Thursday, July 23, 2015


I knew that while I was in Belgium I should take some time to see some of the World War I battle sites. I had a day to go to Ypres and thought maybe I'd be able to do a tour of Vimy Ridge (nope, that's a full day trip leaving around 9am) so I spent the time wandering around the city and seeing churches, Flanders Field Museum, and attending the evening memorial ceremony at the Menin Gate.

Naturally it was a sad and depressing day. There was so much death and destruction in that War and it was quite moving to go through the Museum and learn about it in detail. But it was the Menin Gate that really struck a chord. The Gate is a Memorial to all the Commonwealth soldiers whose bodies were either never found our given a proper burial. Their names are individually inscribed on the walls and there are over 50,000 names.

Every evening there is a military remembrance where a prayer is said and wreaths are laid. The name of one soldier is inscribed on the Gate is read out and the speaker gives a biography of the soldier -- where he was from, his regiment, what battles he fought in, and the battle that led to his death. From what I understand ever since 1928 this ceremony has occurred every single day. They would not have made it through all the names yet.

There was a contingent from the Canadian Legion attending the ceremony. While they were walking to the Gate one of them, who happened to be from Saskatchewan, saw the Roughriders cap that I was wearing and came over and gave me a Canadian flag pin, which I put on my cap. I still have it on my cap. I think I will keep it there.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Antwerp and Brussels

After Amsterdam I headed south for a couple of days in each of Antwerp and Brussels. Neither city has canals like Amsterdam but both have beautiful old centres with centuries-old buildings. Antwerp is also a major centre for the diamond trade so in one neighborhood there were a lot of orthodox Jews and kosher food outlets. I preferred more non-kosher fare, like beer and bacon.

In Antwerp I also went to the house of the famous painter Rubens. I didn't know much about him, aside from painting ladies with some curves to them, and figured he would have some tiny (by our standards) house in the center of town. It turns out that in his day he was the most famous painter in the region so had no difficulty having Dutch aristocracy buy his work -- he was rich and his home was a mansion.

Ironically because he could easily sell all of his work the Rubens museum didn't have a lot of his paintings. Most of the artwork were either by his students or were paintings Rubens himself collected. Many of his paintings were in the Museum of Art in Brussels (I went there as well)

While in Brussels I went to the Comic Strip Museum, a cool place with all sorts of comic strips on display, not just the Belgian favorites of Tintin and the Smurfs. I also toured the Magritte Museum, dedicated to the Belgian surrealist (you might not recognize the name but you do know his work -- google image search it). What I found most amusing about Magritte was he steadfastly refused to embrace a stereotypical artist lifestyle, he basically dressed like a banker and lived a typical middle-class existence in a small house in Brussels. Many in the art world disliked him because of this. It took decades before he started receiving wider recognition.

Food in Belgium has been hit-or-miss so it really helps to get recommendations from people on where to go. Found some nice places in Antwerp and Brussels but have also found some duds (such as almost anywhere near the Grand Plaza in Brussels. I'm also struggling with Belgian fries. I rarely eat fried foods so sitting down with a big plate of fries is challenging, even more so when drenched with mayonnaise, another thing I rarely eat. I can feel my arteries hardening as we speak.

Chocolate, on the other hand, I'm having no problem adjusting to.

Saturday, July 18, 2015


Just before Eid I did what I always do every year -- go on vacation. Since Eid is one of the busiest travel periods I always leave a few days before to save money on airfare (and we're talking hundreds of dollars).

When Qatar Airways announced they were starting flights to Amsterdam I was thrilled as I'd always wanted to go there. I decided to wander around the Low Countries for a while so the first stop was a few days in Amsterdam. Beautiful city, very busy but it was always easy to wander around canals away from the crowds and enjoy small local pubs or restaurants. At least I think they were local, it was hard to tell since everyone spoke English, and many workers in shops and restaurants were from English-speaking Countries like the US or Australia. I met some friends of my mother's who live in the area and they told me in the Netherlands it is mandatory to take English in school.

As it is high season I skipped a lot of the tourist stuff due to the crowds (the lineups for Anne Frank House had to have been at least 200m long, it was crazy!) but I did get up early to beat the crowds to the Rijkmuseum to see the Rembrandts and Vermeers. Amazing stuff, and since they were sharing galleries with contemporaries you could really see the difference in quality. Vermeer's portraits really have life to them, whereas other artists painting pale-skinned ladies make them look sickly.

Well, it's hard to post from my phone so I'll post some pictures once I return.

Eid Mubarak everyone.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Ramadan 2015, Day 23 – Distractions and Disappointments

First it’s confession time – I didn’t manage to properly fast on two of the days this Ramadan. Both times it was because I didn’t wake up to have my sohour, because I forgot to set my alarm when I went to bed. That means I woke up around 7am having not had my meal or, more importantly, the three glasses of water and laban. I was already thirsty, there was no way I was holding out another 11 ½ hours, especially since I had to go to work. So I ate the meal then fasted until the usual time.

If this happened to a Muslim they would have to make up those two fasting days after Eid sometime or, if due to age or illness they can’t fast, I believe they can donate to charity or feed poor people to make up the difference.

So I’m at around 90+% success rate for fasting so far.


Now that it’s three weeks into Ramadan people are settled into a routine. The ‘newness’ of Ramadan and fasting has worn off, at least for me, and it’s just a standard thing as part of everyday. That’s why my Ramadan posts have dropped in frequency, evenings are spent grocery shopping, hanging out with friends, etc. Just that it is to much later hours. Nowadays I’m meeting friends at cafes or shisha places around 10pm or so until 1ish. While fasting you also can’t smoke so this can make for many irritable people given they go 15+ hours without a cigarette. Shisha cafes become very busy during Ramadan evenings, and some of my friends are at a shisha place almost every night.

This Friday I was distracting myself from fasting by playing a board game with some people. There’s a guy who hosts board game nights once a week but occasionally hosts a Friday afternoon game so people can play games that take 4+ hours. Fantastic way to keep my mind occupied and not thinking about food or water. That’s been two Fridays so far I’ve used board games to get through fasting.

6 or 7 days to go before Eid. Then food, drink, caffeine, and waking hours are back to normal.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Ramadan 2015, Day 20 – Al Jazeera Café

Tonight was a late iftar with friends at the new Al Jazeera Café in Katara.

What surprised me is that despite the name it isn’t a café, it’s a full-fledged restaurant with a large menu and proper chef. The food was really good.

It also serves as a small Al Jazeera museum, with a number of items on display, including some somber ones to remind us that journalism can be a dangerous job, such as the bullet proof vest of a reporter who was killed in Libya in 2011.

Or some bits of equipment from when Al Jazeera’s bureau in Baghdad was hit by an American missile.

They even have a mock studio with a camera where you can try reading from a prompter like the news anchors.

I prefer the ‘casual’ newsreader look.