Dec 31, 2012

Gelukkig nieuwjaar....

voor alle familie en vrienden!
Maak iets moois van 2013.
Jeroen, Gabriella en Ruba.

Dec 30, 2012


So our first sip of safari was a guided tour through Addo Elephant National Park (see yesterday's post South Africa - land of weavers) and it tasted like more. The only problem was that the big game reserves were a 2-day drive away, through an area called Transkei, or "yonder side of the Kei River". We were not looking forward to the long haul, but decided against flying this stretch as it would give us an opportunity to also see this part of the country. And there was something mysterious to an area called on the yonder side of the Kei River.

We were not comforted by the owners of the citrus farm where we were staying in Addo, making remarks like "are you driving that route?" and "well, it's not unsafe, but you'll see for yourself". Well, we did see indeed. Taking heed of their other advice ("fill up on gas before you enter, close your windows, lock your doors, and do not stop for that 6 hour stretch"), we drove through a place that was different from anything we ever saw before. Transkei is the birthplace of Nelson Mandela, is black and very poor, with grassy hills littered by small huts as far as the eye can see. 

Kids in school uniforms are walking or hitch hiking along the highway at any time of the day, making you wonder if they actually attend school, or whether their uniform is the only clothing they have. Most of them do have a smartphone, which must cost more than the hut they live in. And most of them are happy, dancing, singing and laughing along that same highway. 

The highway in South Africa, and in particular in Transkei, functions as the town square in other areas of the world; a central point where people meet, chat, dance, take judo lessons, you name it. And cars, heave trucks and taxi vans loaded with more than 12 passengers zip by at over 60 miles per hour. All of this becomes a big beehive of people when the same highway takes you through the city of Mthatha, where thousands of people crisscross the road doing nothing in particular. Or at least it was not clear to us what people were doing, but that could very well be pure ignorance on our behalf. We were mere spectators from the comfort of our rental car, keeping that strange world out by locked doors and closed windows.

It was a strenuous and long 2 days of driving. Interesting to see, but next time we'll probably fly.

Dec 29, 2012

South Africa - Land of Weavers

After whale watching in Gansbaai, touring through the barren arid landscapes of Klein Karoo, visiting an ostrich farm in 0strich capital of the world Oudtshoorn, and cruising along the Garden Route, we stayed two nights at a citrus farm in the little town of Addo, just north of Port Elizabeth in Eastern Cape Province. It's known for its citrus farming (it was the greatest producer of lemons in the world last year), as well as for neighboring Addo Elephant National Park. Elephants and citrus farms do not make a good mix, as the local elephants turned out to be a big fan of citrus. So the village hired an army major to shoot them all, and he almost succeeded. Almost, because the original population of  thousands was decimated to a mere 16 in 1920. By 1931, only 3 males and 8 females remained in all of Eastern Cape Province, and Addo Park was founded to protect them from extinction. It took a while for the park to become successful; the fences were not strong enough to keep the elephants within the park's boundaries, and out of harm's way with the farming community. But in 1954, they figured out a way to build a fence out of elevator cables and tram rails, which is still in use today. Interestingly, of the original 3 males only 1 bred, and most of the 8 females had no tusks. Their heritage is still noticeable today, with many of the now 550 elephants in the park having no or very small tusks.

Although originally founded to protect the African Elephant, the park is now a big success story of preservation of the unique Addo habitat. Black Rhino, a unique dung beetle, and many many bird species call this area home.

Some interesting things we saw and learned: all geraniums now blooming in Europe and North America originate from Addo. And many airlines are sponsoring the local spekkieboom, because it is the most efficient neutralizer of their carbon footprint. Unfortunately the local elephants not only like citrus, but also love grazing through fields full of newly planted spekkieboom sprouts. And one of the most interesting sights: a 5 foot long earth worm, shaped exactly like the 'regular' 3-5 inch long type but blown up to gigantic proportions. When our guide picked it up, it started shedding water in the hope to either slip out of his hands or gross him out so much he would voluntarily let go. Neither worked, as our guide had a very specific sense of humor; over lunch he was going to surprise his girlfriend by asking her to close her eyes and hang the worm around her neck pretending it was a necklace. And he was sure she was going to love him even more for that gesture........ 

The birdlife in the park is prolific, and perhaps the most amazing is the fiscal shrike, also known as Jackie Hangman or Butcher Bird for the male's habit of pinning his pray of lizards and large insects to the horned acacia bush in which he made his nest - all of that to lure the ladies in. Guides and shrikes alike are not your ordinary womanizer around here......

We saw many different raptor birds and different type of weavers. Weavers are common across most places we went to in South Africa, and were also all around our rooms at the citrus farm. These little guys are pretty amazing, knotting and weaving nests out of grass and leaves with just their beak. Ever tried to make a knot with just your index and middle finger? 

The male weavers are also womanizing show-offs, hanging and swinging from their newly built basket nests in a motion what looks most like head-banging. Hoping to show the females what a skilled builders they are, they should be ready for an emasculating disappointment. The alpha female of the group has the privilege of checking out the nest, which took him days of hard work, and she chops it right off the branch if there is anything not to her liking. Ouch. Talking about a tough housing market.

Dec 20, 2012


We spent a couple of days exploring the Cape Town area, with the city itself, the vast townships directly surrounding it, the wine region a little further out, and the Cape of Good Hope (see the earlier post Good Hope, and the picture below).

Cape Town lies on the north end of the cape. The city is mainly known for its scenic beauty, with glamorous palm-lined boulevards along bright white sandy beaches and a downtown financial district tucked in a natural bowl against Table Mountain to its south and Lion's Head to its north. It is also the seat of the national government, and the scene of heartbreaking forced deportations during the era of Apartheid. It is surprising to see how far the city has come 20 years after the end of that era, but at the same token it is sobering to see how the uneven distribution of wealth still is cutting through society, almost like a surgical incision along racial lines, laying bare a wound that is far from healing. There is a lot of social and labor unrest, where the poor laborers that work the mines or farmlands are protesting for raising minimum wages to a little bit more than close to nothing. 

Our next stop was Gansbaai ('Goose Bay' in Afrikaans and Dutch), about 150 miles to the East along the South Atlantic coast. The coastline is smashing, and known as one of the most beautiful seaside drives in the world.

We passed another famous penguin beach, this time with hundreds of African penguins dozing in the sun or playing in the water.

Gansbaai is located on the South end of Walker Bay. On the other end is its more famous neighbor, Hermanus, a.k.a. whale capital of the world. When booking our trip on the internet, many hotels in Hermanus were fully booked, and we didn't find anything to our liking among the ones that did have availability, so we opted for Gansbaai instead. Or actually De Kelders, a little neighborhood just outside of Gansbaai, where we found a beautiful contemporary guesthouse with glass all around and stunning views of Walker Bay. 

Little did we know that although Hermanus indeed has the title of whale capital, where southern right whales cruise along the coast, it's actually in De Kelders where they come and play. In plain view from land, so in plain view from our guesthouse.  No need to go through all the hassle of getting on a boat and get seasick. Just stand on your 'own' balcony, with a cappuccino in hand, and see 50 feet long whales breaching and jumping. That's pretty darn amazing, and a first true highlight of our trip. More to come.............

Dec 15, 2012

X-mas presents

'Tis the season for making holiday presents. This year it's beaded earrings. My good friend Marcia DeCoster came up with this design. Please see her blog by clicking here, so you can make your own. Do you want a pair?

Thank you, Marcia!!! Happy holidays to all.

Dec 6, 2012

Good Hope

Gabri's parents worked in their twenties in both Senegal and Ivory Coast. Her mom Marianne was a nurse, while her dad was teaching physical exercise and sports as part of the same mission. He was born on the Caribbean island of Curacao, from a rich cultural mix of african, native south american and european descent. Gabri would have been born in Africa, were it not for her mom cutting her assignment short, as she got malaria while pregnant with her and required treatment in Holland. That was the last time Marianne was in Africa, and she longed to return at least once.

That's how our whole trip came about - it was a present for her 70th birthday last year. Somewhat coincidentally, our day of arrival in Cape Town coincided with her 71st. So after a long flight (12 hours for her, 22 hours for GABROEN), we were happy to arrive just before midnight at our first guesthouse in Fish Hoek to a bottle of sparkling wine to drink to her health.

The next morning we woke up to a bright sunny day and a great view of False Bay and the mountains surrounding Cape Town. We quickly realized we arrived on a very different continent, with penguins straddling the beach only 10 minutes south from our beautifully decorated guesthouse - surely a sign of good hope.

We were on our way to the most southwestern tip of the African continent, the Cape of Good Hope. Initially this historically significant cliff was called Cabo das Tormentas - or Cape of Storms by the first Portuguese to round it. But that name was not to the liking of the Portuguese king, who apparently was in need of a more upbeat, optimistic sign that the money spent on finding a trading route to the Far East was not in vain. So instead, he renamed it Cabo de Boa Esperanca, or die Kaap die Goeie Hoop in Afrikaans. 

Standing on the Cape you kind of feel the historical significance.  You can also feel the wind howling, and kind of get why it got its first name; it's a pretty barren and narrow peninsula, so it's definitely less hopeful as it may have seen to a guy sitting on a throne in distant Portugal. It's also a little strange, at least to me - Gabri is utterly unbothered by this - to be in a place where the sun is in the North and the night sky is largely unfamiliar or upside down. It makes you realize it's actually you who is upside down from the Northern Hemisphere. I know being upside down is a relative term when you are talking about a round globe, gravity, etcetera, and you are not more likely to fall off the face of the earth in South Africa than in the U.S., Europe or the North Pole, but "good hope" is not the first sentiment that came to mind when standing upside down on a barren, narrow peninsula surrounded by nothing but cold Atlantic waters. But it was kind of cool to stand on the world's most famous cape.

Supposedly you can see whales swim along both sides of the Cape, but that didn't happen for us. But we had good hope, as after three days of Cape, Table Mountain National Park, downtown Cape Town and the wine region, our next stop was Gansbaai. Supposedly the best place in the world to watch whales from land. Fingers crossed.........

Dec 1, 2012

South Africa

You probably noticed that GABROEN has had a couple of weeks of radio silence, or blog silence rather. Not sure if 'blog silence' is a word yet - I may just have invented it. The reason for the blog silence? GABROEN just returned from an awesome, 3-weeks trip to South Africa. With the limited number of vacation days when working in the U.S., such a long trip is pretty atypical, and probably a first for us since our honeymoon. In the office, coworkers started freaking out in the weeks running up to our departure, as if we would be gone for the whole winter. To make it more palatable, we included the Thanksgiving week - happy belated Thanksgiving everyone, and thank you for following our blog.

The trip being 3 weeks long, this will be a blog post in different acts. Starting with a high level itinerary here, and following with a number of posts to describe some of the highlights - and there have been many. We flew from Chicago to Amsterdam, where Gabri's mom Marianne joined us, and on to Cape Town. The first week included Cape Town, wine region, whale coast and garden route along the country's southwest coast. Second week was a first guided safari, long driving days to get to the northeast of the country, and more guided safaris. And the last couple of days were spent in famous Kruger Park, for some self-drive safari, before returning to Johannesburg and back home.

South Africa has beautiful scenery, much more mountainous than we had expected, and a network of well maintained roads that makes self driving relatively easy, albeit on the left side. Road maintenance also seems to be a continuous activity, and a way to create many many jobs, albeit very cheap labor, as well as a stimulus for the local micro-economies with people selling everything from fruit to phone charging cables. I don't recall ever seeing so much roadwork as in South Africa.

It's also a country of stark contrasts between rich and poor, largely along racial lines. Townships are present everywhere, and you can't ignore them even if you stick to the most touristic areas. In our case, we cut straight through The Cape Flats, the huge slums on the outskirt of Cape Town, because the road we wanted to take was closed off by police to intercept drug traffickers. We also drove through all of Transkei, birthplace of Nelson Mandela, a former homeland during the Apartheid days, and still a very poor area today that does not show up on many tourist itineraries. The contrast within the country is confusing, even distressing. It's incredibly rich in natural resources such as coal, gold, diamonds and platinum, as well as in fertile farmland, while shockingly poor in the vast slumps where the people live that mine and farm all that wealth, making just over a meager 50 cents per hour.

As a traveler in a comfortable rental car, cruising along beautiful landscapes and slums stretching out for miles, on highways that are used as walkway, dance floor, judo practice studio, and meeting place, the country is overwhelmingly rich in impressions, but confusing at the same time. We saw the happiest scenes in the poorest slums, which are devastated by AIDS and most heartbreaking to look at. So we just returned from a trip full of impressions, full of great safari game drives, and feel enriched.

Nov 2, 2012

Bruce and Sandy

The images from the Eastern Seaboard after Hurricane Sandy came through are devastating. Tonight aired a fundraiser for the millions impacted by the storm, starring several New York and New Jersey natives. Also present was the ultimate Jersey boy, the ultimate spokesman of America's working class. The Boss, a.k.a. Bruce Springsteen.

Bruce has always been praised for his raw, down to earth songs, but this week's events seem to have added a strange twist to his lyrics. Back in 2000, he wrote My city in ruins about Asbury Park, a town on the Jersey Shore that was hit hard by hurricane Sandy a couple of days ago.

There is a blood red circle
on the cold dark ground
and the rain is falling down
the church doors blown open
I can hear the organ's song
but the congregation is gone

And almost frighteningly, his 1973 song 4th of July, Asbury Park is also known under another, more popular title. That title is Sandy. So 40 years ago, could he have been predicting this week's demolishing storm in the beloved summer paradise on the Jersey Shore, with the song opening with:

Sandy, the fireworks are hailin' over Little Eden tonight

His songs do provide hope, and there is a dire need for that in Asbury Park and other hard hit areas. So Bruce, keep on rocking. The people need it.

Oct 31, 2012

St Martin's treat

GABROEN never went trick n treating in their childhood, because there was no such thing as All Hallow's Eve in Holland. In the more roman catholic South of the country, where Gabri grew up, there was some celebration of All Hallows/Saints and All Souls on November 1st and 2nd, although nothing as elaborate as the Day of the Dead she involved so intricately in her work over the last months (see for example the earlier posts In memoriam and Dia de los Muertos). The middle of the country, where Jeroen was born, is more hardcore protestant, so there were no such thing as saints. In that part of the world, October 31st actually is Reformation Day, to commemorate Martin Luther rebelling against all what the Roman Catholic Church stood for.

Interestingly, the North of the country has a tradition similar to Halloween on November 11. This is the feast day of St Martin of Tours, and thus called Sint Maarten in Holland; yes, the same as the Caribbean island that is half Dutch. The same Martin Luther was actually named after St. Martin, as he was baptized on November 11 way back when. So on November 11, kids in Northern Holland walk from door to door with little self-made lanterns, singing songs to collect candy.

Jip and Janneke on St Martin - from a famous Dutch children's book series
What's the song these kids sing? It may be a little shocking for politically correct American readers, but remember this comes from the country where Santa has black 'servants' rather than green elves, the country that takes pride in its bluntness. Here we go:

Sinte Maarten mik-mak
mijn moeder is een dikzak
mijn vader is een dunnetje
geef me een pepermunnetje

Which translates more or less as:

Saint Martin mac-matty
my mother is a fatty
my dad is thin like flint
now give me a peppermint

So no matter where you come from: Happy Reformation Day, St. Martin, or All Hallow's Eve!

Oct 30, 2012

District of Columbia (3)

Now that we talked about the connection between a big cigarette brand, a shaded boulevard and two Italian dudes (see the earlier posts District of Columbia (1) by clicking here, and (2) by clicking here), we can finally get to what we did on the Saturday evening of our weekend trip to America's capital. GABROEN was there together with Atlanta friends Joanne and Jeff, and Joanne was very happy to show us around her home town. Thinking she had planned the perfect weekend schedule for us, it was Jeff who actually had a close-to-heartattack surprise birthday for her up his sleeve. This party had been in the works already for weeks, and although there had been some close calls of someone blowing the surprise, Joanne was not even remotely suspecting anything. The only detail not worked out ahead of time was how we were going to get Joanne out of Son and Richard's home for about 2 hours on late Saturday afternoon, for all prep-work to be done and all surprise friends to arrive.

We had walked the whole day, first from Son&Richard's to the Mall and along most memorials on the Mall's west side, and then at Trucktoberfest, a festival with dozens of food-trucks at Union Market on the city's northeast side. So we were getting pretty beat by mid afternoon, and picked up a bunch of hairy balls at the Union Market florist before heading back. Yep, you heard that right: a bunch of hairy balls.

A word of advice: some say to get a puppy if you want people to speak to you in the street, but hairy balls work equally well. The florist insisted their official name is 'bulrush', the biblical plant used to make a basket in which Baby Moses floated on the River Nile.  So the dozens of people who spoke to us on the way from Union Market to the metro station, in the metro, and on the way from the Dupont Circle metro station back home now think they witnessed the passage of the biblical bulrush.

But after doing the research for GABROEN's posts on the origin of "the Mall", of the "District of Columbia", and on "bulrush", the florist was terribly inaccurate. Nothing biblical about the bunch we bought. Their latin name is Gomphocarpus physocarpus, their South African name balbossie, which translates to ball-bush,  not bulrush. And their English name? Balloon wild cotton (as the balls appeared to be filled with fluffy seeds that now adorn a certain D.C. metro car as well as the house that was soon to be the place of a surprise party), or - who would ever guess - hairy balls.

Anyway, we were pretty beat returning home with the hairy balls. But the strategy to get Joanne out of the house within an hour of arriving was developed throughout the day. "Joanne, we really want to go to the Hotel W rooftop terrace for a cocktail, watching the sunset". And that worked out beautifully.

When we returned, the surprise seemed to give Joanne a near heart attack, and the party was ready to rock 'n roll.

GABROEN's trip to D.C. is now a month ago, and a lot can happen in a month. Actually a lot did happen over the last month. Rather than getting a heart attack at her surprise party, Joanne got a new job, put their Atlanta house on the market, and moved to San Francisco. So we went to D.C. with our ATL-turned-SFO-based friends. Very relevant to Son&Richard's neighbors down 16th Avenue, we had three presidential debates in the last month, each one a testament to the mind-boggingly crazy  circus the 2012 election turned into. And unlike New York City and the Jersey Shore, D.C. turned out to be on the good side of superstorm Sandy yesterday. Case in point: GABROEN needs to pick up pace in posting blogs. Keep reading - it's nice to see the number of page views, and a nice incentive to pick up the pace.

Oct 23, 2012

District of Columbia (2)

So there were two outstanding items in the first post on GABROEN's weekend trip to Washington D.C. (click here for that first post):
1. the origin of the term 'District of Columbia', or the story of two Italian dudes
2. what we did on Saturday night

Starting with the origin of 'D.C.' means starting with the U.S. constitution. This much revered document also lists, somewhat to my surprise, a clause to create a "District (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States". Interestingly, at least to a down-to-earth Dutchman, is how frequently the constitution and constitutionality of ideas and legislation are debated in U.S. politics, in court, in the media. In stark contrast, I don't think the Dutch language has a word for 'unconstitutional', and the Dutch constitution expressly prohibits the courts to rule on constitutionality of legislation. Another thing the down-to-earth Dutchman quickly observed, is that in these debates Americans do a lot of interpreting of their constitution to make it fit their own cause, but they do not mess with it. So an exactly square area on both sides of the Potomac River was reassigned from Maryland and Virginia to become a federal district, the only area in the U.S. that is not part of a state. This exact square measured exactly 10 by 10 miles, or 100 square miles - I assume that is not too loose of an interpretation of the original text 'ten miles square', as only 3 years passed between the adoption of the constitution and Congress passing the act that created the federal district and new capital city. Although, the 2012 election circus has shown how much can change in the minds of certain politicians in a couple of months, let alone 3 years.........

The current size of the district is smaller than the original 10 by 10 mile square, as the Alexandrian part south of the Potomac River was handed back to Virginia as an early prelude to the clash between North and South during the civil war. That put the federal capital right on the border of North and South, and more or less in the heat of battle. The shape of today's D.C. looks more or less like a paper square torn in half - perhaps a fitting metaphor for that civil war.

Anyway, back to the origin of the name. That brings us to a tale of the two Italian dudes. To clearly identify the district as a federal territory separate of any state, it was decided to use what at the time was a poetic patriotic name for America: Columbia. Some people had argued that when a name for the new country was coined 14 years earlier with the Declaration of Independence, it should have been the United States of Columbia. That would have created Columbians rather than Americans, not to be mistaken with Colombians. Perhaps too much credit for the first Italian dude Columbus, granted a brave explorer, who named the natives (those with a feather) 'Indians', not to be mistaken with Indians (with a dot). On the other hand, people apparently did not want to credit the other dude Amerigo Vespucci too much either - granted he was the first to realize that Columbus made a mistake when thinking he had arrived in India, Amerigo never set foot on North American soil.

The city was modeled after cities like Paris, Amsterdam and Milan, and GABROEN walked through different neighborhoods that reminded us of those cities. Although Boston is often called the most European city of the U.S., GABROEN would argue this title should go to Washington. We had a nice time in this walkable city, and I'll dedicate a third post to what we did on Saturday night.


Oct 17, 2012

District of Columbia

Already a couple of weeks ago, GABROEN spent a weekend with Atlanta friends Jo and Jeff in Jo's hometown of Washington D.C.  We had a great time in this very nice and walkable city. And walking we sure did. We stayed at Jo's friends Son and Richard, who live on 16th Avenue that runs straight from the backside of the White House north. So we could say we stayed in the backyard of the Obamas, albeit about a mile away. We walked that mile, plus many more, exploring the east side of the National Mall with all its museums on the first day, and the west side with all the memorials on the second day.

Jeff has discovered the exciting fish-eye view of the Mall

I always wondered where the word mall came from, either as in shopping mall or in The National Mall. Thank heavens we now have the internet  - whom did we ask all the questions in the years B.G.*? So here we go: it starts with the Italian game pallamaglia, from palla "ball" + maglia "mallet", something like croquet where you had to hit a ball with a mallet through a ring. The game made it into English as pall-mall, which was regularly played at an open alley in St. James Park in London. This alley was later turned into a broad, tree-lined promenade called The Mall, lending the meaning to the word of a "shaded walk serving as a promenade", as well as inspiring a well-known cigarette brand. I may be one of only a few that wonders about these things, but next to the origin of the Mall I also looked up why the heck this city is in the District of Columbia, but I'll save that for the second blog post about our D.C. trip - see below.

(* Before Google)

Anyway, if you could just continue walking straight down 16th Avenue through the White House, you come on the short axis of the National Mall and walk straight up to Washington Monument, the city's tallest structure by ordinance. It also serves as the central landmark of the city and National Mall, as it stands exactly on the intersection of the Mall's short and long axis.  The long axis is pretty impressive, stretching 3.0 km (1.9 miles) from the steps of the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. It's all open space, so there's nothing to obstruct the view of the full 3 km. What our lovely host Richard mentioned rather late is that the day we were there was the autumn equinox, meaning that if the picture below would have been taken a few hours earlier, it would have shown the sun rise exactly behind the Capitol and Washington Monument. Pretty neat, but perhaps not worth getting up at 5AM for.

Washington Monument and reflecting pool as seen from the Lincoln Memorial
Speaking of great views, the rooftop lounge on the 7th floor of Hotel W right next to the White House and Executive Office Buildings is not bad either. A great place to enjoy the sunset, good cocktails and friendship.

Hotel W's rooftop lounge

Although not exactly the Obamas' backyard, our hosts Son and Richard surely live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood, with good restaurants and nightlife only a 10 minutes walk away. Such as the Pearl Dive oyster palace and Black Jack bar, an awesome seafood place we explored on Friday night. What we did Saturday night deserves a separate blog post, so stay tuned.

Thanks Son and Richard for opening up your D.C. home to us. We had a great weekend celebrating friendship, both old and newly found.
Son and Richard

Oct 1, 2012

R is back

The signs are clear. The leaves are turning, flocks of Canadian geese are flocking our front yard for their winter break, night temperatures are dipping into the 40s and even 30s with crisp morning frost on the ground. Yep, the boys of summer are gone. Fall has come, and it came quickly.

But hey, it's already a month since the R is back. As in back in the month. An old grandmother's wisdom from Northern Europe, that is still frequently used in Holland to indicate that summer is gone, that it's time to start taking your daily multivitamins (or cod liver oil in earlier days). To indicate that the oysters and mussels are back in season. Apparently it was used for similar reasons in ancient England, with a 1599 quote from Dyets drie dinner: "The oyster is unseasonable and unwholesome in all months that have not the letter R in their name".

These oyster rules do not seem to rule the US season, because you can get awesome oysters pretty much all year round, even in a landlocked state like Illinois. However, some of the mussels we had in summer were tiny and tough, but luckily for us not too unwholesome.

I'm not sure how common or uncommon the saying of the R in the month is in the United States, but the fall theme certainly is all over. Even in that good American tradition of theme decorating everything. Today actually was a theme celebration for me: I have 15 years of service with my company. It doesn't feel like it, as I only joined this good old Illinois pharma company two years ago when it acquired the good old Belgian pharma company I worked at for 9 years in Holland and 4 years in Atlanta. But my 13 years count towards several benefits, not in the least fall theme decorated cookies. Here's to 15 years..............

Sep 26, 2012

Relief from purple pain

After the bizarre Welcome 2Chicago concert on Monday night by The Symbol, or The Artist Formally Known As The Artist Formally Known As Prince, or Prince in short (maybe the way that he has been messing around with his own name was a sign o' the times; click here for GABROEN's take on the bizarreness), we had tickets for another show on Wednesday. With Monday night's experience still fresh in our minds, and too few hours passed to fully recuperate, we were a little weary of what to expect this time. But a heartening pasta prior to Wednesday's show at neighborhood gem The Pasta Palace did miracles in grounding our senses. 

Also, the signs for Wednesday were favorable. Rather than Monday's impersonal 20,000 seats stadium, Wednesday's show was in an intimate theater, the same one we saw a singing Dr. House last month (click here) and Italian rocker Zucchero last year. Also, Wednesday's show was by a newcomer to the music scene, 24 year old Michael Kiwanuka from London, awarded the 'best new voice from the UK' and BBC's 'Sound of 2012' winner. And boy, what a voice indeed. As comforting as Bill Withers singing "Lean on me", as laid back and soulful as Otis Redding in "Sitting on the dock of the bay". This guy is golden, and his live performance was as solid and heart-warming as Prince's was odd.

As pleasant of a surprise was the second opening act. After Malaysian girlish pretty singer-songwriter  Yuna opened the evening with some pretty songs, we were treated to The Bahamas. That's actually a solo act by Toronto-based singer-songwriter-guitarist Afie 'Bahamas' Jurvanen, whose disarming , captivating songs have already earned him a devoted fan base and critical acclaim. His performance went from intimate and subtle lyrics with two female backup singers, to raw and rocking guitar riffs, all in the same song. There was a lot of blues-like longing in his songs, taking an interesting twist by Afie's upbeat vocals and humor. We just had never heard of him, but we certainly are part of his fan base now.

In stark contrast to Monday night, we returned home feeling uplifted and happy, with 3 new vinyls. The only thing missing is a turntable, but that's in the works.......  

Sep 24, 2012

Purple Pain

His royal music majesty, or the artist formally known as the artist formally known as Prince, took up a three-day residence in Chicago's United Center for his 'Welcome 2Chicago' tour. As we happen to have a big big fan of his shows in GABROEN's household, at least back in the days when his name was just Prince, we decided to check him out on the first night.

Boy, did that turn out to be odd, very odd. I'll sum up the whole thing up bullet-wise, so the bizarreness becomes a little more pallatable:
1. He started an hour late, and threw out a short apology. But hey, this is an eccentric genius, and eccentric does not necessarily mean punctual. Meanwhile, we were having a good time.

2. The sound at the United Center was bad, and most of what we heard was a wall of sound.

3. The person in charge of the camerawork for the huge video-screens was either drunk, stoned, sleeping, or very new to the job. Beautiful footage of the microphone stand with Prince just out of view, nice takes on the three backup singers (showing the elbow of the left, the full torso of the middle and the shoulder of the right singer), and artistic out-of-focus or shaky shots.

4. We were not seeing Prince the singer, nor Prince the multi-instrument player (supposedly he plays all instruments on his songs himself); he let most of the singing to his back up vocalists or to the audience, and the playing to his band The New Power Generation. He mostly conducted his band while hopping around the stage in the shape of "his" glyph, that morphed symbol of Mars/masculinity and Venus/femininity that he used as his artist name for years. Very nice stage, by the way, and the light effects on the stage were pretty good. Also, it must be said that a Prince who is merely hopping is still way more energetic than most performers ever aspire to be. In his 50s, this guy definitely preserves well..........

5. Even though he got the audience to their feet all the time, singing along cheerfully whenever he asked them to (which was pretty often), he did not play a lot of his own songs either. In stead, he conducted his band to play covers of Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Michael Jackson. I must admit, an excellent taste for choosing covers, but it didn't really match his repeated shouts "We have too many hits!" and "i can go on all night".

6. Even though the amount of purple confetti that was raining down on the stage during 'Purple Rain' was of almost epic proportions, the night's rendition of the song was far from that. He did actually pick up his guitar for that song, while shouting "do you want me to play this thing?", to start what is one of the most epic guitar solos in rock history, only to put it down within 30 seconds and never touch it again. There was also a fancy free-standing piano on stage, not touched once during the show except when he did a few dance moves on top of it. But there was a big role for the piano in the encore, so read on..........

7. The first encore started off weird, as Prince came back after a few minutes, without his band, and walked to the piano. Understandably, a much anticipated and much welcomed moment for the audience. But ever 30 seconds or so he turned around and left the stage claiming "They are not ready for me". Oh, we're so sorry, your royal highness. Not sure about what just happened, the audience was left confused but with the lights still off. And within a minute, out he came again, this time with his band, and again he walked back to his piano. The piano turned out to be a big music box, from which he played snippets of electronic versions of his songs, while his band stood silently. Weird. But it gets worse, way worse........

8. The first encore lasted a good half hour, so by now it's 11PM on a Monday night, and it looks like most of the people in the audience have to be at work early the next morning. However, the lights did not come on, a clear sign that a) there's more to come and b) it's not particularly safe to find your way in the dark to the exit in a steep stadium. Meanwhile, three guys with brooms and flash lights swept the glyph shaped stage clean, removing purple confetti and marks from Prince's high heeled white boots. So how long does that take? Well, you would be surprised. One of the three guys continued sweeping, in the dark, while the audience was getting very impatient, for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes, half an hour! Dark or not dark, people started leaving, and at 11:35PM, the poor broom guy left as well. At 11:40 the lights came on. No kidding, the lights came on after the crowd had waited for 40 minutes!! So we left as well, disappointed and wondering what the hell just happened. But hold on to your seats, it's not over...........

9. We came home at 12:30, still wondering what the hell happened. Checking Twitter and Facebook, where a storm of rumbling fans had broken loose, we found out that at 11:50PM Prince and hos band came back out for a second encore of two songs, in a fully lighted, almost empty stadium. WEIRD. But it's still not over.......

10. The next morning, with the Social Media storm blowing full force, we found out that the Welcome 2Chicago Purple after-party at the House of Blues kicked off at 1AM, but without Prince. The New Power Generation played for a couple of hours, and the tickets to the event made no mention of Prince, so technically there was nothing wrong here. WEIRD. At 3:45AM, Prince did show up on stage, much to the delight of the people that had paid 75-100 dollars for this event. He got up to the microphone, to announce that unfortunately the House of Blues was under a police ordinance of closure at 4AM, so there was not enough time left for him to perform. And he left. Either this guy is purple vain, or he lost it, or his crew messed up big. Disgruntled customers could get a free ticket to next night's show at the Untied Center, last row. By the way, he apparently apologized the next show for the start up issues, and the second night was very good.

Bottom line: if you go see an eccentric, expect something eccentric. If you expect anything more, you might as well expect pain. Purple pain.

Sep 17, 2012

Baas in focus

1, 2, 3..... ACTION!
A piece the size of 'Baas' is not so easy to capture on camera. But we tried to get most, if not all, in focus. From head to chin he measures a full 26 inches, and 10 inches from ear to ear. And he has a lot of depth, relief and texture, as visible on the spooky picture below.

Detail of left cheek and eye, with marigold flower

Detail of his pretty huge cranium with chakras made out of rivolis 
The somewhat unnerving process of grouting, or being bold and confident in covering white beadwork that took you months to create in a black sticky muddy paste. But the result is worth it - as often, the bold and confident own half the world (that's a Dutch proverb................).