Art & Design
Poor Belgium. It is a tiny country that is unfairly eclipsed by the glamour and wealth of France to its south. Brussels is an exquisite city, but lives in the shadow of flamboyant Paris 162 miles away. As such, it is also less touristy and allowed us tourist-hating tourists to explore it in peace and quiet.
The only museum I was interested in checking out was the Magritte Museum, having been a long-time fan. It’s kind of lame that they don’t allow photography inside, because the exhibition setup was unique. Magritte’s work was accompanied by his thoughts and quotes on the walls, and they put many of his lesser-known graphic design work on display. You won’t find his more famous paintings here, but like the Van Gogh Museum, the exhibition does a good job at showing how Magritte grew and evolved as an artist. I wish we had more time for the Contemporary Museum in the same building.
Flex had recommended the Musical Instruments Museum, which I was thoroughly skeptical about. But we trusted his taste in things so off we went, and we were glad we did. MIM is housed in a five- or six-story Art Deco building, and showcases a huge collection of old instruments from around the world. To my utmost ignorant eye, most of them look like some kind of mutant spawn of recognizable Western instruments.
Years ago over a family dinner, my dear uncle went on a drunken rant about how Amsterdam was literally, “hell on earth.” What kind of civilized society, he asked the table, would accept homosexuality, allow drug use and legalize prostitution? We all responded in the way Japanese people do to awkward situations: silence, with no eye contact.
I was doing my best not to get emotional, although my uncle had no idea at the time that he was verbally attacking me. I had only recently come out to my parents then, and certainly not to my relatives. My parents’ strong disapproval was a fresh wound, and my uncle was rubbing salt in it. A cousin unknowingly came to my rescue, and the conversation shifted onto other things.
Since that night, I always wondered what Amsterdam was really like. Pieces of information came via friends who had visited (“Oh my god, the coffeehouses!”), but I knew I had to see it for myself. So we planned the tail end of our Germany tour so we could easily get to Amsterdam.
We decided to avoid the party scene and focus on getting some culture at the two big museums there: the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. We bought tickets in advance as recommended by everyone, since both museums just reopened after being closed for years and everyone in Europe seemed to be converging on them at the same time.
The Rijksmuseum was nicely renovated. N said it was almost unrecognizeable from the last time she was there. Apparently, the Dutch want this museum to be the “Louvre of the Netherlands”. We have been completely spoiled by New York City museums, which are generally empty or at least large enough to be manageable. Dealing with the crowd at the Rijksmuseum was a bit much, especially being jostled around by the very recognizable clusters of loud Spaniards and Italians.
We only had one whole day in Cologne so N and I headed to the Cologne Dom, which is probably the only thing Cologne is really known for. That and the fact that they drink beer in tiny glasses. No more 1L Bavarian beer steins for us. I wish we had more time to hang out in this laid-back city, but time was a-tickin’ on our Schengen visa and we had other countries to visit. We’ll be back for the Ludwig Museum, which was closed the day we were in Cologne.
Now for photos of the absolutely stunning Cologne Dom, a heavyweight of cathedrals in Europe. We love walking around in churches, not so much for the religious factor, but for their artistic and architectural achievements. By the way, what’s up with the sculptures of pious figures lazying about?
Years ago, an art dealer friend of my parents’ in New York recommended a unique museum in Germany located close to Dusseldorf and Cologne. Remembering this, my mother suggested we check out the Insel Hombroich Museum on our way to Cologne. It was an overcast day so we pretty much had the place to ourselves. The art collection isn’t as impressive as say, Storm King Art Center or Dia: Beacon (they probably have a ton more money), but it was definitely one of the cooler places we’ve been to.
St. Petersburg is Moscow’s flashy and pretty younger sister. While Moscow wears drab colors on her Soviet buildings, her sister prefers pastel colors on her Western European-style ones. Unlike her uptight, somewhat repressed sister, St. Pete’s revels in her winding canals, good food and her extravagant displays of money and power.
As N and I made our way from the train station to our Airbnb apartment, we immediately noticed a difference in the mood of this Russian city compared to Moscow. It immediately felt safer for us as lesbians (we saw many queer people during our stay), the people in general were friendlier and most importantly, there were signs in English EVERYWHERE.
This made things a lot easier. Gone were the days where we had to stand in front of a store trying to decipher the Cyrillic so we could find a drugstore (аптека) or a hotel (гостиница), or go through menu items so we wouldn’t order yet another dish with potatoes (картошка) or cabbage (капуста). We were able to walk down the street without constantly trying to read the Cyrillic because we had no other options, and it was such a relief.
However, English signs in a non-English-speaking city also means hordes of tourists. We felt like we weren’t really in Russia anymore, and while it was a relief to have made it safely across, it was also a little sad to know that from now on, it would get more and more touristy the further we went west. We knew going into this trip that we were traveling through Europe in the height of the tourist season, but we were spoiled by being one of very few tourists going across Russia from the east (most go from west to east), and suddenly we had to share Russia with the rest of the world.
And share with the world we did. Robert, N and I waited for over an hour in one of two lines to get into the Hermitage, Catherine the Great’s Winter Palace and currently home to painting masterpieces from around the world. You’d think that Russia’s most famous museum would have more than two ticket windows but no. The woman working our counter – with a huge, classy lily tattooed on her chest – could not give a shit that there were hundreds of people lined up, anxiously waiting to see great art. So if you go, go right when it opens or buy advance tickets online. It might be a little more expensive, but it’ll end up saving you a ton of time.
If you want to see over-the-top, St. Petersburg is your city for two of the gaudiest, completely overdone places: the Hermitage and Peterhof. I’ll get to the latter in a minute. The Winter Palace is gilded everywhere: on the ceilings, doors, walls, furniture… Decorative tables, chairs and wall-hangings are also on display to show Catherine II’s excessive lifestyle.
My grandfather, having had a passion for photography, started a camera shop after the war. I stumbled across some relics from the past in my grandparents’ old home.
Storm King Art Center is a must see in the New York area. It’s about 1 hour north of NYC by car and a perfect day-trip for anyone who enjoys art and wants to get away from the city. They have bike rentals which is a great way to get around this massive art center and you can also bring your own food and have a nice picnic while admiring the awesome artwork. Storm King is only open from the beginning of April until the end of November because of the weather but it would be pretty cool to see it in the winter with a fresh coat of snow. We went in the summer and it was stinking hot but still worth it. They have trams that pick up lazy people like us.
Since New York had its annual Armory Show this weekend, we decided to get up off our lazy butts and do something cultural for a change. I found a $10 discount off of the hefty adult ticket price of $30 on their official Facebook page (score!), and enticed my more art-minded friends to join us.
We woke up on Saturday morning from a long and nauseous night of tossing and turning in bed after one too many drinks. In an attempt to make getting up early (and still drunk) bearable, we had decided to meet our friends at Totto Ramen for lunch prior to heading over to the pier for a day of art, art and more art.
Once in a blue moon, my mother tears herself away from her urushi (Japanese laquerware) projects long enough to hastily send a care package to her daughter halfway across the globe in New York City. These boxes generally consist of Japanese food and snacks, and a few art postcards and exhibition posters on the bottom to motivate me to produce art. Instead of bubble wrap, she fills the empty spots with packs of Japanese rice crackers and random towels. Yes, towels. If there’s one thing I have an excess of in my tiny apartment, it is towels. Washcloths of linen and cotton, tea towels and handkerchiefs of all different patterns. “Who uses handkerchiefs anymore?!”, exclaimed NB recently as we were going through my stash of towels from my mother. “I do.” Or rather, will… someday, and when that day comes I’d like to know that I have a bunch on hand to pick from.