Brussels Amsterdam Paris

Freeze Frame Fragments

Three long weeks ago, I came down from the Berner Oberland in Switzerland. I came down from my home in the Jungfrau Region highlands–a place of large scale Alpine geography and small scale agricultural human life.

Why go to Brussels Amsterdam Paris?

Since the mid-1960s I have regularly passed through these cultural capitals of Western civilisation. But, not once over the past two decades. I have relied, instead, on the main stream media and WWW resources to describe these cities.

Those sources had frightened me. Terrorism. Inundation by other than Western cultures. Erosion of urban public realm quality. So, I went to look.

Used a ‘5 days in 15 days’ rail pass for country to country travel. Day passes for central city core public transit travel. Stayed in 100Euro or less digs at night–central city location, clean and newish beds, clean ensuite and free 24/7 wifi.

Before I share my observations, please for those reading flahertylandscape for the first time, note that I have lived and worked in North Africa and the Middle East for more than 25 years. In those years, I lived the expatriate cross-cultural life working with people from every continent on both the northern and southern  hemispheres of the earth. To be clear, living and working means real life, five senses, emotional and intellectual exchanges. Dare I say, ‘been there, done that’–no, I won’t say it because it has a subtext overflowing with hubris. Among humans, every day, I always find something new to learn–except for the basics that the Greek philosphers covered a couple millennia ago.

The following observations could be classified under: urban landscape, or urban public realm, or cultural landscape of Western civilisation. Hey, I had fun…’kinda’! 🙂

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Travel

It really is about the trip.

An American in Europe. An American auto-freak in Europe. Born in Detroit, Fisher Body, Ford, Chrysler, General Motors, the steel industry, cities built for cars, long distances in the countryside, hours in a car, big comfortable, powerful cars. In my blood.

But something about European cities changed me. These cities were not made for cars. They were made for people. In other words they were human scale, not mechanical scale. They had a comfortable, a walkable feeling. Back in the US, when I was on foot in the city–it was always a battle with cars. Not comfortable. OK, enough of that.

In 2017 Brussels Amsterdam Paris, the public transit makes getting between cities and getting around cities a breeze. I really liked it. Minus one pickpocket I, the ‘mark’, caught in the act on a Paris Metro.

Travelling on public transit can either be helped (fun) or hindered (lost, disoriented) by signs and signage systems. Making clarity of the complex. A challenge.

 

Deutsche Bahn Inter City Express

 

At Brussels Midi, everything about the station looked at least thirty years old and not of first class maintenance. Even the engines had been tagged. And not cleaned. And the platforms showed the wear of fifty years.

 

That ‘oldness’ traveled right through the Brussels’ busses, trams and metros. I purchased day passes each in Brussels Amsterdam and Paris–each required mechanical or digital validating before riding. In Brussels the percentage of people riding without validating was obviously many times higher than Amsterdam or Paris. It was part of a general feeling I sensed in Brussels–disrespect for the urban public realm.

 

Brussels, Amsterdam and Paris had city sponsored electric assisted bikes for public short term use. Didn’t try them. Learning how to integrate bikes, pedestrians, autos, trucks, trams and busses is not a casually easy experience. Local rules, local eye contact, local priorities are local and need to be understood to assure safety. Takes more time than I had. These are the Brussels’ version–freshest part of their public transit system.

 

The Amsterdam Central Station opened on a broad pedestrian plaza, at the same level, and without any automobile conflicts, with barrier free access to numerous trams connecting to all corners of the city.

 

When I arrived at the Paris Gare du Nord from Brussels, I was immediately struck by decorative detailing, which was, in their central core urban public realm, always calling for my attention.

 

At the exits from the Paris Metro are two kinds of maps: the Bus Stop and the District Pedestrian. This District Pedestrian map for the 11th Arrondisement, included an alphabetical index of street names.

 

At each Paris central city bus stop is a local map including an indication of what is a 2-minute walking distance, landmarks and the nearest other public transit points.

 

At the same Paris central city bus stops are complete maps for each stopping bus showing every stop on the route plus direction of travel and the 24/7 stop schedule. Superbly helpful. Actually essential in a city with so many tourists.

 

The Paris underground is called the Metro and access by stairs is identified in the classic Art Nouveau signage of Hector Guimard, Metropolitain–this station: Pere Lachaise.

 

Paris Gare de Lyon signage for arrivals, local departures and the fast trains.

 

At Gare de Lyon there are more than a dozen tracks dedicated to the TGV fast trains which travel at 300kph(180mph).

 

I had never ridden on a TGV before. Seeing them up close on the platform–next best thing to a fast car. 🙂

 

The TGV interiors. Some have two levels. There are multiple seating arrangements so it is wise to look at a layout and understand the direction of travel when selecting the required seat reservation. Also the seating carriage storage options are convenient for multiple heavy and light baggage. And the interiors are quiet…but if you have ever been in the countryside when the long metal tube goes by at 300kph…it is not quiet.

 

 

Graffiti

Among ‘graffiti artists’ there are some great conceptualists, colorists–some take me right back to R. Crumb and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers; but…

In the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s I saw Detroit change from a city of proud hard working people to a fearful city with its own no-go areas and degraded housing. The neighbourhood I grew up in, the East Side near the old Detroit City Airport and the neighbourhood where my grandparents lived, eight blocks away (my grandfather worked 50 years for the City of Detroit) are now of city blocks without houses–burnt, looted, demolished–neighborhoods with no value and without potential home builder interest. And after 50 years of degradation, nobody knows when or if there will be recovery. These neighbourhoods decreased, declined, were degraded by the behaviour of people who did not respect others’ property, did not respect the urban public realm.

These days I see graffiti and tagging of others’ property and the urban public realm as the forewarnings that such degradation is on the way. It is a sad reality that is part of human nature, human life in the later 20th and early 21th centuries in the Western civilisations and unfortunately transferring to other cultures and civilisations. It is a sign of disrespect.

 

In Brussels and Paris graffiti dominates many local neighbourhoods. No retail at street level–only graffiti–but people still living upstairs. Rents must be reasonable, eh?

 

In Brussels, this fine glasshouse used to be the centre of Francophone cultural life…but now…

 

In Paris central city mixed-use six story apartment/retail/commerical buildings are everywhere. Some very beautiful buildings. Unfortunately, the graffiti fungus takes hold at street level.

 

It does get tiresome, to say the least.

 

My Brussels neighbourhood 50 years ago–tagged by today’s new ‘owners’.

 

In the end, it is about disrespect for public realm and existing social communication channels. Welcome to the 21st century.

 

Arts, Architecture, Culture

In Brussels Amsterdam Paris in the architecture is the history of successful business, cultural pride and confidence. It is such a pleasure to leisurely examine these details. A real pleasure of visiting these centuries old cities and vicariously sampling their cultural, business, arts and artisan success.

 

Brussels–always on the funky side–and smallish–4 stories tall–narrow lanes.

 

Paris–does not disappoint–Haussmann scale–6 stories tall–broad boulevards–London, Paris, and Rome–deep cultural roots…Brussels, not so much.

 

 

New Folks/Old Folks

After my uncomfortable non-Germanic pause at the Koln Hauptbahnhof and Dom Cathedral plaza, I had much more enjoyable encounters with the new folks occupying the Brussels Amsterdam Paris urban public realms. That’s right–enjoyable encounters–as in walking around the city centres with out feeling threatened. As if there was no immediate threat of death–and I have been close to terror and war in the Middle East and North Africa for more than 25 years.

 

My first stop out of the Alpine highlands was the Koln Hauptbahnhof and the Dom Cathedral Plaza–my only thoughts…where are the Germans? Got back on the next train and headed to Brussels.

 

Lots of years I’ve lived in the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula and what I saw and heard in the public urban realm in Brussels–Muslim girls unchained–having fun talking, laughing, eating–being jolly in public–dare I say, being themselves in public–a first in my observations.

 

The mood on the streets of Brussels–carefree, fun–when have you read or seen images of people having fun in the past year in Brussels or Paris?

 

The new and old in Brussels–draw your own conclusions.

 

The new and old in Brussels–who is scared?

 

Dom Square reminded me of Amsterdam in the early 1970s.

 

Paris landmarks 2017, the old and the new.

 

…and this is where we all end up–frightful or peaceful?

 

Visceral Noise

But…all of the above ‘pleasures’ were wrapped in a visceral, an inescapable package of stool, urine and excessive noise. I have to repeat it–stool, urine and excessive noise made up the inescapable reality of the street life of the urban public realm in central city Brussels Amsterdam Paris. Worry where you step–all the time. And no escaping the noise in the urban public realm above ground and underground. There are no safe places in the urban public realms of Brussels Amsterdam Paris. Is that civilisation? Is that desirable in the public realm?

So, we all just pretend it is not problematic? It is not a health problem? It is not a sensually repulsive reality? Is this not disrespectful of the public urban realm?

But that is not new for cities, George Orwell and Victor Hugo made that clear over the 19th and 20th centuries.

People choose not to see it. Not to talk about it. But, they all have encountered it. I couldn’t bring myself to photograph the details of so many places where I could not walk three steps without encountering stool in some stage of degradation or urine and always…always I was encased in excessive mechanical noise. In this image of beautiful Amsterdam, the preferred doggy-do is the one meter strip along the water’s edge.

 

Back Home

Glad to be back in the Alpine highlands.

And for a recent local historical perspective, in the mid-1980s, in this Alpine highland region of about 25,000 permanent population,  I could not find anyone who knew what a falafel was–what to speak of actually buying a falafel wrap for an anytime snack.

Now, thirty years later, about the same population, there are more than a dozen little shops selling kebabs and falafels.

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Brussels Amsterdam Paris 2017 conclusions–go yourself to see–then draw your own.

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Kismet

…remember…

Whether visiting as a tourist, on business or a white collar mercenary–hard to tell the difference between them in the public realm–everyone who comes to the Gulf Region inevitably looks for fun; and, everyone is reminded there are rules for expatriates, business people and tourists. The warnings are there.

In this Gulf Region world of international development, design, construction and facility management, the white collar mercenaries, like many of the characters in The 23 Club, build up–in a loosely linked community–a broad network of international contacts. Among them, from time to time, kismet meetings occur.

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The 23 Club

Immersed in the contemporary culture of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, against the backdrop of the Empty Quarter, The 23 Club tells the inside story of how an iconic project gets built in the oil rich, Gulf region of the Arabian Peninsula.

Table of Contents

               Kismet

Chalmers was strangely ruffled. More than his rift with Madge, more than these last couple hours, it was the last twenty four hours that were now too vivid, almost visceral in his head. His thoughts drifted back to the blood in the streets, to Jean-Claude, to Bahrain, to Ashura. His thoughts drifted back as he recalled yesterday, about mid-day.

On this trip to the UAE, he had had to make an overnight stop in Bahrain. He didn’t think much of it, an extra overnight. He had not checked the Hegira calendar. It was the Day of Ali. He had read about this special Shiite day; but, he had never seen it, and had no reason to think about it until he was at the hotel breakfast buffet that morning. He bumped into an old friend, Jean-Claude Thibaut, who, on his way from Papua New Guinea, coincidently had also stopped over in Bahrain.

Chalmers had first met him nearly twenty years ago, while they were both speakers at a national conference sponsored by the American Society of Landscape Architects. They shared an educational background in Brussels, a landscape fondness for the Alps, and a fundamental agreement on the importance of integrating ethnobotanical cultural roots into contemporary landscape design.

When Chalmers explained he was on the way to the UAE to fix a project in the Empty Quarter, Jean-Claude told him about related research he had done there in the past five years. For both, this was a welcome coincidence. Jean-Claude adjusted his schedule; and they agreed to meet up in the next week to visit the Empty Quarter together and compare notes.

Jean-Claude Thibaut, a forty nine year old Belgian, was a confirmed bachelor who found his pleasures in the ‘hair-shirt’ explorations of cultures, of marginal groups just outside the edge of mainstream society, people still in contact with the land, with the old ways–Bedu, Berbers, Calusa fisherfolk descendants, true Gypsies.

He examined human relationships with plants, through landscape, language, music, life. He was a very broad scale ethnobotanist. He did not write for publication, did not have a PhD; but, he did maintain extensive multimedia digital archives, all collected first-hand:  stories, songs, movies, images, along with plant related artifacts, such as amulets, charms, talismans.

Born into a wealthy entrepreneurial Belgian family, he took birth in the Belgian Congo where he spent the early years of his childhood. He was a polyglot graduate of international schools in Brussels and Gstaad. Following formal education at the University of London, he had travelled and visited all major botanical institutions in Africa and South America, gathering ethnobotanical information before his first post with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Ultimately, he became a director there. He had since retired to focus full-time on his personal research activities.

At five foot eleven and 165 pounds, he looked popularly slender and athletically lean. He had a self-effacing presence, and a manner of dress and hygiene uniquely making him as at home meeting and greeting in a five star Monte Carlo resort, as in a majlis tent on the edge of the Empty Quarter. He was not shy about sharing the realities of the groups he studied–‘over the edge’ would be the polite way to describe his unusual first hand experiences of old, almost forgotten ways of human interactions with plants in the landscape.

Between Chalmers and Jean-Claude, despite their substantial grounds of agreement, were interlaced threads of ambiguous tension, mostly friendly, mostly the subtleties of hidden cross-cultural joking. Those subtleties were built from Jean-Claude’s obsessive frequenting of the boundary edges between humans and plants, inspired originally by his attraction to the writings of William Blake, Aldous Huxley, Carlos Castenada.

Jean-Claude was an explorer. Chalmers was a builder. They were friends, even though their clatteringly different approaches to the landscape often belied that friendship. Nevertheless, Jean-Claude was happy to see Chalmers and greeted him saying, “Well, my old friend, here we are together in the Middle East! Do not tell me you are about to become, once again, the ‘Surveyor of Fabric’ on some new mind boggling landscape extravaganza?!”

  • Spike Lounge
  • The Walk
  • Rub Al Khali Coastal
  • Rub Al Khali Inland
  • Liwa Qsar
  • The Nursery
  • Finding Majlis
  • Library Majlis
  • Villa Majlis
  • Long and Short
  • Pilgrimage
  • Wanderweg
  • Appendix 1:  Berner Oberland Back Story
  • Author’s Notes
  • Plant List
  • Colophon

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(to be continued)

© 2015 Edward Flaherty

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