Friday, November 18, 2005

Brussels' Best Bars

The Bulletin, the local expat mag, asked me to contribute to their extensive listing of "Brussels' Best Bars". So I did. Here are my five contributions to their list. These aren't my personal favorite bars; they're just ones I thought should be included....

77 Elisestraat/Rue Elise 77

This cozy brown bar can be hard to find, tucked away on a side street in Ixelles’ ULB quarter. But it’s worth the effort. Dominating the candle-lit back room is a wall menu boasting more than 200 Belgian beers, from the lowly Maes to the elusive Fantôme. The selection is categorized helpfully into different styles (sweet blondes, bitter ambers, etc.) that might also describe the student clientele. Thankfully, the place’s charm seems to have survived a modernization effort undertaken a couple of years ago (they still spin vinyl on a turntable).

Cafe Belga
18 Flageyplein/Place Flagey 18
02/640-2569 (but I’d be shocked if anyone bothered to answer)

Fred Nicolay owns the coolest bars in town, and they all share certain traits: poor-to-indifferent service, uncomfortable chairs, unbearably hip clientele. Café Belga is his crowning achievement. What makes this Flagey landmark so great is that everyone loves it even though almost everything about it – the too-cool-to-serve-you bartenders (yes, they are handsome, but must they spend five minutes handcrafting each thé à la menthe?), the horrible view (its terrace overlooks an open sewer), the chi-chi patrons (“I’m saving this seat for my cigarette smoke…”) – is unpleasant. It’s packed all day and all night.

Fat Boys
5 Luxemburgplein/Place du Luxembourg 5

This, sad to say, is the only real sports bar in town (Conway’s, with its craven red, white and blue signage, tries to fool American tourists trapped in the Toison d’Or-bit, but it’s really just a pick-up joint for suburban Belgians). A sports bar is place with more than one television and the courage to tune them simultaneously to different events. Fat Boys usually fits this definition. What’s more, it has something rare for a Brussels tavern: a long bar at which one may sit and drink.

7 Kartuizerstraat/rue des Chartreux

Refreshingly for an establishment in the St. Géry hipster quarter, no trance techno beat pulses through the stereo. In fact, no music at all disturbs the quiet, well-lit Greenwich, where you can read, chat, or even hear yourself think. In fact, you can even hear the chess players at the next table thinking. But don’t let the sound of brains contemplating queen sacrifices and hands slapping chess timers and fingers ruffling ponderously through goatees scare you off. Order an ale and enjoy the silence.

28 Rijke Klarenstraat/rue des Riches Claires 28

It’s late, very late. You’re drunk and in need of a nightcap – or, more precisely, early-morning-cap. You’re still in enough control of your faculties to avoid Celtica, with its desperate lager-louts hoping for one last chance to pull. So you head to this gem hidden behind the Halles St. Géry, where the music is good, the service friendly, and the cocktails delivered in frosty shakers. Speaking of shaking, so is your booty, most likely atop the bar. The place seems sequestered, mischievously off-grid. Don’t go before 3. In fact, don’t go at all, you’ll just spoil it.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Out of Ethiopia

My wife, Karen Hoehn, has just this morning returned from Addis Ababa, where she was helping run an NGO training conference for the Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevölkerung (German Foundation for World Population). She is safe and sound, but many people she left behind in Ethiopia are not.

Here's what she experienced when leaving the country yesterday:

I came home from Addis Ababa last night, two days earlier than planned. It's a very sad situation there. The government has been pulling people (e.g., university professors, an NGO [ActionAid] program officer) out of their homes and imprisoning them or shooting them dead because they have different political views (e.g., want freedom of the press, elections without fraud, etc.). One woman was shot dead because she cried out "why are you taking him?!" when the military took her husband away from their home. Kids have been shot in the back when trying to run away from the danger.

I'm totally fine, but yesterday was scary. Driving back from the idyllic DSW training center 45 km outside Addis, we were waved off the road by men with automatic rifles. Men with guns were running up and down the road and jam-packed into military trucks -- handling the guns casually, like bling. Gunfire crackled at regular intervals nearby. The government was shooting men in the prison on the other side of the wall from where we were, picking them off like fish in a barrel. Undoubtedly, many were the university professors, etc., who had been arrested the day before. As we waited, sweating and hearts racing, I watched our young driver trying to choke back his tears.

After a while, the gunfire died down and our driver raced full throttle down the gunman-lined road, with us ducking down, holding backpacks and laptops up against the windows to protect against any stray (or intentional) gunfire. Back in Addis, we packed our things and headed for the airport.

It's very sad to think of my friends and colleagues at risk back there -- but in world news, it's not a big thing, so of course no one cares.

If you see any articles about this, you can be sure that the death tolls are much higher than is being reported, and that many of the people being shot are thoughtful, gentle (and unarmed) people.

Please say a prayer for the good people of Ethiopia and ask God to stay the hand of oppressive governments and people with guns.

Schoolhouse Rock

Hello, back again after not posting for a while...and only to pass along a review I did of a recent concert by Sufjan Stevens here in Brussels. I wrote it for The Bulletin, a local expat magazine, but I'm posting my original version, which includes a few lines they cut for space. The nerve...

Sufjan Stevens
Ancienne Belgique
25 October

My “isn’t this precious” alarm goes off early, just as indie darling Sufjan Stevens and his band, the Illinoisemakers, appear on stage wearing matching University of Illinois cheerleader outfits and brandishing pompons.

Yes, Stevens has titled his most recent CD “Come on Feel the Illinoise”, a tone-poem tribute to the Land of Lincoln, and promises it is the second in a series of paeans to all 50 US states (his previous album saluted his home state of Michigan). As if to address questions about whether he’s seriously going to produce 48 more albums to complete this project, he starts the show with a geographic tour of the US. “It’s part of the act, the 50 states, pack up your bags, it’s never too late,” he sings, managing to mention each of the states in an introductory jingle.

In between songs, the Illinoisemakers stand at parade rest, arms folded behind backs, and listen reverently as Stevens, affecting a village-idiot-savant persona, shyly explains how his next tune is about a wasp that scared him in the Palisades State Park and this reminded him of something existential. Then they give the cheerleader exhortation, “Ready? OK!” and away they go.

Their matching costumes, irritating musical-chairs multi-instrumentalism (is it really necessary for all seven band members to take turns demonstrating they can play the piano?) and pitch-perfect enthusiasm are more suited to a college production of “Godspell” than a rock club date. But this is Irony, so perhaps that, not Illinois, is what the ‘I’ on their sweaters stands for. The Flemish hipster audience eats it all up.

As for Stevens himself, there’s no denying he’s an intriguing fellow with a talent for intricate composition and sly self-promotion. He too plays an awful lot of instruments, including the banjo, which is one we should hear more of in popular music. And it’s a fine ambition to want to chronicle the American Midwest by investigating its history, its landscape, and its people in popular song (even if Springsteen sort of did it already with “Nebraska”).

At their best, Stevens’s state sketches evoke Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology” in their ability to make the mundane seem hauntingly complex. But mostly they try too hard to be Folk Art. The song titles reek of cleverness. Example: “The Black Hawk War, Or, How To Demolish An Entire Civilization And Still Feel Good About Yourself In The Morning, Or, We Apologize For The Inconvenience But You’re Gonna Have To Leave Now, Or…[it keeps going, actually].”

It is when he stops being so clever that Stevens manages to shine. The refreshingly simple “Jacksonville”, for instance, is a standout, even though (or perhaps because) it rhymes “colored preacher” with “nice to meet you.”

It’s always promising when someone’s music cannot be described in three words or less or by comparing it to someone else. I’m still not sure what kind of music Stevens -- with his campus theatrics, his Charlie Brown-theme piano, and his faux naïf sing-song whisper – is making. But I suppose it’s good someone’s making it.