Spring holiday: Brussels, Paris, and a little piece of Amsterdam

I was invited to give a talk by the University of Ghent/Starlab in Brussels, Belgium about my research on protein folding. I decided to take advantage of my trip there and explore a bit of Paris and Amsterdam as well.

On the first day, I arrived at the Hotel Metropole in Brussels where I was being put up. The hotel was really classy (I certainly didn't fit in there with my casual t-shirt attire). That evening I went to the Grand-Place, which was really cool (Victor Hugo apparently once called the most beautiful square in the world and it's easy to see why this is the case) and walked around Brussels a bit: I saw the Mannequin Pis (nothing to write home about), the Bourse (Stock Exchange), the beautiful and gothic Cathédrale Saint-Michael, the Saint Jacques sur Coudenbergh, the Palais Royale, erected in the eighteenth century under the reign of Charles of Lorraine, the Parc Bruxelles where you can gaze upon the entire downtown region including the magnificient spires of the town hall, shopped a bit for chocolate, and ate at this great Belgian restaurant, L'arlequin.

As I was wandering around, pretty lost, I came across the Tintin Boutique which, according to them, is the largest Tintin-only store in the world. It was a place where I felt I had died and gone to heaven. Having grown up to Tintin, Asterix, Iznogoud, and Lucky Luke comic books, and having read them over and over again probably more than a hundred times, this is an experience that cannot be described and only a comic book fan will understand (especially fans of those graphic albums). I spent way too much at that store. In fact, after I came back, I started re-reading all my Tintin comic books once again.

I came back to the hotel room and found a message waiting for me saying I had missed my talk! I had always thought my talk was one day after my arrival there, but I was clearly wrong. (I would've given a pretty bad talk anyway, given that it was scheduled immediately after a 13-hour journey.) Fortunately for me, my host and the people who were there were very accomodating and I gave my talk the next day (which was well-received). The evening, my host at Starlab, its director Walter De Brouwer, a very cool person, took me to dinner at this restaurant in the Grand-Place called La Maison du Cygne. It was very good and the setting (the Grand-Place at night) was very beautiful. I ate food I never ate before.

I decided to spend the weekend in Paris. I highly recommend this approach if you're a speed train ride away from Paris. The Thalys system was comfortable and it got me to Paris from Brussels in less than 1.5 hours. I found a place to stay in the Hôtel De Neslie in the Latin Quarter and headed off to the Cathédrale de Nôtre-Dame. Even though I'm a staunch atheist, I am amazed by the aesthetic beauty of Churches. And the Cathedral with its gorgeous stained-glass windows was certainly among the most beautiful ones I have ever seen.

While I was grabbing a bite to eat in front of the Cathedral, this girl comes up to me and asks me if she could talk to me about god and Catholicism. I ask her if I can talk to her about becoming an atheist. We had a fun conversation.

My plan was basically to walk along the Seine river from the Cathédrale de Nôtre-Dame all the way out to the Tour Eiffel. On the way, I stopped at the Palais De Justice (which has harboured Paris' district courts since the 13th century), Ste-Chapelle (built by Louis IX to house Christ's Crown of Thorns), the Conceiergerie (one of Paris' most infamous prisons), and the Obélisque de Luxor (which dates back to the 13th century BC and depitcs the deeds of Ramses II and given to Charles X by the Viceroy of Egypt in 1829---it is Paris' oldest monument).

As I walked, I could see the Eiffel tower get closer and closer. Soon enough, I was under the largest flagpole in the world (at 300 metres, the Eiffel tower was built in 1889 as a centrepiece to the World's Fair). After running into a Stanford undergrad, I climbed up the stairs to the second floor and took a picture from all sides---I consider the view of the Palais de Chaillot to be the best, though the views from other three sides were pretty cool as well, particularly the ones of the Seine: . On my way up to the third floor, standing in a long line, I met an ex-Stanford graduate student and we had a long conversation which involved tossing around lateral thinking questions to each other. We stayed through sunset to see Paris at night, which was a beautiful sight but unfortunately my dinky camera didn't capture it.

I woke very early the next morning and went to check out the site where the Bastille stood, which now houses the Opéra Bastille (according to the Parisians, this is as monstrous as the prison Charles V built to guard the eastern entrance of his capital, used to house dissidents by Louis XIII, and believed to be the infamous "man in the iron mask") across from the Colonne De Juillet.

I headed off to the Musee de Louvre and skipped the waiting lines by entering from the Métro (generally I preferred to walk but I found the subway system to be highly efficient if I wanted to get anywhere fast). For whatever reasons, admission was free. I spent about three hours wandering around, and I barely scratched the surface of what is there to see. I just hit the high points, including the Mona Lisa by Da Vinci, The Raft of Medusa by Géricault, The Turkish Bath by Ingres, Code of Hammurabi, The Dying Slave by Michaelangelo, the Apollo Gallery, the Rubens Room, the Egyptian Antiquities section, and many many more. Unfortunately all the pictures I took inside didn't come out.

From the Louvre, I took the RER (Réseau Express Région) to Château De Vesailles where Louis XIV, the Sun King, built and held court. Again, it was free and I didn't spend too much time in the palace and wandered around the gardens for about four hours (since I never stopped walking, this works out to be a decent hike of about 12 miles).

I then returned to catch the sunset from atop the Arc De Triomphe (commissioned by Napoleon III in 1806 to honour his armies). The Arc De Triomphe is at the end of the avenue des Champs-Elysées, a work of the architect Baron Hausmann who was asked by Napoleon to re-design Paris (which explains the nice symmetry you see there, but it came at a huge price to the Parisians of the time). I contemplated running across the crowded road, but I found the entrance and the took the easy way to the base of the monument. I then climbed the stairs and once again, the view was spectacular, particularly as it became dark. This view in my opinion was better than the one from the top of the Eiffel tower, especially as you could see the tower itself.

On top of the monument, I ran into this model from Canada living in New York City and we had a great time talking and waiting for the sun to go down. We spent the rest of the evening together until it was time for me to take the last train to Brussels in order for me to give a talk the next day. No ulterior motives here, but I think I should've seized the moment and stayed the night in Paris, purely because of the conversation.

Somewhere in there I also managed to squeeze in the Musée D'Orsay which is built on a former railway station and houses Impressionist works and includes works like Manet's Olympia and works by Rodin, Renoir and Van Gogh. I also managed to check out the surrealistic Musée Salvador Dalií. I had a full two days in Paris, but there was a lot of things I missed. In particular, being a big Asterix fan I definitely plan to make it to the Parc Astérix next time.

I think Paris has become my favourite city in the world to visit and one reason for it is that the attention to detail paid with regards to the architecture. There's something appealing about the little squiggles and curves which are really meaningless but add to the aesthetic beauty of even a very old building.

Back in Brussels, I spent the next day talking to people about science and in the evening I went out to this great Gyro place in the infamous Greek/Turkish food place south of the Grand-Place (and fries with mayonnaise). Topped off the great Gyros with Belgian Waffles and ice cream. Yum.

The next morning, I woke up very early and headed off to the Belgian Comic Strip Centre, which showcases the art of many European comic strip creators including Hergè (Georges Rémi) who created Tintin, Underzo and Goscinny who created Asterix, Maurice (Morris) who was responsible for Lucky Luke, and Franquin. Once again, I was in heaven! Of course, the focus was really on Tintin, but there was a good amount of space devoted to the less well-known comic strips. Considering that I think comic books are one of the finest forms of literature, it was great to see school children being shown around the museum and asked to do exercises about the comic strips. I spent an awesome morning there before I headed off to Amsterdam.

Amsterdam is a dirty city, but it is a city that has an appeal to me because of its tolerance and openness. To quote Bob C. Cock of Primus fame:

"...somehow the permisiveness of Amsterdam has made these people actually happy. Really happy. It's a look I've only seen on the faces of the very rich in the States. Not everyone can afford it. Here it's a given. Basically, it comes down to this, if I can enjoy a fat hog's leg while casualy sipping a Kleinfeld in a bar that's surrounded by whores in booths, then something has finally gone my way. --Bob C. Cock
I mostly wandered around (gingerely stepping aside dog shit) the streets and the concentric canals since I was all museumed out at this point. From the Centraal Station, to the National Monument and the Koninklijk Paleis around the main square Dam, to the Stadhuis en Muziektheater, various Churches, and the Red Light District (where they were filming a movie) at night (which was a highly interesting experience, to say the least---prostitutes displayed like dolls in windows).

I must say that the driving in Europe in general is terrible. In Amsterdam it's a lot better, but in Paris and Brussels, people don't follow a lane system. It's amusing to see ten rows of cars turn around a circle and converge on a road that at most can hold three cars side by side.

Besides the great sights, one of the cool things about my trip was meeting interesting people, some of whom I mention above already. During my stay in Paris, the manager of the hotel and I had this hour-long conversation (she spoke extremely little English and I speak absolutely no French except to say parlez vous français) where we probably managed to convey five minutes of understanding to each other: she mentioned her brother was an organic chemist, which obviously meant that she somehow understood the nature of my research (which she wanted to know about). It was fun: sometimes not knowing a language can be a bridge instead of a barrier.

At the entrance of the Eiffel tower I met a senior from Stanford University who was spending the quarter in Paris. In Amsterdam, I ate at this Indian restaurant where I met a professor from the University of Oklahoma. Also, during both ways of the flight, I had the company of some very cool people, and talking certainly made the nine-hour flight go by in seconds. I also had the luck to see some great in-flight movies including Life is Beautiful, Enemy of the State, and Out of Sight. One of the most interesting, wild, and wonderful times I've had.

Pseudointellectual ramblings || Ram Samudrala || me@ram.org || March 10-17, 1999