Monday, June 23, 2014

Spring Get Aways- April and May 2014

The work-life ledger for spring weighs a heavy balance on the work end of the scale. Maintaining  weekly commitments and a healthy workout schedule (it is not normal for humans to sit at desks for 8+ hours per day) has further complicated the notion of "free time," too. So when the odd moment arose for a stealthy escape, I packed my RyanAir approved bag and bolted. As a small disclaimer, more than 50% of my getaways were prompted by work opportunities, but these conferences and meetings serve up incentive for highly concentrated and productive weeks and a greater appreciation for any resulting play time in the city where meetings are convened. 

Each getaway packed an unsuspected element. In Paris, it was a food-driven parcourse. Previous visits consigned me to the extreme budget tourist track, which relegates meal times to cheap street food and hostels with free breakfasts. This go about was different: it was a short stay and the first days outside of Belgium  in months, so meals were to be relished. We did our research, too, and devoted a few late hours (after responsible adult stuff, of course) scouring food blogs and drooling over Lebovitz's list of Parisian favorites. We bookended the trip with dinners at Le Mary Celeste and Lazare, two ends of the spectrum (one with copious amounts of urban outfitters "vintage finds" and oversized 1980's computer tech glasses, one with copious amounts of Vuitton and Dior, both with staff and scenery to mitigate the uncomfortableness created by the clientele), but both extraordinarily delicious in their unique ways. Elegant but unpretentious, quite the welcome finds in a city ingloriously renowned for its aires. Spliced together with traditional favorites from pastry shops and a cheesemongers, it was a real taste of the cuisine long touted as Parisienne and was as wonderful as I'd built it up in my mind (even if there was no duck confit or steak tartare this go around). 

Outside the Pompidou Center in the 3eme Arrondissement

 a secret carpet vendor in an old cloister

les moulins de Montmartre

Like the food route, the sightseeing blended iconic stops and new discoveries. Long strolls through the Marais and Rue Mouffetard were a nice change- the typical schedule usually doesn't afford leisurely store perusing or meandering lazily through the 5th- but I demanded an evening climb through Montmartre and up to the Sacre Coeur for what always results in an entertaining aperitif on the stairs overlooking the Paris city center (expert tip: make sure to grab your wine, cheese, treats and pack a corkscrew before hauling up the hill...). Though the trip ended rather ungracefully on my end- asking the kind guards at Paris Nord station about the violently ill 20-something trying to board a train back to Bruxelles will likely conjure some disgusted faces and serious looks of concern- it was a relaxed trip with a heavy focus on enjoying, a welcomed departure from previous overloaded attempts to digest the best of the iconic city in a paltry number of hours. 

Easter holidays promise two class-free weeks for students, but PhD candidates better know this period as "conference alley." Conferences, annual meetings, workshops, and seminars take place during these two weeks, and the rotating locations add extra incentive to develop a paper, apply, and digest the overwhelming amount of scholarship and nerd talk that is part and parcel of any academic get-together. This year brought the opportunity to head south- Salamanca, Spain was home to an impressive meeting in my field, one that promised both a challenging academic agenda and social schedule. Like Paris, I'd visited Salamanca before; my memories, however, were less than romantic. Rain, cold, wind, self-indulgent Italians with sexual egos that would make Zeus quiver (and who shared their conquests with all sleeping members in the 10 person hostel room), swerving and dangerous bus rides, aimless wandering/shelter seeking- these were the images emblazoned on my mind from a 2006 trip to Salamanca organized for exchange students during my studies in Madrid.

Needless to say, Salamanca redeemed herself the second go about. The conference was extraordinarily fruitful. Receptions and social events toured us through the city's medieval glory. The colleagues convened were engaging and equally interested in stuffing bellies and minds. The weather was dry and sunny, at most with hints of whispy clouds on the horizon. We had the chance to discuss political change and comparative cases with tinto de verano on the Plaza Mayor, and to mull over geopolitical upheaval with pincho moruno at tapas bars tucked underneath 16th century buildings. We discussed systems of global governance while watching Atletico Madrid win its way into the Champions League final on terraces tucked under the shadows of the cathedrals. And although my travel companions and I were awoken on two consecutive nights by loud, drunk, Spanish teenagers (and one lad so drunk he'd misplaced his clothes and dignity, broke into our room at 5am, and crawled naked into bed with my colleague, Niels), I have to say, Salamanca, I retract my previous grievances- you are a gem in the paisaje de Castilla y Leon.

Belfry in the Catedral Nueva

Easter processions in Salamanca

Plaza Mayor, Salamanca after an evening mist.

After a week of geeking out at NerdFest 2014, my brain needed a different sort of stimulation. And given that the closest airport necessitated a trip through town anyway, I decided the time was ripe for a return to my first love: Madrid.  Lucky for me, a few favorite friends call Madrid home, so as the train crossed the Sierra, swooped by the Palacio Escorial, and continued downhill into Madrid, I slid into full on guiri mode, ready to enjoy the city I called home some years ago. So much and so little has changed. Granted, I severely profited from local-grown guides and perhaps I was still running on the fumes of an academic energy rush, but Madrid felt more beautiful, more mature, and more confident. To sum it up, the only negative reaction that registered during my five day stay was a repulsion to the trend English and Spanish women have so lovingly embraced: the jean diaper.

 sneaky reading at the Matadero Madrid

 terraze del circulo de bellas artes, Madrid


Art installation at Palacio de Correos (the wedding cake building)

Burgers with the Black Keys

Madrid is the capital of a horrific, structural economic meltdown. Unemployment, political corruption, imbalanced development and misallocation of public funds- they've run the gamut of political and economic mismanagement for many years. But something is going right in Madrid. There is a renewed investment in public spaces. For all the exposed butt cheeks, there seems to be a sort of artistic revolution happening, or at least rumblings of a society more appreciative of its cultural endowment. Case in point is the Matedero de Madrid, the former abattoir-cum-cultural center that transformed vacant space and a seedy neighborhood into an idyllic creative crossing for Madrilenos of all ages. Couple that with its strategic location on the finally-finished Madrid Rio park and this place becomes the epitome of excellent public investments. Again thanks to the definitive awesomeness of Marta and Curro, we spent a balmy morning/afternoon biking our way through Casa de Campo, Parque del Oeste and southbound along the former eyesore of a highway-turned-diverse and sprawling parkway and bike path called Madrid Rio. 

 Sunny and warm in early April- Zonian Woud, Brussel

Back in Belgium, a few day-long excursions helped stretch the legs and fill the lungs with non-exhaust tainted air. Even when only able to sneak away for a few hours, hopping the metro out to the Zonian Forest means endless hiking/running/biking trails, and if you're clever with maps, a few stops at cloisters converted into art galleries and cafes.  The forest demarcates Brussels' southeastern border but stretches for kilometers further south and east- even if arriving/departing via public transport, you're quickly transported into an Emersonian-worthy world. Its easy to get lost- physically and mentally: trees tower over the pathways, creating allies that look remarkably similar to one another; and if height is a marker of age, its mind boggling to think that Allied forces were sneaking injured army capitans through these woods and down into the covers of the underground hospital at Porte de Hall.  Better yet, and when the number of free hours are multiplied, an hour-long train journey dumps you in the neighborhood of Dinant and a short walk away from innumerable trailheads that spiderweb up through the tree-covered and cattle roaming hillsides. Where the Meuse River carves its path, the banks slope upward and the trees stay a rich green all year thanks to Belgium's "damp" climate. Every once in a while the trees give way to a meadow, too- the perfect spot for a lunch, a whiskey, a break from academia, and a bit of contact with the real world.

Meadow above the Meus River near Dinant