Friday, February 26, 2010

Saying Good-By to Brussels

There's no question but that Brussels is a very photogenic city, and this
amateur photographer enjoying his new hobby had many delightful moments.
Like most visitors from America, I often wonder - as I stroll about cities
like Berlin, Vienna, Paris, and of course London, what it must be like to
have such "monumental" open spaces within the city.

We have our Central Park of course, and many other American cities have
grand public parks, but somehow in these European parts I always have the
feeling that the combination of space and massive monumental architecture
adds a separate dimension to the experience. And what must it be like to be
an ordinary citizen and just have all this available to you, anytime you
want to wander in and out? How lovely!

That lead-in is to introduce my pictures of the Royal Museums in Brussels,
located in the Parc du Cinquantenaire. These are massive structures, and I'm
sorry I couldn't be in Brussels long enough to explore the whys and
wherefors of that massive pile with its huge window facing the park. Is it a
meeting hall? A open museum? I couldn't find out, but if the interior is
anything like the exterior, it is, no question about it, a "grand" space. If
it were located closer to the City Center, I would think it was a railroad
station but, no, that can't be. Not in a park.

And what trip to Brussels could not include a few pictures of the Grand
Place? All these odd buildings, each so lavishly and uniquely decorated. And
there are advantages in a winter visit, because like the Piazza San Marco in
Venice, once the visitors start coming in with their holiday excursions,
Grand Place will be just one big crowd and I don't think I would like that.

My friend and I enjoyed the Brussels version of New York's Flatiron Building
(and I seem to recall seeing these I lots of other cities, where two streets
come together at an angle). This one - for some reason - was particularly
interesting to me. As was the wall of houses climbing up Mont des Arts,
culminating in one of the most famous art nouveau buildings in the city
(yes, I would conclude with art nouveau, wouldn't I?). The big black
building on the right with the highly decorated wrought iron is the Old
England Department Store, built in 1899 with Paul Saintenoy as its
architect. Now the city's museum of musical instruments, the building has
been preserved as one of the great examples of art nouveau architecture.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Art Nouveau


OK. I'm going to stop being pretentious. My French is all right, and
certainly I'm comfortable throwing around a few French phrases when I'm
feeling particularly "continental" (and how can you feel otherwise when
you're thinking about art nouveau?).

But I'm also beginning to realize that in all my striving to refer to my
favorite style as l'art nouveau, it was coming out a little, well,
"pretentious" seems to be the only word that comes to mind.

So "art nouveau" it will be from now on!

Loved all the exposure to art nouveau in Brussels. There are so many
variations on the theme, and it's hard to characterize the entire spectrum
of art nouveau that's available in Brussels, but the basics are there, and
they're really all over the place. Brussels, like Paris and Prague (I hear)
and Riga (ditto), is an essential stop on any art nouveau itinerary and I'm
happy I had some time to spend look about.

The photos are my own selection and I guess it's pretty obvious that I
didn't go for the more famous sites and objects. I did, though, have fun
with trying to figure out just what it was - back at the beginning of the
last century - that inspired people to latch on to art nouveau. And through
the intervening years, to keep going on and on with it, so that even in some
of the more modern buildings, one see references to art nouveau, often
attached to (and obviously inspired by) some true item or building or room
or shopfront from the actual art nouveau period.

So the photographs are something of a mélange (there I go again!), just
trying to capture some of the different representations. You see a lot of
these painted borders over doorways, and sometimes they are sculpted into
the surface of the wall (plaster, stone, or what-not). I like the way some
of the building entrances pull it all together, with the doorframes and
window frames, the glass decoration, and the door surrounds all of a piece.
I even found one building where my friend pointed out to me the art nouveau
characteristics of the letterboxes. Such fun!

And I have such fun with the fonts and typefaces, and the adverts of the
period and even the monumental signs and sculptures carried it out in the
lettering. It all seems to come together.

I've tried over the years to come up with some ideas - for myself (I'm not
scholar in these things) - to characterize art nouveau and I guess the
basics for me are the sinuous lines and the delicacy of the "movement" of
the lines. The botanical references please me a lot, too, and then there's
the famous "whiplash line" that for some art nouveau specialists is almost
the most famous characteristic of the style.

Whatever it is, it is a joy to behold, whether in architecture, drawings,
painting, light fixture, door handles, china and glassware, even the
magnificent silver (now reproduced in polished pewter) candlesticks,
sculptures, and such. Great fun.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Wandering About the Passages in Brussels

Like the over-the-streets enclosed walkways in Canada and the Northern
Middle States in America, the planners of Brussels long ago figured out how
to deal with getting the shoppers inside in the winter weather. Somehow I
had missed the beautiful "passages" in Brussels when I visited here in the
past. Similar to the handsome arcades in many other Northern European cities
(and, strangely, in Melbourne and Sydney in Australia), these lovely
enclosed areas with shops along either side are a very pleasant diversion on
a cold, rainy afternoon. We explored quite a few. The photos were taken at
Galeries Saint-Hubert, but there are several others worth a visit: the
Ravenstein-Galerie, the Horta-Passage (under the Gare Centrale), and the
Nord-Passage. Nice shops, good restaurants, and of course the
not-to-be-missed patisseries. Very special.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Brussels Views

Having spent a lovely day from Nairobi on Kenyan Airlines ("The Pride of
Africa" they say - and they could be right) and KLM from Amsterdam, Brussels
greeted Mr. Guy with unaccustomed chill. Not the friendliness of the people,
of course. Just the weather change. Northern Europe is cold and damp and
although the sun came out for a while on Saturday - my first day in Brussels
- I am still aware that I'm not in Nairobi!

And the delight of being back in Brussels was considerably enhanced by
having a friend from Berlin join me, waiting for me on my arrival on Friday
night. We plan to share a week-end pleasuring ourselves in l'art nouveau.
While other cities make considerable claims about the development of what is
perhaps my favorite style of art (with Paris and Prague leading the charge),
it's Brussels where you get a real sense of l'art nouveau. And this city goes
all out to make sure visitors can enjoy seeing this beautiful art and -
importantly - architecture to its fullest. There was even a two-year
"festival" devoted to l'art nouveau from 2007-2009. These people take l'art
nouveau
very seriously.

The photos are pretty self-evident, mostly just "walking-about" views, since
the real attention to l'art nouveau begins on Sunday. But I did enjoy the
mixture of styles Horta was able to pull together - including his own versions
to l'art nouveau - at the Gare Centrale, and of course the use of the
typefont in signage and the many buildings and shop windows taking advantage
of the gorgeously curved wood shapes are all lovely to observe, no matter
where you wander about in the city.

As for the photos, La Tour Noire is just across the street from my hotel
(and as you can see it is surrounded by another hotel on three sides).
Haven't yet figured out its significance, except that it's old. Two street
cleaners walking past - observing us reading the notice - gave us a pleasant
introduction but as it was very early in the morning on my first day of
attempting to converse in (and understand) French, I didn't get much. I
looked it up but all I could find are references to the hotel built around
it. Oh, well. More research later....

And the building with the lion is pretty typical, both in architecture and
in having that nice lion depicted in the roundel.

Spent lots of time at the antiques collectibles outdoor market at Grand
Sablon, apparently famous the world over. As I'm not a serious collector I
just enjoyed looking at the all the nice things. It was by now a very pretty
sunny (and cold) afternoon, so it was nice just to wander among the stands.
Among our wanderings, discovered a new favorite shop, Senses Art Nouveau. So much to see and learn. Very gracious staff, apparently very pleased to see two visitors with a love of l'art nouveau,
even if what they have on offer is reproduction merchandise. Still, mighty
nice stuff and in spending some time in the shop, one can learn a great
deal. So it was a pleasant sort of introduction to the focus of our visit,
and of course I did what I could for the Brussels economy.

So lots to enjoy. Looking forward to continuing over the next few days
(well, once the week begins, when I can fit it in between work assignments).

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Daily Life - Yet More Impressions Before I Go On Mission

As I am about to leave for a while, I thought it might be fun to have a few
final shots of the neighborhood where I live - or, in this case, where I
walk each day.

I am about to go away on business for six weeks or so (or, as they say at
the U.N., I'll be "on mission"), and since people ask about my daily life in
Nairobi, here are a few comments.

Life is very different from life in New York (for one thing, there are far
fewer people, even though Nairobi is a big city by African standards, with
about a million people).

In the section of the city where I live, with several embassies and official
residences - the High Commissioner referred to in the sign here is the
Pakistan High Commissioner - and with the United Nations and the U.S.
Embassy right in the middle of things (hence not so many photos - it's not
allowed), you have a sense of a very nice, upper middle class - perhaps even
posh - neighborhood. And the shopping center - the Village Market - is a
very muzungu market, sort of a Kenyan version of Madison Avenue in the 60s
or Upper Connecticut Avenue in Washington. The houses are nice, as you can
see from the gates along the way, shown in these views.

Work at the U.N. can begin early, and since the sun rises and sets at the
same time each day - we are very near the Equator - I like the walk to work
early in the morning. I'm usually out of the house by 7.00 am.

The U.N. has very nice food services, and I have my coffee and a chappati (a
very nice flatbread which I would love to learn to make but I'm told it's
not easy to do) before I go into the office. As I've said, it's about a
two-mile walk, takes about 35 minutes all told (with about ten minutes after
I've entered the U.N. compound) to get to my office. Lunch is either a nice
hot meal from the African section of the U.N. restaurant or (sadly too
often) a quick sandwich purchased on the run and eaten at my desk. The U.N.
restaurant also has a section with Mediterranean cuisine, one with Indian
food, another one I haven't been able to quite figure out yet, and a section
where one of the nicest ladies in the world makes me a delicious sandwich
when she sees me coming. A little ham, some cheese, some tomato and
cucumber, and then some of the most beautiful roasted vegetables you've ever
seen, all piled up together. Great.

Each of the office blocks has a coffee stand with very helpful people
providing the service. During the day, I'll take a couple of mugs of coffee
back to my desk or, as often happens, a colleague and I (or three or four of
us) will have one of our discussions at a near-by coffee bar.

Work at the U.N. is generally scheduled from 8.30 to 4.30, with early
"closing" on Fridays at 2.00 pm. Most of the professional staff work much
longer hours, though, and it's not unusual to find quite a few people at
their desks when I get to my office block about 7.45 or so.

When I can, I try to leave between 4.30 and 5.00, so I can have a snack and
a coffee in one of the shops at the Village Market. For dinner I usually eat
a light meal at home if I've had a good lunch, but if it's been a "sandwich"
day, I walk up past the American Embassy a little farther to visit a
wonderful African restaurant. It's not open for dinner, so often at about
5:30 or so I'm the only customer. So I'm given the royal treatment!

The food's great and, yes, there are washbasins in a couple of prominent
places in the main dining room and, yes, I eat my meal with my hands (it's
African food, after all). A typical meal is a main dish of some sort - often
a chicken or goat stew, but not a real "stew" because it's been cooked to a
nice moist consistency but doesn't have a lot of sauce - accompanied by a
chopped vegetable salad (tomatoes and onions and cucumbers especially but
usually lots of other stuff, too), a cooked green vegetable - kale is very
popular and I love the way it's fixed here - and a big helping of ugali, a
kind of cooked maize flour and water combination the consistency of
cornbread (but not crispy like cornbread).

Most food is cooked on top of the stove - not baked - and either fried
lightly in oil or boiled. My two favorites are irio - a sort of mixture of
boiled vegetables - and the one I really want to learn to cook (which
everyone says is the easiest food in the world to cook), fried cabbage.
Apparently it's just chopped cabbage sautéed lightly in oil, not too well
done so it's very crunchy, and, well, I could live on it. It's the one dish
that when I see it on the menu at the U.N. restaurant (or in any African
restaurant), the decision to have an African meal is made for me.

This is sort of a typical day, but of course there are many variations, as
when, for example, I'm called to a meeting at the City Centre, or at one of
the local universities, or a group of us from work goes out for a meal
(either lunch or after work). Lots of eating together at the U.N. -
especially for lunch - and my take is that lots of major decisions get made
around a table at one of the U.N. restaurants (in addition to the one I
described above, there's a second one, a little more distant from my office
but very spread out under the trees and just lovely). You're usually under
an umbrella at your table, the weather is beautiful (the skies pictured here
are typical of Nairobi), and it's a pleasant way to confer about this or
that topic.

Evenings are quiet, usually spent at the laptop or reading (unless I am
going out with friends, which happens about once a week, but mostly on
week-ends - when I'm not on safari looking at the animals!). Don't watch
television, and entertainment events (shows at the theatres, etc.) haven't
happened yet, but I'm told by my friends that we'll be doing that when I
return in April. So evenings are quiet, with lots of reading and just taking
it easy. Playing with the blogs, some studying, e-mail correspondence (the
post is very difficult here - you don't bother to post anything because it
will never arrive - if it's really urgent you might try to get it into a
diplomatic pouch).

Not a very exciting life, I suppose. Very work and friends focused (and,
yes, I miss my Metropolitan Opera and all the wonderful evening events in
Manhattan) but since this work is - as I've said to anyone whether they've
asked or not - probably the most intellectually stimulating job I've ever
had in my life - I'm not minding the tradeoff.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Hell's Gate Safari - The Scenery

And then there's the scenery. As I noted last time, describing a safari to
this magnificent park can't be done in just one post, so please forgive this
"extra" posting. Just wanted to be sure this splendid place was given its
due.

Being a dormant volcano, the rocks are spectacular, and the obsidian rock -
found all over the Rift Valley really - is truly spectacular here, and my
friends and I loved picking it up, holding it up to the sunlight and
enjoying its beauty. It's very much like the old fashioned "jet" jewelry
ladies used to wear (maybe that's where the jewelry comes from?) and it is a
beautiful stone, very glassy and associated with lava flows that cooled too
quickly for crystallization. And, sadly, there are no photos of the
obsidian, since the pictures I took didn't turn out. Sorry.

The views, I hope, will more than make up for that. The entrance to the park
is very lovely, as the panorama pictures show. These are very typical
scenes, and when I spoke about the similarity of this experience to my visit
to Yosemite last April, I wasn't really referring to the height of the
mountains - they are nothing alike. It's just that at both Hell's Gate
National Park in Kenya and at Yosemite National Park in America, there is a
spectacular feeling to being out in nature among all this beauty.

Hard to believe, for some of us city dwellers. Just hope I never lose my
appreciate of it.

Fischer's Rock - the most spectacular of the volcanic "plugs" - is quite a
sight. One of the early 19th-century explorers, Fischer was apparently one
of the people who contributed much to the volume of learning about the
volcanic region in those days. The other conspicuous volcanic plug is known
as Central Tower, and it, too, can be seen from just about anywhere in the
park.

The other amazing fact about Hell's Gate National Park is the presence of
the steam under the earth, and how it is used. The Ol Koria Geothermal Power
Station produces 15-25% of the country's electrical power (I wish we got a
little bit more of it in Nairobi when the power goes off, as it does too
often!). But in all seriousness, I was not only surprised but a little
overwhelmed to see how this huge public-private operation can take place
right in the park with very little disruption of the beauty of the place.
May it always remain so.

There are still places where steam escapes from the rock formations -
including one nicely photographed by Justin Masese, whom we've now delegated
our "official photographer" and to whom we refer as "Mister Justin" - he
loves it! And there's even steam escaping from the hills behind the zebras
in that photograph. Not much, but you can see it if you look carefully.

And that's a good segue into speaking about the wildlife. There is plenty of
it in Hell's Gate National Park, but - as I noted - most people come for the
scenery. We saw quite a few zebras, wonderful giraffes (including a splendid
giraffe family walking along in formation as they do, with mom in the front,
followed by junior, with dad bringing up the rear. Splendid.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Hell's Gate National Park Safari - The Gorge

Perhaps I give the impression that I spend all my time in Kenya going on
safari but the tardiness of this post will clarify that. I am in Nairobi to
work, and despite the pleasures of the occasional safari or other excursion
(usually on week-ends), I do have a job to go to.

So the posts do not necessarily coincide with the date of the event (hence
the 24 January 2010 date on these photographs). Sorry about that!

What to say about Hell's Gate? My driver and I decided to have a safari
there, not so much to see the animals (although there are plenty of animals
in the park). I had heard about the spectacular scenery, and we'll have
those photos in the next post. And while I had not heard much about the rock
climbing that's required if you want to see the gorge, well, I was up to it
(surprising even myself!).

There's just so much to say about Hell's Gate and I won't be able to do our
safari justice, so I'll start with the climb. As with my other safaris, I
chose to go alone, although this time I decided to invite Charles's
13-year-old son (who had later come with us to the Maasai Ostrich Farm, also
described here and also out of sequence). My usual practice is not to bring
a guide from Nairobi - which can be done - but to hire a guide at the park,
and this time we really lucked out. Joseph Nyoike turned out to be one of
the most knowledgeable - and one of the funniest - young men I've met since
I've been in Kenya. The personality comes through in his introduction to the
gorge. It was obvious this man was going to see that we had a good time.

The gorge itself is spectacular, as I hope the photos show.

The climb? That's a different story (and it is pretty "spectacular" as an
adventure, I will say). And despite my continual protestations that "70 is
the new 50" these three - having discovered that I have a big birthday
coming up - decided to be very protective of their "older" pal. So I was not
allowed to take any chances as I climbed down into (and back up from) the
river gorge. As you can see, it's pretty deep, and while there were plenty
of places where I had to step carefully and the fall would have been pretty
disastrous, I was well protected. There were continually three young me
below me having me put my foot on this one's shoulder or my hand around this
one's neck. They weren't taking any chances.

So down we went and - yes - I was a little taken aback by the rather large
sign posted at the spot where we would start our descent: "Be Aware of Flash
Floods." Fortunately, it was dry enough that we didn't have any flash floods
and in fact we weren't in any danger. Joseph told us that if there had been
major rainfall up-river, we would not have been allowed to go down into the
gorge. Even so, you can see from the riverbed that a rush of water coming
down the gorge would not have been fun.

It was a spectacular adventure, and I really enjoyed myself. Water seeps out
of the rock at all levels. Hell's Gate is - as one guidebook describes it -
"the most overtly volcanic of Kenyan landscapes" and that is clearly evident
from the heat of the water coming out. Beautifully, pristine and clear, the
water is so hot it is often steaming. And sometimes too hot to touch but
when it can be dipped into, it makes for an amazingly refreshing wash-up.

Our climb lasted about four hours, with the climb back out topped up by
incredibly gorgeous views and - thank goodness we were all in good shape -
about a four-mile walk back to the carpark. Hot, dusty, thirsty (although we
had taken plenty of water with us), we still didn't want to leave but our
time in Hell's Gate had to come to an end.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Maasai Ostrich Farm


A recent Sunday excursion took a group of friends to the Maasai Ostrich
Farm, now a rather swell resort, part of the Merica Group.

[Yes, you read that name correctly - it's a hotel chain in Kenya (I stayed
at the Merica Hotel in Nakuru not long ago) but every time I see it I think
it should say "America" not "Merica"]

The resort is only 25 km (about 16 miles) from Nairobi's City Center but it
seems much farther away, probably because of the condition of the roads.
Although it didn't even dawn on us - even my driver - that we should use a
four-wheel drive vehicle, once we left the Nairobi-Mombasa Highway (very
soon after leaving Nairobi) it became very clear that this was going to be a
driving adventure. There's much industry in parts of the area - including
two of the country's largest cement factories - and the huge lorries
(trailer trucks) have done their work on the roadway. Probably the bumpiest
road I've ever ridden on, but Charles as usual was up to it and maneuvered
us along with great competence and even though all that jerking back and
forth prevented any real progress in terms of speed (our journey took over
two hours!), we got through fine.

The Maasai Ostrich Farm - apparently an original Maasai farm for raising
these big birds - is popular as an excursion site for both local visitors
and international tourists, who often stop by for a brief visit as they head
out of Nairobi on safari. The city is pretty much recognized as the safari
center of Africa and most of the popular safaris originate in Nairobi, so
the ostrich farm a natural and very convenient stop as a safari begins.

As day-trippers, Nerisa Kamar, Geoffrey Opile, Charles Masese and his
13-year-old son Justin, and I found our time at the Maasai Ostrich Farm a
very pleasant way to spend a Sunday. Despite the long trip, we all know one
another very well, so the conversation never flagged (that's an
understatement - if knowledge management is all about story-telling, we five
must be among the most knowledgeable people around - we never stopped
talking!). And with Mr. Justin designated as the official photographer, he
was - like any curious teen-ager - continually busy.

As a resort, the Maasai Ostrich Farm is very nice, and the restaurant is
excellent. The specialty is of course Kenya's famous nyama choma, the
national dish of grilled meat. Obviously the primary meat for the meal here
is ostrich, and we were surprised to find that our two platters of roasted
ostrich meat were very different. The first had a delicious flavor but was -
as we say - a little "tough." Nevertheless, it was very tasty, and the meat
was certainly consumed with enthusiasm. The second platter, though,
completely surprised us, as it was as soft and as tender as if it were a
totally different animal which, as it turned out, it was. It was so tender
we could have cut it with a fork (if we had been using knives and forks!)
and when we asked about the difference in the two platters of meat, that was
exactly the reason we were given: the roast meat came from two different
animals.

Not to get too serious about why we were having the day out, after our lunch
we had a lovely walkabout, enjoyed seeing all the ostriches (we resisted the
temptation to take the ostrich ride!) and ended up laughing and playing in
the children's area. Fortunately there were no children about, for we might
have left a rather confused impression about how grown-ups behave when they
are out!