Tuesday, June 14, 2005

To Leuven and back (Part 1)

Part 1|2|3|4

Tuesday June 7, 10pm: took off from Toronto Pearson Airport; after an 8hr flight, arrived at the Frankfurt/Main Flughafen (first picture, tunnel between terminals) local time Wednesday June 8, 11:50am. It was followed by a short 1hr flight from here to the Luchthaven Brussel, arriving 2:35pm (second to fourth picture, enroute to Brussels).

The close-but-not-quite relation between Dutch/Flemish (Nederlands) and German is nicely illustrated by their words for "airport" (Luchthaven, Flughafen; also "Luft" = "air" and "Flug" = "fly" in German).

Notice the utterly flat terrain? Yep, this is very much "invasion route country" (or 兵家必争之地) from very ancient times: everybody (Romans, Goths, French, Germans, whatnot) on his way to invading someone else passed through here. Just one example: Waterloo is not too far from Brussels.

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Among the very first things noticed in Belgium: like Singapore, this is very much a multilingual country. Very roughly: the northern half speaks Flemish, a variety of Dutch, while the southern half speaks Wallon, a variety of French. But you would expect a country that's basically in the middle of it all--a "Mitteleuropa" (or perhaps "Mittel-westlich-europa") of sorts--to speak the languages of its powerful neighbors. The signs are at the airport are in Dutch/Flemish, English, German and French. The train announcements are also in the four, if not, three of the four (dropping the German).

From Brussels, it's a fairly straightforward journey by train to Leuven (the first half rhymes with "blur", the second with "oven"; Louvain in French), making one connection at the "Brussels-North" station (first picture below). The scene that greeted me just as I emerged from the Leuven station (second picture) immediately convinced me that this is a great location. The hotel (third picture), though basic, and vicinity (fourth picture) did not disappointment.

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Here, smack in the middle of a mostly Renaissance city, are a handful of Chinese restaurants on the same street, all within the vicinity of my hotel. One of them (first picture below) is right across from my hotel room. There is also an Asian grocery-medicine hall of sorts (fourth picture). There is also a Thai restaurant down the row. Too bad I never found the opportunity to try any of them, to see how "Chinees" food tastes like. The presence of the MacDonalds near the town center, however, is a much more prominent sign of globalisation (fifth picture). But they did it quite elegantly this time. The facade blends in with the look of the neighborhood, and from what I was told, they even serve real coffee. I guess the city officials here would not be impressed with the application to do business in their beloved town otherwise.

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After some adventures asking for directions (most here do speak English, even if with a heavy Nederlands/German accent...ja), found my way to the Sinologie department of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (or just K.U.Leuven) at 7pm for the reception, only to discover later that I missed the group that met at the hotel lobby so that a guide can bring us there. Oh well, it was an interesting walk looking for the place. Soon enough, all except one of the scholars involved showed up (the last one arrived by a later flight)--many of whom are people whose books and articles I read over the years but have never met before. In fact, I only know one personally, a History Prof. from Berkeley (a close friend and mentor), though there turned out to be quite a few with whom I share mutual friends.

First impression: the organisers really put thought into the invitation list--a nice balance of more established scholars and graduate students still working on our PhDs; mostly Sinologists but also some Philosophy people. And everyone is so friendly, so without airs. Most of all, though some of the participants obviously know each other well, they were not cliquish at all.

I am counting seven Dutch/Belgians (incl. two PhD students and one recent graduate), four Germans (incl. two PhD students), five Americans (incl. two PhD Students), one Britisher, one Frenchman, one Israeli (an Ukrainian Jew), one Japanese (teaching in Taiwan), one Hong Konger (PhD student in Oxford), one Chinese (teaching in the US) and one Singaporean (PhD student in the US but now based in Canada). The two languages that everyone is guaranteed to speak are English and Chinese, but I'm guessing that I will be hearing a lot of Nederlands spoken over the next few days, considering that some of the Germans present appear fluent in that as well. It promises to be good.

Just as we departed to our hotels for the evening, one of the organisers brought us to a room with a view of the city.

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(to be continued...)

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