Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Bonjour Brussels

Last week I decided not to post because I was about to take the GRE. Having completed that on Friday, I now have a bit more time to write. Two major things:

1.  Because there were no testing centers in the Netherlands open for the day that I wanted, I had to travel to Brussels, Belgium to take the GRE. As such, my mother and I took a short road trip (only 2 hours) to the capital of the European Union where we stayed for a little over two days.

2. Tomorrow, I embark on the most anticipated leg of this eight month American sabbatical—I will finally fly to Lima, Peru.

To start, Brussels. On the way to our hotel, we accidentally got off the highway and ventured into the city center. Tall, glass-encased edifices stoically pressed up against the streets, demanding respect. All of the people bustling in and out of them looked very important. We were in the government district, surrounded by the leaders of the EU as they were working diligently towards solutions within these buildings. I couldn't help but feel that momentous decisions were being made right next to me.

The rest of our adventures in Brussels were navigated by foot and metro. We meandered through the history-laden streets, admiring the mixture of French and Dutch and even some Spanish-style architecture of the cathedrals, houses, and government buildings erected long ago. Although the cold froze our noses and ears, the light flurries of snow bestowed a magical quality upon the Belgian capital.

We happened upon an antiques market that whispered of the past, an anachronistic warehouse of wonders. I could practically hear the voices of the men and women hosting dinner parties under the crystal chandeliers, smell the ink and tobacco smoke that filled the rooms as they sat at their desks and perused their bookshelves, see the banalities and the scandals that the pictures innocently hanging on the wall witnessed silently in their stolid beauty. Twas a thing of mystery and a thing of beauty, much like the city of Brussels itself.

One of the most incredible sights in the city is the Grote Markt (Great/Big Market), a square surrounded by majestic buildings of government and commerce. Impossible to render its beauty through a description, the Grote Markt might best be imagined through the captures of a camera.

And of course, I would be remiss not to mention our encounters with the famous chocolates of Belgium. All of the stores had displays of chocolate bunnies and ducks, ready for the spring to show its refreshing face. My mother and I stopped into a little café where we drank the best hot chocolate I have ever had the pleasure of drinking. So rich, so thick, so delicious it was that we went back the next day to delight in its goodness again. If you want to feel like Willy Wonka, Belgium is your destination.

The window of one of the many chocolate shops. The bunny is solid chocolate!

Godiva, a Belgian original
Now we have returned from Belgium and are furiously preparing to head for Peru. My mom and I will fly into Lima, then to Cusco a few days later. From a town near Cusco, we will embark on a guided tour of the Incan Trail, a four day camping and hiking trek that leads to the infamous Machu Picchu. Finally, we will return to Lima. My mom will depart, and I will settle in for the semester. Since we will be hiking the Incan Trail around this time next week, the next blog post will probably be delayed until two weeks from now. Bon Voyage!

Thursday, February 14, 2013


                Being from the South, I much prefer warmth to the chill. However, I would (and did) most willingly subject myself to getting chills and goosebumps over and over again when listening to the two august performances I attended this past week. The first was a concert by the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, playing Beethoven, Debussy, and Gounod in Amsterdam’s famed Concertgebouw, a concert hall likened to Carnegie Hall in New York City. The second was a pied chamber music performance by the Amaryllis Ensemble in the Theater De Tobbe in Voorburg, the Netherlands. To hear two world-class concerts in the span of four days is a tremendous gift, the likes of which I could not possibly do justice with words. If I had recordings, I would share them because performances as divine as these must be shown to the world; they could only serve to better the human condition.

                The inadequacy of language be as it may, I will try to describe a bit in hopes that you, the reader, may share in my elation and amazement. Picture this: pristine white walls, stoic columns supporting the balcony, the names of the great composers surrounding the audience, velvety scarlet seats, and a stage populated with musicians poised to play. Now that you’re in the Grote Zaal (Great Hall) of the Concertgebouw, listen for the whisper of strings, a slightly cacophonous time of individual warm-up. This pre-performance time is one of my favorite parts because it reminds me of the personal melodies our lives sing; while they may be to our own rhythms, they interact with the songs around them, a blissful symphony of dissonance and resonance, often surprising us with the harmony that takes over.

Grote Zaal
(picture from:

                Finally, the three featured players—the  violinist, cellist, and pianist—entered to a stream of applause, appearing focused and mirthful in anticipation of their ensuing act of Beethoven’s Tripleconcert for violin, cello, piano, and orchestra. Without a conductor, the orchestra danced to a start, their quick fingers dazzling the audience. Not only did their phrasing impress, but also the trio’s body language and communication gave the feeling that we, the audience, were being let in on an intimate secret they shared with each other. The violinist hopped with each crescendo. The pianist swept his arm with a flourish into the air after each grand gesture. The cellist glowed with laughter and broke hairs on his bow with the intense climaxes. What fun they had, and so did we.

                Later in the week, my mother and I attended a more intimate performance in the streamlined Theater De Tobbe. More intimate hardly means less good, though. Far from it! The Amaryllis Ensemble is nothing less than phenomenal. And it is our great fortune to call the artists—Uzi Heymann (pianist), Rani Heymann (clarinetist), and Liat Alkan-Heymann (soprano)—our dear friends. We feel incredibly blessed to know such talented and unendingly hospitable people.

From left to right: Uzi, Liat, and Rani
(The relations: Uzi and Rani are twins
Liat and Rani are married)
                They opened with Louis Spohr’s Das heimliche Lied, a demanding and touching piece that speaks to the core. But don’t let my words diminish it, listen to them perform it (click here or the link above). Even though I could not understand the German or the later songs in Hebrew and Yiddish, it hardly mattered, for Liat’s expressive face and gestures told the story as much as the music itself did. Especially during a particularly gripping performance of Lior Navok’s Three Songs based on poems by Lea Goldberg (Ba’erev, Song without a name, and Veshuv…), I felt the longing, the nostalgia, and the ache of the song’s subject, a woman so alone.

                While there is not enough room to mention all of the great expression in the concert, I must applaud the way the ensemble captured each different character of the flowers in Terence Greaves’ A Garden of Weeds. From the seductive Poppy to the crabby Thistle, each weed (as funny as it sounds) came alive with the music, and the audience laughed wholeheartedly.

                Finally, I have to say that I wanted to move in to Luigi Cherubini’s infamous Ave Maria, so I could rest and fathom in its beauty forever. To hear Rani, Uzi, and Liat perform it was like that feeling you get when you suddenly intake a life-sustaining breath after having forgotten to inhale. Refreshing. Pure. Life. Bravissimo!

                Happy Valentine’s Day to all! May you rejoice in love in all of your relationships.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Lights, Camera, Action!

                Attending the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) this week was a highlight to remember. After a mere hour journey by bus and train, I arrived at the bustling and newly renovated Rotterdam Centraal Station. Inside the station, I felt like I was walking in an enormous earthy spaceship; the sharply angled ceiling juts downward and into the negative space, a geometric genius to be admired. Meanwhile, warm brown woods and light tan bricks invite the traveler to feel safeguarded from the chilling rains that await, a most happily welcomed comfort. The stark whites and sleek metallic designs expected to be found in modern architecture were notably absent, forgone for the pervasive tranquil, Zen space. Well done Dutchies, well done.

                Moving along, I was greeted by one of the most grounded, calm, and lovely souls you will ever meet, my dear friend Emma. Never will I tire of spending time with her refreshing self and infectious smiling giggle. We chatted and walked on the damp Dutch stones to the theatre where our movie was being shown. Upon arrival, we discovered a movie theatre packed with people of many nationalities bustling about between film showings. Although, it was surprisingly quiet. There lingered a buzz of excitement in the air. Everyone seemed to share the indescribable euphoria of knowing they were about to see something new, something fresh, something that will add to life. I think humans crave to experience new things, so they can then share those gleaned droplets of wisdom with their fellow humans and by recounting, perpetuate the beautiful cycle that we call humanity, from nascence to the ripening that creates new life again. Wonderfully contagious, it certainly riled up my innate desire to sample this uniqueness, as well.

                Happy to be in such a positive environment, Emma and I made our way into the Imax theatre, scored center seats, and awaited the film’s opening scene. Before the movie even started, though, the producer—a quintessentially Spanish man, complete with thick, foggy accent and grandiose gestures—introduced the movie. The introduction in and of itself was a new experience for both Emma and I. To hear his perspective on what the movie was about and what was important in it allowed me to watch the movie in a much deeper fashion than I probably would have done without the live prologue. “El muerto y ser feliz” or “The Dead Man and Being Happy” was an expression of the big picture of life. The important things: health, family, happiness all outweigh the little details in which we so often entangle ourselves in the quest for truth. In the Q&A session afterwards, the producer argued that you could only glean one truth from the movie—that the main character was alive running towards death and his companion was alive and running towards her family—the same as in life the producer conjectured. Food for thought.

                An Italian dinner, a train ride, and a bus ride later, I had arrived back home. That evening well spent was only one of the many things I have to be thankful for this week. I had coffee with my former band teacher, a genuine and thoughtful man whose picture should be in the dictionary next to “kindness.” Also, with my mom I walked in the sand dunes by the beach in our town of Wassenaar. We are incredibly lucky to have that beauty so close by.

If you look closely through the fence wire, you can see a faint outline of The Hague skyline.

              This week, I also found out where I’ll be living in Lima and was assigned a “buddy” to welcome me to the university. Everyone seems exceptionally hospitable and kind. Now my imminent journey feels more real, and I cannot wait to get there. But in these intermittent three weeks, I will focus on the truth that I am alive and blessed. That’s all I need.