The fate of a Bosch spouse is to pass the time while the fellows are tied up.  Five days is kind of a long time to spend in Brussels as a tourist so on day three an expeditionary party consisting of four Bosch spouses, one Bosch significant other, and also a DAAD fellow and his spouse set off to visit Bruges.

Often described as touristy (true), Bruges is nevertheless one of the most appealing cities in Europe to visit.  The canals remind you a bit of Venice or Amsterdam, though Bruges cleaner, quainter, and quieter than either of those cities.


We're back in Bonn after another Bosch seminar trip.  Our bags are unpacked, there is food in the fridge again, and it is time for a recap.  We were on the road for two weeks this time, visiting Brussels, Strasbourg, and Paris.

I'd been through Brussels before, but I had never spent spent days there previously.  The city strikes me now as a pleasant mishmash of urban personalities.  Its iconic space is the grand place, lined on all sides by imposing facades, including the gothic town hall, and a good many gold-encrusted guild halls.

Having seen many German cities, the old town in Brussels looks decidedly run down.  The cobblestone streets are so uneven one wonders if anyone is taking care of them; many walls are dirty or crumbling; and a surprising number of storefronts are vacant for a place overrun with tourists.

We like to live here.  The cars smell good. We like to die.  

It tells you something about the locals that their mascot is a statue of a pissing boy, the Manneken Pis.  If the city looks a bit shabby (despite its obvious EU-generated wealth) then too bad.

Manneken Pis is, naturally, reproduced ad nauseam as a tourist knickknack, and is also the inspiration for what a copyright lawyer would call derivative works, such as a statue of a pissing girl, Jeanneke Pis, and signs depicting a pissing dog, which indicate designated dog toilets.


Especially south and a bit east of the city center, one encounters a number of art nouveau buildings. As with the rest of the city, they are frequently dirty and shabby, despite their inherent elegance.   I took myself on a tour, but E. took a guided tour, and the guide pointed out that in fact many of the buildings are in bad shape, and that there are few craftsmen capable of maintaining them properly.  Having seen analogous buildings in Vienna, Paris, and even Chicago, I do have to conclude that Brussels art nouveau is underwhelming.

I realize I am alone in my odd enthusiasm, but one of the really great things about Brussels is that it is the undisputed capital of the French-language comic book (Tintin, Asterix, etc.).  Contributing to the city's funky feel, there are many murals celebrating comic book illustration.  In this one, you look down from an imaginary position in the sky at the place where you are standing, except that where you are really standing is a river (and it would be, except that the rivers have all been chased underground).

The Belgian Comic Strip Center is a museum devoted to comics, particularly of the francophone kind.  It is housed in a building designed by Victor Horta, the best known art nouveau architect of Brussels.

My impression of Brussels from this trip is disjointed.  Some of it is lovely.

Some of it could use a good scrub and some competent urban planning.  And I take it I should keep an eye out for bandits ahead.

Our Star for Oslo

The television offerings in Germany are awful in too many ways to describe. Throughout the year I have been amazed that the channel I watch most consistently is VIVA, a video channel similar to MTV. I don't have the German medical or legal terminology to watch House or Law and Order dubbed, and I have no patience for the dozens of regionally produced (i.e. PBS-style) Stammtisch programs, where people sit around and talk.

This spring I briefly fell under the spell of Deutschland Sucht den Superstar, Germany's version of American Idol (which is amazing in part because I would never, ever waste my time on Idol). In a similar vein but more to the point, I completely succumbed to Unser Star für Oslo (Our Star for Oslo).

The Eurovision Song Contest, for those who don't know, is an annual event televised all across Europe. Established in 1956 as an experiment in simultaneous transmission, the contest has become a European cultural phenomenon. The reason for this, I think, is that it is the only time in the year when everyone in Europe can turn on the television and watch what everyone else is watching.

As Americans, I think we have no idea how tantalizing this premise is. Culture critics complain that since Cronkite and Carson went off the air we no longer have shared mediated experiences. It may be true that we now live in a world with 57 channels and nothing on, but the fact remains that day after day, people in Idaho, Iowa, Alabama, Alaska, Maine, and Michigan all watch exactly the same programs on television. Now imagine a world in which each state speaks its own language, and has its own television networks, and in which there are only two hours a year when people in all 50 states watch the same thing at the same time. That's pretty much what the situation in Europe is.

The Eurovision Song Contest is like a cross between American Idol and the Olympics. It's like the former because it entails picking a wining performer. It's like the latter because national pride is at stake.

Each country selects a contestant for the contest as it sees fit. Our Star for Oslo is Germany's selection process. (Oslo is where the contest takes place this year.) This television program is roughly like American Idol: singers perform, judges critique, viewers vote, contestants are eliminated.

By the final program, there were just two contestants left, and somewhere around the middle of the broadcast, things got interesting. The judges' attention shifted from the contestants' performances to the larger issue of winning the Eurovision Song Contest. The winner, they observed, is usually a perky, happy song (ABBA won the song contest with "Waterloo," back in the day). This was the judges' oblique way of saying that the very talented rock vocalist on stage might not be the right gladiator to send into the circus.

Poor Germany hasn't won the Song Contest since 1982. They're seldom in the top ten even. (In the last five years they were 20th, 23rd, 19th, 14th, and 24th. If this were baseball they'd be the Cubs.) So when you think of Our Star for Oslo, think of American Idol with an extra element of we want blood.

Germany's winner this year is Lena Meyer-Landrut, who is quite good despite her inexperience (she's not even through with high school). The winning song is "Satellite," though I think her best performances were some of the other pieces she sang on the show.

When the judges veered into thinking about how to win in Oslo--well, that's where it gets interesting. One judge expressed sadness that the winning song, whatever it might be, would be in English. German or English, that is the question. German may represent Germany better in such a competition, but English sells.

And then there's the messy matter of "European" taste. They put up video clips of some of the competition. The styles and tastes represented couldn't be any less similar. Consider Holland (dreadful), Ireland (all that musical talent, and this is what they come up with?), Norway (popera), and Slovenia (I guess they love this in Ljubljana).

All in all, Eurovision is a healthy reminder that regardless of the state of European unification, the Europeans are still strangers to one another. I didn't invent this thought, but I think this is essentially correct: The only culture Europeans share is American pop culture. No wonder the victory-hungry Germans picked a song in English.