

I stopped for food twice. Once in a shawarma place which was surprisingly good (I say surprisingly because it was the first time ever I had shawarma outside of Israel, which didn’t taste like complete rubbish), and then at Cafe Metropolitan – owned by Hotel Metropolitan close to the Groote Markt. There I had an amazing strawberry cake, with – listen to this – cherry beer. I simply didn’t know what to drink alongside with a dessert, so the waiter recommended a sweet beer… which was actually quite good.

Back at the hotel, I was looking at the drawing Zuzana drew for me. It was so beautiful; I left instructions to Pavla (hopefully she’ll follow through) to mail the picture to my house in Canada so I can frame it and put it on my wall. Such a sweet gift from such a sweet lady. Thank you!

Another couple of hours going through emails and booking my Frankfurt hotel, I went to sleep. Saturday’s going to be a semi-long day… and also the last one for this journey.


In Brussels (part I)

I am starting to write this post on Friday afternoon, about 4:00pm local time in Brussels, Belgium. I am sitting on the grass, leaning against a pole, right in front of (what I think is) the famous cathedral.

Yesterday, my last day in London, I took everything very slowly. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even get outside my hotel before 11:00am and even that was only because I starved. The night before, I was so tired that I nearly collapsed as I arrived at the hotel; I decided to do almost nothing during the day today, so my best friend and I can have some fun coming the evening when he returns from work.

So other than meeting him for lunch, around the Old Street tube station, I can say that I spent the entire day (until 7:30pm, when Ran came by to pick me up) in bed. Yes, I was that tired; and yes, I was that lazy. Really needed to recharge.

The Russell Square tube station, located very close to my hotel, has lifts (that’s what they call “elevators” in England) that take you from the main street to the tube level – some good distance into the earth. In addition, there’s a 175 steps staircase – spiralling, of course, to make it more fun – as an alternative in the case the lift is broken (or any other sort of emergency). There’s even a sign next to the staircase, asking people to take it only if there’s an emergency. Hell, it’s 175 steps.

Too bad Ran has chosen to completely ignore (or, in his words: “not see”) the sign and took the stairs up, which resulted in another 20 minutes or so of delay and a really tired dude appearing at my doorstep.

We stepped out and started exploring the city together. After buying some toys and clothes for his toddler and wife, respectively, we went for dinner, then coffee and started walking. We walked a lot. All the way from Piccadilly Circus to Trafalgar Square, then the Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and then Knightsbridge station (near Hyde Park) where we took the tube back to my hotel. What I have just described in a few sentences actually took about five hours, including stopping for coffee along the way. We walked, talked, laughed… great time.

Returning to Russell Square, we decided to end the evening with a drink at the pub that belongs to the Imperial Hotel, also in Russell Square. We sat outside on the patio, didn’t drink much but took our conversations to a whole new level of fun.

Went back to my room so he could get the backpack he left there when he first arrived. Hug, handshake and off to his way he went. Neither of us really wanted to say goodbye after such two days. As soon as he left, I got the feeling I get every time I bid my family goodbye after a visit back home… that perhaps I shouldn’t really be going anywhere.

Train ride to Brussels was an easy one, much easier than the train ride I took a couple of days before to the opposite direction, even though the train was full. I simply wasn’t as tired as before however the crowdedness of the place wasn’t the best thing in the world. Mental note, then, for the Get Lucky journey next year: buy a first-class train pass. There you go, Mr. Robin Stagg; I am slowly becoming you.

Once in Brussels, I went out of the station and decided to make my way to the hotel by walking. Something, however, didn’t seem right. Google Maps showed me incorrect street names and I couldn’t even get 100 meters away from the station without getting completely confused. Also, the map showed my hotel twice – once with the street name written in French, and once in English – and the two “locations” were a mile apart!

After tinkering with it for a few minutes I decided – the hell with it, I’m becoming tired already, I’m hungry. Took a taxi cab; 20 minutes and 13 Euros later, I was in the Queen Anne Hotel.

Mind you, I still didn’t know a damn thing about Brussels – I didn’t even have time to research into hotels – I relied solely on Expedia’s customer reviews which gave this hotel a surprisingly high rating comparing to its price.

I entered the hotel. It wasn’t a “standalone” hotel, in the sense that it was in the same building as other restaurants and shops in what appeared to be a decent – nice, yet not magnificently upscale – part of town. I really didn’t know what to expect; when I entered the hotel, some dance music was playing at the radio which didn’t blend well with the contemporary, somewhat elegant design of the interior.

“Let me see if your room is ready” said the receptionist and went upstairs. After a minute or so, he came back, escorted by a very important-looking lady. He said something to me which I didn’t quite understand, but I’m pretty sure it had the word “apartment” in it.

“Follow me”.

We exited the hotel, and I became a bit worried. He led me through a door adjacent to that of the hotel, which looked like an entrance to an extremely old (yet well maintained) apartment building.

One short flight of stairs and we’re at the door of what seemed to be an apartment. We entered.

“This is the living room” he said, and my mind went “oh no”. I quickly came to the conclusion that what I paid for was something like a room in an apartment. Millions of thoughts went rushing through my mind at the time he told me that “this is the TV” and “this is a sofa”.

OK, time to face reality.

- “And where is my room?” I asked.

He looked at me in much the same way as if he was talking to a chimpanzee that simply can’t understand advanced topics in quantum physics.

- “This is your living room, your bedroom is over there”, he said.

“Holy crap” I said to myself. I have no idea why, but apparently I was given an entire apartment. Quite a big one, too; spacious living room with nice contemporary decor, kitchen as big as the one I have in my house in Waterloo, 3-piece bathroom, toilets and a huge bedroom with a queen-sized bed.

One thing I for sure inherited from my mother, though, is the attention to details and the constant search for pitfalls. I was thinking maybe I did a wrong type of booking.

- “How much did I pay for this?” I asked.

If before I had any doubt he thought I am stupid, all doubts have been removed by now. He looked at me in a really merciful look.

- “I believe it was 60 Euros”, he said, reaffirming my thoughts. I made the right booking; I have no idea what have I done to deserve this.

Quickly unpacked the essentials, threw some cold water on my face, small backpack, netbook inside and off I went to explore the city. I was still rather bummed due to all bunch of reasons (here’s a list… basically just a mental bookmark for myself, so I can look back later and remember the sheer level of emotional BLAH I went through):

  • Farewell from Ran Liebermann, the night before
  • Farewell from Jeroen Gerrits, a few days ago
  • The fact that the new year is being celebrated in Israel right now and my family is so far away
  • Some other personal topic that this is not the place to discuss

- so I knew I wasn’t going to hang out for long.

(Continued at the next post)

Friday, September 18, 2009

Happy New Year

Hello folks,

just a quick note this time: the Hebrew new year starts this Saturday, September 19 (more precisely: Friday, September 18, after sunset). In case I don’t get the chance to blog anything in the next few days, please allow me to wish you all – Jewish, non-Jewish, religious, non-religious, whoever, wherever and whatever you may be –

Happy new year! Let תש”ע (the Hebrew representation of the year; amounts to year number 5770) be a happy and successful year to all of you.



Thursday, September 17, 2009

Afternoon and Evening in London

I was just about to drop into semi-eternal sleep when my BlackBerry rang and it was Zuzana, the nice girl I met just before Mark Knopfler’s Prince’s Trust concert (see one of the earlier posts). I had emailed her a couple of days ago, telling her that I will be back in London for a few days – happily, she found some time in her busy schedule to meet up.

After quite a long train ride towards what I believed was the end of Earth (but turned out to be just the end of the Northern tube line), I arrived at our agreed-upon meeting place. It was great to see her again! we walked to get some coffee, then proceeded to a lovely nearby park. We talked about all sorts of things (including Mark Knopfler’s music, of course), got to know each other better. She’s a lovely person, very humble and modest- which I found charming to no end.

We parted ways at around 6:00pm and it was time to meet with my best friend, Ran Liebermann, of whom I wrote about in this blog a few months ago. To make a long story short, we’ve known each other for eighteen years now (since high school) and we share many common interests. He happened to be in town for business and I couldn’t miss the opportunity to meet with him.

Took about 45 minutes for until I arrived at the Old Street station, where I left the underground area and saw his shiny face, bearing a ridiculously generous smile. We both hugged and laughed our arses off as we met.

It is such a great and exciting feeling, meeting someone who’s such a good friend of yours in a totally new place, under unique circumstances. After a short visit to his hotel, we went out to eat. We followed the recommendation of the hotel’s concierge and went to a restaurant called La Caricatura – an Italian restaurant just off Oxford Street.

Enjoyed a glass of Merlot (on the house, because we had to sit outside) and didn’t stop talking for a second, catching up with whatever is new with each other. It was a great moment to publish a Tweet about this (yes, I’m on Twitter as isaac_s, feel free to follow me), which was automatically published in my Facebook profile, making people who know us both jealous and surprised at the same time.

Ran Liebermann is one year younger than I am, married to Karin and the father of one gorgeous 2-years old toddler named Yoav. A devout father, Ran finds it hard to be away from his family – he spoke at great length about how he misses his wife & kid. I found it very easy to relate to his feeling – not because I’m married plus a kid (I am not), but because I know him so well that I could almost feel the way I would if I would be in his shoes.

We ended up ordering some pizza which was a wood-burning one, but rather… how to say… mediocre. Crust was OK but other than that it was really nothing out of the ordinary. On the scale of “Campus Pizza” (0; the worst pizza I ever had; located next to the University of Waterloo in the city of Waterloo where I live) - “Wooden Heads Pizza” (10; the best pizza I ever head; located in Kingston, Ontario), this one would score somewhere between 5 and 6. But I didn’t care much about the food; it was more about meeting up with a great friend and having a great time.

We then proceeded to the Oxford Circus area, then to the Soho to have some dessert in that dessert place I was raving about a week ago. I was greeted very heartedly as the guy serving us happened to remember me from my last few visits; felt like being welcome there, which was quite nice. We took the least healthy items they had on display. While I was waiting for the drinks, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the same guy who served us, holding a wrapped raisin bread… on the house, with a wink. I immediately fell in love with that place.

The chit-chat didn’t seem to end – we have so much in common that conversation never seems to dry out. I guess that’s why we’ve been great friends for eighteen years, despite the last six-seven years being 10,000km away from each other.

Then went for a walk around the Soho and we got to Piccadilly Circus, which is London’s version of Manhattan’s Times Square. Wednesday night and the streets were bloody flooded with people. There always is something to do in this area of London. You can’t possibly count the bars, pubs, restaurants, ice-cream stands, falafel stands… you name it, you’ve got it in London.

A top place to be in… when you have someone to share the experience with.

I then felt like I’m going to collapse. It has been an extremely long day and I felt like my brain is starting to change form into something that could never be of any use. I couldn’t take more than two coherent sentences out of my weary mouth and so we decided to part ways. Down at the Tottenham Court Road station we went, and symbolically parted ways while he’s turning to the left and myself to the right – same tube line, just different directions. That was a weird feeling, and it is weird now as well as I’m writing this. 180 degrees apart, and we’re both lost in the immense London tube system. Amazing how suddenly can solitude take over.

Another great day has passed, looking forward to tomorrow.


Back to London

It was very hard to fall asleep during my last night in The Netherlands. Excitement actually had nothing to do with it; shortly after posting my last post, some news have been brought to my attention that I wish had never been… at least, not while I’m having such a great time on vacation.

That said, I guess, it appears that there is no “good times” or “bad times” to closing circles; sometimes it’s fun and gives a sense of reward, sometimes it’s terrible and gives a sense of utter bitterness. “Time is a healer” they say, so with that in mind I tried to go to sleep… with little success.

Waking up at 6:00am after a sleepless night seemed, at first, surprisingly easy. I sprung out of bed and started packing whatever I couldn’t pack last night (the kind of items that you can’t pack “in advance” because you need them up to the moment of departure). Jeroen was already up and was kind enough to make us breakfast – a habit which, I must say, he followed every day. Such a great host.

Time appeared to pass quickly even though I didn’t have much of it. Had to catch a train to Rotterdam, switch there to a different train that would take me to Brussels, then switch again to the Eurostar which would take me to London. Any missed train would cause tremendous amount of headache that I was not going to accommodate.

At around 7:00am, Jeroen and I left the apartment together for the last time, as he proceeded to work and I took a different route towards the train station. We’ve been through so much fun during the last few days and he has been the greatest host I could have imagined. I thanked him dearly and we both expressed the hope to meet again soon. Was very sad to part ways – such a great guy.

So Mr. Jeroen Gerrits – thousands of thank you for everything, and we’ll see each other soon!

I was walking quickly to the train station. Very early in the morning, everything around me seems so sleepy and undisturbed. These narrow streets, beset on all sides by beautifully-built apartments (in North America, we would call these “townhouse rows”), with bricks in various shades of red, brown and anything in between, mixed together to create a beautiful mosaic of colors – all of these in a cloudy day at 7:00am give you an unparalleled sense of calmness. If I had time, I would walk these streets very slowly, absorbing the beauty of this place with each breath. I will miss Delft, its beauty and its wonderful, friendly people.

Trains came by quickly and before I knew it I was already in Rotterdam Centraal, waiting for the train to take me to Brussels. I figured I have a few minutes so I sat down on the platform and took my Baby Taylor out to carve some tunes with the morning breeze.

A colleague of mine asked me a few days ago – what’s the deal with playing the guitar in various odd places and situations? I understand that, for some, playing the guitar in the train station, right on the platform waiting for the train to come, may sound bizarre. My view of it, though, is entirely different.

Every small detail in your environment affects your playing, let alone when you are making-up tunes (like I usually do) rather than playing a tune that someone else wrote. Playing in a garden with a small lake in front of me, will make me come up with completely different tunes than playing on a rail-station platform watching the busybodies wander around. The environment you’re playing in, upon its constituents, generates specific – often extremely hard to artificially replicate – “muse”; and what’s key in writing music, I believe, is one’s ability to (a) fully understand and appreciate the tremendous impact environment has and (b) “tap” into the muse and translate it into something that will please one’s ears.

The train arrived after a few minutes. It’s an extremely boring train ride from Rotterdam to Brussels and I was very tired, however I had no eye cover nor useful ear plugs (mental note for next trip: buy eye-cover and the Bose QuietComfort headphones you’ve been interested in for the last three years) and therefore failed to fall asleep.

I was spreading my weary body over a pair of seats, noticing that the adjacent pair is occupied by a lady armed with what I believe is the biggest suitcase I have ever seen. When we left the train, I offered my help and we started talking – her name was Annechin (wonder if I spelled it correctly), a Dutch exchange student going to study at the University of East London for six months.

We went together towards the Eurostar terminal, chatting along the way.

The Eurostar terminal in the Brussels-Zuid train station looks like a small-scale airport terminal. First, you have to check-in. There was nobody in line as we checked-in as soon as we arrived, so that was a breeze. Then you have to go through two passport control booths – that of Belgium, and that of the UK.

I am not familiar with all the details of the European Union and what EU membership entails, but I’m pretty sure that the UK is not a member of the EU at all: for once, the UK maintains its own currency; plus, you must go through passport control before entering the UK, even if you’re a member of the EU.

We had slightly more than an hour to kill until boarding, so we sat down in the cafe next to the boarding gate, had a good breakfast and continued chatting. Time flies when you’re having fun, I guess, so before I knew it we had to board the train, into two separate cars. We bid a tentative goodbye (we might run into each other at the train platform upon arrival) and boarded.

The car I was assigned to was half empty and so I found myself stretching over four seats (two pairs facing each other), dying to get some sleep but I really couldn’t. I can’t sleep in a lit environment, let alone while being seated. The ride, then, even though smooth and very fast – was a nightmare because I was so tired that I couldn’t make anything out of anything.

The Eurostar train cruises through the land in a very high speed, however not as high as the Intercity-Express train that gets, at times, to 275km/h. The train ride from Brussels to the Atlantic is not very spectacular, really. It’s pretty much all the same views repeating themselves: flat green as far as the eye can see; sheep, cows, horses along the way; weather was very cloudy for the entire ride.

Had I not been very tired, I would most likely attempt to write some lyrics to the melodies going through my head. Cloudy weather over vast of greenery, contrary to what you might think, is actually a lovely sight for me. It is a very calm sight, and it makes me want to create something – be it by writing, playing (my guitar) or even working on one of the software development projects I’m working on back at home (but I wouldn’t do that while on vacation).

But I was so damn tired that I couldn’t think of, or do, anything.

I was hoping to see some ocean before the train takes a dip into the tunnel connecting you with the British Island… to no avail. As it turns out, the train enters the tunnel at some great distance before the ocean. It was very weird, this ocean ride. Nothing but complete darkness around you, and knowing that you’re actually underwater may give some people an unsettling sensation. You ride like that for about 20 minutes or so, and then comes the light at the end of the tunnel and – lo and behold – you are in the British Island.

Finally arrived at the St. Pancras station, which is the final destination of the Eurostar train. I could continue on my way but decided to wait for Annechin and see how she’s doing. I finally found her fighting with her gigantic suitcase, as it appeared that one of the wheels was about to part the world goodbye.

The international St. Pancras station is a work of art – what a beautiful place. These guys really put a lot of work into designing this place. An international train terminal more impressive than most airports I had been to.

Came the time to bid Annechin farewell. Three kisses on the cheek (it’s a Dutch thing… really) and farewell. I’m always happy to meet interesting people along the way.

Watching the ridiculously long line-up to buy train tickets, I decided to walk to my hotel. It’s an easy one kilometre walk to The Bedford Hotel – just across the street from the Imperial Hotel, in Russell Square, where I stayed just one week ago.

I am back in London.



Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Last Day in The Netherlands

I mentioned, in my previous post, the possibility of changing the planned route of my trip, giving up Prague for the purpose of reuniting with my best friend back in London as he’ll be there for a few days (he lives in Israel). And so, as much as it would be hard for me to give up visiting Prague – and I was really looking forward to it – I decided to head back to London and meet my friend.

That will happen tomorrow morning. On Friday, I will be taking the train back to Brussels, spend a day there (I had heard that it’s a nice place to visit), and take a train to Frankfurt on Saturday, so I am ready to depart back to Canada on Sunday around noon.

So at around 9:00am this morning I took the train from Delft to Rotterdam. A major city in The Netherlands, I was curious to see what it has to offer. Weather was (actually, still is) gloomy, with occasional drizzle. Very slow morning – everything appeared to go slower than usual: the people, the bikes, the cars…

The train makes it to Rotterdam in less than fifteen minutes, dropping you in Rotterdam Centraal, which is (lets see if you can guess this right) Rotterdam’s central station - quite a major transportation hub with trains, trams, buses, and any other form of transportation known to mankind other than horse & buggies and space shuttles. This stations is where you want to go in order to connect to train rides to Brussels, which is the closest Eurostar transportation hub (takes you to London within exactly two hours).

Funny to realize that, factoring in check-in, security, boarding, baggage claim etc – getting from Delft / Amsterdam to London is faster, cheaper and more enjoyable than by flying. Seriously, the rail system here in Western Europe is something Europeans should be proud of and I can only wish that North American governments will realize that it is about time to borrow this concept and implement it at home.

I still need to get more intimately knowledgeable with the European train systems before departing on my ultimate European journey during the spring-summer of 2010, following Mark Knopfler and the band. I intend to rely mostly, if not exclusively, on public ground transportation during the European leg of the tour – which won’t work for the North American leg as distances are too great for the existing public transportation infrastructure and schedules.

Anyway, back to Rotterdam: what I found was very different from what I expected. I haven’t been there for too long, but what I found, in sharp contrast to Amsterdam, a “modern” city. Architecture-wise, it is much closer to the typical mid-sized North American city (say Calgary) than to Amsterdam. Later, the reason became clear: during World War II, Germany has demolished the entire city centre, so whatever you find in the city centre of Rotterdam is, in European terms, new.

Had I had to race an English Bulldog (OK, OK; English Bulldokh) for food this morning, I would have probably won; I was that hungry and was passionately seeking a place to sit down, have some light breakfast and, of course, espresso. Wandering the streets of central Rotterdam, I haven’t really seen too many places offering food, or coffee, that were open. The streets appeared to be quite empty – emptier than what I would expect in a working day.

So it’s either I caught Rotterdam in a bad day, or it caught me in one of mine.

I ended up having a mediocre sandwich and a phenomenally, tremendously, victoriously terrible cappuccino at the plaza next to the central station, then went on my way back to the train station.

First thing I did as I returned to Delft was to call my father, who happens to be the person whom I admire the most, and wish him a happy 56th birthday. Can’t wait to see him again in my next visit home, most likely this coming December.

Next I proceeded to look at what’s new and exciting. A link on my Facebook page took me to an interview Mark gave to the Sky network about his new album. Not my favourite interview of all times, to say the least – the sole responsibility being Sky’s. I couldn’t help but starting yet again to think about the music business – a word combination that, in my opinion, presents a terrible dilemma for musicians of Knopfler’s scale. This is a subject for another post which I will keep for tomorrow’s 4-hour train ride from Delft to London.


Monday, September 14, 2009

Chilling Out Before Part III of the Trip

Growing up where I did, in a relatively busy suburb of Tel-Aviv, was quite a noisy experience. The house I grew up in – and the only one I lived in until flying 10,000km west and settled there – was located right where the street bends ninety degrees. It was a two-way street, and on the main route of two major bus lines.

The end result: imagine a bus driving 40km/h approaching the bend (= my house). It slows down, which is a noisy process; takes the turn; and then accelerates again – an even noisier process.

Now imagine this four times every fifteen minutes, from 6:00am to 11:00pm (four times because it’s a two-way street, two bus lines, each goes both ways), every day.

That said, after 25 years these kind of things hardens you and “noisy” becomes your standard.

When I moved to Canada, I moved into the relatively small city of Waterloo, about 100km (~60 miles) west of Toronto. My first two weeks were spent in a hotel (paid for by the company who hired me, as part of a relocation package), then moved into a huge house with eight bedrooms (out of which, of course, I only occupied one).

And I can vividly recall how the sudden quietness around me almost drove me insane. It’s as if someone touched the volume knob of my life and turned it all the way counter-clockwise without really allowing me to adjust. At times, it was painful. It was so quiet that I didn’t really know what to do with myself.

I was surprised, though, with how quickly I adjusted to this quiet environment.

Since then, life’s unexpected turns made me live in big cities – Toronto for eight months and Vancouver for four months. In all occasions (except one; Robin, if you’re reading this, this is you), I picked the most quiet place possible for living, and even that was too noisy for me at times.

While city life has its advantages, I always found the constant city noise to be, how to say it, tiring. Often I go on a day trip to, say, Toronto and came back home earlier than expected and crash into bed, falling asleep within minutes.

You’re probably wondering why on earth am I telling you all these seemingly-unimportant nonsense. Well, I did that in order to explain how come, once arrived back at Delft, my tiredness has miraculously disappeared so I decided to take another walk through Delft’s pretty downtown area.

It was sunny yet cloudy, so I took a few pictures:


The second picture shows the cafe I decided to settle in for some late afternoon tea.

While sitting there, I felt the urge to write. Of course, that was possible as I always walk around armed with my brand-new netbook (inside a small backpack). So as I took the netbook out, I noticed those two nice-looking girls looking at my netbook as if it was a baby alien. Then they started talking, evidently about this laptop, with this weird Dutch language I can’t make anything of.

So I decided to be nice… as always. I grabbed the netbook, got up and approached the couple.

- “I guess you were wondering about this?”

I was expecting some sort of a puzzled look on their faces. It took about a second or so to appear, but it did, eventually. And so I was sitting there, again developing conversation with two human beings I had never met before.

We laughed a lot, as they were trying to teach me Dutch and I failed miserably (although I did have some good runs there). We talked about Canada, Canadians, The Netherlands, the Dutch… about an hour passed before I knew it. It was lovely so I decided to make Anouk (exhibit A) and Annemiek (exhibit B) famous:


We then went our separate ways.

Upon returning to Jeroen’s place, I learned that my best friend, Ran Liebermann, is in London for business purposes So I started thinking about changing my trip’s schedule so we can get together. Meeting with him is the highlight of every visit I pay back home, and it’s going to be next to impossible to convince me to not leverage on the opportunity that we’re so geographically close.


Assaf Ramon, R.I.P (or: not the post you would expect)

Let us all forget about politics for a few minutes.

In January 2003, the space shuttle Columbia was making its way back to earth. On board, there was the first ever Israeli astronaut, an incredible individual named Ilan Ramon. The son and grandson of holocaust survivors, Ilan Ramon grew up to be a jet fighter; in 1981, he flew one of the jet fighters in the team that was sent to demolish Iraq’s nuclear facilities – a mission that was just as complex and dangerous as the criticism it has drawn worldwide.

Something went terribly wrong on the way back to earth, leading to the destruction of the space shuttle and the death of all astronauts. It’s one of those events when you will always remember what you were doing while receiving the news; I was still getting adjusted to the temporary residence I moved into, about a month after moving to Canada. It was truly shocking; an entire nation broke into tears.

Ilan’s son, Assaf, has decided, upon getting drafted to military service, to follow his father’s lead and join the Israeli Air Forces. The mandatory military law in Israel dictates that soldiers have no control over what their military occupation will be, with two exceptions:

  • A new recruit that is a part of a family that had lost a member due to a terrorism act, military operation;
  • A new recruit that is an only child.

Those who meet this criteria will not be recruited to combat-type service (including jet fighting, of course) unless expressly authorized by the parents. Despite the risks, the astronaut’s wife, Rona, has agreed that her son will fulfill his wish to follow his father’s footsteps and be recruited to the air force.

Yesterday, Assaf Ramon has been killed during a training flight. For unknown reasons, the aircraft he used crashed into the ground. An entire nation is mourning the death of yet another member of a family that has long been a role model in Israeli society.

Assaf’s funeral is taking place at these moments; he will be buried next to his father in Nahalal, Israel. His funeral is taking place right now, attended by the President and the Prime Minister, along with an abundance of attendees, some of which aren’t even related to, or acquainted with, the family.

So this post is dedicated to the Ramon family, even though I realize that the chances of them reading it are slim to none; yet, my heart is with you. I am sending my deepest condolences and I wish you no more suffering.


Wanderlust in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is a beautiful city, really. I wrote about it during my trip to Amsterdam six months ago; this visit, the second one this year, hasn’t been any less exciting. There is much to do and see here; it’s a big city that boasts millions of restaurants, pubs, one very famous sex museum which I passed on as I’m not a big fan (of museums), lots of windows separating between you and women dancing half naked in front of you – be it out of choice or force – a heavy subject I am not going to delve into here, lots of coffee shops in which coffee is pretty much the last item anybody would purchase.

The first place I went to was the Anne Frank Huis (“The Anne Frank House”). I wanted to visit this place in my previous visit six months ago, however the line-up was so big that I wasn’t sure that I’ll get in before I die. This time, however, the line-up was bearable so I decided to pay a visit.

For those of you who don’t know, Anne Frank was a young girl who, at the time of the Nazi rule in The Netherlands, hid with her family in the annex of a house by the canal until the family has been ratted out, resulting in the deportation of her and her family to concentration camps. During that period, she wrote a diary which received worldwide attention after World War II; I have never read her diary but surely am going to as soon as I return to Canada.

The Anne Frank House is, well, the house in which the Frank family hid. It has been “converted” into a museum, with much of the original house contents intact. There are wonderful items on display there, including Anne’s original diary, and other items that demonstrate what life was like for Jewish people in Nazi-controlled Europe. Various short clips show how Jewish people were treated, and the horrors they went through. A must – however not easy – watch, for anyone with the desire to get a glimpse into this condemned stretch in history.

It was also the first time I actually seen a real “yellow badge” – a badge painted yellow, shaped like the Star of David with the word “Jood” (in English: “Jew”) written on it in black. Jewish people were forced to wear this badge in public.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, as an individual who grew up where I did, I read, and know a lot about the holocaust; however, I have never yet seen it in my own eyes. The sight of the “yellow badge” shocked me. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of its existence. It’s just that, when you actually see those things for the first time, everything you learned, read about and heard about suddenly receive context and it overwhelms you.

Excerpts from Anne Frank’s diary are engraved on the walls. Truly chilling paragraphs, and the mind can’t fathom that such a young girl with such a good heart had to live through that hell – while still maintaining state of being optimistic. Makes you think, huh. Put things in perspective.

The center of Amsterdam is best explored by foot or bicycle. Cars are out of the question – leave them at your hotel (I’m saying “Hotel” because, if you own a car, you must be a visitor. I can’t understand why residents here would own cars). Pack a small backpack with essentials and go roam the streets, upon its bridges and canals.

I took some photos. This is Kalverstraat, the main shopping street. In Dutch monopoly, as it turns out, this is the most expensive street:


And, not much unlike Delft, you get these pretty views pretty much everywhere you go in Amsterdam:


Later I stopped for a latte at Coffee Company, right at the central square – that’s where I started writing this post. That’s where I met Sandra & Laurie (hope the spelling is right) and the three of us engaged in a nice conversation. It only happened that I ran into two beautiful ladies dealing with tax advice in Holland. These kind of things can really only happen to me, I guess.

Here we are:


It started raining and I became tired of walking, so I decided to return to Delft. Marched towards Amsterdam Centraal, bidding this wonderful city goodbye… hope I get to visit again before I proceed with my journey.



It’s around 10:20am Sunday now as I begin writing this post. I am conveniently seated at the upper floor of some train that takes me from Delft to Amsterdam; the weather is cold and gloomy, however the forecast did not mention any rain coming so this should be a pleasant day to wander around Amsterdam.

A few small children are yelling at the back; I happen to have this indispensible talent to attract myself to train cars containing noisy children. It’s either that, or all train cars have noisy children.

I decided to counter these annoying kids with another round of Get Lucky right into my ears. The BlackBerry’s randomizer happened to choose Monteleone as the first song – ironic, as this is the most relaxing, chilling-out track in the entire album.

I have the urge to write about something, so how about I tell you of a few books that I have been reading recently, and can warmly recommend.

The first one would be Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. This book is an all-time best seller and I have heard about it many times before actually placing the order in Amazon, which resulted in this magnificent book lying neatly in my mailbox two days later.

Viktor E. Frankl is a holocaust survivor, a psychiatrist in his training. At the concentration camp (he wandered amongst a few), he worked as a psychiatrist, mainly dealing with inmates who have lost their will to live due to the ridiculously unbearable concentration camp life.

While performing his work, he came up with an approach called Logotherapy (in Latin, “Logos” means “meaning”). Contrary to commonly-used schools of thought at that time, attempting to trace problems back to childhood traumas and / or environmental causes, Frankl argued that the vast majority of patients suffer, after all, from the inability to find purpose and meaning in their lives.

His claims rely on logic that I find hard to negate, and he builds his case brilliantly.

First, he describes concentration camp life. The first 80-90 pages of the book go into the details of camp life; what it was like, and specifically the horrors that inmates had to go through.

(We just stopped at Leiden Centraal and the voices of the kids are easily swallowed by the constant chatter of about 20 old women who boarded the car I am in. This can only happen to me. I feel like unboarding the train and walk to Amsterdam, however that would mean not being able to type)

The part of the book dealing with concentration camp life has been extremely touching and horrific for me. This can be explained by the fact that I was born and raised in Israel; even though my family roots did not arrive from Eastern Europe and therefore no family members of mine had to go through that man-made hell back in the 1940’s, you can’t (and, I would say, shouldn’t) possibly grow up in Israel without knowing a great deal about one of the most vicious genocides that “humanity” ever produced.

What Frankl had found was, that the inmate’s ability to find meaning and purpose in their lives has been quite a determining factor in the inmate’s chances of survival. In other words: those who had what to live for, usually found the how. Essentially, this book is an extrapolation of Nietzsche’s saying “he who has what to live for, can endure almost any how”.

And, my friends, the “how” here is truly the toughest “how” you could imagine. Millions of people have been stripped off everything they had. From human beings with aspirations, hopes and dreams, they became merely numbers. Frankl makes an interesting point: even in these extreme conditions, people could still find meaning and purpose in their lives, didn’t give up and ended up surviving that hell.

In other words: if you think you’ve got problems that make you want to lose the will to live, perhaps you should get a little perspective and witness for yourself that your troubles is not really what causes you to want to give up.

Granted, the reason I was attracted to this book was not that I lost any will to live; the contrary is true – despite a couple of extremely low points so far in 2009, I happen to love my life. I simply am a big fan of books and research that deal with psychological and social phenomena. And that leads me to the next two books I feel obliged to recommend. Both were written by the same author who happened to grow up in Elmira, Ontario (about 10 minutes drive from my house) and is now world-renowned for his sharp, yet down-to-earth, writing style. He is one of the two individuals I hope I get to meet at some day.

His name is Malcolm Gladwell and the books I am talking about are his first two books: The Tipping Point and Blink.

(He wrote another book called Outliers. I haven’t got around to reading it yet)

The Tipping Point deals with the causes and drives behind epidemics – be it commercial, social, criminal and so forth. In this book, Gladwell analyzes the process that causes a mere idea to become a wide-spread epidemic.

One of the key techniques that Gladwell uses in his books is providing reference to social and psychological experiments that have been performed over so many years. The results of most of those experiments can, and will, shock you at first. I recall not being able to let this book off my hands, and often dropping my jaw in awe.

One of the first phenomena that Gladwell analyzes in The Tipping Point is the infamous “Six Degrees of Separation” experiment. That was an ingenious experiment done in the previous century, with the end conclusion that, on average, between any two people in the world, there exists”chain” of six (yes, only six) people that “separate” them (i.e. I may reach any person in the world through, on average, six people). He then points out a few details about that research that have escaped most people’s eyes. I found it fascinating.

Blink, published in 2005, deals with the power of rapid cognition. As interesting as The Tipping Point was, Blink is that and more. I was struck with awe ever few pages, as Gladwell refers to social and psychological experiments that turn out conclusions that are as distant from common sense as the Earth is from the Moon.

In simple words, this book deals with the nature of gut feelings, what they are, how they are created and why so often they turn out to be right, contrary to common sense.

One of the prominent arguments Gladwell builds throughout the book is, that more often than not, having a lot of information before taking decisions is as counter-productive and useless as a screen door in a submarine. He demonstrates, through references to countless incidents, experiments and research papers, that when faced with ample information, the human mind often misuses the multitude of information in a way that deviates one from taking proper decisions. This aligns with another topic I have been reading about – the paradox of choice – showing that “too much” often means “too little” and we’re often better off sticking to simplicity rather than get immersed in details.


I am finishing this post over coffee at Cafe Luna, at Amsterdam’s city center. I have been here during my first visit to Amsterdam, but something must have happened to the coffee here because it royally sucks. Maybe it’s because Rosanna doesn’t work here anymore. Will go look for better espresso elsewhere.



Sunday, September 13, 2009

Den Haag (English: The Hague) and Lovely Dinner

Having slept very little after spending most of the night listening to Get Lucky, trying to grasp the greatness of this album, I woke up at around 8:30am with endless desire to sleep in. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” I thought: today was the day to explore The Hague, or Den Haag (pronounced “Den Haakh” by locals. “G” is pronounced as “Kh”).

Jeroen and I packed some stuff and, after a lovely breakfast, went to the tram station. Turns out that the tram takes you to The Hague slower, however you end up right downtown, as opposed to a shorter ride by train that makes you walk more towards downtown. Kind of like a totally unimportant trade-off.

On our way there I noticed an extremely lovely-looking lady walking a bulldog. Much to Jeroen’s disproval, I decided once again to behave like a Canadian and strike a conversation with an utter and complete stranger.

Life taught me many things, out of which unfortunately only a few have anything to do with women. One of those things is: striking-up a (useful) conversation with a woman walking a dog can only be achieved by first striking a conversation with the dog.

- “Hello, buddy!” I called, smiling at the beast which, in other circumstances, would most likely not attract any of my attention.

However it turned out to be a lovely dog named Shylock or something. You may be surprised that I have absolutely no memory of the lady’s name, although I did ask for it and she did tell me. But we did started talking, and she informed me that her dog is an English Bulldokh.

- “English WHAT?” I asked (myself, of course; and very quietly).

Then I realized the G –> Kh transformation. I didn’t know that they would pronounce G as Kh for non-Dutch terms as well. Some more chit-chat and our ways parted.

Got to the tram station and was amazed, again, at the accuracy of the public transportation and its schedules. Within half an hour we were already at the center of Den Haag.

So my first surprise was to find out that The Hague really isn’t The Netherlands’ capital. That seemingly-unimportant revelation was quite shocking for me as I grew up knowing that Amsterdam being The Netherlands’ capital is a common misconception and that The Hague is the true answer. You know, kind of a way to show everybody else that you’re smarter than they are.

That apparently didn’t turn out right. I went as far as betting with Jeroen (a loyal citizen of The Netherlands, mind you) that Amsterdam is not the capital city of The Netherlands, much to his astonishment of my utter ignorance.

So, just in case there’s yet another ignorant like myself out there: The Hague is not The Netherlands’ capital – it only appears as such, as most government work takes place there. Amsterdam is.

Now on with the story. The first thing we went to look at, within steps from the tram station, was the government’s building. The main entrance looks like this:


There’s also a nice fountain:


There was quite a line-up for entering the government’s complex so we decided to move on:


That’s it for governments. We went out and I saw a huge horse with an importantly-looking man on it. Turns out that was a sculpture of one of The Netherlands’ past kings. I took a picture with his highness (pun intended):


Walking through the streets of The Hague is quite a similar experience to walking through the streets of Amsterdam when it comes to architecture, street layout and so forth. People-wise, though, there is quite a difference. The Hague’s population is smaller than Amsterdam’s and people here seem a bit more relaxed and laid back.

We next sat down for a short brunch at Bagels & Beans, sitting outside in a nice terrace. Very lovely, and we ordered bagels and drinks. Life appeared to be superb. The only problem was that some pigeon thought that its life is superb as well and decided to celebrate its newly-found happiness by crapping over my BlackBerry. Furthermore, eating my bagel turned into an exercise in stealth-like eating as one particularly-stubborn bee decided that it fancied my bagel.

We spent a lovely half-day in The Hague, including some walking tour of The Passage:


… and of course, we couldn’t get enough of those fabulous terraces scattered around the city centre area, so we had some more food (and drinks), basking at the sun:


After a few hours in the sun we decided to take the train back to Delft, where we split as I went to the city centre area to consume yet some more coffee and tea. It was too much of a lovely day to spend indoors and I found my butt parked on yet another terrace.

As evening drew closer, Jeroen and I decided to hit a local restaurant for dinner. We went to a restaurant named De Koperen Pan (The Copper Pot) – a mid-scale restaurant. Took forever for our ducks to arrive but once they did, surrounded by pumpkin puree and some Port wine, it was consumed with such passion that we immediately forgave the staff for the extremely slow service.

On our way back we noticed a couple of local women waiting for their New-York Pizza orders to be done, so again, much against Jeroen’s will, I struck up a conversation revolving around my utter misunderstanding of the Dutch language, as I was trying to read the Pizzeria’s bizarre menu out loud.

Went back home, then took my guitar and went downstairs, sat next to the canal in front of Jeroen’s house and went on a 25-minutes playing spree of music that I wrote. It was a lot of fun.

Another few rounds of Get Lucky at the stereo system and I kissed yet another perfect day goodbye.